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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.
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.”
“It is not enough to promise rehabilitation. The first step is to rebuild confidence in the minds of the people.”
The various kinds of reasoning and coping mechanisms people resort to—amplifying it, or the opposite—can’t hide basic facts. The violence killed 61 at last count. That may seem modest to a nation inured to catastrophes. But it also displaced over four lakh. Never before in independent India have we had to deal with such a large number displaced because of violence. Prime minister Manmohan Singh, during his visit to the region on July 28, described the crisis as “a blot on our nation”. It was an understatement. This is India’s gravest humanitarian crisis.
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.
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.
“The Bodos have no aversion to the Muslims. The local administration in Bodoland has to be more inclusive of the non-Bodos.”
The Bongaigaon District Muslim Refugee Committee’s camp, for instance, has existed since 1993. “It happened exactly the same way 20 years ago. One night, when we were asleep, we were awakened by the sound of gunshots. I remember I was 25 then. I came out and saw huts on fire and, in the light of the flames, I could see people striking each other with daggers and others running in all directions. I too ran like hell and hid in a jungle,” recalls Abdul Jamal, the committee’s secretary. “Many of us lost members of our family at that time. Some were lucky to at least know their kin had perished. Others never found out where they went; whether they are dead or alive.”
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.”
“The growing marginalisation of moderate elements among the Bodos in the post-BTC phase has made the situation worse.”
The failure of the Indian state is apparent on other counts. Although 3,000 people were killed in the infamous Nellie massacre way back in 1983, not a single perpetrator has so far been identified or punished. Similarly, when the Union government signed a fresh Bodoland accord in 2003, it did not insist that Bodo militants surrender their arms. These are the same groups who erode the authority of the Bodoland Territorial Council. Going by historical logic, it allowed the integration of areas even where Bodos were in a minority into regions administered by the Bodo Territorial Council. And while it provided that land could no longer be bought or sold by non-Bodos in the area, it also allowed Muslim settlers to retain their “existing rights”, effectively negating the ban on land alienation.
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.
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