Assam: Preventive diplomacy needed to protect Bengali-speaking Muslims

By Rene Wadlow

Potentially, the people of Assam, northeast India, are sitting atop of a smoldering volcano that threatens to erupt into catastrophic suffering.  The violence would target ethnic and religious minorities, most particularly Bengali-speaking Muslims, somewhat on the pattern of the fate of the Rohingya of Myanmar (Burma).

The state of Assam has a population of some 30 million people according to the most recent Indian census (2011).  Some 60 percent are considered Hindus, 34 percent Muslims, 4 percent Christians and 5 percent “other” – Jain, Buddhist etc.  Most people also keep original animist beliefs, but there is no “animist” on the census choices.  Northeast India has always been a mixture of ethnic and religious groups. During the colonial period, the whole northeast was called Assam.  In 1965, Assam was divided into seven separate states, usually taking the name of the majority ethnic group: Nagaland, Tripurha, Mizoram, Manapur etc, but no  state is homogeneous. Part of northeast India kept its original colonial name of Assam.

For the most part, the Bengali-speaking Muslims are the descendants of an influx of migrants that arrived after the civil war that led in 1971 to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan with a decisive Indian Army involvement. However, there has always been people from both Bangladesh and Indian Bengal moving into northeast India in search of land to farm or other forms of work.

In keeping with the Hindu cultural bias of the current central government of Prime Minister  Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, Bengali-speaking Hindus have been given automatic citizenship rights under a 2016 law.  However, Bengali-speaking Muslims are considered as “non-Indian citizens” and are thus subject to potential deportation.  Some 10 years ago, Bengali-speaking Muslims started to be rounded up and put into camps, families  often being separated.

In July 2018, the National Register of Citizens in a decision concerning Assam, made a list of some four million people it considers non-citizens of India, which has caused a sentiment of insecurity, potentially panic, among those on the list.  Some have made plans to leave Assam or have already left.

However, densely-populated Bangladesh cannot cope with the over one-million Rohingya refugees who have fled or been pushed out of Burma.  The Bangladesh government wants no new arrivals, and certainly holds out no citizenship road either for the Rohingya or for arrivals from Assam.

It is not clear what are the aims of the state government of Assam or of the central Indian government.  All the states of northeast India have been political headaches since independence. The Central Government in New Delhi has tried to calm matters with government development funds but has never been able to deal creatively with a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. There are two possible reasons for the current oppressive policy.  The less harsh reason may be a government effort to eliminate voters from the voting roll, voters who might not vote for a narrow Hindu party.  The more harsh motivation is seeing that the “international community” has not acted in an strong way concerning the Rohingya, the Assam government is willing to push the Muslims out and give their land to non-Muslims.

Thus, before there is greater violence and a refugee flow from Assam, there needs to be preventive diplomacy from the United Nations and from conflict-resolution non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The term of preventive diplomacy – acting at the first sign of conflict before a pattern of violence sets in – has been made popular by the then U.N. Secretary-General Dr Boutros Boutros Ghali’s  report Agenda for Peace (United Nations, 1992).  An earlier Secretary-General U Thant has summed up preventive diplomacy as “one which is not heart of until it is successfully concluded or even never heard of at all.” Preventive diplomacy is normally non-coercive, low key and confidential in its approach.

Preventive diplomacy is an aspect of the multi-layered relations among security, conflict resolution, respect for human rights, the development of democratic institutions and the rule of law.  Preventive diplomacy works only if there is trust in the wisdom and impartiality of those taking the first steps.  This presupposes a strong, efficient, and independent international civil service whose integrity is beyond question and which has the financial base with which to act.

A main component of preventive diplomacy is the creation of an effective early warning system.  At the first signs of conflict such as persistent violations of human rights, refugee flows or the internal displacement of populations, a crisis team should be set up to monitor events.  There should follow increased analysis of the situation and fact finding. Such efforts should be coupled with increased international pressure for negotiations and help to set  up local level activities to reduce tensions.  At some point in the process of preventive diplomacy, the leaders of the countries in crisis need to be informed that the process cannot remain confidential.  Even the most repressive leaders watch to see how much they can get away with before triggering an outraged external response.

Preventive  diplomacy is not restricted to United Nations or national government officials. Non-governmental organizations, academic institutions and the media can all play a role. It is important to find balanced and harmonious ways in which many different actors can play a positive role to prevent dangerous increases in violence. Reconciliation must be the aim, compassion the spirit, non-violence the means.  These tasks of reconciliation require persons from all cultures and spiritual backgrounds.  Many of these “seed groups” of reconciliation already exist, but the seriousness of the multiple political crises require new energies and additional people to express compassion in action. We must all help build such trans-national networks for reconciliation. Assam is a current test case.

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Rene Wadlow

Rene Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation on and problem-solving in economic and social issues.

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