The term ‘communalism’ has gained currency in India, with many describing the prevalence of ethnic riots in the country as endemic. The most recent case of ethnic violence in India erupted on July 20, 2012, as clashes between the Bodo Tribe and Muslim inhabitants in the North-East state of Assam spread from the Kokrajhir district to Chirang and Dhubri, until now claiming close to 40 lives and displacing over 200,000. Curfew has been imposed in the worst affected areas, with the Indian army being moved in and shoot-on-sight orders being issued by the Indian government.
Accounts have quickly attributed the clashes to the contemporary problem of illegal immigration from Muslim-majority Bangladesh into Assam, evoking the discourse of land encroachment and economic competition. A closer insight into the reality of communal violence and the specifications of the agitations in Assam will elucidate the naivety of the above position.
The state of Assam has a long standing history of communal violence. One of the gravest incidents being the 1983 Nellie Massacre, where over 2,500 people lost their lives as the All Assam Students Union (AASU) went on a rampage targeting minorities, after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi reiterated her decision to hold elections in the state despite AASU opposition. AASU’s foremost demand was that electoral rolls be cleansed of illegal immigrants, and illegal immigrants remain the central issue of contention in all clashes in the State that have continued intermittently through the decades.
However, illegal immigration is a mere ruse, and the motives leading to the numerous massacres more political in nature.
Paul Brass in his influential book, The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India (2003), described an “institutionalized riot system,” according to which all riots pass through three distinct phases: preparation (which itself is a deliberate act), activation (which requires an environment of political competition) and explanation (which employs a communal discourse). The July 20 violence in Assam is as deliberate and intentional, and as geared to serve narrow political interests, as previous clashes in the region.
Ethnic violence ultimately serves political ends. In the case of the July violence, it has been used to destabilize the incumbent Gogoi government, with opposition parties being quick to jump into troubled waters; the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) unequivocally traced the issue to illegal immigration in its recently concluded fact finding report. A closer look at the demographic reality in Assam points to the fact that most minority settlers in the state are not recent immigrants, but Indian citizens who have been in the region for generations. The overarching guise of illegal immigration and economic deprivation is used to legitimize the violence, when the real motives are self-seeking political interests and power aspirations. This falls in line with Brass’s ‘explanation stage’ as a communal discourse is employed to gloss over political ends.
It is imperative for national and international media and authorities to desist from labeling ethnic clashes in India as communal, using the term either in the primordial sense where religious and ethnic violence is projected as inevitable, or attributing it to economic reasons which cannot be substantiated. The cycle of communal violence can only end if there is a conscious understanding of the political motives involved, be it the Nellie Massacre of 1983, the 1992 Bombay riots, the 2002 Godhra riots, or in this case, the 2012 Assam agitation.