The Assam tangle

When Tarun Gogoi took over as chief minister of Assam,people had their doubts.

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Published: August 26, 2012 1:37:26 am

A little over 11 years ago,when the Congress defeated the Asom Gana Parishad and Tarun Gogoi took over as chief minister of Assam,people had their doubts.

Would this man who had spent most of his political career since 1971 as a Lok Sabha member be able to run this state? The state,with its unique tangle of ethnicity and politics,has,after all,always been a tough state to govern.

Gogoi did go on to win three successive elections,a mandate that should have been enough to heal wounds in a state that has suffered decades of violence and mistrust. But the wounds remain sore as ever. In mid-July,Assam’s Kokrajhar district emptied out as Bodos and Muslims fought pitched battles over representation to non-Bodos in the Bodoland Territorial Council,a special administrative mechanism established in 2003 under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The Kokrajhar violence is the latest of the several flare-ups the state has witnessed in recent years—Karbi Anglong in 2005,Dima Hasao in 2008,Rabha-Garo clashes in 2011.

“Assam is a very complex state. It cannot be compared to any other state in the country,” Chief Minister Gogoi told The Sunday Express on Thursday,minutes after discussing the latest situation in the state with newspaper editors. “Look at the ethnic composition. You have so many tribes and ethnic groups. You have people of every religious denomination—Hindus,Muslims,Christians,Buddhists and even Assamese Sikhs. And then you have the migrants,both from various parts of India as well as those of East Bengal origin. It is indeed a complex mix.”

But it was to sort out this very “complex mix” that Gogoi was elected to an unprecedented third term,an opportunity he squandered,say his critics.

“While there were many things Gogoi could have done with that kind of mandate,he simply chose not to do anything. He could have (a) come up with a concrete proposal to rehabilitate people displaced by the numerous river dams in the state,(b) begun implementing the vital clauses of the Assam Accord,and (c) solved Assam’s inter-state border problem,especially with Nagaland,” says Prof Apurba Kumar Baruah of North-Eastern Hill University.

Gogoi has also been criticised for his handling of the Kokrajhar violence. Tension had been brewing in Kokrajhar and Chirang districts for several months,first with an umbrella body of non-Bodos complaining of being treated as “second-class citizens” and then a movement by the All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union (ABMSU),demanding a better deal for the non-Bodo communities. Incidents of a few killings began in June,a month before the flare-up,but the state government ignored the warnings.

Through all this,the fissures in Gogoi’s team,never strong to start with,began to show with Himanta Biswa Sarma,once Gogoi’s trusted aide,quitting as Health Minister last week. “In the first term (2001-2006),he did not have a good team to choose from. But in the subsequent terms,he did not even try to create a good team,” says Baruah.


Assam’s diversity hasn’t always worked to its advantage. Over the decades,barely would the state have recovered from one clash when another broke out.

As Gogoi says,“If somewhere it is Karbi versus Kuki,then elsewhere it is Dimasa versus Zeme. Last year,the Rabhas clashed with Garos,while the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam),UPDS (United People’s Democratic Solidarity) and other insurgent groups often made the Biharis and Bengalis their targets.”

Then,there is the infamous Nellie massacre,when over 3,000 people,all Muslims of East Bengal/East Pakistan origin,were killed in the space of a few hours in February 1983. And another in a village called Kekerikuchi in Kamrup,not far from Guwahati,where Bodo militants gunned down 18 Assamese villagers on the eve of Bhogali Bihu in 1998.

H N Das,who served as chief secretary of the state from 1990 to 1995,says,“Governance in Assam has become extremely complicated because the state has been divided on the basis of ethnicity,quite often with overlapping jurisdictions. The state has three territorial district councils—for Karbis,Dimasas and Bodos—under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution,six statutory tribal councils and 18 non-statutory ethnic councils. More tribes and sub-tribes are clamouring for similar status.”

This carving out of territories within the state may have given people the representation they sought,but it also meant easy power in the hands of too many people. “The attention of bureaucrats and politicians,especially the party apparatchiks,seem to be riveted on the very high Plan and non-Plan budgetary allocations given to these councils. Frauds,misappropriations and corrupt practices have become rampant and have plagued the administration of these councils. Ethnic disturbances,including riots,have become frequent. A high degree of statesmanship is required to run such a state,” says Das.

While the state has two autonomous councils in Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao,there are seven other autonomous councils for seven different tribal communities. Two of these have well-defined territories,while five others don’t. In an extravagant mood before the 2011 assembly elections,Gogoi created 18 Development Councils for various other ethnic communities. These include the Tai-Ahom community to which Gogoi belongs,Mattak,Moran,Chutia,Koch-Rajbangshi Adivasi,even tiny groups such as Tai-Aiton (which in 2001 had 739 members).

Which essentially means that Assam is now a state with several smaller states in it.

What complicates this further are the insurgent groups that claim to represent these communities—one,sometimes more,for every community that promises to “liberate” them. If the ULFA wants to “liberate” the whole of Assam,the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB),now in peace talks,wanted a sovereign Bodo state. Assam has an endless list of armed groups—Dima Halam Daoga,Kuki Revolutionary Army,Hmar People’s Convention,United Kukigam Defence Army,Adivasi People’s Army,All Adivasi National Liberation Army,Santhal Tiger Force,Birsa Commando Force,Adivasi Cobra Military of Assam and Rabha Viper.

Then,there are the Islamic outfits. Last week,the union home ministry identified 14 such radical outfits in Assam—Muslim Security Council of Assam,United Liberation Militia of Assam,Islamic Liberation Army of Assam,Muslim Volunteer Force,Muslim Liberation Army,Muslim Security Force,Islamic Sevak Sangh,Islamic United Reformation Protest of India,Revolutionary Muslim Commandos,Muslim Tiger Force,Muslim Liberation Front,Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam,Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam and Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam.


Many see immigration from the erstwhile East Pakistan and Bangladesh as being central to Assam’s problems.

“Immigration has been a major problem. Immigration and the resultant pressure on land are together the two most important reasons behind many of these conflicts. While inflow of people to Assam began with the arrival of the British (in 1826),when they opened up tea estates,explored coal and petroleum,and established railway lines,the ‘grow more food’ programme also brought in a large number of people from the erstwhile East Bengal,though technically they were people of the same country then,” says Gogoi.

‘Grow more food’ was a programme launched by the then Muslim League government of Md Saadullah in Assam,which between 1939 and ’41,allotted one lakh bighas of land in the Assam Valley for the settlement of East Bengal immigrants.

According to J C Bhuyan,a former Deputy Director of Census Operations in Assam,the total Muslim population in Assam in 1991 should have been about 52 lakh,assuming the growth rate among Muslims to be 45 per cent during 1971-91. But since the Muslim population rose from 24.56 per cent in 1971 (39.21 lakh) to 28.43 per cent in 1991 (63.72 lakh),about 11.50 lakh Muslims must have migrated into Assam in this period.

While the Congress was accused of ignoring the immigration problem because it suited its “Ali-Coolie-Bangali” vote-bank (coined by DK Barooah,AICC president during the Emergency),the equations are changing. In the last elections,the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) led by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal won 18 Muslim-dominated seats that traditionally belonged to the Congress. The Congress now has only six Muslim legislators in a House of 126,the AUDF has 18 and the AGP one.


Three decades of insurgency and territorial wranglings have left deep scars on the state and its economy. This period was marked by kidnappings and extortions,with the tea gardens,the backbone of the state’s economy then,taking the hit. The state was also steeped in a severe financial crisis with government employees not getting salaries on time.

In the absence of a proper rehabilitation policy,many of the former insurgents have turned to “business”—contracts in government departments,construction companies,railways,oil companies,FCI and so on. Some of them have set up syndicates that control various sectors,including coal,timber,fish,and even betel leaf.

What the state hasn’t been able to recover from is the inordinate delay that several important infrastructure projects face. The Lumding-Badarpur broadgauge railway project,the East-West Corridor,the Bogibeel bridge on the Brahmaputra are just three cases where completion targets had to be pushed back several times and costs escalated.

But while big-ticket investors kept away,investments have been trickling in,especially in sectors such as real estate,cement,plastic-based units,hotels,healthcare and education. Assam industry minister Pradyut Bordoloi says that in the last five years,the Northeast region got 336 investment proposals worth Rs 38,000 crore,of which about Rs 21,512 crore was for Assam.

Infinity,a Kolkata-based real estate company,has laid out a Rs 1,000-crore plan for Assam for the next three years and there are at least three five-star hotels,including Vivanta by Taj,coming up in Guwahati. A number of cement units,worth about Rs 800 crore,too,have come up.

“That is exactly why the present crisis must be handled well. Assam was just waking up when Kokrajhar happened,” says R S Joshi,president of the Federation of Industry & Commerce,North-eastern Region.


If inward migration is the state’s biggest problem,the solution too probably lies in migration,this time from the state to other parts of the country.

“What is significant is the change in mindset,particularly among the rural youth. Young men,who would earlier be easily lured away by the ULFA and other insurgent groups,have today fanned out to various parts of the country. Till about two or three decades ago,Assamese were considered shy people who would not venture out to seek their fortunes. Today you have them in all positions,from the security guard to the top layer in the IT sector. This outflow has also cut down the manpower supply-line of the rebel groups for good,” says economist Amiya Sarma,executive director of Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Niddhi.

Prof Manirul Hussain of Gauhati University says Gogoi has some serious fixing to do. “There are many things that this government has to do simultaneously. The Chief Minister has to rebuild the trust between the communities and ensure security to all. Moreover,there are too many illegal arms in the state,be it in Kokrajhar,Karbi Anglong,Doma Hasao,Tinsukia or even Guwahati. These must be seized and those possessing or trading in illegal arms must be punished,” says Hussain.

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