India Continues to Grapple with Fallout from Assam Violence

On Saturday, heated protests over last month's Assam riots broke out in Mumbai, with demonstrators reportedly setting news vans on fire and attacking shops

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A vehicle burns on Aug. 11, 2012, at a protest in Mumbai over riots in Assam state

As India gets ready to celebrate Independence Day, the nation continues to grapple with the fallout from last month’s deadly riots in the northeastern state of Assam. On Saturday, heated protests over the violence broke out in the Azad Maidan neighborhood of Mumbai, with demonstrators reportedly setting news vans on fire and attacking shops. The unrest follows days of political sparring over the Assam riots.

Since July 20, more than 70 people have been killed in the state of Assam in clashes between Muslims and the Bodos, an ethnic group indigenous to the region. On July 20, four Bodo youths were killed, after which armed members of the Bodo community, holding their Muslim neighbors responsible, attacked in retaliation. Weeks later, bodies are still being found, and the hundreds of thousands of Muslim residents who fled to overcrowded, unsanitary camps are afraid to budge. Assam’s state government has given them until Independence Day (Aug. 15) to go home but has also said it cannot guarantee their safety, as reports of armed men roaming villages continue to trickle out of the area.

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Several Bodo organizations and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party have blamed the violence on illegal immigration from Bangladesh, an uncontrolled influx they say has long been a source of friction there. “The continuing influx has created pressure on land, and this has not only threatened the identity of the indigenous Bodos but has created lingering tension between them and the immigrants, culminating in the recent violence,” Jonomohan Muchahary, president of EX-Bodoland Liberation Tigers Welfare Association, told the Indian Express. Others, however, have said that blaming the violence on illegal migrants is a thinly veiled excuse to stoke communal tensions, a tactic they say has led to violence between regional ethnic groups and Muslims before, most notably in 1983, when over 2,000 Muslims were killed in what is known as the Nellie massacre.

After violence broke out again last month, Assam’s chief minister said the region is like “a volcano that frequently erupts.” That’s partly because there is still an overabundance of arms in the region after a 16-year uprising for an independent Bodo homeland. A peace accord was signed with the national government in 2003 that gave the Bodo community jurisdiction over four districts in the state.

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It’s also because with over 20 different tribes, Assam is an incredibly diverse part of the nation that has not been one of the beneficiaries of the fast-paced growth of the past decade, creating a sense of insecurity as the demographics of the state shift. While the state and the central government trade blame with each other for not reacting quickly enough to July’s violence, there has been little discussion about the failure of authorities at both levels to provide more jobs and basic services to residents of the physically remote state. Though Assam once enjoyed relative prosperity compared with the rest of India, its wealth has fallen off dramatically in recent years, and the state has high levels of unemployment.

That doesn’t leave a lot for the hundreds of thousands of refugees in the camps to go back to, even if the state were guaranteeing their safety. “If we go back, they will kill us,” Gobinda Bodo, a resident whose village was burned down last month, was quoted as saying in the Daily Pioneer. “The attackers have burnt my house down. I have neither received any compensation nor has the house been rebuilt. Where will I stay?”

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