By Ashis Biswas
In an unexpected turn of events, the outlawed separatist United Liberation Front of Assam (pro Independence) faction, has threatened residing Bengalis in the three Barak valley districts with violence if they supported the call for an autonomous homeland. In a recent statement, the ULFA(I) declared that it will never allow any further division of Assam.
The long standing demand for an autonomous status for the Barak valley area in Assam recently gained fresh momentum following a speech delivered in Silchar town by — of all people! — Chief Minister Mr Himanta Biswa Sarma, last month. Surprising even hard core pro-autonomy agitationists in the Bengali-majority valley, Mr Sarma caused many eyebrows to rise, saying he would not oppose the call for a separate state if the local people wanted it.
In total contrast with the usual hardline opinion within the Assamiya ruling establishment against any further loss of territory for Assam, Mr Sarma’s candour was an unusually bold political gesture. Some analysts suggest this startling concession to Bengali sentiments was dictated by the complexity of challenges that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces during the run-up to the scheduled 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Sarma as the ruling party’s regional chief has already launched an aggressive campaign for the saffron party.
As part of his long term ambition to reach the apex level of the BJP’s leadership in Delhi, Mr Sarma is actively trying to broaden the popular base of the BJP all over the region. He has been personally meeting major tribal, Bengali and Muslim groups and leaders addressing their grievances and promising them significant concessions.
However, he also emphasized in his speech at Silchar, that personally he preferred to retain the present set- up of Assam, with people of Brahmaputra and Barak valleys living together peacefully. Assam was home to different cultures, languages and religions, he stressed, where people had been living like brothers and sisters for generations.
This speech was made in the wake of a recent political movement reviving the old autonomy demand for Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi districts, mainly by the Barak Democratic Front (BDF) organization. Veteran valley leader Mr Pradip Dutta Roy, who has been leading the agitation for an autonomous status for the area for years, is an influential figure within the BDF. In the process, he finds himself the target of wrath of the ruling Assamiya political establishment once more.
It is common knowledge that nothing angers a section of Assamiya leaders more than having to deal with major political demands raised occasionally by Bengali-speaking people, especially if these deal with proposals for economic development in these generally backward districts. Rural and urban unemployment are more acute here than in upper Assam districts, while the annual floods exact a devastating financial toll on the impoverished peasantry.
It needs stressing that whatever other political charges and allegations he may have to face from his numerous opponents, Chief minister Sarma has adopted an unorthodox approach towards ‘the Bengali problem’ as it is often called in certain circles of Assam. After many decades in post 1947 Assam, he is the first Chief Minister to declare publicly that he does not consider Hindu Bengalis as threat to Assam or the Assamiyas.
Intriguingly, his apparently softer line towards Bengali-speaking Hindus, who have always been suspect in the eyes of most Assamiyas because of their determined struggles to ensure a wider official acknowledgement of their mother tongue, leaves both major groups — Assamiya aswell as Bengali — confused and divided.
While the Assamiyas feel somewhat insecure about this sudden new concessions for the Bengali Hindu, Bengali-speaking Muslims, a sizable mostly rural community, are deeply worried and confused. As things stand, most Muslim leaders in Assam allege, the harassment of poorer members of their community has increased phenomenally during the tenure of Mr. Sarma as the state’s CM.
At times the state’s judiciary has had to intervene on behalf of the targeted minorities especially Muslims, against the state police and certain official departments, relating to controversial Government-backed highhandedness involving encounters against criminals, summary demolition of ‘illegal constructions and encroachments’, etc.
The ULFA statement however, did not refer at all to Mr Sarma’s partial endorsement of the demand of autonomy for the Barak valley. Instead, the protagonist of the Barak valley movement of Bengalis Mr Dutta Roy and his campaign for a separate state within Assam were strongly attacked.
Resident Bengalis were given a 60-days grace period during which they must indicate, as per the ULFA demand, whether they wanted to stay in Assam or not. Unless they did so, the ULFA, it was stressed would not be held accountable for any violence that followed –violence targeted against Bengalis, apparently.
The warning was taken in his stride by Mr Dutta Roy who refrained from overreacting. He was not worried by such ULFA threats, he said, having faced more serious troubles in the past. Also he found the ULFA’s anti Bengali rhetoric somewhat ironic — the self proclaimed ‘secessionist’ ULFA leaders had taken shelter in Bengali-speaking Bangladesh for years, to escape the long reach of the Indian Army and the law, he pointed out.
In Kolkata, the ULFA statement did not create many ripples either. Supporters of the Amra Bangali group said that clearly the ULFA message was nothing short of a hate mail that should never been printed in the Assam-based media. As example, they cited a brief letter written by a correspondent to a major Guwahati -based daily paper, calling upon the ULFA to attack Mr Dutta Roy’s residence immediately! ‘How can the BJP-ruled Assam government allow such unpleasant political tactics launched by a handful of non-resident fugitives, obviously seeking to inflame passions among major groups of people in India, to happen ?’ asked a Kolkata-based academician. (IPA Service)