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Fire In The Belly
For Assam it was suddenly like reliving the nightmare of the anti-foreigner agitation days. Nearly two decades after, the state was back on centrestage with an orgy of mayhem and killing. What started off as a clash between Assamese and Bihari candidates appearing for a Railways recruitment test has spiralled into mindless violence. At last count, 30 Biharis, including women and children, had been killed—forcing the Assam government to call in the army and impose curfew in at least two districts. Noting the seriousness of the situation, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee too has assured more central forces.
The spark of the present conflict can be traced to November 9 when candidates from Bihar who had travelled to different centres in Assam for the category D test conducted by Railway Recruitment Board (RRB), Guwahati, were prevented from writing the tests. The candidates went back with tales of woe, setting the stage for local politicians to exploit. Soon enough, train passengers from Assam and other Northeastern states passing through Bihar—all trains between Delhi and eastern India pass through Bihar—were attacked. Women were stripped and in at least one case, a girl from Nagaland was allegedly gangraped. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) and other similar organisations soon got into the act, calling for a 24-hour state bandh on November 17 protesting against the attacks on Assamese and demanding 100 per cent reservation for indigenous people in all central services operating in the Northeast. The banned ULFA also served 'quit Assam' notices on all 1.5 million Biharis in the state, most of whom have been living here for decades.
Two days later, the violence began. In Tinsukia, which has the highest concentration of Biharis in the entire Northeast (since 1985, for the most part the mla has been from among them), tension began after the police failed to control a mob of about 200 Biharis who, armed with sticks and machetes, ransacked the Tinsukia Development Authority office and beat up seven employees. In retaliation, in Chagalia four Bihari truck drivers were gunned down when they were watching TV. Effigies of Union railway minister Nitish Kumar too were burnt. A panicked CM, Tarun Gogoi, even admitted that "Assam is passing through a difficult phase".
Meanwhile, in Bihar, trains were stopped at Jamalpur, Bhagalpur and Katihar and anyone vaguely resembling an Assamese was being beaten. At Jamalpur, a Mizo girl was gangraped in full public view while her two brothers were assaulted despite protests that they were not Assamese. The DM and SP of Munger and SP of Jamalpur were promptly transferred for dereliction of duty. The rjd government also instituted a cbi probe into the violence. Party chief Laloo Prasad Yadav and CM wife Rabri Devi also spoke to Gogoi as also Congress president Sonia Gandhi, protesting Assam's relative inaction. "If people from one state are chased out from another, then the country will disintegrate," an agitated Yadav said.
Interestingly, no one is blaming the AASU for the crisis. "We have not incited any ill-feeling against the Biharis. Ours was just peaceful protests seeking preference to local candidates for Group D vacancies," says AASU advisor Sammujjal Bhattacharyya. But it's true that the violence is a grim reflection of the unemployment scenario. Over six lakh candidates, among them engineers and PGs, were vying for 2,000 posts of gangmen, trackmen and pointmen. Of these, two lakh-odd candidates were from states like Bihar, UP and Rajasthan. It was against the latter the AASU was protesting. Sadly, it was the poor rickshaw wallah and the innocent rail passenger who paid the price.
Faizan Ahmed with Ashis K. Biswas