In Print

Nilim Dutta in Print: Essays, Columns, Opinion Pieces


Don’t blame the immigrant – The Indian Express, 3 August, 2012

The contention that Muslim migration is behind the violence in Assam is prejudiced

When opinions expressed by high constitutional functionaries on a human tragedy tend to bolster deep-rooted prejudices, they cannot be left unquestioned.

H.S. Brahma, Election Commissioner of India, expressed his opinion on what caused the Kokrajhar riots (‘How to share Assam’, IE, July 28, 2012) by not only blaming illegal Bangladeshi immigrants for the violence but also hinting that the illegal immigrants being Muslim perhaps increases the enormity of the threat.

I have a few questions to ask. The EC claims, “recent ethnic clashes between Hindu Bodos and Muslim immigrants… 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 EC would want us to believe that the spate of ethnic violence that has erupted in the Bodoland Territorial Districts of Assam is due to illegal Muslim immigrants. If this is so, would he explain why there were recurrent clashes between Hindu Bodos and not-at-all Muslim adivasis in Kokrajhar and Chirang, which have left thousands of adivasis homeless and still living in relief camps after more than a decade, unable to return to their homes? Would he explain why a majority of the 32,613 families (as per figures provided by the government of Assam) still living in relief camps are adivasis? To the best of my knowledge, they had not been attacked and uprooted by Muslim immigrants. The adivasis were not illegal immigrants nor were their numbers multiplying alarmingly to pose a threat to Bodos. Why were they massacred then, in some of the bloodiest acts of ethnic cleansing, in the 1990s?


The fury of the powerless – Tehelka, 7 January, 2012

Co-authored with Shehla Rashid (@ShehlaRashid in twitter) 

After three long summers of discontent, Jammu and Kashmir was in relative calm in 2011. The summer of 2010 was particularly difficult. The death of Tufail Mattoo, a 17-year-old youth, on being hit by a teargas shell fired by security forces unleashed a storm of protests and pitched street battles between security forces and the protesters leading to another 126 civilian deaths in police firing. In the months of June and July 2010, there were 872 incidents of stone-pelting in which 1,456 police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were injured. Widespread arson and destruction of government property also occurred. The security forces had to dig in and slowly bring the situation under control by mass arrests, many probably teenagers. It would be natural to assume that such arrests only increased the seething resentment, even if it was inevitable. The only positive outcome probably was New Delhi’s appointment of a three-member team of interlocutors on Kashmir, who have since submitted their report, even though scepticism about real change is widespread.

Such being the circumstance, wisdom would demand that the minimum the government of India and the government of Jammu and Kashmir should do to sustain this tenuous peace would be to not precipitate a new situation, which would either ignite a new fire or stoke anew an old ember to turn it into another winter of discontent. Wisdom would also demand that the bare minimum the people of Jammu and Kashmir desire of their governments, which may be far less than what they deserve, be sincerely delivered to them. It is in this context that the abysmal electricity shortage in the state and denial of even this basic amenity to citizens assumes serious significance. With most rural areas remaining without electricity for up to 18 hours a day and even Srinagar being subject to 12 hours of power cuts, it doesn’t need clairvoyant to guess that sooner or later people would take to the streets to protest and the resultant clashes could become another thorn in the effort to sustain the peace. Those closely observing the situation were apprehensive about such a situation and unfortunately that has happened.


Cienmas and liquor won’t bring peace – Tehelka, 13 December, 2011

Co-authored with Shehla Rashid (@ShehlaRashid in twitter) 

Just days ago, the media widely reported that Farooq Abdullah, Union Minister for New and Renewable Energy, President of the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference and father of the incumbent chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, had remarked that, ‘Cinemas and liquor shops should reopen in Kashmir to give more options to tourists visiting the state’ and that ‘Steps like reopening of cinemas and liquor sale would boost the tourism industry in the state’. This has inevitably triggered an intense debate. Among the hardliners in Kashmir politics, chair of Hurriyat Conference Syed Ali Shah Geelani has taken the stand that, ‘Islam declares liquor as the mother of all evils and orders punishment against those who consume it.’ The local Jamaat-e-Islami declared that, ‘Whether it is a liquor shop or the cinema hall; both are sources of propagation of obscenity, immorality and imprudence.’ Really? If this was not sufficiently convoluted, at the opposite end of the spectrum are arguments that would make one think that the apparent ‘denial’ of cinema and liquor to tourists in Kashmir (or even to Kashmiris) is something akin to violation of fundamental human rights. In order to ascertain what the reality is and what ought to be done, one first needs to cut through this thick fog of rhetoric.


Incomplete Dossier of an Extraordinary Life: Mamoni Raisom Goswami – Tehelka, 29 November, 2011

It was in a late summer evening in 2007 when I had called on Mamoni Baideo (as Dr. Indira Goswami is known to most Assamese) at her home in Guwahati that I had a wonderfully insightful discussion with her on “History as Literary Fiction,” particularly, dwelling on how “Oral Narratives” have inspired and provided the substance of many great literary fiction and has helped in perpetuating the memory to a wider audience or readership. She was of course eminently qualified to offer her own unique perspective to the discourse, both as a scholar and as a writer of fiction of rare brilliance. She was then researching her last novel on such a legend of a Bodo woman, “Theng Phakhri” and her exploits, who allegedly lived during the colonial times. Soon the conversation turned to Mrityunjoy, an outstanding fictionalised account of the heroic struggles and angst of a small band of ‘revolutionaries’ who momentarily forsook Gandhi’s ahimsa and embraced violent means to ‘hurt’ the British during the Quit India Movement of 1942 in a small hamlet in Assam.

The events and the protagonists would have been long forgotten, had it not been for eminent Assamese writer Dr. Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya, who learnt about it and turned it into his magnum opus. Bhattacharyya’s brilliant fictionalised account in Mritunjay (The Immortal) was awarded the Jnanpith Award for Literature in 1979 making him the first Assamese writer to be honoured with it. Almost with childish pleasure, Mamoni Baideo recalled that she was perhaps one of the first people to have an inkling that Bhattacharyya was to be awarded the Jnanpith. It was she, on a request from the jury, who had expeditiously prepared an English translation of Mrityunjay. It was also, perhaps, providence. Twenty-one years later, in 2000, Mamoni Baideo would herself be honoured with the Jnanpith Award, becoming only the fifth woman writer in India and the first woman writer in Assamese to get the honour.


Bhupen Hazarika: Balladeer Extraordinaire – Tehelka, 19 November, 2011

The idealism and the intellectual and creative ferment of the revolutionary age fired Hazarika’s creative genius. The company of great minds and leaders tempered his intellectual brilliance.

However, it was as a balladeer extraordinaire that Hazarika ruled the hearts and minds of his innumerable admirers. His songs were unmistakably rooted to the earthiness of the land in which he was born, yet tempered in his inimitable style by a universal idiom that appealed to one and all, breaching the narrow confines of linguistic and ethnic identity.


Finally, Mending Our Fences – Tehelka, 24 September, 2011

One of the most crucial treaties to be signed between India and Bangladesh during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Dhaka was the ‘protocol’ to take the mutual pledges of the historic Indo-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement towards fulfillment. It forms an integral part of the May 1974 agreement and on ratification by the respective Parliaments, would be instrumental in a permanent settlement of the land boundary.

While the agreement is being hailed as a major ‘strategic’ gain by New Delhi, and cited as a testimony to the growing cordiality in bilateral ties, a shrill opposition to the treaty has arisen on the ground that India shall now have to cede thousands of acres to Bangladesh. The opposition to the treaty appears most vociferous in Assam, which shares a 262 km border with Bangladesh and is now ceding 357.5 acres to it. Why has the treaty invited such opposition in Assam? In order to understand why there is a backlash and whether the fears being raked up have any basis, a brief recounting of relevant facts would be essential.


The Long Road to Northeast Peace – Tehelka, 3 September, 2011

For the first time in decades, insurgency and violence have ebbed in almost all the states in India’s Northeast. All major insurgent groups, with the exception of those in Manipur, are in ‘ceasefire’ and/or in various stages of a negotiated political settlement with the Centre. Several of these negotiations have been unfolding at an excruciatingly slow pace, given the complexity of the issues involved: ranging from demands of secession to autonomy, with competing claims over territory and indigenous rights. The situation is further complicated by rivalries between insurgent groups belonging to the same ethnic sub-nationality, vying to be the predominant, if not the sole representative, of their people; or between split factions of even the same insurgent group vying for legitimacy.

While it will be foolhardy to predict how the multiple peace processes are likely to unfold, an accurate recognition of the entities who hold the keys and an equally perceptive understanding of the core issues they will need to successfully resolve, could bring about a clarity to a possible roadmap.


China and India Have to Bathe Together – Tehelka, 11 July, 2011

Is the Zangmu Dam being constructed across the Brahmaputra by China in Tibet the death knell of this great river, putting in peril India’s Northeast and Bangladesh? Is this dam the beginning of a massive Chinese design to divert the flow of the river entirely to feed its growing hunger for power and relieve chronic water scarcity in regions thousands of kilometres away? What should define India’s national interest with regard to China’s policy of building dams on the Brahmaputra in Tibet then? How should India protect its interest?

These are some of the critical questions that have dominated the discourse ever since there was official revelation in November 2010 that China has indeed commenced constructing the 510 MW Zangmu Hydroelectric Project at Gyaca County in the Shannan Prefecture of Tibet Autonomous Region and that they had succeeded in damming the Yarlung Tsangpo, as the Brahmaputra is known in Tibet, for the first time and in diverting the flow to the diversion channel built for the purpose while the main dam is being built across the river. Even before we attempt to answer any of the above questions, a little recounting of relevant facts would be in order.


Pragmatics of Looking East – Pragati, October, 2010

India’s bilateral relations with two of its important neighbours in the east, Bangladesh and Myanmar, have been visibly on the upswing. These mark a departure from the usual indifference India had shown towards them, or the adversarial stances both these countries had often adopted vis-à-vis India. What then are the fundamentals of this shift in foreign policy? And what are the implications of the gains that have been achieved so far by pursuing it?


Quietening on the Eastern Front – Pragati, July, 2010

After thirteen years of ceasefire and and fifty six rounds of talks between the Naga insurgent group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Issac-Muivah) or NSCN (IM) and the Union government, how close is the Naga problem to being resolved? This is a question that is being increasingly discussed and debated among those conscious and concerned of the unresolved, volatile, political challenges in India’s North East. The two core issues which hold the key to this tangled skein are the demand for Naga “sovereignty” and “integration” of all Naga people into one geopolitical entity.

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