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January 19, 2001
The Rediff Special
Over a hundred people have been murdered in the last few weeks in Assam. Blood has splattered the countryside and the tears have not dried up. Every few days, more massacres punctuate the landscape.
Roving EditorRamesh Menon travelled to Nalbari in Assam to meet the families of those killed by ULFA militants.
Part I: Pay up or die!
Part II: Assam's killing fields
She was sitting with her husband Savarmal, 47, chatting with him outside her living room door, watching the Diwali celebrations. It was October 27, 2000.
Festivity hung in the air.
It was around 6.15 in the evening. The sun was just sinking behind the hills.
Coloured lights and lamps lit up all the homes on the street she lived in. It was called Marwari galli in Nalbari. Just because Marwaris lived in the houses on both sides of the street.
Premlata went inside her house for a moment. She had entered the kitchen when she heard some loud bursts. She thought someone was bursting crackers on the street.
Suddenly, there was a commotion and she saw her husband struggling to enter the house. He was splattered with blood. It took a few seconds for it to dawn on her that he had been shot. He collapsed on the floor.
Outside, it was mayhem. He was not the only one. Many neighbours had been shot. She rushed him to the hospital, hoping against hope. Today, she wonders why they even took him to the hospital. He had died on the spot.
A Tata Sumo had driven into the street and as it moved, ULFA militants with bandanas tied around their heads sprayed bullets on both sides of the street. In a few seconds, they had disappeared down the street before people realised what had happened.
Premlata's world collapsed around her feet.
She was inconsolable. So was her 16-year daughter Anu. Suddenly, so many questions stared at her. Her son Praveen usually spent Diwali with the family. This time, he decided to stay back in Delhi as he was studying for his master's in computer applications. But he had to return. For his father's funeral.
It was a black Diwali for all those who lived in Marwari galli or what is officially called Barna Road. In a few seconds, nine people had died. All except one, were Marwaris. All connected with local business activity.
Almost all of them had nothing to do with Rajasthan; they had lived in Assam since they were born. Many families had been in the state for four generations.
Points out a Marwari businessman: "We have not got our wealth from the sky. We have sweated hard for it for generations. My grandfather was here, so was my father."
Rajkumar's father Laxminarayan, 77, was sitting in his cycle shop when there was a sudden burst of fire.
After a series of operations, his mother Godavaridevi, 75, has just been discharged from hospital. Some bullets are still lodged in her body. The doctors think it is better left inside as she is too old for multiple and complicated operations.
She thought it was some dreadful cracker. Her husband was silent.
It was only later that she knew he was dead. And that four bullets had torn into her. She never imagined that someone would want to kill her.
Two bullets passed through both her legs. One scraped her stomach, tearing the upper layer of flesh. The other broke four bones in one of her legs. It took six weeks before the doctors discharged her after two operations.
Still unable to walk, she softly mutters: "I wish I had died with him. At least, he did not suffer. He died on the spot."
Will she return to Nalbari? There is no other place to go, she confirms, as she has no roots in Rajasthan.
Some have recovered. Others like 10-year-old Riti Bajaj have not.
Riti saw her grandfather killed in cold blood. She was standing next to him and one bullet superficially scraped her skin. Today, her days and nights are filled with fear. Her mother says she refuses to go anywhere without being escorted.
It is a trauma she may live with a long time.
Marwari galli wears a deserted look after five in the evening. No one ventures out. In the day, the sound of a vehicle makes residents alert as they move to the safety of their homes.
Sunil Sharma, a consumer durables shop owner, speaks fluent Assamese. His family has been in Nalbari for over a hundred years.
The massacre has shaken him.
He cannot help remembering again and again, how on Durga Puja day 11 years ago, his brother Rajkumar was shot dead by ULFA militants. The memories come rushing back. The wounds in his mind have been opened again. It seems nothing ever changed.
Asks he: "Where can we go now? We may be Marwaris, but we are actually Assamese. Back home in Rajasthan we are seen as outsiders as we have not been there for over a hundred years. We even took part in the Assam agitation as we felt the students were raising the right questions. Now, suddenly, we are being killed. What is one to make of this?"
Nalbari has always been at the heart of the ULFA movement. Out of its top 10 leaders, eight hailed from Nalbari. Therefore, there has been considerable recruitment of ULFA cadres from the district. Says Luhit Dueri, a former ULFA leader who surrendered recently: "Even today, all decisions for ULFA are taken in Nalbari."
There were some reasons for the growth of ULFA and its supporters in Nalbari. It was close to Bhutan where it had camps. Communication is easy. The locals were ready to put up a fight because of lack of development and the consequent frustration. It was easy to enter Bhutan and return. Bhutan has a porous border, just 68 kilometres from Nalbari town.
Points out A Y V Krishna, commandant, 7th Assam police battalion in Kokrajhar, who was earlier posted in Nalbari: "There is a high level of political consciousness in Nalbari. Residents are always ready to fight for some cause or the other. It has got an anti-establishment image. Even during the Assam agitation, it was a hub."
Deepak Kumar, Nalbari's superintendent of police, says it is not easy to crack down on ULFA as the district has a population of over a million.
There are ULFA camps across the border in Bhutan that can easily be attacked. But the Indian government has not obtained its king's consent to let the army begin operations.
A senior Bhutan government official refused to talk to rediff.com about ULFA camps in his country. There is reason for him not to do so. Whenever Bhutanese officials have spoken about ULFA activity in Sandrupzhaka district, ULFA has triggered off bomb blasts in the kingdom.
In New Delhi, officials feel the king is not cracking down on ULFA, probably thinking that their presence in the jungles is a deterrent for Bhutanese refugees of Nepalese orgin who have been pushed out of Bhutan.
According to intelligence sources, ULFA's commander-in-chief Paresh Barua ordered Marwaris and Biharis to be singled out and shot.
He apparently wanted to show the Assam government that ULFA was still a force to contend with, despite hundreds of its members surrendering to the state government. The cadres were hesitant. So Barua formed what is known as the Enigma group headed by operational commander Raju Barua, to carry out his orders. The Enigma group is understood to have been isolated from ULFA cadres and is now being used as a strike group.
Says Sunil Sharma: "There is a fear psychosis here. We do not know what to do. Every day, we draw strength from ourselves." There is a shortage of barbers and dhobis in Nalbari town. Most of them are Biharis and they left after the massacres.
Premlata Sharma is trying to wind up her husband's transport business and return to the safety of Rajasthan. But she does not know what she will do there. She says she just has the empty promises numerous politicians made after her tragedy.
She points to a broken plastic chair shattered by bullets and a tell-tale bullet mark on the wall and says: "I hope this never happens to anyone. Our whole future has been destroyed."
In the last three years, peace had returned to Nalbari. Its residents had relaxed. But as it turned out, it was just the lull before the storm.
Nalbari seethes with pain again.
Photographs: Ramesh Menon. Design: Dominic Xavier.
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