The Assam-Mizoram border tensions may have mellowed for now, but the damage it does to the two northeast states trying to progress and move out of the conflict quicksand cannot be ignored.
Ever since the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took charge of Assam, the state has stumbled from one divisive row to another — from chaos around the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise and its hyphenation with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, to the Cattle Preservation Bill, population control policy, rise in communal rhetoric and now the border clash and ensuing bitterness with Mizoram.
Widening old ethnic fault lines with a heightened NRC pitch, provoking communal rifts and aggravating regional conflicts is not what Assam needs. The state has now twice voted the BJP to power, expecting stability and development – two words that may sound trite in politics but remain at the core of voter choices, especially in a state that has long faced the brunt of ethnic violence, and remains cut-off from what is regarded as ‘mainstream’ India.
In Assam, the BJP had promised fulfilling people’s aspirations to take it away from the periphery and enhance its access to ‘vikas‘. By reopening old wounds, creating fresh ones and throwing Assam into conflict, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma are doing great disservice to the people of the state and to the voters who reposed faith in them.
Also read: This is why Modi and Shah are silent on Assam-Mizoram border row
A chain of conflicts
Updating the NRC in Assam was a Supreme Court directive, a misplaced idea by any measure. But it is the way the exercise was conducted – first given a subtle and then overt communal colour – and then hyphenated with the CAA that did the real damage.
Ethnic fault lines in Assam are old and deep, but with time, a lot of the earlier pain and cracks had healed, with a new Assam slowly emerging. But the NRC brought back the Assamese versus ‘outsider’ debate to the fore yet again – only this time, there was a communal definition of the ‘outsider’ instead of an ethnic one with the BJP in power in the state and at the Centre. The CAA only made matters worse.
But the BJP seems bent on ensuring Assam remains in a whirlpool of chaos and conflict. How else do you explain CM Sarma’s dogged focus on issues like cattle protection and population control — garnished with a generous dose of majoritarianism — bang in the middle of a pandemic?
Assam will create a ‘population army’ to “create awareness about population control in Muslim-dominated areas,” Himanta Biswa Sarma said. He also said the gap between the population growth rates of Hindus and Muslims in the state was “dangerous“. Of course, why not resort to the communal dog whistle if it is politically and electorally convenient. The damage to the state’s social fabric be damned.
As if ethnic and communal tensions weren’t enough, Assam then found itself in the middle of a border row, coming across as the ‘bad guy’ in the clash, as my colleagues Ananya Bhardwaj and Praveen Jain reported from the border town of Vairengte.
The firing on the border killed six Assam police personnel, and there is little doubt Mizoram is equally to be blamed. But what escalated the situation was Sarma’s provocative, combative and hubris-ridden stance — calling the other side “goons”, sharing incendiary videos and, in the most unexpected and belligerent of moves, issuing a travel advisory against Mizoram.
After killing 5 Assam police personnel and injuring many , this is how Mizoram police and goons are celebrating.- sad and horrific pic.twitter.com/fBwvGIOQWr
— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) July 26, 2021
Border conflicts are not new to Assam. With states like Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland carved out of it, the lines have remained blurred and issues unsettled. But what the state needs is political dialogue and peaceful attempts at resolution, not inflammatory remarks by governments and Twitter-happy leaders that make pain-points worse and bring to the fore newer complications.
Also read: How ‘unseen’ Mizoram came together to tell its side of story in border clash with Assam
What Assam wants
The Assam of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s saw heightened tensions — from the anti-outsider movement to the rise of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and its reign of violence as well as massacres like the one in Nellie in 1983. Its conflicts, geography and complex social fabric meant Assam was deprived of everything that seemed ‘normal’.
But Assam was now changing. It wanted to rise above issues of conflict and identity and build a future for itself. It voted the BJP back to power in the assembly election earlier this year, harping on the party’s delivery on two fronts — infrastructure and welfare. ‘Raasta aru dolong‘ (roads and bridges) were the two big-ticket BJP contributions voters cited almost en-block when I travelled across the state ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, and more significantly, the 2021 assembly polls.
Assam was willing to put behind what generations had fought for — ethnic identity. Its people wanted what any voter wants — roads, welfare, vikas. Ethnic identity had been subsumed into a larger national identity, with the BJP weaving a communal tag into it, though not succeeding in turning Assam into a a brazenly Hindutva-proponent state. Assam was longing for stability, and Modi, with his ‘sushasan‘ (good governance) and ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas‘ (a government for all) slogans, promised that.
What Assam has instead got is a leadership that feels hopping from one divisive and provocative step to another is the only way forward – a leadership that believes causing instability, disturbing social harmony, raising majoritarian issues and playing big brother to other northeastern states are signs of ‘macho’ governance.
Considering its approach towards Assam, the BJP is giving a raw deal to the state’s voters, the extent of damage of which may not be completely visible now but will potentially derail the state’s chances of following the path of progress and peace.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)