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Bodos want to be left alone

August 11, 2012

JALPAIGURI (India): The Bodo region in lower Assam is again in flames after a long spell of "crematorium calm". Surprisingly, peace had prevailed for some time in a region located almost at the mouth of a “volcano” which could erupt at any time. The authorities in Dispur and Delhi were aware of this danger. And the “volcano” did erupt in July, killing upwards of 70 people, going by the official count.

The unofficial death toll hovers around more than a hundred. Lakhs of people have been rendered homeless for fear of being killed by the marauding belligerents, belonging to both sides. They have fled because they don’t want to witness their hearth and home being set on fire by the self-styled protectors of their own community.

Relief camps have sheltered the victims, but a large number of them have entered the neighbouring districts in Bengal. The railway platforms in North Bengal have become their makeshift homes and the fortunate among them have taken shelter in the premises of their relatives and acquaintances. Their refuge in Bengal is beset with severe problems.

Platform life has its dangers for these hapless refugees, not least their grown-up girls. The risk of child traffickers, attempting to sell the girls to agents who will take them to Delhi or Mumbai, is substantial. Those lodged in relatives’ homes are not exactly welcome. It is anybody’s guess as to how long a relative is expected to play the benevolent and caring host. Both the refugees and their hosts are looking forward to government relief. It is a human tragedy on the Bengal side of the border too.

But why did this situation come to pass? And what exactly is the trigger? At the root of the confrontation is the fear of losing one’s identity, a looming ‘demographic defeat’. Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence: the Illusion of Destiny has explained the nature of this identity-based violence.

People are kept in little boxes of multiple identities often at odds with each other. One particular identity may be overriding at a certain point of time suppressing others. Ethnic cleansing and communal riots are triggered by assertions of parochial identity.

The Bodos are peace-loving, docile, proud of their ethnic tradition and culture and averse to the complexities of the so-called modernisation in the world around them.

They love to live in harmony with nature and its resources, the abundance of which can easily arouse envy of people in other parts of India.

The traditionally simple way of life in the lap of nature for hundreds of years runs counter to the demands of this day and age--enterprise and hard work, if not consumerism. However, this attitude to life is not unique to the Bodos. Thousands of ethnic tribes scattered across the country have a similar mindset. They feel it less compelling to alter their lifestyle for the sake of improved material well-being. They have their own paradigm of development that is inconceivable to contemporary planners and their prescription of development.

India had pledged to pursue that development model at the time of Independence. The tribes have been conspicuously bypassed by the government’s development drive. The social exclusion is growing. In effect, Incredible, even Shining India, negates the government’s assertion of pursuing a development goal with social justice.

Since the early Sixties, the Bodos have been demanding a separate state of Bodoland to create their own destiny. The leaders were home-grown but nurtured outside the country to launch the movement.

The agitation for a separate homeland gained momentum over time.The non-Bodo population comprising in the main the Bangladeshi Muslim settlers became increasingly restive. Initially at least, the backlash took the form of intimidation. This has been followed, as it now turns out, by targeted massacres.

Contingents of paramilitary forces have swamped the explosive Bodo region to restore law and order. The region looks like a military barrack. It is almost as if the people have opted for house-arrest. They want to come out of this powder-keg.

Negotiations with the Bodo leaders were geared towards an enduring solution. The Bodoland Territorial Council was set up in 2003. But the hope was dashed before long. Bangladeshi infiltration, far from being curbed, is on the rise. The settlers have almost outnumbered them in their own turf. Economic prosperity is perilously skewed in favour of the non-Bodo Bengali-speaking Muslims. The rift between the two segments is widening.

Disaster looms large in the horizon. The recent killing is just a warning signal. The State must now act, indeed abjure the vote-bank politics that has destroyed the social fabric of the region. A judicial commission must be set up in order to identify the illegal settlers.

The State should bring the offenders to book under the law of our land and deport them immediately.

The genuine citizens of India, Bodo or non-Bodo can live peacefully in Bodoland or for that matter in any part of India provided the State is fair to all in the delivery of justice and the fruits of economic development are shared equally by all her citizens.

By arrangement with The Statesman/ANN