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Civilian Killings in Northeast India

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An Internally Displaced Persons Camp created after the 2014 violence.
An Internally Displaced Persons Camp created after the 2014 violence. —Photo by Dr. Chris Wilson

Guest post by Chris Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. India is currently ranked among the countries most at risk for state-led mass killing. 

On 22 December 2014, militants killed over 70 unarmed men, women and children in India’s Assam State. Massacres of civilians have become all too common in the region. Forty-two died in one afternoon in May 2014 and more than 100 people were killed over several weeks in 2012. Despite this violence the region receives little international attention. During two periods of fieldwork in Assam, I was struck by the lack of international humanitarian presence. Partly this is because of the remote nature of western Assam, partly because of a justified perception of India as a flawed but stable democracy. Yet there are various measures the international community can pursue to try and prevent further mass killings. I discuss these approaches below.

The main perpetrators of the killings are former Bodo guerrillas who until 2003 were fighting a violent insurgency against the state. Some now function as brigands, extorting money from the local population through kidnappings and robbery, others have assumed political power in an autonomous region created to end their rebellion. After decades of violence, and surrounded by porous borders with Bangladesh, Myanmar and China, the region remains awash in high powered weapons.

The most common victims of group violence have been Muslims of Bengali descent, although Adivasis were the target of the December 2014 attack. Nationalist politicians in Assam and New Delhi explain the killing of Muslims as spontaneous outbursts of anger at undocumented Bangladeshi migration. But to explain the recent violence in this way is incomplete. Bengalis have migrated to the area for more than a century, as laborers and clerks during the colonial era and to escape violence during the Partition of India and the Bangladesh War of Independence. At most points in the past century they have escaped mass violence. And periodic investigations of the documents of Bengal-origin communities – including those displaced by the recent violence – have found that only a very small proportion is in the country undocumented. Far from spontaneous eruptions of community anger at migration, the killings have been coordinated, planned and instigated from above at a time of political insecurity.

The violence is best understood as a consequence of weaknesses in a 2003 peace agreement between rebels and the government to bring the Bodos’ rebellion to an end. The Bodos are one of India’s ‘Plains Tribes’, a Tibeto-Burman group indigenous to western and upper Assam. Constituting only three-percent of the state’s population, the community has long been marginalized from economic and political power. Their protests were often brutally repressed by the Indian security forces, and several militant groups launched violent insurgencies against the government. The most important of these organizations were the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and the National Democratic Front for Bodoland (NDFB).

After a decade of violence, the BLT entered negotiations with the government, eventually signing the 2003 Bodo Accord. The NDFB refused to participate and one faction of the movement (Songbijit) has remained active until today. The main component of the deal was the creation of a semi-autonomous region known as the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) located in the Bodo homeland of western Assam. The militants of the BLT quickly won local elections, assisted by a quasi-democratic structure which ensured that scheduled tribes such as the Bodos – and not migrants such as Bengalis – held almost all seats in the local council.

New Delhi calculated that this would finally end guerrilla violence in Assam. But unsurprisingly, this situation has left other ethnicities living in the region at risk. Armed rebels – with few skills other than coercion – have assumed almost unassailable political power in the BTAD. One scholar has termed this ‘ethnic autocracy’; the government condones non-democratic political structures and even communal violence, as long as the rebels refrain from attacking government infrastructure. Making the situation even more dangerous, the NDFB has been excluded from power and patronage, leaving it both armed and aggrieved. With both sides retaining their weapons, and claims by local and national politicians of undocumented migrants stealing land and jobs, the position of Bengal-origin Muslims, along with other groups such as Adivasis, remains highly precarious.

Yet paradoxically, the region is also a source of anxiety for Bodos. Both the former rebels in power and many rank and file Bodos fear they may lose the gains won in 2003. In India, the world’s largest democracy, such a quasi-democratic structure is easily portrayed as illegitimate. Exacerbating this sense of uncertainty and illegitimacy is the fact that the Bodos received the territory despite not constituting a majority in the area. In the rush to end the insurgency, the government granted the BLT an area in which Bodos constitute only 30% of the population. Muslims constitute a similar portion of the new autonomous region’s population. They, along with other communities angered by years of misrule, corruption and intimidation by the new local government, have used this odd demographic situation to challenge the political hegemony of the guerrillas. In 2012, after leading Muslim organizations became more assertive in denouncing the militants in power, over 100 people were killed in organized attacks across the new autonomous region. Similarly, during the 2014 national parliamentary elections, over 40 Muslims were killed in several attacks just hours after a Bodo politician publicly denounced non-Bodos for voting against the ruling party. The Bodos’ political anxiety proved well-founded; the election results saw for the first time a non-Bodo candidate elected to New Delhi to represent the Bodo heartland. The result has increased the sense of anger and uncertainty in the area.

As stated, there are several things the international community can do to prevent mass killings in western Assam. Concerned stakeholders should pressure the Government of India to ensure the political rights and security of both the Bodos and other ethnic communities living in the BTAD. Although the former rebels are unlikely to agree to share power with groups they see as migrants, electoral mechanisms should be established to ensure they require the political support of minorities to retain office. Second, those former guerrillas suspected of organizing the killings should be tried and prosecuted where appropriate. Third, governments should pressure New Delhi to lift the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the area which disallows the prosecution of military, paramilitary and police personnel for human rights abuses. Regular violations by these forces – including execution style killings known as ‘fake encounters’ – maintains a palpable sense of anger and tension among all ethnic communities.

Several groups residing in western Assam are at continued risk of mass killing. These groups have seemingly been forgotten by those capable of protecting them. The Government of India has the capacity to prevent further massacres, yet clearly needs to be reminded of its responsibility to do so.

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