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Separatist Movements and Sectarian Tensions Turned Violent in India This Week

Muslim immigrants and migrant workers are being targeted by separatists forces in the northeast of India. The violence is escalating, but the problem has been around for decades.
Photo by STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

Tribal rebels killed at least 68 civilians on Tuesday in a series of attacks in the northeast Indian state of Assam. Mostly Adivasi (indigenous Indian minority groups) and Bengali Muslim immigrants working on local tea plantations, at least 80 more are injured with 20 in critical condition, many of them women and children. Casualties seem likely to rise as well.

"We are still trying to ascertain the number of casualties," local police officer Pallab Bhattacharya told reporters. "The places where the killings took place are remote and close to the Bhutan border."


The label of "tribal violence" may bring to mind a chaotic and isolated outbreak, but Tuesday's violence was a multi-pronged and coordinated effort—the latest in a 20-year campaign by a violent faction of the local Bodo people, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).

Although many Bodo groups actively participate in, and are satisfied by, their autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council government, the outlawed NDFB has long pushed for a fully independent Bodo state (to be carved out of the Baksa, Chirang, Kokrajhar, and Udalguri districts of northwestern Assam). They have protested against mass immigration and asymmetrically beneficial resource development in their homeland. While some members of the NDFB have expressed a willingness to negotiate a settlement with the Indian government, these attacks appear to be the work of the Sangbijit anti-negotiation, pro-violence splinter of the group (NDFB-S).

The attacks began around 5:00 PM, three hours after the Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, responded to NDFB-S threats of retaliation issued on Monday for the Sunday killing of two militants in the a forest reserve in Chirang, stating that he would continue counter-insurgency measures against the group. Within hours, heavily armed rebels in military garb simultaneously pulled citizens out of their homes for execution in the towns of Batasipur, Maitalubasti, Pakhriguri, Phulbari, Simangpara, and Ultapani in the Kokrajhar and Sonitpur districts. These villages are already remote, many in or near forest reserves or Assam's undeveloped borders, so police expect they may find more distant and massacred villages as rescue efforts continue.


"The militants first came and asked for water," one survivor told a local Reuters affiliate before fleeing into the jungle. "Suddenly they opened fire with their AK-47 rifles."

The villages were likely targeted because they contained large populations of Adivasi who, despite being fellow indigenous minorities in a national context, do not belong to local tribes . Many were moved from central India 100 to 150 years ago to work on Assamese tea plantations. The NDFB-S targets these Adivasi and Bengali Muslims, who immigrated for work in large numbers in the 1980s leading to communal clashes, because they believe the migrants are taking their jobs, diluting their culture, and eroding their political control over traditional Bodo lands.

Many think of India as secure compared to neighboring Pakistan. However the nation suffers hundreds to thousands of deaths per year at the hands of terrorist and militant groups.

Those aware of India's internal conflicts mostly know of religious violence between the nation's Hindu majority and sizeable Muslim minority, international jihadi attacks, uprisings in Kashmir, or guerrilla strikes by the long active communist Naxalite rebels operating in 13 of India's 28 states. Some may know about separatist movements amongst Punjabi Sikhs, too.

Yet some of the oldest and most numerous militant uprisings in India relate to its indigenous populations—especially those in Assam. India recognizes 645 Scheduled Tribes (protected indigenous minorities), comprised of about 84.3 million individuals, or eight percent of the national population. This includes the Sentinelese, one of the world's last and perhaps most isolated uncontacted tribes in the Andaman Islands. Assam alone contains over 200 distinct ethnic groups, making the Bodo one minority in an increasingly complex minority state.


Theoretically, the Indian Constitution and subsequent legislation provides protections for Adivasi groups like the Bodo, such as autonomous regional governments and quotas in education and federal offices. However just last month Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari conceded that violence, rights abuses, and misuse of existing legislation against minorities (indigenous peoples included) is a serious problem in the nation. They are, for instance, overrepresented in prison populations but arguably not overrepresented amongst perpetrators of crime.

"[The Indian] system has an ingrained communal and casteist bias," local human rights advocate and lawyer Colin Gonsalves told the Times of India. "Also, the proportion of these communities in the police officers and even judiciary is less [than proportional]."

Accordingly, of the 179 terrorist or militant groups identified in India , 116 are active in the seven less developed, largely indigenous or minority-populated northeastern states. Thirty-six such groups operate in Assam alone, and although many are religious or political movements, a sizeable portion are indigenous rights or independence movements like the NDFB/NDFB-S.

Formed in the 1980s, the NDFB grew violent around 1993, when they killed over 100 people in Muslim immigrant camps. Thereafter, the group was implicated in numerous clashes and hundreds of additional deaths. In 2003, India conceded autonomy to the Bodo, but the NDFB-S fought on.


This splinter's most notable attacks came in 2008 and 2012, with at least 100 killed in each strike and 450,000 displaced in 2012. Earlier this year, on May 1, the NDFB-S launched an assault that killed 32 people in Baksa and Kokrajhar. This latest attack came just two months after the federal government, needled into concessions by its willingness to carve the new state of Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh for local separatists, sent a panel to review demands for independence and present a proposed solution by the end of the year. Perhaps spurred by the NDFB-S's intransigence and mistrust, the Assamese government responded to these strikes by calling in thousands of Indian soldiers who proceeded to cull NDFB-S cadres through the summer.

The NDFB-S's insistence on violent confrontation, including this attack, may stem from more than bloodlust. The tribe may not trust Indian negotiators to deal fairly with them. This suspicion is supported by the recent experience of the Kol and Munda peoples of the state of Orissa who this fall reported that they were being bullied into singing contracts written in a language they do not speak to move them off of their lands in the Similipal Tiger Reserve, potentially pushing them into shantytowns to live on handouts as happened to the neighboring Khadia tribe. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's promises to develop the infrastructure and resources of rural Assam may have the NDFB-S primed to smell foul play, fueling ongoing conflicts.


It may also stem from fears that immigration will erode Bodo culture and control regardless of whether they have autonomy and independence or not. As of May 2014, Muslims made up one-third of Assam's population and controlled 30 out of 126 political constituencies, and Bodo feared that their districts would for the first time fail to elect Bodo representatives.

Even if the immigrants were cleared out of the Bodo's traditional lands, they would not be guaranteed independence or control, though. Another indigenous independence movement by the Koch Rajbongshis, calling for the creation of a free Kamtapur nation, overlaps with claims made for an independent Bodoland's territory. The NDFB-S may recognize this and be seeking a stronger position from which to bargain both with the state and other regional groups.

Yet rather than asserting unchallenged supremacy over the region, Tuesday's violence has spurred a violent backlash against Bodo villages and the government by local Adivasi victims. Armed with spears, bows, and arrows these rioters set fire to shops and blocked miles of road and rail lines in Sonitpur, some calling for the resignation of Assamese Chief Minister Gogoi. Police fired upon protestors advancing on their station in Dhekiajuli, Sonitpur, killing up to five Adivasi. This violence against non-NDFB-S Bodo and confrontation with the state runs the risk of escalating violence between all actors on the ground in northwestern Assam.

The local government has responded to all of this by closing the border with Bhutan and deploying thousands of new troops, redoubling efforts to control violence and axe the NDFB-S.

"Neither the Government of Assam nor the Government of India will surrender to these militant groups," Assamese Chief Minister Gogoi told Rediff. "That's why we are asking for more paramilitary forces from the government of India."