Squint your eyes at a map of Assam in northeastern India, and it takes on the shape of a tuning fork, sliced lengthways down the middle by the massive Brahmaputra river.
But squint your eyes a bit more and Assam and its neighbor states - known as the Seven Sisters - look like the head and front legs of a hunting dog with its snout pointing in the direction of southeast Asia; a detail that could be interpreted as a symbol.
Assam, with its 26 million-plus population is the largest state in the nation’s remote Northeast, connected to the rest of the country only by a traffic packed 20 kilometre strip of land generally known as the Chicken’s Neck. 96% of Assam’s boundaries are shared by other countries, and with more than 220 ethnic groups and 90 languages, the state is the most ethnically diverse in the country.
Who is Assamese?
Even asking someone if they are Assamese is so loaded a question that it will often be met with an uncomfortable smile preceding the answer. Everyone in Assam has a different idea of what it means to be Assamese.
“In terms of genealogies and culture, we’re closer to our [foreign] neighbours than to a pan-Indian culture,” says Professor Rakhi Kalitha. “We have a wide cultural disconnect with mainland India.” Professor Kalitha is referring to the two things: the state’s visible underdevelopment, and the insurgencies.
Over the last 30 years, Assam has been riddled by violence. Insurgent groups and heavy handed responses by the state security forces have led to a spate of civilian killings, disappearances, and kidnappings of tea garden managers, and public works officials. Unsurprisingly, outside investors have kept away.
“It’s a vicious circle,” says Professor Kalitha. “Underdevelopment leads to insurgency which leads back to underdevelopment”.
Assam has something of a resource curse. It produces 25% of India’s petroleum and more than 50% of its tea, but its recent economic growth is just half of the Indian average of 6-8%. Petroleum tankers clog up the narrow roads day and night, trucking the fuel back to the hungry “mainland”. Tea workers are dismally paid with little chance of making it into the heralded middle class that is so much a part of the new vision of “Incredible India”.
With few educational and employment opportunities, young people have been steadily pouring out of the state for years, and the economic stagnation, the neglect of infrastructure – from roads to schools and medical care – have added to the ethnic tensions that have shattered the state into a fragmented mosaic.
The region was already divided between different hills and plains tribal groups, when the British brought in adhivasis from other parts of the country to work the tea gardens. And for decades, impoverished Bangladeshis have been flooding into the state, adding to the bitter struggle for jobs. So there’s an entrenched bitterness about who really belongs and has a right to resources.
Delhi duur hai
The separatist United Liberation Front of Asom or ULFA is one of the larger insurgent groups, who for decades, have waged a violent struggle for Assamese sovereignty. Branded as a terrorist organization they were banned in 1990. ULFA established bases in Bangladesh and Burma, allied themselves with insurgent groups in neighbouring Nagaland, and made violent forays into Assam throughout the 90’s. But lately, they’ve softened their separatist demands and are currently engaged in peace talks with Delhi.
However, according to human rights activist Lachit Bordoloi, not everyone supports the peace treaties.
“You know, we think, ‘Delhi bahooth duur hai’” he says with a wry smile. Delhi is far and Bordoloi is not the only Assamese to feel that his state is being shortchanged in the makeup of the national parties. “We just don’t have proper representatives speaking for us and making a case for development here” says Bordoloi, echoing the sentiments of Professor Kalitha. “That’s a major cause of the political problems and dissatisfaction here.”
Bordoloi has been arrested and harassed by national security forces who claim that he was a go between with ULFA terrorists. Human rights defenders and supporters say it’s because he tries to expose the corruption in police and security forces.
Currently, Delhi’s biggest Assamese insurgency headache is the Bodo, one of the largest ethnic groups of the northeast who launched a struggle for self determination in the 80’s. More than 70,000 people were displaced in the violence and many of them are still, years later, living in makeshift refugee camps. The government claims that peace talks are underway and with nothing more to fear, the camps can be dismantled and rations stopped. But according to Srikala MG, Executive Director of North East Network, NEN, the people themselves don’t feel they can return, and it’s the women who are the most vulnerable.
“There are different types of displacement” she says. “Some were displaced 20 years ago, some recently; some people come and go back when they feel it’s safe, so it’s not a quantifiable problem”. Srikala says that many of the women victims in the conflict are being trafficked because there are so few records of people’s whereabouts.
Assam is facing a set of problems as complex as its patchwork quilt demography. And according to Lachit Bordoloi, only by tackling the state’s ethnic problems, can Assam be pulled into line with the vision of a new India that its leaders are currently trying to promote internationally. “We’re in a global village and we have to unite the fractured ethnic groups” he says. “But the Indian political system has to give space to its ethnic and smaller communities. On the border areas of Nagaland you’re still finding half naked women, no schools or hospitals. What do you expect from these people? That they should keep quiet and just become good Indians?”