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India riots: Illegal immigration is behind deadly clashes in Assam

At least 45 people have been killed in ethnic clashes between tribesmen and Muslims that started over the weekend in Assam State in northeast India, according to police.

An Indian army soldier stands guard on a deserted road during a curfew at Kokrajhar town, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam on July 25. Security forces patrolled deserted streets on Wednesday after days of ethnic riots in Assam killed at least 45 people, forced tens of thousands to flee their razed homes and shut down road and rail transport.

Utpal Baruah/Reuters

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India’s northeast, a lush triangle ringed by China, Burma, and Bangladesh is dotted with picturesque tea estates and pineapple plantations. Wild elephants and one-horned rhinos roam ancient forested migration routes.

But this week, the state of Assam (see map here) witnessed brutal mob violence, which virtually cut it off from the rest of India. According to police, at least 45 people have been killed, homes burnt, butchered bodies recovered, railway lines blocked in protest, and at least 150,000 people have fled their homes in fear.

At its heart, Assam’s troubles are about corrupt politicians encouraging illegal immigration at the expense of locals.

“Since 1971, there’s been a steady influx of immigrants from Bangladesh,” says Rahul Pandita, associate editor of Open magazine who’s covered India’s northeast extensively. “And local politicians gave them Indian identity documents so they would vote for them. They’ve changed the entire demographics of the area and created a powder keg ready to explode.”

It would be akin to state politicians in Texas inviting economic migrants from Mexico in exchange for votes, says Mr. Pandita, pitting migrants against their own citizens for jobs, education, and welfare benefits.

It’s an open secret that the northeast is the main entry point for millions of illegal Bangladeshi migrants into India. From there, they travel into Indian towns and cities, providing a cheap, useful work force. But in places like Assam, they also change electoral politics.


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