Ethnic violence in Assam is rooted in Delhi's negligence

Neither the money being poured in an attempt to buy goodwill, nor military action, is helping India's troubled north-east.

The north-eastern Indian state of Assam, best known for its beautiful tea plantations and endangered rhinos, has erupted in ethnic violence. Yet to anyone who has been paying attention to the state, the past three weeks of bloodshed were no surprise.

Two separate murders of Muslims of Bengali-descent on July 6 and July 19 sparked retaliatory killings against the indigenous Bodo tribe on July 20. Bodos are the second largest community in Assam, after the Assamese. Both the Bodo and Muslim communities are now up in arms. Lynch mobs have been going from village to village burning down homes.

Hundreds of villages have been razed and around 170,000 have been made homeless. Dozens have been killed in the unrest. The Assamese state has responded by instituting a curfew and issuing a shoot-on-sight order to security forces should they find arsonists or armed gangs.

But it would be a mistake to see these killings as religiously motivated. Rather, the conflict is ethnic, driven by centuries of grievances and motivated by unequal economic opportunities and uneven development.

How did this happen?

North-east India is a powder keg of ethnic, inter-religious and sectarian tensions, and has been since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. The Assamese resent the Bengalis. During the British Raj, Bengalis helped institute policies that almost wiped out Assamese language and culture.

The Bodos resent the Assamese for similar reasons. Post-independence, successive Assamese governments instituted pro-Assamese regulations, such as the promotion of the Assamese language, and preferential Assamese-only hiring policies. Although many of these policies have been done away with, the legacy colours the current conflict.

Failed efforts to create space for Bodos in an Assamese-dominated state led to the creation of the militant separatist Bodo Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF) in 1996. This group signed a peace treaty in return for the creation of a semiautonomous Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District in 2003. BLTF fighters were folded into the federal paramilitary police force and its leaders joined state politics.

There is also intra-Bodo tensions as militant outfits dissatisfied with the peace treaty have sprung up. The head of the Bodoland Council made allegations that these groups were behind the recent attacks. The Bodos killed last Friday were reportedly former BLTF fighters.

Today, the major source of ethnic tension is between the Bodos and Assamese, and what are referred to in Assam as Bangladeshis, that is Muslim Bengalis. Many of these Bengalis are refugees from the partition of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in the 1970s who fled to India and never left. Some are illegal migrants. The Y-shaped state of Assam shares a porous border with Bangladesh at two points. It's likely that illegal migration from the much poorer Bangladeshi state is significant.

No one knows for sure how large the migration is, but Muslims are the fastest growing community in the state, according to census figures from 2011. This no doubt worries the Hindu-majority Bodo and Assamese people.

It is also instructive to note that the fastest growing communities were majority Muslim districts along the border with Bangladesh. Most importantly, the majority of these Muslim-majority districts are in the region governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council.

There are legitimate grievances on all sides of this conflict, which is what has helped sustain the hatred through the decades. The latest killings are only the most recent proof that those hatreds are still simmering. Yet, too little has been done to alleviate the tensions.

The north-east has always lagged behind the rest of India in terms of development, access to education and health care. This is partly due to geography. The North-east is connected to the rest of India by a thin corridor referred to as the "chicken's neck"; 98 per cent of the borders are with foreign states. The roads are poor, the landscape often mountainous, and the people often divided by culture and language from the rest of the country.

Many of the problems are due to an utter, and at times wilful, failure of the Indian government to encourage development in the region. The extremely poor quality of roads is in part due to fears that improving them would provide China with an easy invasion route.

Solutions to this Gordian knot are not simple, which is probably why successive Indian and Assamese governments have avoided dealing with the core issues of unequal development.

But these killings also make clear that the status quo is unsustainable. Shoot-to-kill orders and a heavy military presence will no doubt quiet the violence eventually, but not solve the underlying problems.

Delhi has been largely silent on this issue, despite the fact that the Punjab-born prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is a four-time member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, representing the state of Assam. Only a blanket statement from his office has been issued condemning the violence and promising reform.

Delhi throws money at the troubled north-east to buy goodwill. When that fails, it responds with military might. That, however, is not governance.

The north-east's interaction with their national government is either through cash handouts or the wrong side of a gun. Until that changes, the problems will not go away. More worrying for India, the north-east will continue to think of itself as distinct from the rest of the country, feeding separatist sentiments and inter-ethnic rivalries.

Sean McLain is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi and a former feature writer for The National

On Twitter: @McLainSean