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Assam: Deja vu tinged with sadness

Last updated on: August 22, 2012 13:13 IST

The pattern is invariably the same: One targetted killing followed by a retaliatory attack; and then the dam bursts. Violence gets unleashed. And it has been no different this time, says Nitin Gokhale who has reported on major ethnic/communal riots across Assam over the last three decades

For Indian Express journalist Samudra Gupta Kashyap -- my closest friend and travelling companion in the north-east -- and me, the latest violence in Kokrajhar is like rewinding an old film.

In the past three decades, he -- and I, till 2006 -- have reported on at least a dozen major ethnic/communal riots across the region.

The pattern is invariably the same: One targetted killing followed by a retaliatory attack; and then the dam bursts. Violence gets unleashed.

Innocent men, women and children, young and old, get maimed, killed, injured in a series of well-orchestrated attacks and are scarred for life.

Kuki-Naga clashes; Bodo-Muslim confrontation; Adivasi-Bodo feud; Bloody showdown between Reanga and Mizos, between Bengalis and tribals, the list has been endless.

The bloodletting peaks at one point, then ebbs following a belated crackdown by the government. Appropriate noises are made by all from the prime minister downward.

Financial packages are announced; every political leader worth his or her salt visits the area, offers succour and sympathy but little else. NGOs and social organisations launch grand schemes for relief and rehabilitation.

The media lands up in droves. The usual stories of pathos, the humanatarian crises, the apathy on the part of the government occupy prime time news and front page headlines.

But only for a while.

As the violence subsides, as it inevitably does, the focus shifts. The news gets relegated to the inside pages and to morning and late night bulletins and then disappears altogether.

It has been no different this time.

The homeless and the displaced will be left largely to their own devices. Some will shift out of the conflict zone; others will compromise with the adversary and trudge back to their old habitat, but most will continue to live in fear in the so-called relief camps, sans basic amenities, proper food or shelter.

And yet, as my friend tells me, all this could have been avoided had the government been little more alert.

For weeks, if not months, the warning signs were flashing. Tension between Bodos and non-Bodos, especially Muslims, was peaking.

No one noticed the little signs of impending trouble. The killing of July 6 of two Muslims, the lynching of four Bodos, one of them a former militant on July 20, the increasing belligerence displayed by a newly-formed minority protection body.

Apparently, an Assam Pradesh Congress Committee delegation had reported to Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi that there was trouble brewing in Bodo areas, but no one took it seriously. 

Now, how many times we have heard this before? Several times, I am afraid. 

So when violence erupted from July 21 onward, everyone pretended as if this came as a surprise.

The chief minister and his close advisers were slow to react. No firm orders were passed to quell the violence.

More than 75 people died. At one point there were more than four and a half lakh refugees in camps. Just over a month later, two lakh plus have left the camps to pick up the pieces of their lives. But many are afraid, unwilling to go back home.

The analysis of the root cause of the violence and subsequent exodus of north-easterners from Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Pune is a subject of a separate piece but as I and Samudra travelled once again to lower Assam last week, we couldn't help but ask ourselves: how long will the bloodletting and politics over dead bodies continue?

It's a question to which there seems to be no ready answer.

Currently NDTV's Security & Strategic Affairs Editor, Nitin Gokhale lived and worked in Guwahati for 23 years before relocating to Delhi. Blog: nitingokhale.blogspot.in

Nitin Gokhale