Forgotten Assam

by Kishalay Bhattacharjee

Assam violence 2012

“Public memory is short” is a bit of a cliché. As is “the media suffers from selective amnesia”. But clichés don’t necessarily mean they are irrelevant or incorrect. Each year, the Mumbai blasts anniversary is covered with rants from Mumbaikars and Bollywood celebrities. The Uphaar theatre tragedy is remembered every year. Rightly so. Each of these tragedies should be remembered till there is a sense of justice for the victims. But I have never been able to comprehend, leave alone explain, the methodology used to select the “horrific” events.

Let me try and explain where I am coming from? It has been exactly a year since the violence in Assam in which more than 100 people were killed and over 2.5 lakh people were displaced. Some put the figure at five lakh. The violence went on as late as October. Given the skewed coverage of Assam otherwise, it was more than adequately covered by national and international media. But a year later not one publication or television channel I have read or watched, recalls what happened in Kokrajhar and adjoining districts. 3500 people are still living in refugee camps. Three persons are still reported missing. An undocumented but significant number of students were forced to drop out and have failed to get readmission.

The violence erupted on July 19, 2012 – but the simmering tension between the Bengali-speaking Muslims and Bodo tribals was palpable for a long time. Historically, land has been at the heart of this conflict and some of the country’s worst ethnic cleansing riots have been staged in these plains. 2012, however, was different. Social media fuelled by other factors took the tension far beyond the geography of Lower Assam into cities in “mainland” India. Thousands of people studying or working in cities like Pune and Bangalore and Mumbai who looked anything remotely like tribals of northeast India had to flee in fear of a backlash. Doctored videos of torture of Rohingiya Muslims went viral and violent protests were held even in cities like Mumbai.  National leaders claiming to represent Muslims started pouring in, countered equally by self-styled “Hindu nationalists”. The Prime Minister was also there. So was Rahul Gandhi (who allegedly sulked after the pilot of the chopper he was travelling in refused to fly him back due to bad weather).

Analytically the conflict may have been because of assimilation, identity, language, territory and autonomy but the core problem has been and continues to be the denial of justice to victims and a flawed policy of the Indian government regarding surrender of armed militants. The availability of weapons and blanket amnesty to people who have murdered hundreds have allowed a culture of lawlessness in which even law enforcing agencies find it difficult to operate. In one year this stretch of land has witnessed more tension than reconciliation. One of the armed underground leaders was released from jail like several of his colleagues, one of whom was responsible for the worst terrorist attack in Assam which killed 100 people and injured 700 in one day. This attack was just 20 days before Mumbai was attacked in 2008.

While more actors have been added to the narrative, mistrust has only deepened and the undercurrent of discontent runs strong. But for most of the media this is a non-story which doesn’t merit coverage. In postscript I am reminded of a prophetic dispatch by journalist M S Prabhakara in 1974 in The Economic and Political Weekly where he said that “suspension of agitation by Bodo Sahitya Sabha in November 1974 relaxed some tension but this may not mean an end to the continuing assertion of sub regional nationalisms in Assam”. Such a dispatch would fail to meet the standards set by today’s news requirements.