Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”, the blog that knows the “Chicken Neck” from the mainland leads to a people desiring autonomy.
In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss this summer’s violence in the Northeastern Indian state of Assam, a region better known for the origin of Irish breakfast tea, but for the last three months has been the setting for attacks between Bengali Muslims and indigenous tribesmen.
On July 6th, four Non-Muslim men on motorcycles shot and killed two Muslims in Northeast India in an apparent retaliation for an altercation at a Mosque in June. In the weeks following this shooting, the region has boiled over with violence as 80 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands of Indians have been displaced or are homeless, as 14,000 homes have been burned. Attacks from Bodo, Rabhos, and Garos tribesmen (animist or Christian) against Bengali Muslims and vice-versa have been violent and has created hysteria in the rest of India, with similar non-fatal skirmishes occurring in Mumbai and Pune.
These events can be described as an angry atmosphere of hatred against outsiders and other religions that has created a “internal displacement crisis.” Fearing retaliatory attacks (spurred by rumors from text messages & social media) in the rest of India, migrants from Northeast India have been returning to the fractured region by the thousands. Those displaced, a disproportionate number being Muslims, are staying at relief camps in Assam that struggle to meet people’s basic needs, and has especially affected children, with an estimated 8,000 children ill. Meanwhile, Government troops called in to keep the peace have so far been ineffective.
Why is this violence occurring? From an initial view, it seems like a simple case of religious and ethnic antagonism, as the two-sided struggle may indicate. The history of this conflict and region, however, reveal that the struggle is more about land, resources, and autonomy. Bodos claim that all the Bengali Muslims are not original inhabitants of the Western Assam state, but really just migrants from Bangladesh to the South. Muslims contend that they have been there since colonial times, and that hatred is being doled out against recent migrants. As is the case with many conflicts, this one is not new, but a longstanding issue. This year’s violence was the latest incident and has provided an interesting twist with the conflict spilling outside of Assam.
In a region rife with strife (rhyming is fun), we should take a look at the history of the habitation of the region and the root of the conflict. Perhaps then we can understand the anger felt between the two groups and take the steaming kettle off the burner (lots of tea references).
Establishing the Bodoland
Similar to Myanmar (as it is a neighbor), Assam was and still is a key go-between region connecting China and Southeast Asia. It’s an important route because of the Himalayan barrier to the North and Indian Ocean to the South. Due to its geographic locus between several kingdoms and peoples, Assam developed under many different cultures and through many conquests. Many of these ruling peoples such as Aryans, Austric, Mongolian, and Dravidian passed on their cultures and languages to subsequent empires.
The Ahoms, originally a shan tribe from Upper Burma/Yunan China, established a kingdom in Assam in the 13th Century and ruled the region for 7 centuries (their name was probably the origin of the actual name of Assam). Within the Ahom kingdom, a very influential people, the Bodo staked their claim to the Western portion of the region. This was seen in the widespread use of the Bodo language by many peoples and in the names of rivers and places. The Bodo prefix di and ti (the Bodo word for water) is frequently seen in the river names of the Brahmaputra valley and the land to the West: eg. Dikhu, Dihong, Dihong, Dibong, etc… The Ahoms were relatively few in number and left a less visible impression during their tenure in power compared to the Bodo which might suggest that the extent of power for the Bodo in certain Western areas was longer.
The fertile and resource rich Brahmaputra valley saw successive invasions and power struggles for the land and power was not often easily held. Often, it was individual tribes that held their parcels of land around the valley, but coordinated themselves against outside groups. The overall area around Assam was still under the general control of the Ahoms, but like the Bodo tribesmen, other groups flourished and were influential within the region and hostile to outsiders. These included small empires under the Koch, Kachari, and Naga who waged consistent warfare with the Ahoms. At the zenith of their power in the late 17th Century under Rudra Singha, Ahom had developed a significant trading center at Rangpur, and an important trading relationship with Tibet.
The first Islamic conquest into Assam during the reign of the Ahom, called the Muhammadan invasion was attempted in Assam in 1527, and was fiercely abutted by the Ahoms and inhabitants of Assam. Even after most states in India had succumbed to Mughal invasion in the 16th Century, Assam remained under Ahom rule after defeating the invading Mughals. After fierce battles that included the use of firearms (some attribute the invention of firearms to the Ahoms) the Ahoms were victorious. Captured Muslims were often sent to work as laborers for Assamese leaders, and eventually became artisans in brasswork, something that was attributed to Muslims residing in Assam into the 20th Century (their descendants are known as Morias).
So right here already we can see antagonism and a relationship between Muslims from the South and the residents of Assam. This Mughal invasion of 1527 was not the first presence of Muhammadan invasions into the region, that was recorded 3 centuries prior, but the first in which there was a significant struggle for land. The indigenous presence of the Bodo tribesmen show their stake to their land in Western Assam.
Internal Struggles, British Colonialism, and Partition
Towards the end of the Ahom Empire in the 18th Century, there was a great deal of political struggle for power and tribal rebellions against Ahom kings, such as the Maomaria Rebellion. This political instability presented an opportunity for an invasion and takeover (otherwise, I wouldn’t have mentioned the end of the Ahom Empire; sort of set myself up for that); a door that the Burmese to the East took advantage of, in the early 19th Century.
The Burmese annexed Assam into Burmese dominion, but extended their reach too far into territory held by the British. The Anglo-Burmese War in 1824 (which would be the first of two, more on this in my post on Myanmar) ended quickly, with the British annexing Assam into their colonial dominion in the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826.
Like the rice operations in the late 19th Century in Burma that were controlled by the British, the Assam Company was formed in 1839 in Upper Assam for the production of tea; at first importing Chinese tea-growers, but then using local Kachari peoples in an exploitative labor system (an unbreakable labor contract). Much resistance to British colonial dominance occurred immediately following the treaty, especially against taxes on commodities, but resistance was often violently suppressed. The discovery of oil and minerals diversified the revenue holdings of the Assam Company, but did little to advance the indigenous population, which became gradually more diversified as large-scale migration of Muslims and others occurred during the first part of the 20th Century.
The decision to partition Bengal (Assam and modern day Bangladesh) in 1905 by the Viceroy to India Lord Curzon angered many in India, both Muslims and Hindus as they saw the move as a way to divide the populations. Though Curzon stressed administrative necessity and education improvement, the real reason lay behind curtailing Muslim activism for more political power. The partition caused separate political and interest groups for both Hindus and Muslims in Bengal to form and even when Bengal was reunited in 1911 (from political protests), separate elections for Hindus and Muslims had already been established.
A second partition in 1947 in the entire British colony of India based on religion resulted in a refugee crisis and destroyed traditional means of assimilation and identity that had existed. The partition that created independent India and its neighboring Muslim states left an indelible stain and a refugee crisis for many. For centuries, Muslims, Hindus, and other tribes lived together in Assam not always peacefully, but without lines that developed entrenched divisions. The partition initiated by the British colonial government created refugees within their own previously unified state of Bengal, set in motion mass migration, and unleashed political violence.
The partition created two new sovereign states and nationhood quickly became associated with religious differences with a “Muslim homeland” in Pakistan and East Pakistan (Bangladesh in 1971) and a “Hindu homeland” in India. The hastily drawn and ill-conceived borders done by the hands of the British cut off families, tribal groups, and caused mass migration and violence, especially towards women. The Star of India (a news publication at the time) spelled out the predicament,
“Government could not make a declaration on behalf of any group, nor was Government prepared to consider that the people of any particular religious persuasion should necessarily be citizens of a particular country, nationality and religion were not synonymous.”
In other words, migrants who had already considered themselves Indian citizens or Bengali citizens had become essentially refugees with no guarantee of government assistance (3.5 million refugees in a 1951 count). The Central Indian Government policies failed to understand the situation of refugees and migrants, suggesting even that perhaps migrants should “return home.”
The whole situation in Assam after this series of partitions under British rule suggests
- that social conditions began to create a perception that anyone in Assam (part of India) who was Muslim or spoke Bengali was an outsider.
- This was troubling for many Muslims in Assam who had migrated decades before to work for Assam Company or in other areas.
- Social tensions had been exacerbated by artificial borders, especially since they were based on religious differences.
Modern Day Struggles for Identity & Autonomy
As more people migrated or were forced to migrate due to the partition, indigenous tribes, like the Bodo, felt increasingly that their land and villages were being infringed upon. They frequently clashed with Muslims and at times the violence was large-scale, such as the massacre of 1983, when 1,800 Bengali Muslims were killed in one day by Lalung tribespeople. The Bodo had frequent clashes with Bengalis as well and were part of the effort that saw another mass migration of nearly 250,000 mostly Bengali Muslims in the 1990s in seeking their own autonomous homeland.
In 1996, the Bodo formed the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), a militant armed group that fought for its own autonomous homeland within Assam against Indian government and Assam state forces. The BLT carried out many atrocities against non-Bodo people within their ancestral homeland during this insurgency. We can relate the BLT to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group fighting for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey, that is also a designated terror organization.
Official violence ceded in 2003 when the Indian government, the Assam state Government and the BLT came to an agreement after a 4 year ceasefire and created the Bodo Territorial Council, a 12 member executive council that has a jurisdiction of over 3,000 villages and legislative power. Essentially, the Bodo gained significant political power within the region that they had been residing for years, but also had political power that they could unofficially use against “outsiders.”
Even with the cession of official violence, small scale violence has continued as migration of Bengali Muslims into Assam has grown further, Assam state now has the largest proportion of Muslims than any other Indian state, with 30% identifying as a follower of the Prophet. But violence has persisted because of the arrivals of outsiders and newcomers. Bodo and other groups were able to agree on non-violence with Bengali Muslims who had resided in the region since before 1970, but the same pacified stance has not stuck with new migrants, hence the most recent uptick in violence.
Assam is a complex region consisting of a confluence of ancient cultures, peoples, and beliefs. It’s entire history may not relate directly to figuring out why violent clashes have been unleashed this summer, but much of it certainly lends kernels of understanding.
So, let’s wrap up this bad-boy while your eyelids are still at least semi-droopy.
- The Bodo were one of many peoples to control and reside in Assam since ancient times; a region at a confluence of many cultural heritages.
- Stiff resistance has been put up by people in Assam against outsiders attempting to capture land or resources, eg. Ahoms versus Mughals.
- Assam under British dominion saw many border changes and mass migrations, most notably Bengali Muslims migrating to Assam.
- The various partitions forced on the residing population in British India changed cultural identity, and made nationality synonymous with religion.
- Tribes like the Bodo have developed a xenophobic and protectionist outlook as migration has increased.
Since migration into Assam has increased the greatest from Bangladesh to the South many times in the last 40 years, the migrants are mostly Bengali Muslims. But again, the point to stress here is that violence against these people is because they are outsiders and migrants, not just because they are Muslims.
Tension has released little since the bloodletting began, but at the moment the Indian central government seems helpless to stop another refugee crisis or violent spat in this region. Policies that have been followed seem not to translate across the chicken neck, but interestingly, the struggle actually has permeated to the rest of India.
It will be fascinating to see if more of the country becomes involved in the struggle or whether the incident will stay relatively isolated. In this era of widespread migration and modern communication, this seems unlikely, however, maybe solutions will flow and not just fear-mongering.
Welp, hopefully our understanding of the history is key in resolving this issue, and that it won’t take a seat on the back-burner, only to boil over in the future. Until the next mass migration,
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Sources and Further Reads:
A History of Assam, Sir Edward Albert Gait