Assam: Explosive mix of tea, oil and identities

Assam is one of the northeast states of India, known for its excellent tea but also for its long-lasting ethnic rebellions. Hundred thousand people where chased away from their homes by community violence in the beginning of October. A few weeks later a well-coordinated bombing campaign caused over 60 deaths. Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak gives an impression of the violent paradise. Gie Goris searched the roots of the violence on the bends of the Brahmaputra.
860 tea plantations, 34 armed groups, at least 115 different ethnicities, 45 languages and half of the entire oil production of India on an area twice the size of Belgium. Welcome to Assam. But don’t take these welcoming words to literally, especially the hundreds of thousands illegal immigrants from Bangladesh shouldn’t. They were held accountable for the community violence in October which caused in a week’s time fifty deaths and more than a hundred thousand people ended up roofless. Later the same month the Bengalese were blamed as well when twelve bombs exploded quasi simultaneously on different locations.

‘It are the Bengalese that cause problems.’ according to Dileep Shandan of the ‘Assam Bani’- newspaper on a picturesque evening in Guwahati. ‘They occupy fertile land and take already scarce jobs away from the Assamese. Look around to see who drives taxis, who are the carpenters,…’ Shandan isn’t able to provide exact numbers on the amount of immigrants, no more than all the other people I talk to in springtime in the capital Guwahati. That doesn’t prevent anybody to recognize the rising tensions between native ethnic groups and the Bengalese.

‘The anti-immigration feeling is existing.’ confirms social activist Sritam Ananthanarayanan. ‘But Bengalese or other immigrants are as much a victim as the native people of the almost colonial treatment of the northeast states by Delhi. Immigrants mostly rely on informal labour and are therefore extremely vulnerable. But neither the few active labour unions nor the armed rebellions feel called to defend the immigrants. The United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa) points its guns as a matter of fact even at immigrants coming from Bihar, another Indian state.’

The violence in the beginning of October started in the Bodo-community; they felt threatened by the growing presence of Bengalese on ‘their’ territory. The first accusations after the bomb attack pointed in the same direction but soon the discourse changed and it was no longer Ulfa that was blamed but some vague entity of jihad-terrorists. The Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam, the Independent Liberation Army of Assam, the People United Liberation Front, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami: these are only the most prominent of the armed groups that recruit primarily from the Bengalese minority of Assam.

The ethnic mix in northeast India resulted in the course of Indian’s independence history in an ever further splitting into smaller states and autonomous regions. Each ethnic group seems to demand its own ‘homeland’. The willingness of the Indian government to negotiate these demands led to the disappearing of the previous flexible and quite trouble-free societies and the upcoming of increasing political demands sustained by armed militias.
‘The people are not opposed to India or the state-governments, they just object to a colonial administration that doesn’t listen to them or serves them’, states Minhal Jouhain of Action Aid Assam. ‘The longing for ethnic homelands should be interpreted as a quest for a developing model that really serves the needs of the local people.’
Kazu Ahmed of the Panos Institute in Guwahati subscribes that view and immediately adds he regrets the political fixation on language and ethnic background. ‘India is planning to build 160 dams in the northeast. Who will profit from that electricity? The northeast region holds thirty percent of the water reserves of India. But to whose advantage? Who profits from the oil- and tea production? If these questions don’t obtain a satisfying answer, the violence will keep on ruling in Assam. And the violence is sometimes directed at the higher powers but out of frustration against lower social groups as well.’
The violence in Assam seemed to diminish after years of daily bomb attacks. The sad month of October 2008 stopped abruptly this hope on normalization.

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