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“Don’t blame the immigrant” – The op-ed in The Indian Express, 3 August 2012 as a rebuttal ‘in print’ to the  Election Commissioner.

Opinions expressed by high constitutional functionaries shouldn’t be taken lightly, even if they are purported to be ‘personal’. And when such opinions are on an unfolding human tragedy and they tend to only bolster deep rooted prejudices, those can’t be left unquestioned.

Shri Harishankar Brahma, the Honourable Election Commissioner of India, expressed his opinion on what caused the Kokrajhar riots in The Indian Express, How to Share Assam, not only squarely blaming illegal Bangladeshi immigrants for the violence, but also hinting that the illegal immigrants being ‘Muslims’ perhaps raises the enormity of the threat manifold.

I have a few hard questions to ask.

The Honourable Election Commissioner of India writes,

The recent ethnic clashes between Hindu Bodos and Muslim immigrants, which occurred in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts of lower Assam (BTAD), were unfortunate. However, the clashes were not wholly unexpected. The question that is generally asked is: why did it take a few decades to occur in the first place? Assam has been virtually sitting on a huge tinderbox.

The stress on ‘Hindu’ Bodos and ‘Muslim’ immigrants would make one believe that this is a Hindu-Muslim communal clash, with the ‘Muslim’ immigrants being the usual suspects in fomenting tensions and resultant violence. If this is so, would the Honourable Election Commissioner care to explain why were there clashes between ‘Hindu’ Bodos and ‘not at all Muslim’ Adivasis in Kokrajhar since early 1990s which have left thousands of Adivasis still living in relief camps after one and a half decades, unable forever to return to their homes?

It would be pertinent to point out that these Adivasis, mostly Santhals and Oraons, aren’t descendents of those the British brought to Assam as tea-garden labourers. Many of the Adivasis of Kokrajhar are descendents of those who were exiled by the British from their homeland for rising up in rebellion in what is known in history as the Santhal Rebellion. The Adivasis weren’t illegal immigrants nor were their numbers multiplying alarmingly to pose a threat to the Bodos. Why were they massacred then in some of the bloodiest spates of ethnic violence of the 90s directed against non-Bodos?

Also, if illegal Bangladeshi ‘Muslim’ immigrants were the sole cause for turning Assam into a tinderbox, why have many ‘Hindu’ Bodos lost their lives in the hands of ‘Hindu’ Bodos (or were the Christians?) themselves in ugly fratricidal wars? (I was an official invitee to the first death anniversary of late Binneswar Brahma, President of Bodo Sahitya Sabha and one among the many stalwarts who died in this fratricidal war)

The Honourable Election Commissioner further writes,

Any knowledgeable person in Assam knows well enough that migration into the state started during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

That the migration of impoverished Bengali Muslim peasants from East Bengal into the British province of Assam began in the late 1800s and continued well into the present day is a well documented historic fact.   The Honourable Election Commissioner’s claims are as factually untenable as they are historically inaccurate. It is important to understand that the immigrants and natives have lived cheek-by-jowl for over a century and in spite of occasional frictions, hostility between the communities isn’t such that bloodshed is inevitable.

The Honourable Election Commissioner further writes,

It has been alleged by knowledgeable persons that out of the 27 districts in Assam, 11 of them are going to be Muslim majority districts once the 2011 census figures, religion-wise, are published by the census authorities.

I fail to understand why should 11 districts of Assam becoming “Muslim majority” be a cause for alarm. Is it because it is implicit that these districts are becoming “Muslim majority” by virtue of illegal immigration? Interestingly, the Election Commissioner himself admits that there are only about 1.5 lakhs D or doubtful voters in Assam, not really a significant total given the size of Assam’s electorate. Where is the proverbial vote bank of illegal ‘Muslim’ immigrants then?

But the very same census figures would show a declining decadal growth rate of population in Assam and the language report would show that those districts which would perhaps turn “Muslim majority” would also show an overwhelming “Assamese majority” as well. Has the Honourable Election Commissioner cared to dwell on this complexity?

Would it still be a problem if these districts turned “Muslim majority’ on the strength of Muslims who have legitimately settled in Assam and have slowly assimilated into the native culture and soil adopting Assamese as their language?

The Honourable Election Commissioner is firm in his belief that,

The present ethnic clashes between the two communities can be directly attributed to the aforementioned facts of illegal migration into Assam.”

“It is a fact that the population in all these areas has been going up by leaps and bounds. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is a clash of interest in the sharing of natural resources such as forests, grazing grounds or even lands.

If the Honourable Election Commissioner cared to check some figures, he may be surprised to learn that between 1991-2001 Kokrajhar, where the ethnic clashes have begun, decadal growth rate of population has been just 14.49%. The corresponding figures for Assam and India are 18.92% and 21.54%.

He may be even more surprised to learn that between 2001-2011, the decadal growth rate of population for Kokrajhar was just 5.19% whereas that for Assam and India have been 16.93% and 17.64% respectively.

Do these figures for Kokrajhar indicate population increase in ‘leaps and bounds’?

Also the population density of Kokrajhar district is one of the lowest, being 266 and 280 persons per square kilometre for 1991-2001 and 2001-2011 respectively. In the geographically contiguous district of Dhubri, population densities have been 941 and 1171 persons per square kilometre for 1991-2001 and 2001-2011 respectively.

Do these figures indicate immense pressure on land due to encroachment by illegal ‘Muslim’ immigrants to the extent that it would trigger bloody ethnic clashes?

I would fervently like to believe that the opinions or conduct of a high constitutional functionary would be free from the prejudices of ethnicity or faith. Reflecting on the opinions expressed by the Honourable Election Commissioner, I have been sadly left with the feeling that they have been coloured by the prejudices of both and these will be further incessantly cited by those who would want to perpetuate these prejudices to deepen the existent ethnic and communal fissures. It doesn’t give me any pleasure to say so, but the Honourable Election Commissioner appears to have undermined the impartiality expected of his constitutional position.