Of all of India’s far-flung geographical outposts, the northeast has long been the most vulnerable and inflammable. Thursday’s blasts in Assam—harsher in intensity, synchronised in their spread and with higher casualties—were the result of decades of pent-up, simmering resentments waiting to boil over. The region may have the smallest electorate (less than 4 per cent of the country’s population) but it also shares the shortest border with the rest of the country (only 21 km). Nepal, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh flank the boundaries of the Seven Sisters, some of it thick, impenetrable rain forest or precipitous passes or the broad, unruly swathe of the Brahmaputra.
The biggest continuing grievance in Assam has been the steady percolation of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the unchecked swell becoming so great that the state’s demography has changed dramatically. By current estimates 35 to 40 per cent of Assam’s population is Muslim, mainly recent settlers. Other estimates claim that seven of Assam’s 23 districts are now dominated by Bangladeshis, thereby changing the entire demography of lower Assam. Ten years ago the governor Lt Gen S K Sinha reported that the “continued silent demographic invasion (of the Northeast) posed a great threat both to the identity of the Assamese people and our national security.”
Yet most political parties, regional or national, including the BJP which rode the anti-foreigner plank at election time, have turned a blind eye to the Illegal Migrants Determination Act—part of the 25-year-old Assam Accord—and some want it scrapped. Bangladeshi settlers have become important vote-banks and some of them hotbeds of jihadi activity. Protests broke out not long ago when a Guwahati High Court judgement ordered the deportation of 50 illegal immigrants. As evidence it cited the state administration’s—the police as well the regional passport office—complicity in helping the migrants register as voters and even acquire passports after furnishing false documents. Justice B K Sharma noted that the lapses in the system were used by a Pakistani national, who had sneaked into Assam via Dhaka, to contest elections. “The day is not far off when the indigenous people of Assam, both Hindus and Muslims and other religious groups, will be reduced to minorities in their own land,” said the judge.
Indigenous Assamese Muslims are among the most well-integrated section of the minority community anywhere in India. Inter-faith marriages are common in a tradition of harmonious relations. Yet as sections of the immigrant population turns radical, fuelled by outlawed secessionist and militant groups, the communal divide has intensified.
Decades of tribal conflict and insurgency have lead to rampant unemployment and lack of infrastructure elsewhere in the Northeast that no number of special economic packages and battalions of soldiers sent by New Delhi have helped assuage. In a recent essay, “The Lost Generation of Manipur,” the writer Siddhatha Deb portrays the bleak, broken-down and threatening towns of Manipur and Nagaland graphically: “The periodic infusions of cash from Delhi seemed to remain in the pockets of local politicians and bureaucrats…harsh authoritarianism…gave security forces the right to arrest and kill without having to answer to the local administration…as if this mix of violence, poverty, and corruption isn’t enough Manipur has, since the 1980s, been flooded by heroin and amphetamines.”
The free flow of drugs from Burma has led to one of the largest populations of drug addicts who, through shared syringes, constitute a major pool of Indians afflicted by HIV AIDS. His descriptions of unemployed young men and women, trapped between shooting up or taking up the militants’ guns, driven to drug use and prostitution is a sobering portrait of India marooned.
These miseries, says Deb, seem to take place offstage, in an invisible corner of India that seems to have received nothing from modernity. Drugs, guns and unchecked immigrants from porous borders—can the fires of militancy and terrorist strikes in the northeast be doused easily?