Assam: A state ravaged
As the election week ground cruelly toward its finish, every community in Assam turned upon every other community. The Assamese, the tribals, and the immigrant Bengalis figured as both attackers and victims.
It was beyond the ken of a civilised society, a blood-spattered vindication of a heartless government’s sudden constitutional piety.
The carnage began with a few deaths on February 2; during the next three weeks, it rose every day with dreadful ferocity: a dozen at Chamaria on the 12th, a hundred at Gohpur on the 14th, and then at least a thousand at Nellie on the 18th.
Amid the stench of rotting corpses wafting down the Brahmaputra valley, the Congress(I) in Assam won an overwhelming majority in the new Assembly. But the victory was Pyrrhic, and every legislator’s path to his seat was trailed by a thickening stream of blood. Not since the passions of Partition had the nation seen such senseless death.
As the election week ground cruelly toward its finish, every community in Assam turned upon every other community. The Assamese, the tribals, and the immigrant Bengalis figured as both attackers and victims.
The toll exacted would forever stain the election results – vast stretches of countryside mutilated by arson and violence, hundreds of villages ravaged by fire and turned into silent graveyards, a total of at least 1,500 people killed, and the firm flowering of hatred and blood-lust from the compost heap of botched history.Virulent Hatred: Above all, Assam’s image as a multi-cultural and secular state now lay shattered; there could be no solace for the lakhs of panic-stricken villagers who had fled their homes with whatever belongings they could collect. Worst of all, the state now seemed to be poised for a cathartic breakup along communal lines.
The carnage also changed – possibly forever – the very nature of the Assam problem. Until the elections the Assamese had been agitating against the existence of large numbers of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in their midst.
Now, the Assamese, the Bengalis and the tribals were all separated by chasms of anger and virulent hatred. Overnight, a movement that had remained largely non-violent and secular for more than three years had been transformed by the elections into one of history’s bloodiest confrontations – and the foreigners’ issue was swept aside by the tide of blood that engulfed the state.
The results were clear. From a passive line of civil disobedience and non-cooperation, the agitation was now irrevocably transformed into a violent movement that would not abjure direct and brutal action. Such intransigence immediately polarised the attitudes of the Bengalis and the majority of the tribals. who had been resolutely opposed to the agitation from the beginning. Every side of this bitter triangle now toed a hard line in which reason and logic would play no part.
Mrs Gandhi at Nellie: Reaping a whirlwind
Hawkish Stand: It was clear also that the moderates in Assam had been pushed to the sidelines. The entire pre-election strategy of the agitation was decided by avowed hawks within the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP).Most ominous of all, however, was the sudden awakening to ferocity of sections that had earlier lain dormant, chiefly the tribal population.
Until now, the tribals had been on the periphery of Assam’s problem; but the agitation, and their own increasing isolation within the rapidly polarising society around them had forced them into a new militancy.
The agitation itself had succeeded in bringing-the tribals’ long-festering resentment about shrinking land and poor economic development into sharper focus – for, while the Assamese perceived the agitation as vital for their survival, the tribals on the other hand felt that their own survival within the Assamese context was in jeopardy.
Suddenly, therefore, the bone of contention was no longer the illegal immigrant, not even the growing enmity between the Assamese and the Bengali. The tribal outrages at Gohpur and Nellie introduced a new and volatile element, and the resulting chemical reaction could not but have led to a cataclysmic explosion.
Social Contradictions: Gohpur and Nellie also brought out the contradictions within Assamese tribal society, which had until now been lumped together as a homogeneous unit.
At Gohpur, the Boro tribals who attacked Assamese villages were in favour of the elections, and owed allegiance to the Plains Tribals Council of Assam (PTCA), which has all along been fighting for a consolidation of the tribal identity, politically and territorially.But at Nellie, the Lalung tribals who slaughtered immigrant Bengalis were opposed to the elections – and their anger stemmed more from the Bengalis steady encroachments upon what had traditionally been tribal tracts along the south bank of the Brahmaputra.
Where the Government miscalculated the most was in assuming that three years of the agitation had drained support for the movement, in assuming that prolonged negotiations would ultimately wear out the militancy of the students. Another mistake was to believe that the agitation was restricted to the urban Assamese elite.
Said AASU’s acting president Nurul Hussain: “The violence has been created by government agents. Now the agitation has become a people’s movement in the real sense. It no longer depends on specific leadership; nor do I think our leaders can be categorised. Now the people of Assam will no longer tolerate the Government’s deviousness.”
Bengali women crowd a polling booth at Taimur’s constituency Dalgaon
Added Satananda Deka, member of the Mangaldoi District Students Union: “Study the violence closely and you will see how it erupted after Mrs Gandhi’s visit to the state. By inciting ethnic clashes, the Government wanted to divert our attention from our resolve to thwart the elections. It is wrong to say that the movement has turned communal. There are Hindus and Muslims in both the Assamese and Bangladeshi ranks. The Government also thought that we had no reach in the countryside, that the villagers could be bought with promises. The success of the anti-election movement shows how strong our hold is in the countryside, and if the Government thinks it knows exactly how we think, let me tell you we know much more intimately how the Government thinks and works, and we can swiftly and effectively counteract its plans.”Growing Alienation: If the elections were to be taken as a referendum on the Assamese-Bengali schism, they brought out the total alienation of the Bengalis, too, from the Assamese mainstream. In 1980, the Bengali area of Cachar was the only in Assam to vote in the Lok Sabha elections.
This time too, the overwhelming turnout of Bengali voters (as high as 80 per cent in Cachar) showed how determined the Bengalis were to protect their own interests politically.
Obviously, they are interests no government can ignore, but there was another significant development. Traditionally, Bengali Muslim voters had preferred the Congress(I), while Bengali Hindu voters tended to favour the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M).
Victims of the Nellie carnage
This time around, the Bengalis congregated along purely lingual lines and voted Congress(I), leading to a communist wipe-out. Yet another explanation was offered for this twist by a Bengali voter in Gauhati who had been unable to exercise his franchise on February 20. “Already we are the targets of Assamese attacks,” he said, “and if we had voted for the Marxists then we would also have been victims of Congress(I) hostility. It is better to vote for the party that is ruling at the Centre – our interests can be better looked after by the Congress(I).”Hollow Victory: In the end, the Congress(I) won as many as 88 of the 108 seats for which polling could be completed. But the victory was morally and legally hollow.
The elections had been held on the basis of electoral rolls as on January 1, 1979, which had not been revised since; no earnest attempt was made by the Government to find ways out of the constitutional impasse it kept holding up as an excuse. The state’s Assamese population opposed the elections tooth and nail, and three major national parties boycotted the polls.
In every way the elections had been thrust down the state’s throat – with every government employee in Assam refusing to cooperate, massive help had to be rushed in from outside, buttressed by a huge paramilitary force, and a variety of authoritarian laws had to be brought into play in order to keep up a semblance of discipline. As election week progressed, the state’s communications network suffered grievous breakdowns.
New Chief Minister Saikia: Hollow victory
So busy was the Government in seeing that the elections took place that it blithely ignored the rising tide of violence and death that swept the state.Too late, as the administration began to disengage from the imperatives of conducting a “free and fair poll” and turned its attention to the corpses littering this grim arena, the travesty of the elections’ legitimacy shone through.
Polling state-wide was claimed to be at least 20 percent, but this was only because Bengali and immigrant pockets had turned out in large numbers.
Inevitably, in the end, polling in 18 assembly constituencies had to be “indefinitely postponed”; seven of the 12 Lok Sabha constituencies needed repolling, and so did 11 assembly segments and 351 booths. In 12 constituencies polling was below 5 per cent, and in 10 Upper Assam constituencies below 3 per cent.
In Dharmapur constituency in Kamrup district, for instance, only 267 of the 67,341 voters exercised their franchise. One vote was found invalid, and the others all went to independent candidate Dr Bhumidhar Barman. In some constituencies like Sipajhar in Darrang district, the administration was forced to send out “mobile polling booths” in order to try to woo voters.
As late as on February 17, after two observers he had sent to Assam returned to report on the worsening situation. Chief Election Commissioner R.K. Trivedi asked the Assam Government if it wanted to go ahead with polling on the final day, February 20. Even then, with more violence clearly predictable, the Government said that the situation was all right.
Indeed Chief Secretary Ramesh Chandra’s daily 5 p.m. press briefings at Dispur acquired the derisive label “five o’clock follies” – after US military press briefings in the Vietnam War when the generals insisted all was well.
The refrain became wearingly familiar – polling was progressing apace, violence was “sporadic and minimal”, and all was well. On February 14, even as booths in the Dispur constituency registered less than 1 per cent polling. All India Radio said in its news bulletin that polling had been “brisk to moderate”.
Meanwhile, for 18 days from February 5, a state-wide non-cooperation movement crippled all public services, shut down banks and offices, and led to hundreds of arrests under the National Security Act (NSA). the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) and the Assam Executive Magistrates (Special Powers) Act.
Union Home Minister P.C. Sethi told the Lok Sabha on February 22 that 425 government employees in Assam had either been dismissed or suspended because of refusal to perform election duty. Hundreds of others successfully evaded arrest warrants.
Pre-poll violence occurred mainly when mobs of militant Assamese burnt bridges and government buildings throughout the state and attacked police outposts and stations. Beginning with the Mangaldoi area on February 2, such anti-election violence had claimed almost 100 lives by February 12.
That day, when thousands of immigrant attackers crossed the Marakalahi river near Boko in Kamrup district and fell upon the Assamese village of Chamaria, the violence took on a new and uglier form – senseless and bloody clashes between different communities.
In the days following, hundreds of such inter-community clashes broke out throughout the valley, and such violence further ensured that turn-out on polling days would be close to zero.
Delayed Aid: Hundreds of thousands of people from every Assamese community began to flee their homes during election week, to seek shelter in hastily set up relief camps in government schools or colleges.
Tragically, there were fatal delays in rushing police or paramilitary aid to areas ravaged by violence and killing because important road bridges had earlier been destroyed by the anti-election agitators. Rumour and panic therefore gripped the Brahmaputra valley, and coupled with crippled communications, they set off even more savage ethnic conflagrations.
What shocked the nation all the more was the fact that the Government could have avoided the bloodshed if it had let humanitarianism override political ambition.
Even as late as on February 11, the leaders of non-communist opposition parties in Parliament met the chief election commissioner to beg for a postponement, and promised cooperation if the Government wanted to pass an amendment to the Constitution to extend President’s Rule. Their pleas were ignored.
During election week itself, the election commissioner could have used his constitutional authority to call a halt to the elections and the carnage, even if it meant forcing the Government to search for legal solutions in a very short period.
Legal experts pointed out that as a last resort, the Government could even have declared an emergency in Assam by presidential proclamation, thus buying valuable time and extending the constitutional deadline of March 18 when President’s Rule was due to end. But, gripped by an astonishing indifference, the Government barelled on towards the inevitably bloody conclusion of its “inescapable constitutional obligation”.
Partisan Campaign: The very nature of the Congress(I) campaign in Assam had laid the foundation for the holocaust. Union Railway Minister A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury was sent in specifically to reassure the immigrant Muslim voters who constituted the party’s largest vote bank.
Party General Secretary Rajendra Kumari Bajpayee who has charge of the Northeastern states and has played pivotal roles in foisting Congress(I) governments in Assam; Manipur and Nagaland; was assisted by Member of Parliament Rajesh Pilot; who comes from Rajasthan and was posted in Assam mainly in order to obtain the financial support of the powerful Marwari traders who dominate commerce in the state.
And Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, at her election speeches in immigrant or Bengali constituencies, repeatedly stressed her government’s commitment to protect the interests of the “minorities”. Intelligence sources say her speeches could easily have been construed as inflammatory.
In fact, intelligence reports on Assam had consistently warned against the elections, and as the scale of violence escalated, Mrs Gandhi and her advisers were told that continuing with the elections would mean unprecedented violence and deaths. But all the warnings were ignored, and every time a massacre occurred, the administration pleaded that it had been unable to rush aid either because bridges were burnt or because the police had been too busy protecting polling stations.
In fact, on February 15 as the death-toll began to shoot up alarmingly, a senior intelligence officer in Delhi sent his subordinate in Gauhati a poignant message. “Your Cassandra voice had been drowned in a chorus of optimism and confidence in Delhi,” it said, “but now the Government has realised that you were only too correct. But it is too late, and there is no end to the foolishness of governments when they become intransigent.”
Callous Attitude: Ignoring the harsh fact of almost 2 lakh armed paramilitary troops stationed in Assam to ensure a fair poll, Mrs Gandhi told the Lok Sabha on February 22 that any “normal person” would have thought ten times before casting his vote under the circumstances. “The elections were not held at gunpoint,” she said.
“The guns were in the hands of those who opposed the elections.” Home Minister Sethi, in the midst of the shock and grief that swept through Parliament, congratulated the “people of Assam” for exercising their franchise “undaunted by the odds facing them”.
And C.M. Stephen summed up the utter callousness of the ruling party when he said that the life and property of millions of minorities and tribals would have been in danger “if elections had not been held”. The nation was reeling from the news of the Nellie massacre, but Stephen said: “Instead of the recent disturbances, there would have been a veritable carnage.”
Janata Party leader Madhu Dandavate made an impassioned speech in the Lok Sabha, saying that he would quit politics if Mrs Gandhi could prove that the Opposition had refused to cooperate in getting an amendment to Article 356 of the Constitution passed so as to extend President’s Rule in Assam. This was a point harped upon by the Government; but the truth lay elsewhere.
The non-communist Opposition in Parliament had refused to go along with an amendment in the winter session last November, on the grounds that the final round of talks with the Assam agitation leaders – scheduled then itself for January 4 this year – would first have to be gone through.
Fruitless Exercise: In mid-December itself, however, the Congress(I) in Assam set up a 15-member election committee headed by the state unit chief Harendra Nath Talukdar. It was clear, therefore, that the January 4 talks were never intended by the Government to be fruitful, and that elections had been decided upon.
On January 6, when elections were announced, Chief Election Commissioner Trivedi was informed that President’s Rule in the state would be lifted by February 28 – thus making sure that the entire exercise would have to be rushed through in seven weeks, although the constitutional deadline for President’s Rule ran out only on March 18.
Constitutional propriety had not weighed with the Congress(I) earlier in Assam. Six days before President’s Rule ran out on December 12, 1980, the party engineered 38 defections to its ranks, raised its strength to only 46 in the 108-member house (18 seats were unfilled in the last Assembly) and foisted the minority government of Anwara Taimur.
Days before the Assembly met in April 1981, the then Governor L.P. Singh signed an Appropriations Ordinance that circumvented the necessity of getting the state budget passed for 1981-82. But Taimur’s ministry faced certain collapse, and so President’s Rule was imposed again on June 30, 1981 – to be lifted on January 13, 1982 when yet another minority Congress(I) government led by Keshub Chandra Gogoi was sworn in.
Gogoi, too, never faced the Assembly and finally quit on March 18 last year – and Governor Prakash Mehrotra, instead of giving the 62-member opposition Left and Democratic Alliance (LDA) a chance to form a ministry, dissolved the Assembly. All through the turbulence of the last three years, therefore, the Government’s endeavour had been to keep a Congress(I) ministry in power at Dispur.
Bankrupt Parties: While the elections brought the Congress(I) the predictably farcical landslide victory, they also exposed the utter bankruptcy of the opposition LDA.
In April 1981, the LDA’s major constituents – the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Revolutionary Communist Party of India (RCPI) and the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) – had abstained from a no-confidence motion tabled against the Anwara Taimur ministry because, as CPI-M leaders confessed, they felt safer under a Congress(I) ministry than under President’s Rule.
This time, too, the communist parties had hoped that their support from the Bengali population in Assam would have expanded as a result of the anti-foreigner agitation, and so actively supported the elections.
The results exposed the LDA’s total miscalculation – it bagged only five seats, and alliance chief Sarat Chandra Sinha, a former chief minister and president of the state Congress(S), was himself defeated in the Bilasipara East constituency.
The Marxist had won 11 seats in the last Assembly, but managed only one this time. Asked to explain this crushing debacle, state party leader Nandeswar Talukdar said: “The large-scale violence helped the Congress(I) as the voters were generally unable to come out of their homes.”
But even in the Bengali district of Cachar, the CPI-M lost all the four seats it had bagged five years ago. It was evident that even in areas where there had not been too much tension, the Bengalis had decided to cast their lot with the Congress(I) in the hope that the ruling party would be better able to protect them.
Polarisation: Observers also pointed out that two of the three national parties that had boycotted the elections – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Lok Dal – did not have any representatives in the outgoing Assembly, and the Janata Party had suffered serious erosion in its support.
The BJP, however, has carved out substantial support among the Assamese Hindu anti-election agitationists, and party President Atal Behari Vajpayee frequently visited the state during the strife-torn electoral period to address enthusiastic anti-poll crowds.
Political loyalties have therefore polarised sharply in Assam, with the Congress(I) emerging clearly as the party of the immigrants, the BJP garnering support from the Assamese, and the PTCA girding for a struggle for the creation of a separate tribal territory.
Much worse is in store for Assam in the days ahead. Late last week, with the army fanning out into more and more violence-torn areas in the state, Assam was teetering on the brink of another precipice. The Congress(I) Ministry that was to administer this bloodied prize was itself going through the throes of factionalism as the deadline of February 28 neared.
Since the electoral victory had been largely due to the support the party got from the Muslims, former chief minister Anwara Taimur was, backed by Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, putting in a strong bid for the top post.
But Taimur was facing spirited opposition from Keshub Gogoi, her old rival, and also from Ahom politician Hiteswar Saikia. At fortnight’s end, it was Saikia, former education minister, who was chosen leader of the legislature party.
In a show of solidarity, Taimur and Gogoi both seconded Saikia’s name, and the new party leader made tracks for Shillong to meet Governor Prakash Mehrotra and stake a claim for government formation.
If the new ministry carried little credibility it was because the elections which have thrown up these personalities carry no moral weight. Even if their legality is finally upheld, an election so spattered with blood will convince nobody, certainly not the vast majority of the electorate which boycotted it. It is also clear that if a government formed from MLA’S thus elected to the Assembly attempts to play a role in the Assam negotiations the impasse will only be strengthened.
The agitation leaders have already demonstrated that they can cripple the state with their non-cooperation orders, and AASU Acting President Nurul Hussain, speaking in his hide-out in the Chenikuthi area in Gauhati on February 18, said: “We will never recognise this so-called government, elected by the Bangladeshis. It is not a people’s government, it is a police-CRPF government.”
The Government’s line has hardened gradually. Beyond token talk of healing touches Home Minister P.C. Sethi told Parliament’s consultative committee on February 10 that the foreigners issue could even be “unilaterally settled” by the Government. Less than two weeks later he was telling the Lok Sabha that future talks would include the minorities and the tribals who had so far been kept at bay by the agitation leaders.
Sharp Divisions: Sethi’s confused words are meaningless after the carnage. Last fortnight, as the magnitude of Assam’s tragedy dawned, sources close to the agitation leaders, who were released on February 22 by the Gauhati High Court, from their NSA detention, said that they had decided not to participate in any further negotiations with the Centre.
Their decision may be of the moment, but with the state so sharply divided into embittered segments, the problem has grown far beyond talks on foreigners, and the most pressing question is to calm tempers, and repair a torn social fabric.
The Centre is obviously toying with the idea of a partition of the state. Sethi told the Lok Sabha on February 22 that the continuance of Assam’s “composite character” was in serious doubt, and Mrs Gandhi confirmed the possibility when she said that the plains tribals had been meeting her “for the last two years”, pleading to be separated from Assam and given “a separate state or union territory” because they had been pushed out to the hills and remote areas.
Highly placed sources confirm that exercises are currently being carried out to determine how exactly Assam can be split up into more “manageable” units.
India Today has learnt that the division would involve a new tribal Union territory taking in the whole of Karbi Anglong and parts of Darrang, North Lakhimpur and North Cachar; a Bengali Union territory comprising Cachar and parts of North Cachar; a Raj-bangshi-dominated ‘Kamata Rajya’ enclave carved out of the western portion of Goalpara district and parts of Cooch Behar district in West Bengal; and Assam would consist almost entirely of the Brahmaputra valley.
Whether or not such a partition takes place, it is ironical that so badly mauled a state should be ruled by a puppet government that will have to be heavily guarded and protected from a hostile populace. The Congress(I) in Assam has increased its representation in the Assembly tenfold since the 1978 elections. But it has succeeded in giving democracy a new and grisly definition.