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Assam: It's time to stop the clock and look back

Last updated on: July 30, 2012 12:03 IST

In Assam, says Arijit Sen, it is almost like a pre-programmed, horrific video game -- people are killed, schools turn into shelters and school benches are used to distribute food.

Early October in 2008, I was standing in front of a primary school in Udalguri district in Assam. Men, women and children were walking in a steady flow towards the school; most of them had their belongings wrapped in pieces of cloth or stuffed in bags.

It can, perhaps, best be described as a most macabre relay race playing out in front of my eyes.  Riots between Bodos and Muslims earlier in that month were spreading in the state's Udalguri and Darrang districts.

Forty-nine people had been killed in communal clashes. Out of that number, 25 belonged to Udalguri. The deaths had spread horror and helplessness and suddenly put the district on India's media map. The riots had been on for some time, but no one knew for sure why they had erupted in the first place.

 "The miyaans (Muslims) defaced an idol and that is how it all began," Pabitra Das, an elderly schoolteacher, told me. This was, incidentally, just a few days before the Durga Puja festival.

"Did you see the defaced idol?"

"No. So, I heard. They also stole cattle."

"You saw that?"

"This is known and now they have come and burnt our houses. It is the work of Bangladeshis. We are scared."

It wasn't just Das. It was a general belief that the illegal migrant Muslim population -- the 'miyaans from Bangladesh' -- was responsible.

This history of mutual suspicion between the ethnic Assamese and Muslims is an extremely familiar platform of friction in this corner of India.

'Spot the illegal migrants' was a familiar shout that gave rise to what was once independent India's biggest agitation, the Assam movement. It was a movement that had united and attracted people from every nook and corner of Assam. 'Assam is fighting India's battle,' wrote a columnist.

The agitation developed some discordant and unwanted notes. In 1983, at least 2,000 people were hacked to death in a place called Nellie, a few hours from Guwahati. Those killed were Muslims, accused to be illegal migrants and occupants of land that belonged to Lalung tribals.

In the 25 years since the Nellie massacre, the anger against illegal migrants, mostly from Bangladesh, has played out over and over again. Often, Indian Muslims have suffered too.

Thus, I was not surprised at Das's opinion.

"We hear it's a riot between Bodos and Muslims," I said.

 "Yes, it is. And now they (Muslims) have attacked our houses," said Das.

Was this then something similar to what Assam had witnessed in 1993 -- a time when the Bodo agitation was at its peak, when Bengali Muslims were facing the heat as illegal migrants? Was this an outcome of anger against forceful occupation of land and displacement of people by illegal migrants? Was this a similar cycle of violence at a different place and time? Or, was it a bigger game, pitting communities against each other for political gains?

I asked those questions then. Almost three years later now, in 2012, similar riots in Kokrajhar, the seat of the Bodoland Territorial Council, make it seem that the same questions have not lost any of their relevance.

At press time, 45 people have been killed -- hacked to death, shot. More than 200,000 people have been displaced. And similar to the situation in 2008, almost all of these displaced people have taken shelter in schools and government buildings. These are the so-called 'safe zones'. Nearly 400 villages have been affected, and rampaging mobs have destroyed property and set fire to almost all the houses.

The trigger for this violence, however, is well known.

The situation, before the outburst of this violence, was developing from May 29. In Kokrajhar, the All-Bodoland Minority Students Union had called for a shutdown after the BTC held that a part of forestland used as an idgah maidan was an illegal encroachment.

The friction between the BTC administration and the ABMSU took an ugly turn July 6, when a Muslim man was shot dead in the Muslim neighborhood of Kokrajhar. Clashes between the two communities continued and took an ugly turn when a leader of the Assam Minority Student Leaders and one from the ABMSU were shot at July 19.

Next morning, few miles from Kokrajhar, four former cadres of the disbanded Bodoland Liberation Tigers were hacked to death. Immediately after, counterattacks started, and rioting spread in Kokrajhar.

But there is a bigger back-story that captures this violence. In this story, land, money and power are three key elements.

On the road from Bongaigaon to Kokrajhar, our car can rarely pick up speed. In various fonts and mostly in red, the word 'diversion' written on signboards stands in the way of the journey. Bridges are being built. Most are half-built.

One could see some bridges hanging in midair with the concrete and iron structure jutting out to on a parallel path. Once or twice, big Scorpio cars with tinted glass windows whiz past confidently.

My colleague whispers, as if someone will shoot him if he is speaks loudly, "These are owned by BTC people. They have a lot of money."

In this part of the world, no one takes chances. The line between bravado and stupidity doesn't exist.

Once we take the road to Kokrajhar, we cross the memorial built to honor those who died in the cause of the Bodoland movement. It was a movement that began 25 years ago and sought an independent state for the Bodo tribals, one of the largest ethnic and linguistic groups in northeastern India.

The movement still continues to seek the status of an independent state. Every now and then we can see 'Bodoland is our birth right' written on bus stops, on walls of buildings. It was a struggle that left many dead.

"Please come and find out how many people have been killed by the state in this struggle," Pramod Boro, president of the ABSU, told me last year in Guwahati. We were meeting for the first time and I was trying to understand about the demand for Bodoland, an area roughly half the geographical size of Assam.

Initially, the movement by the Bodos was about dispossession of tribal land by non-Bodos -- mostly Bengali and Assamese settlers. The struggle also included recognition of their language and culture. As Ajai Sahni puts in his Survey of Conflicts and Resolution in India's Northeast, the demand for Bodoland took shape towards the latter part of the 1980s.

It was in 1988 that the National Democratic Front of Bodoland was formed and as Sahni points out, they initiated a 'guerrilla war' with the Indian state.

After twists and turns in the struggle, the BLT was formed in 1996. And again after several turns in February 2003, a Bodo Accord was signed between BLT and the Indian government. It was agreed to form a self-governing body for the Bodo areas.

The main objective of that agreement was to create an autonomous self-governing body to be known as the BTC within Assam and to provide constitutional protection under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution to the said autonomous body; to fulfill economic, educational and linguistic aspirations and the preservation of land rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos, and speed up infrastructure in the BTC areas.

Hangrama Mohilary, the ruthless BLT chief at the time, was later made the chief of BTC. The BTC looks after the Bodoland Territorial Administrative District. Yet, even after the creation of the BTC, the tension between the Bodos and non-Bodos continues.

This is not the first time this region has witnessed riots. There were riots in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 2008. More than 200,000 people were displaced in 1996, and 200 people were killed. It seems that the tension between the communities is almost a given.

And even after the BTC formation, the failure to disarm the BLT just adds to that tension and the fear.

In a media conference, Hangrama's first reaction was that the borders with Bangladesh should be sealed. Assam has witnessed illegal migration and minority appeasement in its politics. Yet that is also a card that is put forward to hide other failures. Put an end to illegal migration and all troubles will be over, is a solution suggested by many.

The BTC leaders keep saying that illegal migrants are entering Kokrajhar through Dhubri in Lower Assam. It has been happening for the last five years and should be stopped. I briefly meet Hangrama at the Kokrajhar Circuit House. But it is too crowded.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is there, meeting leaders from all communities, and it is just not the time to meet the BTC chief. He sits quietly on Gogoi's left and sometimes nods in agreement as Gogoi maintains that all efforts will be made to rehabilitate the displaced people from all communities.

Somehow, it seems that all communities have not been taken onboard in the BTAD area. People refuse to be named and complain that the jobs, the land, the money and the power lie with the BTC. The Bodo leaders refuse to believe that non-Bodos are discriminated in any way. Non-Bodos feel they have lost out.

Far removed from the politics, at a relief camp in Sokhanjhora, I come across a Bodo woman who sounds positive and dignified at a time of blames and counter-blames.

"I have no clue why this is happening," she says. "I think we have been able to live in harmony and this is something that should never happen."

Not everyone is that positive. But for many, there is hardly any animosity. Just a demand for a better life.

I met Zahida Khatun in a relief camp near Bongaigaon. A mother of three and 25 years old, Zahida jumped into the river when miscreants set fire to her house.

"I have no extra clothes, I have nothing," she says. She just wants to get back to her home and peace to return.

For these displaced people from one relief camp to another, the story of shattered lives remains the same. This corner of Assam is no stranger to violence. It is almost like a pre-programmed horrific video game -- violence returns, people are killed, schools turn into shelters and school benches are used to distribute food.

Many have accepted it the fait accompli. Probably, it is time to stop the clock, look back at all the peace efforts and ensure that these little wars and those who fight them are stopped.

Arijit Sen is the northeast correspondent for Indian news channel CNN-IBN. The views expressed are his own. He can be reached at arijitsenmail@gmail.com

Arijit Sen