Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Mumbai watershed

This is not the time to calmly enjoy the thrill from a continuous supply of exciting TV footage. This is not the time to be involved into sensational discussion sitting in comfy drawing rooms. This is not the time to turn into advisers and dole out prescriptions. This is not the time to turn into blustering patriots. This is not the time to shout ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ on the streets and quietly return home. This is not the time to boast about the resilience of Mumbaikars. This is not the time to think like a Congress, BJP, Shiv Sena, CPIM, DMK or BSP partisan. This is not the time to think like a Bihari, Bengali, Maharashtrian, Assamese, North Indian or South Indian. This is not the time to think like a Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Buddhist.

This is not the time to play politics. This is not the time to drag out tooth and nails and pounce on each other. This is not the time to blame and try to prove points. This is not the time to search for scapegoats. This is not the time to deliver rousing speeches. This is not the time to seize political opportunity. This is not the time to calculate or manipulate election results. This is not the time to engage in full volume TV debates. This is not the time to elevate public sentiments on communalism. This is not the time to elevate public sentiments on secularism.

This is not the time to sensationalize. This is not the time to exaggerate. This is not the time to sell breaking news. This is not the time to go for an overdrive to establish nothing out of something. This is not the time to meddle. This is not the time to bash.

This is not the time to fume up against the unashamed Shiv Sena and its mouthpiece editorial that had mocked the Mumbai ATS chief as ‘Mahatma’ and ‘Afzal Khan’ on the same day when this brave and honest police officer took three bullets in his neck and chest and died while confronting the terrorists. This is not the time to argue whether the investigation team he was leading was foul playing or not just because they have arrested some Hindutva fanatics for their alleged terrorism plans. This is not the time to feel happy because the ‘Hindu terror’ outcry might now disappear from the public mind. This is not the time to prepare ground to divide the society. This is not the time to denounce the provincial sentiments fiercely promoted by the nephew of Bal Keshav Thackeray. This is not the time to discuss whether on 1st December a general strike will be called or not. This is not the time to prepare ground for retaliatory onslaught. It is not the time to promote jingoism.

This is not the time to suspect the unforeseen good sense of restrain visible among a section of the political leadership. This is not the time to criticize the merry-go-round ride of celebrity political leaders for their stereotypical urge to sympathize with the victims. This is not the time to ask the Prime Minister about the credibility of his Home Minister and National Security Adviser. This is not the time to demand the removal of an invalid Home Minister. This is not the time to wonder how a Home Minister can pass on information to the media about the movements of the NSG commandos. This is not the time to capture headlines by providing worthy information like ‘terrorists might start using nuclear weapons soon’ and then sit idle. This is not the time to ask why nothing has been done when the Defense Minister knew that terrorists might approach by sea route. This is not the time to recur ‘All Indians love you President Bush’. This is not the time for teeth gnashing at Pakistan and then achieve nothing. This is not the time for attempting to become America or Israel. This is not the time for knee-jerk responses.

This is the time to feel proud about our security forces - those who fought and are fighting on ground and shedding blood. This is the time to comprehend the fact that our policemen are not purchased and reinstate faith on them. This is the time to pay homage to our brave warriors. This is the time to stand beside the family of the martyrs who sacrificed their life to save the others. This is the time to stand beside the family of the innocent victims. This is the time to share their grief. This is the time to maintain silence.

This is the time to feel ashamed about our political class. This is the time to thrash out at the politicians and ask them to stay away from us. This is the time to question Dr. Manmohan Singh and Mr. L. K. Advani why they could not for once display oneness and visit Mumbai together. This is the time to build up public fury against them. This is the time to condemn a flamboyant Chief Minister who offered one crore rupees reward for the dead policemen about whom he was acrimoniously critical only a few days ago. This is the time to slam the hideous whispering campaign deliberately spread amid the public that the ATS chief has succumbed as a result of the Sadhvi curse. This is the time to demand from all politicians to rise above parochial sentiments or permanently get lost.

This is the time to introspect. This is the time to stop complaining about the system and irresistibly plead for a better one. This is the time to grow more responsible. This is the time to cooperate with the country’s security agencies and institutions. This is the time to preserve our rage and employ it for the cause of eliminating future atrocities. This is the time to pledge not to be forgetful.

This is the time to think and act as a nation. This is the time to recognize once and for all the brotherhood of all Indians.

Image courtesy:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Homage to a fighter extraordinary

The mid eighties were the time when Bengal cricket was eagerly tracking around to find out its representative for the national arena, mostly controlled then by the Bombay lobby. Though Kolkata was famous for its football passion, cricket was not much behind – the city possessed Eden Gardens, a magnificent cricket ground which was also the oldest and biggest in the country, numerous clubs were trying to raise aspirant Bradmans, Trumpers or Larwoods in the vast stretch of the lush green maidan area. Local ‘para’ clubs regularly organized tennis ball cricket tournaments. By and large, the local cricket buffs fulfilled their appetite by involving themselves with devotional affection in this typical ‘goly’ (lane) form of cricket. One day matches (ODIs) were still not so popular and therefore a five day Test match in Eden Gardens was something like a festival. The lucky ones who had managed to grab a day’s ticket packed their lunch early in the morning and floated in the festive wind towards Eden Gardens. The unlucky ones had to keep themselves satisfied with the vernacular newspaper stories which used to devote their entire first page to cover the match and by the passionate radio commentaries. When Doordarshan started telecast Test cricket directly, there were fewer households that had a television set. Those houses which owned one, was invariably swamped by community visitors from 9 o’clock morning to afternoon till the days telecast was over. Fans crowded in front of the majestic Grand Hotel, where the cricketers generally stayed during Test matches to have a glimpse of the celebrity players. While Kolkata had every setting for cricket phobia – all the enthusiasm were falling short because the local heroes were unable to make any visible mark in the national side. After Pankaj Roy, Bengal couldn't produce a cricketer who could wear the India cap for a lengthy spell.

Snehashish Ganguly was a talented cricketer in the mid eighties Kolkata. The elder son of an affluent father – a printer by profession but also a onetime state player and widely known as a cricket enthusiast. Snehashish was a fine left-hander batsman and an occasional right-hand off break bowler. Cricket watchers of Kolkata held high expectation about this local lad. In the 1989-90 seasons, Snehashish played six Ranji Trophy matches, scored 439 runs with two centuries and finished with an average of 73.16. Apart from his father, Snehashish also had an ardent follower in his family – his younger brother Sourav. When Sourav also started playing alongside him in the Bengal team, people used to identify Sourav as the younger brother of Snehashish.

From formation days Sourav was blamed for his arrogance. His teammates of St. Xavier’s School cricket team complained against him to their coach. He grew up in an opulent dwelling where his father had arranged an in-house multi-gym, a batting range and rare cricket videos to watch – a facility most of the budding cricketers seldom get. He was picked for the Bengal team in 1989-90 after his initial stint in the Under 15 tournament where he smashed a century against Orissa. In the next Ranji Trophy season Sourav scored 394 runs with an astonishing near eighty average. In a 1991 Duleep Trophy match against West Zone in Guahati, Sourav hit a tidy knock of unbeaten 124 runs and earned a place in the Indian team under Mohammad Azharuddin for the 1991-92 Australia tour. Quite naturally, his inclusion was ridiculed as a quota selection. Sourav was then 19 years old.

In Australia, Sourav was accused for behaving like a spoilt brat, like a ‘maharaja’ who refused to carry the drinks or baggage of his seniors. Those were the times when a junior member in the side felt obliged to do petty services for the senior members to gratify them. Sourav was definitely not a conventional junior member though there are absolutely no proofs at all that he was ever disrespectful about his seniors. An 'attitude problem' tag was stuck on him from the very beginning of his career. He played one ODI, scored only 3, and failed to impress the selectors for the next four years. Keeping in mind the past treatments delivered to other Bengal players of class – from Shyamsundar Mitra to Sambaran Bannerjee by an extremely politicized and parochial selection process, many considered that Sourav’s international career was finished. But Sourav didn’t think so. The bitter experience of this tour tempered him bit by bit into steel. He had also acquired some basic lessons that he will start implementing eight years later.

His inclusion to the Indian side touring England in 1992 was similarly credited to Jagmohan Dalmiya – the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) strongman from Bengal and the newly emerged Bengal lobby. After the departure of Navjot Singh Sidhu following an ugly spat with captain Azharuddin, Sourav was lucky enough to play his first Test at the Mecca of world cricket – The Lords. The Sourav myth that will rule the mind of millions for the next sixteen years was launched here with a classy 131 and the subsequent century in the next Trent Bridge Test. From 1992 onwards people referred to Snehashish as the elder brother of Sourav. Though Snehashish played 59 first class matches with a near forty average and made 6 centuries, he gradually faded away from the cricket scene.

There is nothing unknown to cricket followers about the controversial career graph of Sourav. The public opinions and emotions about him were always sharp and divided all through his career. But there is a general consensus about one aspect – that this young man had singlehandedly changed the way our national cricket team played its cricket. Only with the exception of the Tiger Pataudi era, the Indian cricket team was universally recognized for its meek and surrendering approach. Indian cricket was mostly observed to follow the achievements of individuals – not for the achievements of a team. Sourav transformed Indian team into a rock solid unit, with a combative and thorny approach which caused lots of uneasiness for many opponent super captains. What cricket journalist Harsha Bhogle observed as the basic persona of Sourav also became the identity of the team he led – not rude and disrespectful but defiant and increasingly confident. This changeover was achieved with a one point strategy that he had picked up from personal experiences of his first tour – nurture young talents, trust their ability and protect them from the parochial trends that have always influenced Indian team building. By doing so, Sourav turned the younger players into daring fighters who in return trusted him deeply. For the next five years after he was named the full-time captain, India played 49 Tests, lost 13 and won 21 which include the 11 wins abroad. Tiger Pataudi, considered by many as India’s finest captain, led in 40 Tests, lost 19 and won 9 including 3 wins abroad. Sunil Gavaskar led in 47 Tests, won 9 and Mohammad Azharuddin captained in 47 Tests and won 14 of them. As a captain, Sourav achieved a winning percentage of 42.86 in Tests and 51.70 in ODIs. In both form of the game Sourav surpassed the achievements of all previous Indian captains.

In his 16 years of international career, Sourav scored 7217 Test runs including 16 centuries with an average of 42.17 and took 32 wickets. He scored 11363 runs in the ODIs including 22 centuries with an average of 41.02 and took 100 wickets. Among those who have scored over 10000 runs in the one day matches, only Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting has a better average than him.

Even after these spectacular successes, Sourav always had to be ‘reselected’ as captain before every series. He was finally sacked in 2005 – first from captaincy and then as a member of the squad. Greg Chappell, the newly appointed coach of the Indian team gradually surfaced to be a manipulative and megalomaniac individual, pooled himself along with the animus administrators like Kiran More and Raj Singh Dungarpur (Dungarpur famously said at that time that, “Chappell is a genius; Sourav is much below him in stature”) and was successful in getting rid of Sourav. Chappell only wanted docile players to maneuver his crummy scheme and his Indian henchmen had to accomplish their personal aversion agenda. Thankfully, it did not take long to prove that Chappell is a total failure. After the disastrous 2007 World Cup performance of India, the scratchy Australian was duly removed from his job. Whereas Sourav, within less than a year after his removal astoundingly bounced back into the team in 2007. He returned with a 98 run ODI score against West Indies, became the top scorer with 534 runs and Man of the Series in the three-Test series against Pakistan. Surprisingly omitted from the ODI side, he scored nearly 2000 Test runs including a double century. He had to prove a point. And he did it in style.

If Sourav had ended his career as soon as he was sacked, he would have been still called a ‘hero’, but apparently a tragic one. History would have looked at him through the ‘great-good-error-downfall’ model of the Aristotelian ‘tragic hero’. But Sourav cannot tend to carry the ‘tragic’ tag along with him for the rest of his life. He has imprinted his own destiny through hard struggle, absolute determination, great courage and outstanding achievements. He has always seized the public imagination as the eternal symbol of the good combating the bad. Why should he like to see his feat as tragic? After the dignified manner in which he drew the final curtain, history will always recall Sourav not as a tragic but a true hero. He leaves behind the legacy of an extraordinary fighter and a wonderful leader who can proudly recall about his team that, “…I know, even when I get it wrong, that my team believes I was wrong in trying to be right.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The tragedy called Assam

On October 30, Assam was trounced by another atrocious serial blast that has killed at least 77 innocent civilians. The media termed it as the ‘worst-ever’ terrorist strike. Once again the Prime Minister and Home Minister delivered their recorded cliché statement; bigwig leaders visited the affected area like tourists and merrily played politics. Minutes after the blasts, Hindu nationalist leader Lal Krishna Advani accused ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ for breeding terrorism and Bangladeshi jihadi groups for triggering the blasts – as if the attackers had taken him into confidence before pursuing the act. Local Hindutva communal groups called a statewide strike. Everything went on as expected. For decades, this ill fated state is passing through a chronic sequence of hatred, suspicion, violence and ethnic division. Today, this once prosperous land is one of the most economically backward and problem-ridden states of India. The gap between Assam and rest of the country in terms of per capita income has been widening continuously during the last fifty years after Independence. The state has a meager economic growth; many areas are still left untouched from development. Maltreatment of consecutive governments has retarded serious and sensitive issues unresolved for decades. This ill treatment has promoted many of the genuine grievances of the Assamese people and helped the continuing conflicts and misconceptions to thrive. As a consequence, people of this region have increasingly grown frustrated and became mentally alienated from the rest of the country.

To form a precise opinion on this terrorist strike, it seems essential to chronologically study the highly complex history of the state. It is also crucial to carefully peel through the many layers of facts and viewpoints to get near the core truth.


The eight states of the North-East region of India comprise over 200 distinct ethnic groups. Assam alone is the home of about 20 large and small ethnic groups. Having ancestral relation with neighbour countries like China, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan and sharing 98 per cent of its border with them (see map), this land and its ethnic inhabitants has historically remained distanced from mainland India.

Human migration was an ongoing phenomenon in the Brahmaputra Valley for over the centuries. Various immigrant groups, most of them Mongoloids, had entered the region from neighbouring South-East Asian countries. The Ahoms, a Tai-Mongoloid group, immigrated to Assam during 13th century from China and consolidated their position to establish the Ahom Kingdom that ruled Assam for the next 600 years. In 1818, the Burmese invaded Assam and forced the Ahom king to leave the kingdom. Finally, in 1826 the British drove out the Burmese and Assam came under British domination. Although the power of Ahom Kingdom started to decline from the second half of the 18th century, the territory remained mostly unconquered from any exterior power (except for the brief periods between 1663 to 1667 by the Mughals and 1818 to 1826 by the Burmese invasion) till the British took over.

British rule and growth of ‘anti-Bengali’ syndrome

After their takeover, the British revived Assam to one of the wealthier states of their regime with industrial and infrastructural developments. The tea industry was built up; high productive oil fields were discovered. The British brought in English educated Bengali officials to Assam to run the tea plantations and the civil service of the British raj. Since 1826, educated Bengali middle class Hindus held important positions in the colonial administration and other important professions like teachers, doctors, lawyers and magistrates. They also managed to introduce and initiate Bengali as the executive language of Assam. In 1905, the Viceroy of India Lord Curzon divided Bengal Presidency (undivided Bengal) into East and West Bengal (see map). Assam was merged with the new Muslim majority province of East Bengal. However, in 1911 British Government annulled the Bengal Partition due to massive political unrest in West Bengal. Assam was restored to its earlier status as a Chief Commissioner’s Province. But this time the British did another damaging act by integrating Bengali speaking Cachar, Goalpara and Sylhet with Assam province.

The British design to merge Assam with East Bengal had hurt the ethnic pride of local Assamese people. The decision was perceived by them as an indication that the Britishers are adversely treating their homeland as an extension of Bengal. Despite the fact that the middle class Bengali Hindus has made enormous contributions to the development of Assam’s oil wealth, industry and administration, the authority and power exercised by them over the ethnic Assamese and treating them with arrogance and contempt had ensued grave discontentment and a fear of cultural subordination. Moreover, the continuing large-scale influx of lower class Bengali Muslims was perceived as a demographic conquest by Bengalis to overpower local Assamese – those who were either Hindus or animists. As a result, a deep ‘anti-Bengali’ syndrome developed in the psyche of the ethnic Assamese mass. Hostility, mistrust and socio-cultural conflicts aggravated between the two major linguistic groups and have set the fertile ground for a full scale future confrontation.

Muslim immigration and the linguistic conflict

During the British rule, a big mass of Muslims had emigrated from undivided Bengal to Assam. Local Assamese people were living mostly in Upper Assam and cultivating one crop per year. They were less interested about working in the tea gardens or increasing their agricultural productivity. Hence, to work in the tea gardens, the British tea planters started to import labourers from central India – mainly from Bihar. British entrepreneurs had also actively encouraged landless Bengali speaking Muslim peasants to migrate from the populous East Bengal into the lowlands of Assam to work and develop the vast virgin lands. These poor peasant labourers were hardworking in nature and ready to work with minimal wages. They toiled hard on the waste lands of Lower Assam and transformed it into fertile agricultural fields. The influx of peasant labourers increased with the 1941 Land Settlement Policy. A British government 1931 census report stated that only in Nagaon district, the number of Bengali settlers has gone up between 1921 and 1931 by two thirds, from 300,000 to 500,000. The report also observed that places like Nagaon, Barpeta, Darrang, Kamrup and North Lakimpur were ‘invaded’ by settlers coming from Mymensingh district of East Bengal. These peasant Bengali immigrants made Assam their home and made a significant contribution to the agricultural economy of the state.

In the critical months leading up to Partition, Assam was again in the verge of getting merged with East Pakistan. The Congress High Command and the Muslim League agreed on the Cabinet mission proposal for regrouping of Assam with the eastern part of Bengal, which was to go away with Pakistan. The move was fiercely opposed by Gopinath Borodoloi, the stalwart Congress leader of Assam with the backing of Mahatma Gandhi. Borodoloi successfully prevented the regrouping plan and saved Assam from becoming a part of Pakistan. Combined with the present day territories of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya, Assam sans the pre-dominantly Muslim district of Sylhet, Assam became a state of the Union of India. A July 29, 1947 editorial in Assam Tribune, noted that “…the Assamese people seem to feel relieved of a burden”.

The frustration of this failure to include Assam with East Pakistan left a permanent blotch within a prominent section of orthodox Muslim leadership and reactionary religious groups. This abiding resentment was preserved in their minds as the cherished Islamic design for a Greater Bangladesh which became the major source of future clashes.

Population influx of Bengali refugees, both Hindu and Muslims continued from East Bengal (now East Pakistan) in the post Partition period. It used to accelerate whenever natural calamities, economic or political instability affected East Pakistan. During this time, the ongoing linguistic conflict between the Bengalis and Assamese acquired momentum and turned into a fierce agitation with one side demanding official language status for Assamese and the other side defending the existing status of Bengali. The conflict had a definite political undertone and in 1960-61 burst into violent language riots causing several deaths from both sides. In 1961, Assamese language received the official language status by a legislation passed by the Government of Assam known as the ‘Official Language Act’. However, under pressure from the predominantly Bengali speaking districts of Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj in the Barak Valley of southern Assam, the official status of Bengali language was retained there.

After the Indo-China war in 1962, Arunachal Pradesh was separated out from Assam. The state was further Balkanized with the formation of Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland in the years of 1960-70s.

Formation of Bangladesh

With the active help and intervention of the Indian government and army, Bangladesh (former East Pakistan) was liberated from the grip of Pakistan and was established as a sovereign secular republic in 1971. It became a highly emotional event for the millions of Bengalis of India, who during the catastrophic Partition days were forcefully uprooted from their homeland in East Bengal and immigrate to India. The utterly traumatic events of Partition had left a profound effect on their lives. In his sensitive films, Ritwik Kumar Ghatak has brilliantly displayed this emotion, longing and trauma of the refugee Bengali Hindu families. Bengali Hindu refugees and immigrants who came to India before or during or after Partition has always related themselves with East Bengal and never with East Pakistan.

But liberation of Bangladesh also sharply increased a fresh influx of immigrants – thousands of Bangladesh nationals started pouring into the bordering states of Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and West Bengal. The primary reason of this exodus was economic. Bangladesh was a highly populated country where 60 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line. Devastating natural calamities regularly displace millions. Land alienation, poverty, unemployment and lack of adequate social infrastructure prompted the poor Bangladeshi nationals to immigrate into India for a better livelihood. Between 1970 and 1974, the population of East Pakistan (Bangladesh after 1971) amazingly came down from 7.50 crores to 7.14 crores. Though, calculating by the annual population growth rate of 3.10 per cent, in 1974 it should actually increase to 7.70 crores. It is widely believed that the shortfall of 5.60 million has actually immigrated in India.

Twenty-four years have passed from 1947 to 1971 but the nostalgia and longing for desher bari (homeland) was still alive in the refugee hearts. Bangladesh’s liberation generated a wider hope for reinstating their broken linkage and therefore created an ecstatic feeling among them. Though chauvinist-reactionary groups were present in both the sides to spoil the jubilation, the enormity of the event temporarily demoralized and disbanded them. A general mood of elation and friendship was prevailing among the two countries. Triumphant after the victory over Pakistan and temporarily blinded by its own war success, the Indian government at that point failed to contemplate the consequence of this massive influx from Bangladesh.

However this friendship and goodwill gradually evaporated after the legendary leader and founder of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975. Bangladesh eventually discarded secularism in 1988 and declared Islam as the state religion.

The rise of AASU

In the post-Bangladesh era, the Assamese-non Assamese conflict turned in a statewide turmoil with the rise of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). AASU came to prominence in 1979 with their ‘peaceful’ agitation (popularly called as the ‘Assam Agitation’) to uncover all illegal immigrants in Assam, deletion of their names from the electoral rolls and their deportation. Calling their movement ‘the 18th war of independence’, an allusion to the 17 wars fought by Assam’s legendary King Lachit Borphukan, AASU claimed that “infiltration and illegal migration is a potential threat to the integrity and sovereignty of the country as well as a demographic danger to the indigenous communities of Assam”. The movement was actually triggered by the discovery of a sudden rise in registered voters on electoral rolls. In the 1970s, the number of registered voters in Assam jumped from 6.20 million to almost 9 million – the increase was mostly accounted for migrants from Bangladesh. Accusing the Congress party for protecting the migrants as a ‘captive vote bank’, AASU constituted a broader platform called All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) with representatives of various organizations to augment the agitation against ‘illegal immigrants’.

Taking advantage of the deep rooted sentiments and discontentment of Assamese people against the settlers, AASU and AAGSP successfully transmuted it into a widespread popular movement with the clamoured call of ‘Bideshi Khedao’ (kick the foreigners out). Various social-political groups, personalities and intelligentsia played clandestine or active role in this six year long reactionary agitation. The mood of the agitation was well accounted by journalist Chaitanya Kalbagh: “Aside from the anti-foreigner sentiment, the movement has developed other dangerous strains – anti-Bengali, anti-Left, anti-Muslim, anti-non Assamese, and slowly but discernibly, even anti-Indian.” (India Today, 1-15 May, 1980)

The Nellie massacre

AASU had strongly opposed the 1980 Parliament elections and later the 1983 State Assembly election on the ground that the polls be adjourned till electoral rolls were cleansed of illegal immigrants. Amid the ongoing agitation, the Congress government went ahead for the State Assembly polls in February 1983. During the polls the state witnessed large-scale arson, communal disturbances, group clashes and killings. The violence had no particular pattern – ethnic clashes between Assamese tribal and non-tribal; communal clashes between local Hindus and immigrant Muslims and linguistic clashes between Assamese and Bengalis occurred all over the state.

On February 18, a day after the polling has concluded, the village of Nellie in Nagaon district, 34 miles north-east of Guwahati was virtually turned into a killing field by a horrific and brutal massacre. According to official figures, on a single day, 2191 innocent and very poor Bengali Muslims, mostly women and children, were butchered in broad daylight by Assamese Hindus and Lalung tribals. Twenty-five years have passed but the Nellie massacre still remains an extremely mysterious case where no one claimed responsibility for the massacre, no judicial probe or independent enquiry was ever demanded by the Congress or the AASU, a Commission of Inquiry was instituted but the 600-page report was never made public and not a single person was convicted. The Congress and subsequent AGP government suppressed all information and deliberately tried to rub off the gruesome and shameful episode from the memory of Assam. (For an eyewitness account of the Nellie massacre see: Bedabrata Lahkar, Recounting a nightmare)

Enactment of IMDT Act

Despite the existence of the Foreigner’s Act 1946 which gave the Indian Government certain powers to execute in respect of the entry, presence and departure of foreigners inside the Indian Territory, the Indian parliament in 1983 enacted the Illegal Migrant Determination by Tribunal Act (IMDT). Unlike the existing Foreigner’s Act which was applicable to the whole of India, IMDT Act was solely applicable to the state of Assam and projected as an instrument to detect illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and expel them. There were fundamental differences between the two acts. According to the Foreigners Act, a suspected illegal immigrant has to establish his/her nationality on their own whereas under the IMDT Act, the responsibility of proving the citizenship of a suspected illegal immigrant lay on the complainant. The act was a focused political move initiated by Delhi – to spoil the growing influence of AASU and to protect genuine Indian citizens affected by the Assam Agitation, both religious and linguistic, from the undue harassment of been termed as illegal. Interestingly, the IMDT Act was passed by a Parliament, which had no members from Assam due to a boycott of elections on this issue.

The IMDT Act was challenged in courts by MP Sarbanand Sonowal of AGP. In 2005, a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional and directed to set up fresh tribunals under the Foreigners Act, 1946 and Foreigners (Tribunal Order) 1964.

The Assam Accord

The violent ‘direct action’ agitation of AASU continued for six consecutive years till the signing of the Assam Accord in August 15, 1985. The Assam Accord was a tripartite agreement between AASU, the government of Assam and the government of India. After much debate and negotiations, AASU retracted from its earlier demand of deporting all migrants who came after 1951 as ‘illegal’ and agreed on to recognize March 25, 1971 (the day civil war in East Pakistan began) as the cut-off date to determine ‘foreign infiltrators’ in Assam.

Signing of the Assam Accord was celebrated as a political victory of AASU. The state Assembly was dissolved and Hiteswar Saikia headed Congress government which came to power after the infamous February elections was dismissed. Within three months, AASU was transformed into a regional political party called Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) on October 14, 1985. Fresh elections in December 1985 brought AGP in power. After coming to power the AGP government adapted half-hearted and shortsighted measures to deal with the immigration problem. All cases connected with the Nellie massacre were dropped.

Though the IMDT Act had depraved political intentions and has basic flaws from its inception, it is extremely interesting to recall that AASU or AGP did not raise any uproar about the shortcomings on identification, detection and deportation of illegal migrants in the act, which was enacted just two years before the Assam Accord. It was only after losing power in the 1991 assembly elections to Congress; AGP started a hue and cry about the defects of IMDT Act and demanded for its repeal.

The rise of armed insurgency

The volatile situation in Assam for decades had paved the way for various terrorist-insurgent groups of different scale and size to mushroom and commit scores of violent and mindless incidents like murders, triggering blasts, abductions for ransom, extortions and attacking of economic targets. The South Asia Terrorism Portal website has listed 36 such terrorist-insurgent groups in Assam. Prominent among them are the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), United Liberation Front of Barak Valley (ULFBV), Dima Halim Daogah (DHD), Kamtapur Liberation Organization (KLO), Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA), Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULFA), United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), Black Widow, Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and Barak Valley Youth Liberation Front (BVYLF). Many of the smaller groups are actually the offshoots of major groups. The objective of most of the groups is secession from the Indian State. However, except ULFA, most of the secessionist insurgent outfits that had appeared during the turbulent days of 1979-1983 did not survive after the Assam Accord.

By going through the list, one will be startled to find that with the exception of ULFA most of the groups have a specific ethnic-religious representation. It is seemingly obvious that the root cause of armed insurgency in Assam is the widespread and deep rooted ethnic cultural conflict prevailing in the region that is fueled by the failure of subsequent governments and mainstream political parties to understand the local people’s mind. The rise of ethnicity based insurgency and the separatist demand for sovereignty were the direct result of a general feeling of alienation, dispossession and fury among the ethnic community which considered that armed insurgency is the only way to make their voices heard. The presence of about 20 large and small ethnic groups with differing belief systems and way of life and the unique geographical location has facilitated the rapid development of terrorist-insurgent activities in Assam.

There are also roughly 14 Islamist terrorist outfits operating in Assam, those who attempts to mobilize the Muslim youths in Assam to fight for the ‘cause of Muslims’. Pakistan and Bangladesh based foreign terrorist groups like Harkat-Ul-Mujaheedin, Harkat-Ul-Jihad, Jamat-Ul-Mujaheedin and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami (HuJI) are also reportedly having active presence in Assam. Another militant outfit named Islamic United Revolution Protect of India (IURPI) has been formed recently covering the Muslim dominated districts of Assam.

The menace called ULFA

United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) is a well organized, highly influential, widely connected, enormously funded terrorist group active in Assam. During the height of anti-foreigner agitation, a hard line section parted from AASU to form ULFA. Born on the lawns of the historic Rang Ghar of Sibsagar on 7th April 1979, ULFA leaders Rajiv Rajkonwar alias Arabinda Rajkhowa (chairman), Samiran Gogoi alias Pradip Gogoi (vice-chairman), Paresh Barua (chief of staff) and Golap Baruah alias Anup Chetia (general secretary) declared their aim of “liberating Assam from the illegal occupation of India” and to establish a ‘sovereign socialist Assam’. By describing itself as a ‘revolutionary political organization’, ULFA gave a militant manifestation to the anti-foreigner movement but initially remained concealed by acting along with AASU.

There is a fundamental difference between the ideologies of AASU and ULFA. AASU’s agitation was pointed against ‘illegal immigrants’ whereas ULFA’s struggle is solely against the Indian State: “to overthrow Indian colonial occupation from Assam”. The ULFA does not consider itself a separatist or secessionist organization, as it claims that Assam was never a part of India. Arbinda Rajkhowa, chairman of ULFA once said that, “India has been occupying Assam illegally like Kashmir, which was never an integral part of India”. ULFA claims that among the various problems that people of Assam are confronting, the problem of national identity is the basic, and therefore represents “not only the Assamese nation but also the entire independent minded struggling peoples, irrespective of different race-tribe-caste-religion and nationality of Assam”. It must be mentioned here that ULFA has always refused to admit their involved in any ethnic or communal violence but always admitted their role if the attack was against the Indian security forces or any target symbolic to the Indian State like the state-owned oil pipelines. It is principally a secular outfit and fiercely against Hindu nationalist groups and the BJP, calling it ‘out and out a Hindu fundamentalist party’. After the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, ULFA was credited for stopping Hindu-Muslim riots ‘by displaying arms openly’ in the Hojai region of Nagaon district.

ULFA’s initial cadre recruits were from AASU. But later they started recruiting cadres directly, particularly from the rural belts. Even after the outfit was banned and Indian Army operations resumed in September 2006, the continuing presence of ULFA suggests that the organization has somehow maintained their rural influences and the pattern of cadre recruits. The outfit has a mixed cadre base comprising Assamese and ethnic tribals – even Bengali peasants. ULFA is believed to have a trained cadre-strength of around 5,000 and possesses a huge cache of weapons for its insurgent activities.

Around the mid-80s ULFA started showing its true face with low-intensity military conflicts, political homicides and economic subversion and was soon recognized as a potent terror organization. By dividing insurgency activities between its political and military wing ULFA started raising huge funds through extortions and threatening rich businessmen and tea estate owners and also looted banks. The outfit’s major operational area was the Dibrugarh-Tinsukia sector, the wealthiest tea-growing and oil producing region of Assam. Almost every tea plantation paid an annual ransom to them. In 1986, ULFA leaders established contacts with National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) of Myanmar to procure arms and arrange for training of its cadres. The Kachins taught them the essentials of terrorist-insurgent tactics. One of its daring attacks was in May 1990 when ULFA cadres killed Surendra Paul, one of the leading tea planters in Assam and brother of famous UK-based businessman Lord Swaraj Paul. The incident caused many tea estate managers to flee Assam. Soon the government sprung into action. The entire state of Assam was declared a ‘disturbed area’ and ULFA was banned on November 1990 as a terrorist group. Since 1990, the Indian security forces are engaged in Assam to stall ULFA activities.

Controlling the ULFA menace became a dilemma for the AGP government as the leaders of AASU-AGP and ULFA were the same lot of people, born from the same arena. “The cynical characterization of the same set of people as ASSU in the morning, Government (AGP) at midday and ULFA at night cannot be just laughed away” (M. Kar, Muslims in Assam Politics - 1946-1991, page 421; quoted in R. Upadhyay, ULFA – A Deviated Movement? ) Taking this advantage, ULFA almost ran a parallel government in Assam, conducting trials of people and black mailing them for extorting money. The AGP government had also encouraged ULFA activities to some extent to keep alive their confrontational politics and pressure over the Central Government. “The reasoning behind the unwillingness on the part of the AGP regime to confront the ULFA lies in its eagerness to keep the terrorists actively alive to retain its anti-centre leverage” (Ibid. page 425). On the other hand, ULFA’s popularity and influence gained a spectacular rise from the rising disillusionment among the Assamese people against the AGP regime.

Contrary to its original ideological position of a revolutionary political organization and dumping its ‘social-reform’ activities, the ULFA leadership has done a complete volte-face when they transformed the outfit into a purely terrorist outfit. Later on, ULFA established contacts with Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, Defense Forces Intelligence (DFI) of Bangladesh, the Afghan Mujahedeen and other terrorist-insurgent groups of North-East and committed a series of atrocious crimes to create terror in the State. Since 1989, ULFA Chief of Staff Paresh Barua, however, has denied the alleged link of ULFA with ISI as a ‘heinous conspiracy of New Delhi’.

ULFA had put up a number of camps in Bangladesh and also owned several ‘income generating projects’ like media consultancy firms, soft drink manufacturing units, transport companies, schools, three hotels, a private clinic, two motor driving schools, a tannery, a chain of departmental stores, garment factories, travel agencies, shrimp trawlers and investment companies there. ULFA also runs profitable narcotics business in Myanmar and Thailand. Paresh Barua was allegedly involved in smuggling heroin from Myanmar into Assam. ULFA leaders and cadres had reportedly received specialized training on counter intelligence, disinformation, use of sophisticated weapons and explosives from ISI. Two Muslim terror outfits of Assam – the MULTA and the MULFA are their regular arms suppliers through Bangladesh. Routed through Nepal, it has also developed channels for the transfer of funds and arms from Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia.

ULFA continues to be active but has lost its credibility to a great extent due to its involvement in the mindless violence, killing of ordinary people and lumpenization of its cadres. On January 2007, suspected ULFA extremists killed at least 62 Hindi-speaking Bihari daily labourers, workers of brick kiln, petty-traders and roadside vendors in Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sibsagar districts of Upper Assam. Its popular support has reduced but not fully erased. There is still an underlying sympathy about ULFA in the greater Assamese society, especially among the underprivileged, middle-class and intelligentsia. “A section of the intelligentsia, however, uses the insurgent influence as a shortcut to secure personal objectives and fame. It is not a rare exception in Assam to find a respected intellectual advocating the insurgent cause, of course from a safe distance and carefully balancing constitutional restrictions and revolutionary babble. Many among the more sober intellectuals in Assam prefer to maintain a deliberate silence on the issue.” (Sunil Nath, Assam: The Secessionist Insurgency and the Freedom of Minds) This sympathy among its home-population is ULFA’s key strength.

Journalist and North-East expert Sanjoy Hazarika has summed up the present status of ULFA and other terrorist-insurgent groups of North-East:

“…it should be clarified that the conflicts in the Northeast, in terms of armed revolts, ethnic struggles or fights against the Indian State, no longer draw on the romanticism and idealism that sustained fighting groups and communities for decades. Dreams have degenerated into nightmares; the fighters have turned on each other and on the people in whose name they claim to speak. The entire network of cadres, recruits, informers and political leaders is based on extortion and extraction: extortion from business houses and petty traders, from professionals, contractors and politicians. Few are spared. The extraction process even involves government officials…”

The HuJI and RSS-BJP factor

Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami or HuJI is a fanatic terrorist outfit formed at Pakistan in 1984. It initially operated in Afghanistan, then at Jammu-Kashmir and later was extended to Bangladesh in 1992. Banned in Bangladesh since October 2005, the objective of HuJI is apparent from their one-time slogan: Amra Sobai Hobo Taliban, Bangla Hobe Afghanistan (We will all become Taliban; we will turn Bangladesh into Afghanistan). It is a deadly terror outfit operating from the coastal area of Chittagong south through Cox’s Bazaar to the Myanmar border. In recent years, this Bangladesh chapter of HuJI has been found to be responsible for a number of terrorist strikes in India with the active assistance from ISI.

Since 1998, unconfirmed reports were emerging about HuJI-ULFA links. The connection was proved in 2003 from the confessions of some arrested jihadi militants and reconfirmed recently when members of HuJI were spotted in the Silchar district of Assam along with a few ULFA members. HuJI is reported to have assured co-operation and logistical support to ULFA and help them to find shelters in Bangladesh. Reports has also indicated that HuJI is giving a three months military training to youths and helping them to infiltrate into Indian locations like West Bengal, Assam and other North-East states.

The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) - BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) combine has built up a wide network in the districts of Udalguri and Darrang in recent years. This combine has influenced a section of the Bodos along with a small section of Assamese, Bengalis and Nepalese to mobilize against the Muslims in many places of the state. In the name of detection of the suspected ‘Bangladeshis’, numerous harassments and atrocities are imposed on those Muslims who had actually settled in Assam long back and became a part of the broad Assamese society. The recent clashes and rampant violence between Bodos and Muslims that has swept across many areas in Udalguri and Darrang districts from October 3, 2008 is the result of this evil design of RSS-BJP. “...the rifts and conflicts engendered by the communal violence among the Bodo and Muslim communities will be sought to be utilized by the divisive, communal and fundamentalist forces to their advantage and thus further endangering the peace and unity among the people.” (Uddhab Barman, Behind the Recent Communal Violence in Assam, People’s Democracy, 19 October 2008) Accordingly, after the October 30 serial blasts, BJP leader L.K. Advani took no time to blame illegal Bangladeshis (read Muslims) as the main reason for breeding terrorism in Assam.

Consistent violent campaign against Muslims with the growth of the RSS-BJP combine in Assam has created enough ground for the growth of communal and fundamentalist forces among the Muslim community (Muslims constitute nearly 30 per cent of Assam’s population). Taking advantage of this chaotic situation, HuJI and other fundamentalist Muslim outfits are gradually penetrating deep into a section of the Muslim inhabitants and brain-washing them towards Islamic fanaticism. ULFA leaders, being pushed to the wall by the mounting emphatic operations of Indian security forces have been coerced to enslave them in the hands of the ISI for survival. Today, ISI has sheltered all the top leaders of ULFA in Bangladesh. The outfit has abdicated its core ideology and acting now as their local agent in Assam and the North-East.


You are walking along the street one day,
chewing cinnamon gum,
and the world is full of cinnamon
when there’s a fireball--
and a blast of gushing air and noise
like the Earth is cracking
and time has exploded. ...

Then ... silence. ...

You think you’re okay, but you look down and your forearm
lies in the street like a dead snake and you collapse.

You are twenty two and you have/had a good job--
you were earnestly trying to help.
But now you think there was no point to your life,
and you remember your mother and father
whose voices are in the sirens.

– Gary Corseri, A Bombing in Assam

Ten days after the recent blasts, the Indian Home Ministry claimed that they have found “…enough evidence that the banned ULFA had carried out the October 30 serial blasts with the help of dominant Bodo militant group NDFB.” NDFB is currently under ceasefire with the security forces and is engaged in peace negotiations with the government. The government sources has expressed their worry about a nexus between local outfits with outsiders in the blasts the fact that ‘northeast militants has started using a deadly mixture of RDX, ammonium nitrate and plasticised explosives’ and neither ULFA nor NDFB has the expertise to carry out such dead explosions. Bangladesh-based HuJI has provided the expertise to ULFA and NDFB. (Indian Express, 11 Nov 2008)

For several decades, Assam is passing through too much of tears and blood. This stunningly beautiful state and its people are struggling hard to come out from the curse of their own history.

Secessionism, insurgency and terrorism are like the mythical Phoenix bird – self destructive but able to resurrect from its own ashes. Assamese people did clutch them all – like a drowning person clutches a piece of straw.

Dealing the problem from a fascistic perspective, the widely spread jingoistic approach of the RSS-BJP combine will be a catastrophe. The problem cannot be dealt as well with a feeble, compromising and brush under the carpet approach – as implemented by the Congress party. The people of Assam are bearing the brunt of this breed of politics for long. It also cannot be dealt with reactionary parochialism – like the provincial politics of ASSU-AGP. The people of Assam have long been disillusioned by them. The distressing reality for Assamese people is, that they do not have any other alternative to choose.

The Indian State should first and foremost study the people and learn how to create a condition that will itself refuse to extend any popular sympathy or support towards the secessionists, insurgents and terrorists. It has to realize that a convincing democratic mechanism that compassionately tries to comprehend the genuine grievances of its own people and works effectively for a tangible solution will definitely win back their support. The same support which is partly enjoyed today by the secessionists, insurgents and terrorists. An unbiased approach towards the political problem of secessionism and a firm determination to strike against terrorism is the correct approach to deal the Assam crisis.