The violence in Assam has been continuing unabated for a week. The state government, caught unawares, as always has proved to be totally incapable of dealing with the clashes between the Bodos and Muslims that have claimed nearly 50 lives officially and rendered lakhs homeless.
The fury of the violence, targeting children, schools as well as all lives and property that the rampaging mobs can get their hands on, has come under some semblance of control only after the Army was called in. But such has been the intensity of the clashes that even the Army is finding it difficult to restore peace.
One is reminded of 1983 when the Nellie massacre took place, killing nearly 2500 persons, following weeks and months of unchecked violence. The trigger was then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's decision to hold elections in the state despite the All Assam Students Union's opposition. The AASU launched a wave of violence, targeting the minorities across the state, to oppose the elections and make common cause with the communal forces against Muslims living in Assam on the plea that they were all Bangladeshi migrants.
One remembers mobs rushing from one village to the other on the basis of well-calculated rumours, armed with bows and arrows and spears in scenes reminiscent of medieval India, to kill and burn. The state law and order machinery had disappeared, with the mobs controlling Assam as bridges were burnt, villages gutted, people burnt alive and killed as violence of the worst kind overtook the state while the politicians watched.
The same seems to be happening again at levels. The Bodos and Muslims seem to have become the victims of the same ruthless rumours, with the ground having been prepared to create distrust and destroy confidence. The start of the violence has been traced to the murder of two Muslims last week and then again two more. Four members of the Bodo Liberation Tigers were then killed. And the violence started, as villagers, despite living in the depths of poverty, picked up weapons to seek their own justice. Last heard of, the Army was trying to restore peace and calm, having issued shoot-at-sight orders across the troubled areas.
The BJP has, of course, jumped in with alacrity, making one wonder whether it had a foot and toe in already. One recalls the close connection between the BJP and AASU in 1982-83 when senior leaders of the party were sitting in Guwahati managing 'affairs', while the state burnt. Illegal Bangladeshi migrants was the issue then, and is the issue being raised by the BJP now as well as part of its communal, divisive agenda. But the question that needs to be answered by the Tarun Gogoi government is: why has it been sleeping?
Given the history of this kind of violence, be it in Assam or for that matter any other part of India, it is always preceded by months of rumour-mongering and efforts by vested interests to create high levels of distrust by pitting communities against each other. A dead body then is sufficient to ignite fires that could have been controlled by the State had its intelligence and information, and law and order wings been working.
Given the fact that Assam is a border state, the central intelligence agencies too have been working there. Why is it that once again intelligence failed to detect the growing uneasiness between the Bodos and Muslims? Or was it, as is often the case, that reports were sent back but not disseminated by the officers at the headquarters who have become as complacent as their political masters on issues of import?
And if information was indeed available, why did the political authorities not act upon it to ease tensions, and build communication between the communities in the affected areas? Or was it that the politicians were too busy themselves playing politics and consolidating groups so that they could keep themselves in power, or attain power?
It has taken more than a week of sustained violence for Chief Minister Gogoi to take stock of the situation in real terms, and direct his police chief to visit the violence-hit districts. Instead of leading from the front, those in power are again leading from the back, acting only after houses and schools were burnt down, lakhs displaced of whom thousands have fled to West Bengal for security.
Trains have been targeted, and for two days the north-east was virtually cut off by rail. It is only now that some services have been partially restored because of the efforts of the Army that has deployed 13 columns in Kokrajhar, Chirang, Dhubri and Bongaigaon. These worst-hit districts are under curfew with shoot-at-sight orders in place.
But what is perhaps the most worrying is the disconnect between Delhi and Assam. The north-east is always seen as far removed as Delhi, and the escalating violence in Assam has barely made it to the headlines of television bulletins and the so-called national media. Even where it is covered, the details are sketchy, depending more on government handouts than reports from the field.
The Centre, we are told, has asked the Assam government to arrest the 'ring leaders' who instigated the violence but as everyone knows, these will be just small fry, the larger fish will get away in the final analysis. It is imperative to order a high-level judicial inquiry to find out the reasons, the motivations, the modus operandi even as the political conspiracy is unearthed and the failure of the State and its agencies exposed.
The figures of dead do not always speak of the levels of fear and uncertainty created by such violence. The people slugging it out are the poorest of the poor in Assam, and a sensitive government would have tried to deal with the issues building within at the very onset. More so when it is remembered that relations between the Bodos and the religious minorities in Assam had not been under strain in the past, not even when the Assamese Muslims and migrants had come under attack from the AASU in the 1980s. It is imperative, therefore, to find out the exact reasons for the tension, and to address this through the intervention of secular political parties and individuals.
Assam is a major state in the north-east for which the Centre lacks a cohesive policy. The distance between Guwahati and Delhi is long in kilometres but much longer when it comes to a central mindset that refuses to understand and recognise the complexities and sensitivities of bordering states. The genesis of this violence and the manner in which it has escalated is yet another reflection of government apathy and neglect compounded by political ambitions and interests.