India is under a mass panic over the ongoing ethnic violence in its northeastern state of Assam, triggered when four men from the Bodo community were killed in Kokrajhar district July 20 allegedly by the Muslims who were seeking revenge for the attack on two student leaders from the community.
Thousands of people of northeastern origin residing in the south Indian cities of Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad have rushed back to their home-states alarmed over the rumors that certain religious organizations were seeking revenge for the killing of the Muslims in Assam.
Between the lines of the media reports on the Assam strife which pit the Muslims and the Bodos against each other, hides a different reality that rules out the element of religion as a reason for the conflict, which by the way is commonplace in the Indian subcontinent.
"Religion has never been a factor in any of the violent clashes in Assam-be it between Assamese and Bodos, Assamese and illegal immigrants, Bodos and Adivasis or Bodos and illegal immigrants," Kaushik Deka, an author and columnist hailing from Assam, wrote in India Today.
"It has always been about who has the right over the geographical territory of Assam. That these suspected illegal immigrants from Bangladesh are Muslims is incidental," he wrote.
However, India's government-instituted National Commission for Minorities (NCM) has said the clashes were "not between some exodus of Bangladeshi immigrants and the Bodos but between the Bodos and the resident Muslims" of the BTAD or the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts under the jurisdiction of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).
The Bodoland Territorial Council was created in 2003 to fulfill the economic, educational and linguistic aspirations and the preservation of land-rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos and to speed up the infrastructure development in the BTC areas. The council's jurisdiction extends over thousands of villages and has the legislative powers over 40 subjects.
Since its inception, the BTC has faced severe opposition from non-Bodos, who allege that Bodos would create trouble for non-Bodos living in areas under the council's jurisdiction.
"The conflict was unequal because the Bodos had leftover arms from the Bodo Liberation Tigers. The Muslims are very poorly armed in comparison," the Minorities Commission said in the report, as reported by the Hindu. "There can be grave danger in future in case militant jihadi outfits from the rest of the country start supplying lethal weapons in this area."
The commission, which prepared the report following a visit to the conflict-torn districts of Assam in July, warned of the possibility of the Muslims in Assam turning "militant," due to the presence of militant outfits in the region.
While the public discourse on the violence presents deeply conflicting arguments, the Hindu nationalist organizations like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and right-wing political parties in the opposition like Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) call the Assam conflict a battle between "Indians" and "illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants."
Northeastern people in southern states, who panicked after receiving threats which referred to them as "anti-national" and sometimes "foreigner," received help from RSS volunteers who urged them to stay back. The RSS and its student affiliate body Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) set up 24-hour helplines in 20 cities across India Thursday, the Hindustan Times reported.
BJP president Nitin Gadkari Thursday said, "The problem in Assam is not communal but that of Indians versus outsiders. Anti-national people are involved in this violence. In Mumbai, the crowd waved the Pakistani flag, made provocative statements and vandalized the martyrs' memorial," a Press Trust of India report said.
BJP's attempt to draw parallels between the ethnic strife in Assam and the post-Godhra communal riots in Gujarat was met with heavy criticism from senior ruling Congress party leader Digvijaya Singh in July.
Singh slammed BJP's fact-finding mission to the violence-torn region, saying the party simply "add fuel to the fire."
"BJP's fact-finding team goes simply to add fuel to the fire and not to quench it. BJP has been communalizing the issue of migration from the very beginning," Singh said. "The illegal migrants also include Hindus along with Muslims. BJP only talks about Muslim illegal migrants."
Though immigration was part of the region's history since the mid-1930s, it was the anti-foreigners movement in Assam from 1979 to 1985 that drew worldwide attention to the issue of large-scale migration and the resulting ethnic tensions. The worst among the ethnic conflicts in Assam was the Nellie massacre of 1983 that left 3,000 people dead, most of them Muslims from Bangladesh who immigrated illegally.
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi in July dismissed the allegations that he had slept over a confidential report submitted by the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) warning of a possible riot. He said that the clashes were happening "due to clash of interest" and not due to infiltration of the Bangladeshi immigrants as part of a conspiracy to create trouble, as reported by BTC chief and Bodo People's Front (BPF) president Hagrama Mohilary in May.
It's not the religion, but the political mobilization fueled by partisan politics, disregarding the demographic composition of the state, that has led to the present crisis, which is reverberated across India with overtly communal tones.