Geopolitics

An Ethnic Powderkeg In India Pits Indigenous vs. Muslim Migrants

Life in Assam
Life in Assam
Frédéric Bobin

CHIRANG - "Around 50 of them came and opened fire on our village." Rebayal Ali still seems stunned, his eyes glazed over. His vest clings to his skinny torso because of the humidity, as the Muslim farmer tells Le Monde of his night of terror. It was July 23 in his village in Assam, a state in northeast India, a highly strategic enclave surrounded by Bangladesh, China and Myanmar.

On that morning, as he checked on his buffalo grazing in the long grass, a neighbor of Bodo ethnicity warned him, "Your village is going to be attacked, you should leave." And he was right.

As the Ramadan fast came to an end, a group of armed Bodos suddenly appeared. Screams. Gunfire. Rebayal Ali fled, running until he ran out of breath in the paddy fields on the northern banks of the Brahmaputra. Behind him, his village of Dongshia Para was already in flames.

At the end of July, the four districts that make up Bodoland, a sub-region of Assam, were ablaze amidst an orgy of violence. There were almost one hundred deaths, almost all Muslims, and 400,000 displaced persons. The conflict has once again demonstrated, in a tragic way, that the state of Assam is India’s Achilles' heel.

Ethnic tensions are recurrent here and can quickly turn into pogroms. The last eruption of violence saw migrants from Bangladesh pitted against the indigenous Bodo people, a tribe of around 2 million habitants (6% of the population of Assam). The Bodos, traditionally animists, were converted to Hinduism over time, with a small minority converted to Christianity; the migrants from Bangladesh are Muslim. It is natives against "foreigners;" non-Muslims against Muslims. It has been a head-on clash, caused primarily by a fight over land.

The village is still ashen with the fire of this hatred. In Bhalatol, a Muslim village in the district of Chirang, the corrugated iron sheets propping up the huts are charred. Wooden signposts have been reduced to cinders. The ground is a carpet of ashes, mixed with mud. A little farther, an Indian soldier rests his shotgun between the two sandbags that form his bunker. He watches over the Bodo village. Six weeks after the conflict broke out, the army was deployed en masse to restore the peace. In the school playground, Bodo families have set up camp. They are waiting for the situation to become more stable before returning to their homes.

Bangladeshi immigrants

Nathai Basumatary, a teacher, is sitting down on a wooden bench on the veranda. Her eyes are slightly almond-shaped. The indigenous groups of northeast India share a Tibetan-Burmese origin. She tells a story that barely differs from those told on the "other side." The only difference is that the roles are reversed. "The Muslims from the neighboring village attacked us and burned 95 houses," she says.

By her side, Dhiren Goyari, a landowner with a thin moustache, adds, "We haven't had any difficulties with the Muslims who have lived here for years. The new arrivals are the problem. These illegal immigrants, we don't want them on our land any longer."

The Bodoland crisis is emblematic because it again highlights the problem of migration from Bangladesh. The arrival of these migrants has cemented the feeling of alienation among local indigenous people, who have wasted no time in expressing their anger toward the central government in New Delhi.

Gathered on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, in western Assam, the Bodos’ struggle for self-determination dates back as early as the 1930s. In the 1990s, they took up arms to reclaim independence, or at least be granted federalized state status, which would have cut off half of the Assam state. They did not gain independence, nor did they get their own state. In 2003, however, they created the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), with semi-autonomy over Bodoland, which was restricted to just four districts.

Minority rule

The wave of violence at the end of July has its origins in the creation of this council. Although the Bodos are the main ethnic group of this micro-territory, they are not in fact the majority. They are only around 30% of the local population. The non-Bodos, who are mostly Muslims, are not happy about this. "It’s not very democratic," points out Monirul Hussein, a professor of political science at Guwahati University, in the capital of Assam. "Is it normal that 70% of Bodoland's population are ruled by a minority that represents only 30% of the population?"

"The Bodos have started a campaign of ethnic cleansing to try and regain the majority in Bodoland," adds Aminul Islam, a politician from the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the political party that represents the Muslims of Assam, whether they are people who have lived in Assam for numerous years or recent immigrants.

The deadlock with the opposite camp is total, and fraught with the prospect of future struggles. The Bodos are attempting the reclaim the rights, mostly land rights, conferred by their indigenous status. They believe these rights are being threatened by a new wave of immigration that has shifted the ethno-demographic equilibrium in Assam. "The indigenous population fears that it will lose everything because of this immigration. Our survival is at stake," explains Pramod Boro, Secretary-General for All Bodo Students Union, the main Bodo student union.

"We are the traditional owners of this land and no percentage can take this fact away from us," adds Angeli Daimary, President of Bodo Women Justice Forum.

Each side has completely shut down negotiation, insisting on the implementation of their own rights. The situation is much more volatile now that the Bodos fears for their existence is shared by the rest of the Assam population, except for the Muslims. "Assam is the victim of a silent invasion," says Hiranya Kumar Bhattacharya, a retired Hindu police officer from Assam who has become an essayist. "We are facing new troubles. The next time will be a lot bloodier."

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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