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CM, politicians and police have failed the people of Assam

With 61 dead, 11 missing, and an estimated 4,00,000 displaced in Western Assam, the Bodo-Muslim violence appears, finally, to have petered out - at least for the time being. Since this is the sixth round of ethnic violence in the Bodo areas after the 'accord' of 1993 with Bodo militants (four between Bodos and Muslim 'settlers', two between Bodos and Santhal tribals), it is unlikely that the peace will hold permanently, unless extraordinary - and uncharacteristic - political and administrative acuity is displayed.

The current cycle of violence in Assam forcefully drives home the point that the sickness that afflicts India's north-east cannot be treated piecemeal. The decline - overwhelmingly as a function of sheer exhaustion rather than any recognisable sagacity of state policy or strategy - of the most significant ethnic fundamentalist insurgencies of the region has bred a degree of complacency, both in New Delhi and in the region's state capitals, that reconciles poorly with the fractious ethnic kaleidoscope that has yielded continuous strife for decades.

Some of these tensions have been periodically displaced or 'resolved' only to reappear in new forms sooner or later. Governance remains almost uniformly abysmal across the region - with the sole exception of Tripura, where the administrative performance could compare well with the better-run states in India, though its impact is severely undermined by cumulative resource deficits and the crippling geography of the state.

The Bodo-Muslim conflagration in Assam - notwithstanding its details and eventual determination (or suppression) of the factual sequence that led up to it - has other crucial lessons, of which two need particular emphasis.

The first of these is the orientation to response. State authorities have stridently sought to shift the blame for the failure of, or calamitous delay in, response to the centre. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, proposing an extraordinary prototype of response, complained, "There was no intelligence provided by the home ministry. If they had such reports, why didn't they send the army before itself (sic)?".

It is certainly not the case, within India's constitutional scheme, that the "home ministry" sends out the army "itself" every time it has "intelligence" relating to potential local disturbances in the states. Gogoi argued, further, that security in Assam had been compromised by the centre's decision to reduce the deployment of central paramilitary forces there from about 130 companies to an inadequate 96. "If a reserve force was present in the state," Gogoi claimed, "the situation could have been contained much faster." And finally, even after the state administration requisitioned the army's intervention, the decision to deploy military force was delayed by three days.

Such deflection of responsibility - the 'blame game' as it is ordinarily referred to - is almost habitual in the wake of any significant crisis or failure in India, and convoluted patterns of disinformation are to be expected from politicians; in Assam, however, the Director General of Police, Jayanta Narayan Choudhury, who took over recently after an extended stint with the Intelligence Bureau, has competed with his political masters in rhetorical misdirection, enunciating a permanent alibi for failure: "This has always been an explosive area. You have a mix of population. You have people who are unhappy with the system that there is. So not just today and not just tomorrow, but for years to come, you are going to have trouble in this area."

Choudhury noted, further, "The terrain is dispersed, the villages are dispersed and you have a mix of population. So to cover the whole area, you need not just one picket, two pickets, you need many all over the place."

It is useful to recall, here, that Choudhury is the author of the profound thesis that "Police are not like an ATM machine which can be present at the crime scene the moment one inserts a card in the machine." This position was articulated when a young girl was publicly molested by a mob for over half an hour, in a busy Guwahati street, before the police arrived to intervene.

These various statements by both the Chief Minister and the police chief suggest, first, that the centre is responsible for the provision of both intelligence and force for the maintenance of law and order in the states, and without a surfeit of these inputs from Delhi, no liability is vested in the state agencies for any breakdown or failure. If this is the case, it is high time the Constitution was amended to bring law and order under the Concurrent List - an arrangement, I am sure, most Chief Ministers will fight tooth and nail, and one that I am personally opposed to as well.

It is curious, moreover, that the Chief Minister has expended all his worries on the absence of some 30-40 companies of central paramilitary forces - yielding barely 1,800 to 2,400 troopers on the ground - and had not a word to say about the deployment of the 54,000 plus state policemen (of which more than 25,000 are armed) directly under his command. It is absurd, moreover, to believe that the Intelligence Bureau, with under 15,000 field personnel engaged in intelligence gathering across a country of 1.23 billion, and covering every subject imaginable, will be able to provide fail-safe intelligence on every local disturbance, when the state police and intelligence apparatus, which should have a far more widespread presence across its jurisdiction, fails to detect any potential disruption.

Crucially, no lack of intelligence inputs is evident in the present case - even Congress party sources had warned, explicitly, and well in advance, of the "possibility of the outbreak of rioting... in the Kokrajhar district following the incident committed by some unknown miscreants firing four wounded and killing one Muslim person... on 6/7/12". A series of incidents since the 25 May 2012 killing of a 'fake' National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) militant (later identified as a Muslim trying to extort money from local Muslims) as well as emerging tensions over attempts to grab forest land for a purported 'Idgah' at Bedlangmari in Kokrajhar District, gave ample warning of a developing communal confrontation. There is little evidence of any proactive effort of response on the part of the state administration or the police. The state police leadership appears to suggest that the state police are required to deliver 'security', essentially, at their own convenience. As a matter of fact, the police are required to function as an ATM machine, providing, if not instantaneous, certainly quick, responses to any threat to or breach of security, whether of an individual or of a wider community.

Assam has a police to population ratio of 173 per 1,00,000, well above the Indian average of 137, though still below what would be required for comprehensive policing. If there is, moreover, an overall insufficiency of police forces in the state, after decades of insurgency and instability, this, again, can only be testimony to the incompetence and failure of the state's leadership. It is a matter of record that, when I left Assam in 1984, in times that were far more troubled, just 35 companies of central paramilitary forces companies were available to the state. It is the management - and not just the total availability - of the force that is important.

Law and order management in troubled areas, or in areas of significant potential instability, moreover, cannot operate within a paradigm of general deployment and responses. Hard targets have to be set and maintained. In Punjab, at the very peak of insurgency, and even across the marshlands of the Mand, responses had been planned to meet a target of three minutes in the city and 15 minutes in the countryside. Police response capabilities must be located wherever their need may potentially arise - and this is a matter of continuous assessment.

Crucially, widespread violence will always have indicators and precursors, allowing for the proactive location of necessary force. The failure and neglect on the part of the Assam administration and police, in the present case, are manifest.

The second and crucial issue is the obvious effort to brush the problem of illegal migrants under the carpet, and pretend that the entire Muslim population in the Bodo areas (and across Assam) comprises 'settlers', who have been there, according to partisan descriptions, "for decades" or, in some imaginings, "for centuries". Vote bank politics has created incentives to blur the lines between illegal migrants and the Assamese Muslims, and this can only have continuously catastrophic consequences.

In India's north-east, the entire discourse around the protection of 'tribal' and 'minority' interests has been transformed into an instrument of exploitative identity politics, and at no time has any tribal population been secured against the onslaught of illegal migration. The Bodos, in particular, have been victims of wave upon wave of migration and marginalisation, and every government since independence has been guilty of complicity or neglect in this regard. The problem of progressive land alienation in Assam has never been addressed, principally because of cynical political calculations. The bare reality is, no solution to the chronic problems of this state is even possible unless the illegal migrant population is clearly identified and disenfranchised.

A significant and widespread communal conflagration like the present one in Assam can only polarise politics even further, and will find ominous resonances, particularly as India approaches an election year. The relative peace in the state - restored after decades of struggle and sacrifice by the security forces - remains tentative and fragile. It would be tragic if devious electoral calculations and political manipulations were to undermine the tenuous gains of the past years.


(Published in Firstpost, August 2, 2012)





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