Muslim Illegal Immigration in India Sparks Violent Resistance
India’s troops poured into violence-torn areas of India’s far northeastern state of Assam after several days of inter-communal violence left 32 dead and hundreds fleeing their homes. By Monday morning calm was restored; relatives began burying their dead, families started returning, and it appeared that the violence would not approach that which displaced almost 400,000 people in 2012.
Though actual hostilities stopped, the political war was just getting started. The ruling Congress Party, about to face an unfamiliar role out of power (See “India’s Impending Conservative Victory), tried to blame the violence on its rival BJP and the man likely to be India’s next Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
The attackers, Bodo tribesmen, are Hindu, and their victims, illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh, are Muslim. The Congress Party and their allies on the left have long tried to paint Modi as a radical Hindu, and even while the violence still raged, Congress’s beleaguered Prime Ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi warned that 22,000 people would be massacred if Modi became Prime Minister. Another cabinet minister claimed that the BJP was using morphed pictures to spread communal propaganda on social media but provided no proof of his allegations.
As a Muslim friend in India told me, however, Congress has ruled Assam for 24 years, is still in power, and created the current state of affairs and “violence against Muslims of Assam.”
The most intense fighting took place in Kokrajhar, a major Bodo center where the air is full of political activism and resentment over an unresponsive government. I was there in March, met with Bodo leaders and activists, and observed conditions on the border between Bangladesh and the contiguous Indian states of Assam and Meghalaya. I also uncovered compelling evidence that tensions were running high for some time.
Activists told me that they are ready “to defend their homes and families” and that the prospect of a Modi victory and government action was the only thing stopping them from rebelling -- for the moment. I got a distinct impression that things could unravel at any time and wrote that “the rising tensions on the border will explode unless the infiltration [from Bangladesh] stops.”
For years, Bodos and other tribal groups have been complaining bitterly that the government’s refusal to stop massive infiltration by Bangladeshi Muslims is destroying both their culture and the arboreal environment that is so much a part of it. While in the areas, I watched as Bangladeshis crossed into Assam brazenly in broad daylight with no action by the Indian Border Security Forces who were supposed to stop them. One border guard told locals who were protesting the illegal migrants that their protests were futile and would earn them nothing but opposition from "higher ups.” “Our hands are tied,” he told them. The guards were nowhere to be found until I photographed the border’s massive gaps and two of them tried (unsuccessfully) to seize my camera.
Those conditions, that make Bodos fear for their people’s future, are the real cause of the violence.
In July 2012, they took a stand against the illegal “infiltrators,” as they are called, to indicate the deliberate attempt to change the area’s demographics. After they did, Muslim mobs attacked those Bodos who were too frail to leave their village for safety. I spoke with the families of three victims who were hacked to death by Muslim mobs. One elderly man described how he and his wife were sitting under a tree on their property when the mobs swarmed their home, hacked him with a machete which they then used to kill his wife. An elderly widow told me that she was unable to flee so the Muslim mobs attacked her and killed her bedridden and disabled husband.
Back in the Assamese capital of Guwahati, a group of scholars at the Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture describe how Bangladeshi infiltrators have changed the area’s demography and disrupted the lives of the Bodos and other Assam tribes. Their communities have been dispersed and the forests, central to Bodo culture, face an environmental catastrophe: de-forestation, reduction in crop varieties, and near extinction of creatures like the one-horned rhino.
Even though the fighting has stopped for now, tensions remain high. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has told India to expect more “climate refugees” from her country. The Bodos told me they are ready for them.