Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to climate change because of its low lying geography, dense population and subsistence agriculture. The state of Assam in north-eastern India has also felt the effects of climate change when it experienced widespread flooding in 2012.
Extreme weather events in Bangladesh have caused the destruction of livelihoods, and have pushed more migrants into Assam. Environmental refugees fleeing Bangladesh are thus worsening the ethnic violence in Assam, as migrants are entering an area that is already vulnerable to social, economic and environmental instability.
The situation created anti-foreigner agitation that has polarised indigenous groups against the Bangladeshi migrants, as well as an insurgency against the central government for its inaction to control immigration. Violence in Assam has caused thousands of fatalities and continues unabated today.¬
The violence between immigrants and indigenous groups in Assam is a historical trend, which can be observed since 1970s and 1980s when large groups of Muslim-Bangladeshis migrated. The high concentration of migrants has led to competition for land between indigenous groups. Environmental refugees fleeing extreme weather events in Bangladesh are arguably an exacerbating factor of ethnic violence in Assam (Ziegler, 2013). Despite government attempts to address the grievances of ethnic groups in Assam, violence has caused thousands of fatalities and continues today unabated.
History of migrants in Assam
Since colonial rule, seasonal Bangladeshi migrants have found employment in the tea-gardens of Assam (Manuvie, 2010). Ethnic tensions already existed in the region amongst indigenous minority groups, such as the Bodos, Rabhas and Tiwas (Vivekanada & Smith, 2007). Most of these groups have traditionally resisted the centralised government and competed for autonomy; resenting the government for marginalising the rights of their minorities.
Government inaction leads to violent protest
The large and highly concentrated settlement of Muslim-Bangladeshi migrants in Assam, combined with government inaction to control illegal immigration, led to anti-foreigner agitation that polarised the indigenous groups against the Bangladeshi migrants. This culminated in the Nellie massacre of 1983, which killed over 3,000 people (Singh, 2010). Following this, the Bodos independence guerrillas waged an insurgency against the central government for years during the 1990s and 2000s as a result of government inaction to control immigration and to take measures to preserve Bodo culture (Singh, 2010).
Climate change as an exacerbating factor
Climate change has also arguably exacerbated these ethnic tensions. Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to climate change because of its low lying geography, dense population and subsistence agriculture. Natural disasters and the destruction of livelihoods in Bangladesh caused by salt water intrusion into agricultural fields have pushed more migrants north into Assam (Ziegler, 2013; Vivekanada & Smith, 2007). Unfortunately, Assam is also vulnerable to climate change. In 2012, eighteen of the twenty-seven districts of Assam were flooded; displacing 1.4 million people (Ziegler, 2013). Estimations of Bangladeshi migrants in Assam vary between four and ten million (Singh, 2010). There is, however, a lack of publicised data on these figures, which means it is impossible to know the extent to which the migrants have affected social dynamics in given areas (Singh, 2010). It can be assumed that uncontrolled migration into an area that is already vulnerable to social, economic and environmental instability will exacerbate existing fragility (Ziegler, 2013). Episodes of violence against Bangladeshi migrants continue today and are often diffused by the deployment of federal forces. The Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA) suggested that the region of Assam will remain vulnerable to ethnic clashes, as long as the government does not implement a coherent policy to deal with the tension (Das, 2012).
In addition to the deployment of government troops to diffuse violent skirmishes, there have been various central government attempts to negotiate with indigenous groups to dissolve ongoing tensions.
Establishment of tribal councils had mixed results
The central government has established nine tribal councils in Assam to concede to grievances concerning a loss of autonomy and cultural identity in the wake of immigration. For example, the Bodo Territorial Council was founded in 2003, which granted the Bodos limited autonomy over 3,000 villages. However, it is argued that conceding to these demands has only encouraged their posturing for additional autonomy, which has fuelled mounting anti-immigration sentiment (Singh, 2010). This can be seen in the case of the Bodoland Territorial Council, which has been involved in violent clashes with migrants over land and land rights and has since demanded a separate state for Bodos in Assam (Singh, 2010).
Conflict resolution attempts fail to adress illegal immigration
Investment in development has also been a solution approached by the central government but has been slow to evolve. In 2005, the independence group (the United Liberation Front of Assam) created an 11-member People’s Consultative Group to prepare for official peace talks with the government (Singh, 2010). However, peace talks fell through, and the civil society group was abandoned. There has been no comprehensive approach to resolve the conflict, which has addressed the issue of illegal immigration and included all interest groups affected by the outcome of negotiations. Without civil society engagement, a large constituency of community stakeholders, including Muslim communities and Bangladeshi migrants, are excluded from the conflict resolution process.