An Indian supporter holds a placard during a protest against what they say is illegal migration of Muslims from Bangladesh to the northeastern Indian state of Assam. The conflict in the state could get worse as the effects of climate change become more drastic.
by Arpita Bhattacharyya
Recent violence between the Bodo tribe and immigrant minorities in the northeastern Indian state of Assam has cost the lives of at least 96 people and caused more than 300,000 residents to flee their homes for refugee camps. The violence also led to mass panic among northeastern migrants across India, when text messages and videos circulated social media sites warning of attacks on northeastern migrants in southern Indian cities such as Bangalore and Pune in retaliation for the deaths of Muslim minorities in Assam.
The violence and resulting panic revealed a fragile peace in Assam and demonstrated the speed with which historical tensions can bubble over into larger confrontations that could roil the whole country. A lot of this tension could worsen with the confluence of climate change, migration patterns, and community security in Assam and India—a confluence that the Center for American Progress is examining in a series of papers and events on climate change, migration, and security. Before looking at those patterns in Assam, let’s first take a look back at Assam’s history to better understand today’s conflicts.
Assam’s troubled past
Assam is located in the northeastern part of India and shares a border with China, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. This underdeveloped region, which is connected to India politically by a small land bridge, is also known as the “Seven Sisters” and includes the states Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram. The surrounding countries’ cultures have influenced Assam, creating a patchwork of ethnic, religious, and linguistic traditions that distinguish the Seven Sisters from the rest of India. The Bodos are one of the main indigenous tribes located in the western region of Assam. In the 2001 Census the Bodos made up around 5 percent of Assam’s entire population.
The Bodo insurgents have been fighting for years for statehood in India. In 2003 they were granted special status through the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts in exchange for ceasing their insurgency. The total area of Bodoland is about 8,970 square kilometers—roughly the size of Cyprus—and includes more than 3,000 villages. The status allows the Bodoland Territorial Council to legislate on communal-level issues such as agriculture, education, and tourism. Though the Bodos govern the districts, the tribe only makes up one-third of the overall population therein. The remainder of the residents belong to other indigenous tribal groups or are native Assamese.
Muslims are the second-largest group in the region, and tensions have long simmered between Bodos and Muslim residents over land-ownership rights. The most recent incident before the current violence was in 2008, when fighting between the two groups resulted in 55 deaths, more than 100 injuries, and 200,000 people escaping to refugee camps. The main issue between the two groups is land, with Bodos claiming that undocumented Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh are taking land rightfully owned by Bodos. Muslim communities, however, view the accusation of illegal Muslim Bangladeshi settlement as a false campaign to restrict their rights and drive Muslims from the area.
Moreover, Bengali-speaking Muslims settled in the area long before the British Partition created the state of Bangladesh in 1947. This makes it difficult to determine who is a Bengali-speaking Muslim long-term resident versus an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant.
Before 1947 India and Bangladesh were unified and ruled as British India—thus the issue of illegal immigration did not exist. Following independence from Britain, present-day Bangladesh was East Pakistan until 1971, when East Pakistan fought for independence from West Pakistan. During that war, 10 million East Pakistanis (including many Bengali-speaking Muslims) fled to India. Given this history, it is difficult to distinguish between Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam who lived in the area before the Partition, those who moved during the 1971 war as refugees, and those who moved after the war, including the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants whom the Bodos distinguish.