Looking beyond the communal to diagnose Assam


New Delhi : The problem in Assam, which resulted in frequent outbreaks of violence, was not one of illegal immigration alone; there were dangers in demonising a community and looking at the issue simply in majority-minority terms, said speakers at a seminar here.

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The speakers pointed to appropriation of tribal land, lack of jobs and dearth of development in the entire region as causes for the recent spurt of violence in Assam.

Speaking at the Jamia Millia Islamia, several intellectuals said that the question of access to land and resources needed to be examined, as it lay at the root of the conflict. The seminar was held by the Centre for North East Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, Monday evening.

Many of the speakers have been visiting the camps where people displaced by the violence have been housed.

Speakers held that the social fabric of the region is complex and that conflict here could not be addressed adequately through the prism of minority-majority clashes, linguistic differences or illegal immigration.

Bureaucrat-turned-activist Harsh Mander questioned the propriety of raising a discussion on illegal immigration in the aftermath of violence. “We need this discussion (on illegal immigration) to be separate from the Assam violence,” he said.

Sanjoy Hazarika, director, Centre for North East Studies, Jamia, that organised the seminar, said immigration was a movement of labour force, and that there was “no great conspiracy” behind it. People move where they find work, he said.

Author Udayon Misra said the Northeast is so heterogeneous that even branding one group a minority and another a majority would be problematic. He held that the issue, at core, was of the alienation of tribal land. He explained that in the early 1930s, a committee had been set up to study the matter of appropriation of tribal lands and examine the rights of local people.

“Tribal land has been taken over because of manipulation by Assamese bureaucracy. It’s unfortunate that the language issue has stood in the way of solving the land dispute,” Misra said.

Veteran journalist George Verghese, who has studied the Northeast issue closely and written on it, said: “The whole of the Northeast is immigrant. It’s a question of who came first.”

He asserted that there were several overlapping issues that could serve to explain hostility in the region. The question of original rights, minority-versus-majority and the language had all become even more contentious as people competed for jobs.

The Centre and state, Verghese said, share responsibility for the dearth of jobs in the region.

Verghese said that land and water resources lay untapped in the region; there has also not been any diversification of the economy, and industrial development was lacking. The pressure on land is thus immense, Verghese explained, adding that the answer to the problem lay in the development of Assam and Bangladesh, and greater regional cooperation to that end.

Roshmi Goswami, head of Women, Peace and Security unit at UN Women, however, said there was no reason to shy away from a discussion of illegal immigration. “If we do not address the fundamental causes, we can’t move forward,” she asserted, urging bilateral discussion with both Bangladesh and Myanmar on illegal immigration.

She also pointed to the perils of communalising the issue, pleading: “Don’t put everything into the communal framework. It makes everybody vulnerable.”