Eastern Assam in northeastern India has been engulfed in ethnic violence for the past five days, with the indigenous Bodo (pronounced BO-RO) pitted aginst Bengali-speaking Muslims. Fighting flared July 20th after four unidentified men killed four Bodo youths; in retaliation, Bodo gangs attacked local Muslims. Before long, tit-for-tat carnage resulted in some 32 deaths and the burning of approximately 60 villages. The death tolls will surely mount, as many shooting victim and casualties of knife and sickle attack are currently in critical condition. As many as 70,000 people have fled, but evacuation has been hampered by attacks on trains, severing rail links with the rest of India. A curfew was imposed, with shoot-to-kill orders against those violating it. Four alleged rioters were subsequently shot down on July 24. Reports say that one of the main towns of eastern Assam, Kokrajhar (population 31,000), “looks deserted.”
Tensions in the region go back many years. The Bodo, a Tibeto-Burman-speaking community of some 1.2 million, have long demanded their own state, seeking separation from Assam, dominated by the Assamese. Bodo insurgent groups have sought full political autonomy if not outright independence. The National Democratic Front of Bodoland, founded in 1986, aims to: “Liberate Bodoland from the Indian expansionism and occupation; Free the Bodo nation from the colonialist exploitation, oppression and domination; Establish a Democratic Socialist Society to promote Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; [and] uphold the integrity and sovereignty of Bodoland.” Since 2005, however, the group has maintained a cease-fire with the governments of both India and the state of Assam.
Although the Bodo struggle against the state has receded in recent years, interethnic strife has intensified. For decades, Muslim immigrants have been moving from densely populated Bangladesh into relatively sparsely settled tracts in northeastern India. In much of eastern Assam, Muslims now constitute almost half of the population. The Bodo are mostly Hindu, having converted in relatively recent times from their indigenous animism. A Christian minority of some 10 percent is reportedly expanding.