Assam is going through one of those phases of history so bereft of light where one is capable of believing the worst about fellow humans—or to wonder what it is to be human. A visit to some of the 300-odd camps, which have sprung up during the last fortnight, gave us a taste of the language of hate and horror that has clouded the Bodo Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) and its adjoining districts in lower Assam. Listen to Jayashree Mushahamyan, a twentysomething Bodo woman at the Commerce College relief camp in Kokrajhar: “Muslims are so cruel and greedy. I heard one of them slit the throat of his pregnant wife so that he could claim compensation from the government for those who died in the violence last week.” It’s pointless to ask if this is real, or merely an apocryphal tale spun to make sense of a local universe gone toxic. We are driving through Chirang, Dhubri and Kokrajhar a week after one of the worst Bodo-Muslim clashes have ripped people apart. It’s like travelling through a war zone. Charred houses surround us, and every few kilometres we come across public buildings converted into refugee camps. They are crammed with people, spilling out on to the road.
It has been a week since the clashes, and fatigue has set in. The inmates are no longer filled with talk about the terror unleashed on them between July 20 and 26, when mobs attacked them, set their houses on fire, and forced them to flee. The refrain across camps now is: “How long do we have to live like this?” It is now more about “getting the hell out of here and going back home,” explains one of the men.
Charred Khudeja before her burnt down hut in Paschim Dologaon. (Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee)
No wonder, for the stench of unwashed bodies hits you even before 12-year-old Majeda Begum can begin complaining. “None of us has had a shower for over a week.” Forget water for bathing, most of these public buildings do not even have enough water for drinking. “We don’t have clothes to change into. We left everything back in our village when we fled,” cuts in Majeda’s friend Nazrina Begum. Her comment evokes a rare display of black humour from fellow inmate Masuma Begum: “It’s good in a sense that we don’t have clothes; if we did, we would have to change in front of the men.”
The scale of the crisis is accentuated by the estimated 1,80,000 people who have already been living in camps in Assam, displaced by the recurring bouts of terror since 1993 and fearful that any attempted return to what was once their home would unleash renewed wrath of “the other”. It’s equally unlikely that those who have just arrived at the camps will return home any time soon, notwithstanding the August 15 deadline set by the state government.
The ethnic-communal divide is evident in how the relief camps are situated. There are an estimated 178 of them in the Muslim-populated Dhubri district, where most of the Muslims from the neighbouring Bodo-dominated Kokrajhar have fled. The 108 camps in Kokrajhar, on the other hand, is where the Bodos have come for refuge.
One such camp in Kokrajhar—at the Commerce College—houses over 1,500 people. Others host 3,000 refugees or more. While Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi has promised rehabilitation in a month (see interview), All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) president Pramod Bodo says, “It is not enough to promise rehabilitation. We must rebuild confidence in the minds of the people. Police protection has to be provided in sensitive areas so that people can go back and resume normal lives.”
This is not the first time the two groups have clashed (see timeline). A lot of the animosity between Bodos, the original inhabitants, and Muslims, is traced to the former’s real and perceived loss of land. Primarily agriculturists, Bodos leased out portions of their land to Muslim farm labour, but there have been reports of late of illegal, forceful occupation of land. It doesn’t help either that there are no land ownership records.
“The Bodos are already squeezed between Bhutan and Bangladesh and the state has done little to guarantee their rights,” says Namrata Goswami, an expert on conflict resolution at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. While the Bodos once rallied against the Assamese, much of their anger is now directed at Bengali Muslim settlers.
The settlers, on the other hand, have repeatedly felt their rights given a short shrift under a Bodo administration. Tensions flare at protests by either side, whether it’s the Bodos pressing for a full-fledged state or the non-Bodos wanting villages where they are in a majority to be excluded from the administrative control of the Bodos. Over the last few years, the Muslims have organised themselves into several groups to aggressively press for their rights—something that has angered the Bodos. Even the latest round of violence, according to varying accounts, can be traced to localised altercations over land or those that took place during bandhs in May this year.
“But,” as Suhas Chakma, the director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights in New Delhi, says, “these incidents of violence have been occurring with such consistency now that one would have expected the state to identify riot-prone areas by now.” And though ABSU president Pramod Bodo maintains that “the Muslim retaliation was greater as you will not find a single Bodo person left in Dhubri District,” it’s equally difficult, if not impossible, to find a Muslim in Kokrajhar.
While public buildings and spaces—schools, colleges, parks and fields—are bursting at the seams with people who’ve fled their homes, the villages in these districts are completely deserted. Household goods, school textbooks, cassette recorders are strewn around, along with rotting carcasses of animals shot dead—haunting reminders of villages once humming with life.
Lined in misery A Bodo relief camp in Nowapara, Chirang district. (Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee)
The Muslims, angry at being routinely described as illegal migrants, are also apprehensive. “With our houses gutted and documents burnt, they will now claim that we are all foreigners and harass us to prove our citizenship,” they tell anyone who cares to listen. They also point to refugee camps which have existed for decades and wonder if they’ll ever be able to rebuild their lives.
With every year, hopes of returning to their homes have receded. “Even I hoped that one day I would go back home to my village in Kokrajhar,” says 60-year-old Munira Begum. “But now I am resigned to my fate. I went through the humiliation of having my daughter married off from this relief camp. I had my own house with a garden and our own land but the Bodos want everything. So they grabbed it.”
The Bodos, on the other hand, blame the recent spate of violence on infiltration from across the border. “We lived side by side with Muslims harmoniously,” says Mushahamyan at the Commerce College camp. “Some of them were my friends. But when their relatives come from across the border with guns and bombs, they wouldn’t stand up to them. In fact, sometimes, they warned us in advance and tell us to leave. The people from across the border are dangerous. They’re smugglers and want to grab our land.”
Lack of any reliable data on migration from Bangladesh has only helped stoke fears of an “invasion”. “What needs to be done is to have a dataset on migration so we have an idea of how many people are coming in. But the state has made no effort to produce any data,” says IDSA’s Goswami. She argues migration cannot be stopped entirely, but can at least be regulated via a system of work permits. “After all, people are coming not to create trouble but to work for a living.”
All these years of churning had an effect at other levels. The state’s DGP, J.N. Choudhury, confesses that he no longer recognises his state. Having stayed away on postings outside the state, Choudhury returned as DGP barely six months ago and is shocked at the changes. Attitudes have hardened and people are more concerned about their own identity. Even before the present crisis, he concedes, the surface calm was deceptive and the state was sitting on a tinderbox.
A moderate Bodo leader, U.G. Brahma, who is at the forefront of a separate Bodoland movement, suspects a political conspiracy to derail the “democratic movement for a separate state”. He told Outlook that while there are terrorist groups in the state opposed to the government, there are also terrorist groups that are patronised by the government. There cannot be peace without disarming these groups among both Muslims and Bodos, he says.
Resigned to their fate The Commerce College camp in Kokrajhar. (Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee)
While illegal migration has been blamed for the crisis, both by the Bodos and the BJP, the Border Security Force denies such allegations. To prove its point, the BSF’s eastern command took Outlook to the riverine borders between India and Bangladesh divided by the channels of the Brahmaputra and Damodar rivers. At a river border outpost, a BSF commander demonstrates the state-of-the-art equipment at their disposal, be it night-vision binoculars or searchlights. P.K. Wahal, the BSF IG, eastern command, told Outlook, “Infiltration isn’t the source of the problem. It has come down substantially over the years. Most of the migration took place pre-1971.”
However, strict border patrolling alone is not going to bring in peace. Akhil Ranjan Dutta, an associate professor of political science at the Gauhati University, says that, to begin with, law and order has to be enforced “adequately and comprehensively”. Land security of the Bodos and Muslims has to be addressed too, along with the entitlement of the non-Bodos, including the Muslim peasants. “It also has to be stressed that peace is beneficial both for the Bodos and non-Bodos and that there are non-violent means to resolve their conflict.” What it requires is an honest effort.
Homeless In The Homeland
How an endless cycle of violence and devastating floods has displaced hundreds of thousands in Assam since 1993 but without attracting any attention from the mainland
Source: Asian Centre for Human Rights
Source: Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre
By Dola Mitra in Kokrajhar with Debarshi Dasgupta and Uttam Sengupta in Delhi; Photographs by Sandipan Chatterjee
Apropos your cover story A Bridge Too Far (Aug 13), the silence on the part of our powers-that-be only encourages the conflict to continue. That the prime minister visited the state after a full week of killings and violence cannot inspire confidence within the civilian community.
Ramachandran Nair, Oman
Most Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam are not illegal immigrants, they are Indian citizens. Conflating the two is not helpful, it’s just politically motivated.
The victims among the Muslims are almost always the poor and famished Bengali Muslims who are made the proverbial lambs to the slaughter by disparate tribal militant outfits and their fellow rogue sympathisers from the community. The latter have actually been manipulated and exploited by the corrupt and inefficient governments that have been in power since the late ’70s, who prefer to look the other way as the mayhem of killing and arson plays on. Let’s first lay the ghost of Nellie to rest before creating more such.
Shyamal Barua, Calcutta
Muslims are easy meat. They can be branded terrorists and raped and killed or burnt, no questions asked. The Congress wants to keep the Muslim vote alive, so it allows attacks against them and then cynically plays the relief and sympathy card. All this despite Muslim presidents and vice-presidents.
Nasar Ahmed, Karikkudi
If Assam has had refugee camps since 1993, then it’s a matter of shame.
Bowenpalle Venurajagopal, Hyderabad
Contrary to media reports, the violence in Assam is not an issue of religion (A Bridge Too Far, Aug 13). Since 1971, Bangladeshis have been migrating into Assam illegally. The situation has escalated thus, because these ‘outsiders’ are taking jobs and encroaching on properties that belong to Indian citizens.
Nirooj Fidin, on e-mail
Assam is saturated with Bangladeshi settlers, whose numbers have been rising rapidly. Neither the state nor the central government has shown interest in tackling this situation. Rather, they give these people ration cards, land pattas and voting rights. The Bodos, frightened by this, have taken up guns.
Ashim Chakraborty, Guwahati
The violence in Assam clearly is not a Bodo-Muslim one; it is a clash between the Bodos and illegal migrants, who happen to be Muslim. Outlook ought to correct the assumptions in its cover story.
Sanjukta Das, on e-mail
The strife between local ethnic groups and the Muslim minority, labelled Bangladeshi infiltrators, has been on for several decades. The Muslim population in Assam post-Independence has decadal growth matching other states. The ‘infiltrators’ myth needs to be debunked and the wounded psyche of communities needs to be healed by dialogue.
Naushad Ansari, Patna
Tribals all over India have been sidelined in favour of outsiders. The problems due to illegal migrants in Assam is not fiction. Shocking that a former president and PM blessed the illegal settlements as new Congress votebanks.
G. Anuplal, Bangalore
I’m sure Outlook is aware the violence in Assam is an illegal migrant issue, not a religious or ethnic one. Please don’t try to instigate further trouble by printing such irresponsible statements.
Upasana, on e-mail
We indigenous Assamese feel we’ll be outnumbered by immigrants—though not all migrants are foreigners to be detected and deported. The conflict on now may be seen as the indigenous people’s struggle with migrants, both nationals and foreigners.
Mukibur Rahman, Nagaon
"This is from an article from Swapan Dasgupta, excellent as ever.....
Thanks to waves of immigration from the region that is now Bangladesh" -
"This is from an article from Swapan Dasgupta, excellent as ever.....
Thanks to waves of immigration from the region that is now Bangladesh" -
Swapan is missing the point here. This is not "immigration" but outright "infiltration" ! He has a good command of the English language and must understand the enormous gulf between the implications of these two words.
I wonder what that character has to say about the Darjeeling Hills being a Bengali himself.. I have not come across anything positive from Swapan on that issue of "Gurkhaland". Very similar political flare up is happening in the Northern Hills of West Bengal as in Assam.
But BJP is mumm - Gurkhas are their votebank, just as the Muslims minorities for the Congress. The Gurkhas are displacing the Bengalis in the hills by the same aggressive tactics as the Muslims in Assam are using against the Bodos.
It is a farce that Jaswant Singh won the seat in Darjeeling basing on the Gurkha voters, who should have been declared "illegals": in the electoral role of the Indian State, and should have been deported to Nepal. But no word from Swapan on that! Incidentally, to my knowledge, Bodos speak a dialect of the Bengali language.
In my books, Swapan is a BJP lackey. As someone said, he is aiming at an Upper House (Rajya) seat on the shoulder of BJP - a despicable Bengali licking the boots of BJP who do not stand the Bengalis.
This is from an article from Swapan Dasgupta, excellent as ever..
TWIST IN THE TALE - Secular politics is harming the Bodo minority in Assam
That the origins of the violence lie in demographic upheaval Assam has been witnessing for the past 100 years is undeniable. Thanks to waves of immigration from the region that is now Bangladesh, the population of Assam increased from 3.29 million in 1901 to 14.6 million in 1971, a 343.7 per cent increase compared to the all-India increase of nearly 150 per cent in the same period. Public intellectuals in Assam have stressed that the increase of the Muslim population has been disproportionate. In an unusual intervention last week, Election Commissioner M.S. Brahma suggested that the details of the 2011 Census may reveal that 11 of the 27 districts of Assam now have a Muslim majority.
The Bodo-speaking minority which accounts for only five per cent of the population perceives a dual threat to their existence: a cultural challenge from the Assamese-speaking majority and a physical challenge from Bangladeshi Muslims who constitute the majority in Dhubri and whose presence is increasingly being felt in the Bodo heartland of Kokrajhar district.
The emergence of militant Bodo sub-nationalism in the 1990s was an attempt to cope with these twin challenges and led to the formation of the semi-autonomous Bodo Territorial Council in 1993. However, much of the political gains from militant identity politics have been offset by the growing assertiveness of the Muslim community. The rise of the All India United Democratic Front led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, the All Assam Minority Students Union and the Asom Mia Parishad has triggered a frontal Bodo-Muslim confrontation. Tensions have further risen following the AIUDF demand that the BTC be abolished because Bodos no longer constitute a majority in large areas governed by it. In an astute move, Ajmal has taken care to develop links with major Muslim organisations throughout India to ensure that the concerns of his social base are easily translated into ‘national’ Muslim concerns.
In the past, India’s liberal intelligentsia has been very vocal on the so-called ‘communal’ question, particularly the harassment of minorities. Yet, the usual suspects have been strangely quiet over this monumental upheaval that has shaken Assam. The reasons are obvious. The familiar stereotypes centred on brutish majoritarianism and vulnerable minorities don’t quite fit the bill in Dhubri and Kokrajhar. What we have instead is a very vulnerable indigenous tribal minority being squeezed from all sides, but particularly by the communal assertiveness of another minority that can leverage its national clout for local advantage.
In 2004, when the religious demography of the 2001 Census showed some strange results for Assam, the intelligentsia buried its head in the sand and ensured that all meaningful discussions on the subject were guillotined. The same process is once again at work over recent events in Assam.
In 1947, the Muslim community was a frightened minority, unsure of its position in an India that never took too kindly to the painful Partition in two wings. In 2012, Indian secularism is deeply entrenched and has ensured both dignity and political empowerment to religious minorities, sometimes by way of exceptional consideration. A problem, however, is likely to arise if the empowerment of minorities becomes a byword for injustice to others. For the Bodo minority of Assam, the practice of secular politics is coming to imply the possible extinction of their very identity.
>>At the end of the day the total “score”
>>At the end of the day the total “score”
No major convictions in any of the 'riots'. That is the truth. But one has to keep faith and hope alive if one has to continue to live. Sometimes by looking at the big picture and some times at small steps.
[[At the end of the day the total “score” — as Bajrangi chose to term estimates of the number of Muslims killed — in Naroda was well over at least 200. This figure has not been acknowledged by the state government; officially, 105 people were killed at Naroda Patiya and Naroda Gaon. www.tehelka.com/story_main35.asp]]
When it suits them, secularists are ready to believe any right-wing nut, even someone like Babu Bajrangi. But even when investigative agencies have found no evidence to implicate Modi, they bay for his blood. Looks like the secularists one-point agenda is to get every BJP functionary in Gujarat to "confess", whether or not they were involved.
>>Well, did Rahul Singh really believe that permission had been taken even though no authority was present during exhumation of the bodies?
If the grave is illegal, you don't need permission. Please read the entire para before responding.
>>In that case why was he asking for and getting clearance from Subhrata Roy?
Was he asking for government permission from Subrata Roy?
>>Earlier there was an on line petition in support of Rahul Singh...
Such online petitions have no value, a sworn affidavit has.
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