Secularism does not mean brushing communally sensitive information under the carpet or refusing to look at the reality as it is. But that is precisely the symptom of the popular misinterpretation of the concept in India, leading to the humanitarian crisis that we see in western Assam today. While the law enforcement agencies have not been able to put their finger on the exact cause of the terrorist attack in Kokrajhar and adjoining areas, speculations range from the demand of an independent homeland by National Democratic Front of Bodoland’s Songbijit faction to Muslim immigration into the Bodos’ native place to avenging the villagers’ act of not voting for the NDFB’s proxy candidate in the ongoing general elections. When the Bodo-versus-Muslim clashes began some years ago, intellectuals fell over each other to prove Assam’s Muslims were as native as others in the State. Of course, a percentage of Muslims are. However, the leftist proclivity to look at the issue through a communal prism is as flawed as the right-wing’s penchant to think of all Bengali-speaking Muslims as Bangladeshis. Let’s study both threadbare.
As far as the pan-Indian scenario is concerned, first, except the officials of the Indian National Congress and the Left, all — including the cadre of these very parties — agree the problem of Bangladeshi infiltration is real across cities that are major economic attractions in India. Second, a Muslim who speaks Bengali may hail from Murshidabad, Malda, Howrah or any other Muslim pocket in West Bengal; the Bharatiya Janata Party will do well to rely on Bengalis to figure out which Bengali is indigenous and which one is foreign. Third, the India-Bangladesh border has an easy terrain and yet it is difficult to man the area because the Border Security Force jawans are sympathetic towards the interdependent poor people on either side of the frontier. Fourth, if the southern parts of Bengal, which are politically dominant, do not appear too concerned, it is because the infiltrators take the northern route, using areas around Siliguri for transit to greener pastures like Delhi and Mumbai, sparing the economies of cities and towns like Kolkata, Bankura, Burdwan, Asansol, Durgapur etc. Fifth, distinguishing a Bangladeshi Muslim from his Indian counterpart means one is not being communal. The sixth point is specific to Assam. An Assamese Muslim will speak a local language, not Bengali, making the distinction easy. Seventh, Assam has long been ethnically cleansed of Bengalis during the students’ agitation led by the All Assam Students’ Union in the 1980s; only residual (Indian) Bengalis remain in the State, who are economically better-off and live in the cities. The militants, therefore, have a clear target: Bengali-speaking populace in the villages, who cannot be Indian by any stretch of imagination.
This is not to condone the violence perpetrated against unarmed immigrants or infiltrators. But as they say, when government collapses, a parallel administration takes over. Not paying the demographic change the attention it deserves has led to the frustrated natives taking to arms. Across the Northeast, there is no such thing as law and order in absence of the Indian Army and paramilitary personnel whose presence in the region is otherwise loathed by the locals. Smuggling of assault rifles and ammunition is virtually a cakewalk for miscreants. It is imperative for the new government that would take shape post-16 May to look at the state of affairs of the Seven Sisters neither through the red lenses nor the saffron ones. It must make the States get their act together, tighten security along the international border and unleash such development initiatives that make the region’s youth, who wish to be upwardly mobile like the young people elsewhere in India, oblivious of ethnic issues.