The July 2012 clashes between the indigenous Bodos and the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in lower Assam, including the three districts of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), is just a quick reminder of a fight lands and economic resources in tribal belts and blocks. Over the past decades, many of such clashes particularly in tribal areas have occurred unabated, displacing a large numbers of indigenous and tribal people across the state. Chronically, the clash between the Bodos and the Muslim immigrants first took place in 1952, but then, the Bodos were only a part of a larger battle between the Hindus and Muslims when several Muslims wanted to join parts of Assam, mainly in Goalpara district. However, the scars of the hatred of the conflict only deepened over time due to lack of willingness on the part of the government to put an to encroachment of tribal belts and blocks. After the formation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC), the clash occurred in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon between 1993 and 1994 – leaving at least 60,000 people homeless from both the communities. Again, 2, 62, 682 were dislocated during the May 1996 conflict between the Bodos and Adivasis in Bongaigaon district. Even in September 1998, clashes between Bodos and Advivasis in Bongaigaon district saw over 3, 14,342 people languished in relief camps. Similarly, over 1, 94,000 people were displaced during conflict between Bodos and Muslims migrants in Udalguri and Darrang districts in October 2008. The July 2012 clash in Kokrajhar, Dhubri, Chirang, Bongaigaon and Baksa, which left thousands of indigenous people homeless, is another dark chapter in tribal history. Needless to say that the most backward Bodo tribals, who have been denied of dignity of living for decades, are being stripped off their lands by the illegal migrants, once again.
The root cause of this unabated infiltrations and recurring clashes lies in the forceful encroachment of lands and inefficacy of the government laws and policies to protect the tribal belts and blocks. Officially, there are as many as 47 Tribal Belts and Blocks in Assam, covering an area of 12, 528, 320 bighas but nowhere they have been preserved by the enforcement agencies of the state government till date. What worries the tribal communities in the State is that about 60 per cent in 47 tribal belts and block in the state had been encroached illegally by the migrant populations. ‘Sixty per cent of over 1 crore and 88 lakh bighas of tribal land have been illegally occupied by the non-tribals who are mostly the Bangladeshi nationals’ (n.a., 2012). As of now, about 70 per cent tribal families have become practically landless, whereas, 90 per cent of tribal people depend on agriculture in Assam. According to 2001 census report over 15 lakh non-tribals have encroached these tribal areas leaving the tribal communities alienated of their lands, pushing them to migrate to new lands. Thus, land became a contested terrain of struggle leading to various forms of conflict repeatedly. However, there seems to be no sustainable long-term solution to address the grievances of the Bodos and other indigenous communities who have been seeking protection of their lands for decades. Yet, the state government has done too little to protect the interests of the tribal people. In fact, the successive state government has been shedding crocodile tears whenever the ethnic clash erupts in tribal areas.
Contest over tribal land and subsequent displacement of indigenous populations has its colonial legacy. The pressure of land belonging to the Bodos increased with the incursion of peasants from East Bengal during the British Rule of India, after the annexation of Assam in 1826. Amalendu Guha (1977) in his Planter-Raj to Swaraj notes that the British were responsible for the land alienation of the Bodos. “A liberal wasteland settlement policy of the British Government had tempted planters to grab more land than need (Banerjee, 2011:46). Immigrations had taken place in Assam during this period from two different directions. British tea planters brought in tea garden labourers in large numbers from mainland India. For the Adivasi labourers coming to Assam from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal; this arrangement was an extra incentive. British planters brought in Adivasis; in search of cheap labour, as they could be easily exploited. They used this extra land to settle Adivasis who had been brought in to work in tea gardens as tenants. Simultaneously, they brought educated and English knowing Bengalese to assist them in its administration.
After partition of Bengal in 1905, the geo-political peasantry from the over populated East Bengal to sparsely populated fertile lands of Brahmaputra and Surma valleys of this isolated Northeast corner of India. “The formation of All India Muslim League (AIML) in 1906 at Dhaka also hatched a political conspiracy to expand its numerical strength in Assam and initiated organised migration of Muslims from East Bengal (Assam Portal, 2012). In fact, at the concluding session of the League, Nawab Salim Ullah Khan, a prominent Muslim leader, who was also, a founder member of the League exhorted the Muslims to migrate to Assam and settle there. The alarming forecast of Census Superintendent C.S Mullan in his Census of 1931 validated the political conspiracy of AIML in Assam: “Probably the most important even in the province during the last 25 years – an event, moreover, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole feature of Assam and to destroy the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilisation has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry immigrants most Muslims, from the districts of East Bengal” (Singh, 1990: 59).
By late 1930s, the AIML accelerated its expansionist design into confrontationist Muslim politics in Assam. Since then, the immigrants have become a chronic problem in the provincial politics of the state. After 1937 election, Gopi Nath Bordoloi headed a Congress led coalition government in Assam and tried to stop the unhindered influx from East Bengal (now Bangladesh). However, his Government had to resign in November 1939 to respond to the Congress High Command’s call for resignation of all its Provincial Government in protest against the War policy of the British. His resignation facilitated the formation of an alternative Coalition government headed by Sir Saadullah of AIML. Ironically, in attempt to protect tribal land, the Tribal League had an agreement with the Muslim League in 1939 wherein the latter agreed to accept the tribal demand for the line system. However, Muslim League leader Saadullah who became the Chief Minister of Assam with the support of the Tribal League not only miserably failed to fulfil his commitment but also brought large number of Muslim migrants to settle in Bodo areas (Banerjee, 2011:52). “During the period between 1939-1941, Saadullah allocated one Lakh bighas of land of in Assam valley for the settlement of East Bengali immigrants (Bhuyan and De, 1992:262). In 1942, the Saadullah government opened up grazing reserves settlement by immigrants under a “grow more food campaign,” thus allowing the floodgates of Muslim immigrants and thus leaving the tribals unprotected in the state. “He ignored the protest of Assam Congress leaders like Bishnuram Medhi and others on the plea that the Muslims from Bengal to Assam was necessary for the success of ‘Grow more food’ scheme in the state’ (Banerjee, 2011).
The then Viceroy, Lord Wavel, in the Viceroy’s Journal published on 22 December 1943 said: “…The chief political problem is the desire of Muslims Ministers of Assam to increase the immigrations into uncultivated Government lands in Assam under the slogan of ‘Grow more food’ but what really is to ‘Grow more Muslims’ (Singh, 1990: 70). ‘Obliviously, the resignation of the Congress led government in Assam was the first historical blunder committed by the party in respect of its policy on Muslim immigration. Even Subas Chandra Bose and the Congress leaders of Assam had argued for exemption of Assam from the decision of the party on the plea that it would help the AIML in settling the Muslim immigrants in the State. The Congress High Command was however not convinced (Assam Portal, n.d.). The Tribal League had to change the side and made another breakthrough in 1946 when it concluded an agreement with the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee and succeeded in getting certain provision of Chapter-X of Assam Land and Revenue Regulation Act 1886 amended. It was in 1946, after the general election, Bordoloi again headed the Congress government and took a firm stand for eviction of immigrants. However, alarmed with eviction plan of Bordoloi Government, AIML Legislators’ Convention held at Delhi in April 1946, demanded inclusion of Assam in Pakistan and strongly opposed the eviction plan of immigrant Muslims. ‘Abdul Hamid Khan, popularly known as Maulana Bhasani, a volatile leader, who had dominated Muslim politics in Assam till partition was deputed to execute the AIML plan to turn the non-Muslim majority state of Assam into majority state. Meanwhile, Muhammad Ali Jinnah came up with the demand of the League for inclusion of Assam in the proposed Pakistan. However, even after the independence from the British Rule, the flow of illegal migrants from East Pakistan did not stop in absence of any population planning by its government or any social movement for creating awareness to control population. They continue to migrate into Assam for living space leading to encroachment of lands and demographic change in Assam.
Lacunae of Tribal belts and blocks
As early as in 1947, the tribal Belts and Blocks were formed through an amendment the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation Act, 1886 to give protection to the backward tribal communities from the encroachment by non-tribals. The idea of protecting the tribal lands by creating tribal belts and blocks was noble. Nevertheless, the state government did not enforce the act in its letter and spirit. As a result, large-scale land alienation continued unabated under the successive governments. The Act has more limitations than the purpose it severs. Barnerjee argues (2011) argued that ‘the so called protective measures of Tribal Belts and Blocks provided in the Chapter X of Assam Land Revenue Regulation which is practically a farce Act have not been protected at all for the interests of the tribals. All the tribal villages and areas also hae not been covered by the Tribal Belts and Blocks.’ The lacuna of the Assam Act XV Act of 1947 is that the word “tribal” was omitted from the title of Chapter X. This indicates if the amendments were not really meant to benefit the tribals or had a much larger target group to accommodate in tribal areas. In fact, clause 160 (1) of the act, which is a part of Chapter X, does not lay down in so many words that the protection is meant only for tribals. In addition, the next clause, Clause 160 (2), empowered the state government to take a decision on which classes of people would get the benefit of protection thus leaving elbowroom to the government bureaucracy. It Clause says, “The government may by notification in the official gazette specify the classes of people whom it considers entitled to protection by such measures as aforesaid.” Further, Section 161 of the Act provided for constitution of compact areas for the notified classes of people. It can thus be presumed that the lawmakers, instead of laying down clearly that the belts and blocks were left it to the discretion of the government to decide on this. This left a leeway for the government machineries to bend rules whenever it is necessary.
This Act empowers the Deputy Commissioners to take major decisions. It clearly says, “The settlement of land under these rules will only be on written application to be made to the Deputy Commissioner or the officer empowered on his behalf (Clause 3 of the Rules). Though section 164 (2) of the act laid down that no land holder shall transfer his land in belt and block to (a) any person not belonging to a class of people mentioned under section 160 (b) to any person who is not a permanent resident in the belt and block, section 164 (2) (b)also laid down that “Provided that no such land holder shall transfer his land in a belt and block to a person who is a permanent resident of that belt or block who does not belong to a class of people notified under section 160 except with the previous of the Deputy Commissioner”. This clearly empower transfer of land to a person belonging to classes not listed under the regulations, tribals or backward classes, but a permanent resident of the belt and block. Further, under section 171 (Clause 2) of Chapter X of the Regulation, cultivators, namely plains tribals, hill tribals, tea garden labourers, Santhals, Nepal cultivators-graziers and schedule castes also protected. Thus, these communities were also competing with the plains tribals, especially the Bodos in the tribal belts and blocks for lands and resources. Interestingly, despite having such loopholes in the Act, atleast 33 tribal belts and blocks were identified in the then five undivided districts- Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang, Lakhimpur and Nowgong. In the subsequent years, some more tribal blocks were constituted in other districts, but yet to be implemented, as a result the unabated alienation of tribal lands continued. Lands were carved out of tribal belts and blocks to accommodate refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan, despite severe protest by the Plains Tribal Council of Assam.
Land rights under the Bodo Accords: 1993 & 2003
The Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) formed in 2003 merely gave executive powers to the General Council on the subject of Land and Land Revenue. Obviously, the BAC was a non-starter from the very inception. Naturally, neither it prevents the alienation of tribal land, nor could it address the development needs of areas inhabited by the Bodos. This was another denial on the part of the state government ignore the demand for protection of the interests of the Bodo tribals. The memorandum of Settlement that had been signed prior to the formation of BAC, had in Clause 7, a “Special Provision for the BAC area” that stated: The General Council shall be consulted and its views shall be given due regard before any law made on the following subjects is implemented in the BAC are: i) the religious or social practices of the Bodos, ii) the Bodos customary laws and procedures; and iii) the ownership and transfer of land within the BAC area (Banerjee, 2011: 52). Thus, the BAC was given merely a advisory role in framing of laws regarding land, it had no statutory role. This provision of the Memorandum of Settlement was not incorporated in the BAC Act, thus making it only a statement of intent of the Assam Government.
Likewise, the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), created in 2003 under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, following a peace accord signed by the Government of India, the Assam Government and the Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT), came with rider in the context of land rights of the Bodos. The Act, do not guarantee exclusive land rights of the Bodos in conformity with other Sixth Schedule areas, where sale or transfer of tribals lands to non-tribals is strictly prohibited and protected. Under the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution (Amendment) Act, 2003, paragraph 3B, section (1) subsection (xv), the BTC was empowered to make laws with respect to the land revenue within its area. However, the additional powers given to the BTC over land under the sixth schedule had one condition: the loophole is that the power to BTC was given with a prospective effect, not with a retrospective effect. Non-tribals, provided they are Indian citizens, will continue to enjoy the right over their lands. Thus, by virtue of the provision under the act, BTC can only prevent fresh occupations of tribal lands by non-tribals, but cannot undo what has happened in the past. Fresh transfers of lands are also allowed provided they are permissible. It is alleged that a large number of people have entered the present BTC area between 1993 and 2003, occupied lands, and changed the demographic profile.
The provision of the BTC Act allows that at the commencement of the act, people who have been residing in the BTC area would continue to enjoy their right over land, thus legalising the stay of large number of immigrants. The amended act laid down as: (a) Extinguish or modify the existing right and privileges of any citizen in respective of his land at the date of commencement of this act, and (b) Disallow any citizen from acquiring land either by way of inheritance, allotment or by any other way of transfer if such citizen is otherwise eligible for such acquisition of land within the Bodoland Territorial Area District. Obviously, by virtue of the provisions under the act, BTC is in a position to prevent fresh occupations of tribal land by non-tribals, but cannot undo or evict those who have already settle before the act came into existence. However, fresh transfer also allowed, provided they are permissible. The loopholes in the legal provisions yet allow the non-tribals people to acquire land rights contrary to the existing laws of the country the promise to safeguard the tribal people’s land rights. (Burman, 2010, ICITP, Northeast Zone, 2007)
The way forward
The British had enacted Chotanagpur Tenancy Act in 1908 to protect the land rights of the Adivasis, but Assam has failed to do even in the 21st century. The BAC experiment had failed due to inherent shortcomings. The much-glorified BTC Accord is yet another failure. Neither it enjoys any financial powers nor has exclusive power to protect tribal belts and blocks from further encroachment by non-tribal communities. The loopholes in the systems will further alienate the tribals and the migrant populations will continue to occupy new tribal areas in absence of power. The BTC accord requires a “revisit” if it is to serve any purpose for the marginalised the Bodo people. The present BTC administration, apart from rewarding sectional political interests, does not guarantee progressive Bodo society. The Bodos leaders, including the signatories of the accords, instead of swimming in the euphoria of the peace accord must re-examine whether to seek for protection of land rights or to continue run a dysfunctional administration. If not, the danger of lands being encroached by non-tribals and illegal Bangladeshi immigrants is likely create more troubles in the BTAD areas. The quick demographic change will come with a bundle of trouble sooner than later. It is time for the Bodo leaders to do their real homework before the next conflict rocks the tribal belts and blocks. Utmost efforts should be made to jointly fight for a common cause to save ourselves from extinction. Ironically, the Bodos are yet to learn from the failure of the two peace accords.
- Assam Portal. 2012. How Bangladeshi Muslim wiped out in their own land. Retrieved 10 August 2012, from http://www.assam.org/news/how-bangladeshi-muslim-wiped-assames-out-their-own-land.
- Banerjee, Nirmalaya. 2011. Tribal Land Alienation and Ethnic Conflict: Efficacy of Laws and Policies in BTAD Area. In. Refugee Watch, 37. June
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- Seven Sisters Post. 2012. Riots a play to push in migrants to BTAD: NDFB. Seven Sisters Post. August 3. Retrieved from 6 September 2012, fromhttp://sevensisterspost.com/epaper/2763620408/
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