Migration, Ethnicity-based Movements and State’s Response

Publication Date01 Jan 2018
AuthorKomol Singha
Migration, Ethnicity-based
Movements and State’s
Response: A Study
of Assam
Komol Singha1
Following reclamation of Assamese ethnic identity, the movements for making
Assam a nation province started in the 1960s. The caveat, however, was the ever-
growing Bengali migrants from Bangladesh. The Assamese movement, bolstered
by the exclusivity and dominance, caused resentment from the non-Assamese
communities and this ostracism was manifested in the form of counter move-
ments. After restoring normalcy for a few years, armed movement for secession
kicked-off in the early 1980s and intensified in the 1990s. Unfortunately, State’s
intervention failed to contain protracted conflicts, rather compounded the situation
and gave rise to hybrid ethnic identities in the 2000s. This further led to demands
for ethnicity-based autonomy movements.
Autonomy movement, Assam, ethnicity, elites, migration, state’s responses
Though the movement for Assamese nation province germinated in the early
1960s and its resultant state re-organization process completed in the 1970s, the
state of Assam continues to grapple with a series of conflicts, ranging from the
language movement to the issues of illegal migration, the armed movement for
secession to the internal autonomy demands. The origin of the unrest, however, is
the steep rise in number of Bengali migrants/immigrants, especially from the East
Bengal (present Bangladesh) and it was viewed by the Assamese as posing a
International Studies
55(1) 41–60
2018 Jawaharlal Nehru University
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/0020881718754958
1 Department of Economics, Sikkim University, Gangtok, Sikkim, India.
Corresponding author:
Komol Singha, Department of Economics, Sikkim University, Gangtok, Sikkim 737102, India.
E-mails: komolhijam2@yahoo.com; ksingha@cus.ac.in
42 International Studies 55(1)
grave threat to their economy and identity (Varshney, 1983). Mass movements
against the immigrants started in the 1980s with the rise of the All Assam Students’
Union (AASU) and the armed movement against the State1 for secession kicked-
off with the formation of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) (Das,
2012). The movements, both against the migrants and the State, paralysed normal
life in the state, led to the loss of hundreds of lifes in the 1980s, and further
increased in the 1990s. At the same time, the various tribal ethnic groups/com-
munities, especially the Bodo/Boro, within the state who were less developed
than both of the contending groups (Bengali and Assamese) felt alienated or
exploited culturally, economically and politically (Varshney, 1983). Consequently,
the Bodos, especially All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) started identity and
language movements.
Since the 2000s, goalpost of the movement slowly shifted towards internal
feuds, rendered more vicious by the ongoing rapid multiplication of ethnicities in
an already prodigiously heterogeneous society (Singha, 2017a). In the process,
following the direction of predatory elites (ethnic leaders who primarily aim for
personal gains), the peripheral communities (smaller ethnic groups) have often
been urged to re-align with the bigger ethnic groups (Singha, 2017b). Consequently,
several ethnic groups made effective use of ethnicity and regionalism for self-
rule, greater autonomy and militant actions (Basumatary, 2010; Das, 2009) and
compelled to play ethnic cards (Haokip, 2012; Tarimo, 2008). In this manner, in
the 2000s, the entire state has been engulfed with the ethnic movements for vary-
ing demands and its resultant conundrum hobbles the state’s socio-economic
development processes (Singha & Singh, 2016a, pp. 1–20). With the growing
pressure, many smaller communities have been granted varying forms of auton-
omy within the state, but conflict shows no sign of respite till date. Even the State
failed to contain the immediate problems of the ethnic conflicts and movements
for greater autonomy, rather intensified bitterness and deeply entrenched between
the communities (Prabhakara, 2005; Ravi, 2012).
Theoretical Background
According to Horowitz (1985, pp. 52–53), ethnicity is a state of collective belong-
ing (of a social group), which is based on common descent, culture, language,
religion, race, etc. While Varshney (2007, p. 277) defined that the nation or nation-
ality brings the ethnicity and statehood together. The meaning of ethnic identity
and its contents are always subject to contest by the different groups. Armed
conflicts and civil unrests seem to be flaring up day after day, affecting everyone’s
life, directly or indirectly. In the 1990s, most of the conflicts in the world, around
80–90 per cent, were found to be intra-national, occurring within the states, pri-
marily ethnically driven over self-determination, greater autonomy, economic
opportunity and political dominance (Savage, 2005; Vogt, 2014; Yilmaz, 2008).
As for the genesis, according to Horowitz (1985, p. 96), ethnic conflicts were
drawn from the modernization and competition, which in turn led to materialistic
world. Karl Marx believed that conflicts in a society or class struggles are seen as

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