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At least eight gunned down in India's Assam


Demonstrators from the Rabha tribe burn a tire as they block a road during a protest in at Dorapara in Goalpara district in the northeastern Indian state of Assam on Feb. 12. (Reuters)

"Democracy is messy," former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once famously said.

But in the Indian state of Assam near the Bangladeshi border, where ethnic tensions have roiled for decades, it's more than messy: it's deadly.

According to reports at least eight and as many as 12 people were gunned down today in clashes between police and members of the Rabha tribe determined to block local elections.  The tribe feels the election of a local council will only undermine the authority of its tribal leaders.

While the current clashes are isolated, the constant fear in India whenever such clashes occur is that they will spread.

Indian media said "a mob of 400 men and women" armed with axes, iron rods and machetes attacked a polling station in one school, while others torched ballot papers, ballot boxes and voting stations.

But in one poll in the village of Rakkhaysin, voters had the upper hand - first thwarting protestors trying to petrol-bomb the poll, then handing them a solid beating.

The army has been called in to calm the region, but the show of force could trigger more violence. 

The border area has long been the site of heightened ethnic tensions between indigenous tribes and Bangladeshi-speaking Muslim people who were brought in by the British as early as the 19th century to improve agricultural production. Assam is known for its tea.

But the indigenous people say that increasing numbers of poor Bangladeshis - they call them "infiltrators" - routinely cross the border into India to compete for jobs, land and political power. In fact, the All India United Democratic Front, which aims to protect migrant rights, became the official opposition in the state legislature in 2011. It's led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal Qasmi who is listed as one of the world's most influential Muslims.

Unrest in Assam has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past two decades.

Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Toronto Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller







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