How to share Assam

The recent ethnic clashes between Hindu Bodos and Muslim immigrants, which occurred in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts of lower Assam (BTAD), were unfortunate. However, the clashes were not wholly unexpected. The question that is generally asked is: why did it take a few decades to occur in the first place? Assam has been virtually sitting on a huge tinderbox.

Any knowledgeable person in Assam knows well enough that migration into the state started during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when India fought two wars with Pakistan, in 1965 and 1971 respectively. It was during the 1971 Bangladesh operation that large numbers of former East Pakistani now Bangladeshi citizens were evacuated and housed in districts along the present Indo-Bangladesh border. This occurred in the district of erstwhile Goalpara, including Dhubri, and in the adjacent districts of West Bengal, Tripura and Meghalaya. It was estimated that between two and three million people were kept in the relief camps that were organised by the government of India, as well as by the state governments. They were kept in those camps for about six to eight months. Most of these relief camps were located in large open grazing grounds, school buildings as well as other public buildings. After Bangladesh was established, most of these evacuees went back there, but a certain percentage of them remained in India.

Even today, the Indo-Bangladesh border is not properly guarded and fenced, largely due to the difficult geographical conditions. There are a large number of rivers, riverine channels and drains in the area. This poses a major engineering problem for fencing and makes guarding difficult. Unless we use the latest technologies, as the Israelis have done, this problem is going to remain and illegal migration to the Northeast will continue. It has been alleged by knowledgeable persons that out of the 27 districts in Assam, 11 of them are going to be Muslim majority districts once the 2011 census figures, religion-wise, are published by the census authorities.

The present ethnic clashes between the two communities can be directly attributed to the aforementioned facts of illegal migration into Assam. Since 1971, it has been noticed that to a large extent, government land in the char areas and lands earmarked as grazing grounds have been systematically appropriated by illegal migrants, in collusion with the district and local administrations. Today, most of the districts along the Indo-Bangladesh border are devoid of government lands or large grazing grounds, which were once an asset to the local communities and farmers. The systematic grabbing of government lands and the steady encroachment of denuded forest areas by illegal immigrants and non-indigenous communities have created serious differences among the local indigenous populations. The concern voiced by the local political leaders, especially by the chief of the BTAD, Hagrama Mohilary, on the current issue, needs to be seriously examined by the state and Central governments. The BTAD areas are governed under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and tribal bloc rules and regulations are also applicable.

It is a fact that the population in all these areas has been going up by leaps and bounds. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is a clash of interest in the sharing of natural resources such as forests, grazing grounds or even lands. With the mounting population pressure and dwindling scarce resources, unemployment, and the lack of opportunities to make a livelihood, one can easily understand the problem and expect that it will recur from time to time.

Even the Election Commission of India is not immune to this problem. It has to tackle the problem of D-Voters (doubtful voters), numbering approximately 1.5 lakh, while preparing the electoral rolls of Assam. The subject matter is sub-judice. This also poses a very serious security threat to the country. It is advisable that these pending cases lying in various courts and tribunals be disposed of quickly and within a definite timeframe. People who are found to be illegal migrants by these tribunals should be deported. Unless this basic issue of illegal migration into the country is resolved, the problem is bound to recur from time to time and in place to place.

The writer is Election Commissioner of India. Views are personal

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