More than 170,000 people have fled their homes during clashes between Muslim immigrants and the indigenous Bodo ethnic group in the Indian northeastern Assam state.
Rioting between predominantly Hindu Bodo tribal groups and Muslim settlers in the west of Assam began on July 19 in the Kokrajhar district, 220 kilometers (137 miles) west of the state capital, Guwahati.
Clashes spread to the neighboring Chirang and Dhubri districts over the last weekend, with thousands left homeless as villages were set on fire. Some 500 villages are said to have been destroyed.
The state government has deployed more than 4000 paramilitary forces in the conflict-ridden areas.
Similar communal riots erupted in Assam four years ago, leaving 55 people dead and over 200,000 people homeless.
The Press Trust of India news agency said the fighting started when two Muslim student leaders were shot and seriously injured in Kokrajhar. Muslims retaliated with attacks on Bodo groups.
The clashes are the latest in a long-simmering conflict, mostly to do with land rights, between indigenous Assam people and Muslim immigrants, many of them from neighboring Bangladesh.
India's northeast is home to more than 200 ethnic and tribal groups and tensions in the region are rife. Both Hindu and Christian tribes have expressed strong anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment directed at Bangladeshi settlers.
Observers say control over land is one of the main reasons behind the clashes.
“Ethnic violence has become part of people's lives in Assam," Dr Walter Fernandes, former Director of the North Eastern Social Research Centre, told DW, adding that the fundamentalist forces had been fanning communal hatred in the state. "There is a religious factor behind these riots, but the most important factor is the control over land, which remains central to the identity of different groups.”
Another factor, say experts, is the diversity among ethnic people living in these areas, making it impossible for the Bodos to create an autonomous district.
“Over the years, a large number of Muslim immigrants have settled in this area. There is a growing fear among the indigenous people that they will be outnumbered by illegal Bangladeshi migrants,” Pathik Guha, a researcher, told DW.
While tension in Assam has been simmering for a long time, observers say the latest riots have also exposed the incompetence of the Indian government in dealing with protracted political conflicts.
“This is largely a political failure," researcher Sanjoy Hazarika told DW. "The government has failed to devise a long-term strategy to deal with this conflict. Issues related to land and political and economic rights in Assam need to be addressed immediately. So far they have been ignored."
Author: Murali Krishnan (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Shamil Shams