Assam violence: old wounds, new plans and peace hypocrisy
On the morning of February 18, 1983, Assam witnessed one of the bloodiest massacres of independent India. In a horrific mob attack, babies, women and men were hacked to death in a rural area called Nellie, a few hours from Guwahati. Officially, the number of dead was put at anything between 600 and 1,600. Now, activists point out that the number killed is anything between 2,200 and 3,000. The numbers might be conflicting. What is not is the brutality and the cold-blooded manner with which eyes were gorged out, limbs chopped off, heads severed, bodies punctured with spears, people killed with bows and arrows, swords and houses set on fire. The mutilated bodies were left in the paddy fields. Few survived and some of the ones who did, unable to withstand the shock, even lost their speech, went into deep trauma.
If one goes through newspaper archives, the horror is documented in photographs, the dead bodies lined up for mass burial. One photograph that remains stuck in memory, taken by Bhawan Singh for "India Today", was of a villager holding a young boy's lifeless body in his arms, the little body hanging, almost, in mid-air. Death at its most macabre.
Years later, on November 10, 2004, at a seminar in Guwahati, just 30 minutes before she was to begin her talk titled 'Memories of the Massacre: Violence and Collective Identity in the narratives on the Nellie Incident', Japanese scholar Makiko Kimura was stopped from talking by the Assam government. What was the government trying to hide about that bloody morning?
Twenty five years after the Nellie holocaust, in 2009, I travelled to meet those who survived the bloodlust. What had happened? What was the cause of the brutality? The Nellie massacre took place at a time when the Assam agitation (1979-1985)-then considered post-Independence India's largest popular movement-was at its peak. The agitation demanded the expulsion of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. 'Jai Ai Ahom' was the slogan that filled the air and was the driving point of this 'anti-foreigner' agitation. Agitators believed that the long porous border that India shares with Bangladesh was being used to cross over into Assam, illegally, and settling there. They should be driven out, expelled.
Anger was slowly being replaced by jingoism. In 1983, during the Assam agitation, the central government took a decision to hold state legislative Assembly elections on February 14. There was a poll boycott call given by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). Around Nellie, a decision was taken by Assamese villages to socially ostracise Muslims who went out and voted. The slaughter took place four days after the election on February 18. After the massacre, some reports suggested that it was a clash over land. Lalung tribals had attacked the Bengali Muslims who had illegally encroached on their land. Some suggested that the tribals had avenged the death of children from their community who were killed.
Contrary to that suggestion, Kimura wrote in her paper abstract that "It can be said that interpretations of collective violence (such as large-scale killing, riot or massacre) are open to various narratives by people who directly or indirectly experience them. And from these various narratives, people choose one interpretation that suits them most, or choose from one that is least harmful to them. And in this process, they also select the facts from their memories. However, the three interpretations do not receive the same attention in India or in Assam. The interpretation of the movement leaders became the consensus in Assamese society. I argue that the interpretation favoured by those in power and by the media became the most widely accepted interpretation."
What was true, however, was there were different invisible interest groups in this massacre.
Most residents of Nellie were Bengali Muslims. Early morning in April 2009, I met Sirajuddin Ahmed. He took me to the paddy fields where thousands were butchered, clinically. Sirajuddin lost his parents and his four daughters in that carnage.
"Attackers came from all sides at around eight in the morning," he tells me, stops for a minute, and goes on, "I don't have faith in the Indian Constitution after this. I refuse to vote."
"What about illegal migration," I ask him.
"My grandfather came here before independence and then there was no Bangladesh and no Pakistan then," he replies.
The compensation in all these years has been Rs 5,000 for the next of kin of the dead and Rs 3,000 or Rs 1,000 for the injured. In Nellie, I had people coming in droves towards me every minute. 'Listen to our stories,' they told me. They survived that February morning and pleaded with me to look at their wounds. 25 years on, after several government visits, promises, inquiries, those wounds are yet to heal.
The festering wounds of the Assam agitation and the attendant violence that hijacked the movement and led to more conflicts with people of other communities and tribes have, over the years, transformed itself into a more 'ghoulish avatar' to quote Pronab Bora of "The Telegraph". The Kokrajhar violence is perhaps a classic example. Except, the reasons for this violence are vastly different from that of the Nellie massacre.
In 2012, Kokrajhar and its neighbouring districts witnessed riots that killed at least 50 and made about 378,045 people homeless. This is an official figure. No one knows how many more people have taken shelter in the safe zones. Out of the displaced, 266,700 are Muslims and 111,345 are Bodos. They are in 235 relief camps spread across four districts of the state. Of the 235 camps, 99 camps are with Bodo residents and 136 camps are with Muslim residents. In Dhubri district, there are 90 relief camps. In Kokrajhar there are 71. In Chirang 62 and in Bongaigaon it is 12. School and college vacations have been extended. No one wants to go back to their villages.
It is also an open secret that the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) boys have made it clear that they don't want the Bengali Muslims back in their districts. Direct warnings have been issued: return at your own peril. Student organisations like the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) have been chanting the mantra of 'No Bodoland, No Rest' and 'Divide Assam, 50-50' for a long time. It is almost with a crusader's zeal they have been attacking, perhaps killing, and ensuring that the Muslims are driven out of 'their' land.
When I confronted Pramod Boro, the President of ABSU, he sounded like he had rehearsed his answers many times over. "It is very clear. A genuine Indian citizen has every right to stay where they want to. But out of the people in the camps are also illegal migrants. They have taken advantage of the situation, of the weakness in law," he said.
Boro travelled back to the 2008 riots between Bodos and Muslims in Udalguri in Assam. The script was pretty much the same. Cause of the riots unknown, 49 killed, houses burnt and thousands displaced. "In 2008, after the Udalguri riots, before the rehabilitation process began, our demand was to check them (Muslims). There are three categories of people. Genuine voters and those who own land is the first category. Then there are people who have their names in the voter list and do not own land. They are the doubtful voters. The third category is the one for the directly illegal migrants. We are saying judge the second category. In 2008, the Assam government didn't do it. They came back. These people are vote banks for the government. To restore the confidence of the local indigenous population, this time there can't be an exception," he told me.
"What about the BTC boys openly threatening," I ask.
The reply comes immediately: "We can't ignore the law. And the illegal migrant issue is no less than the issue of Kashmir."
The trigger for this violence, however, is well known. The situation was developing from May 29. In Kokrajhar, the All-BTAD Minority Students Union (ABMSU) 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 BTC and ABMSU took an ugly turn on July 6 when a Muslim man was shot dead by unknown people in a Muslim neighbourhood of Kokrajhar. Clashes between the two communities continued and a leader of the Assam Minority Student Union (AMSU) and one from the ABMSU were shot at on July 19. Next morning, a few kilometers away from Kokrajhar at a village called Joypur, four former cadres of the disbanded Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT) were hacked to death. Immediately after, counterattacks started, and rioting spread in Kokrajhar.
I meet Abdul Ali Mondal, a resident of Joypur, the so-called epicentre of the violence.
"For some days the BLT boys were circling this area on their bikes, harassing people. They also shot members of our student organisation," Mondal tells me.
But there is a bigger back-story that captures this violence. In this story, land, money and power are three key elements. Also important is the hypocrisy of the state administration and New Delhi. It is nauseating.
On the road from Bongaigaon to Kokrajhar, our car could rarely pick up speed. If it did, then within minutes, it would have to slow down again. 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. In some instances one could see some bridges, hanging in mid-air with the concrete and iron structure jutting out in a parallel direction. Once or twice, big Scorpios with tinted glass windows whiz past confidently.
My colleague whispers, almost in fear, "These are owned by BTC people. They have a lot of money." He sounds as if someone will shoot him if he is speaks loudly. In this part of the world, no one takes chances. The line between bravado and stupidity doesn't exist here.
Once we take the road to Kokrajhar, we cross the memorial built to honour those who died in the cause of the Bodoland movement. It was a movement that began 25 years back 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," Boro, 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 North-East, 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 Mr Sahni points out, they initiated a "guerilla war" with the Indian state.
After various twists and turns in the struggle, 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 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.
Hagrama Mohilary, the ruthless chief of the BLT at the time, was later made the chief of BTC. The BTC looks after the Bodoland Territorial Administrative District (BTAD). Yet even after the creation of the BTC the tension between the Bodos and non-Bodos continue. This is not the first time this region has witnessed riots. There were riots in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 2008. More than 2 lakh 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 press conference, Hagrama'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, push other agendas. 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. I briefly meet Hangrama at the Kokrajhar Circuit House. But it is too crowded. The Chief Minister of Assam is meeting leaders from all communities and it is just not the right time to meet the BTC Chief. He sits quietly on Tarun Gogoi's left and sometimes nods in agreement as the CM maintains that all efforts will be made to rehabilitate the displaced people from all communities.
And somehow it seems that all communities have not been taken on board in the BTAD area. People, who refuse to be named, complain that jobs, the land, the money and the power lay 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, I visit some relief camps. In 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. I think we have been able to live in harmony and this is something that should never happen," she tells me.
Not everyone is that positive. The outburst of ugly violence is in the minds of many. And for many, there is hardly any animosity. Just a demand for a better life. I met Zahida Khatun in a relief camp near Bongaigaon. Only 25, and with three kids, Zahida jumped into the river when miscreants set fire to her house. "I have no extra clothes, I have nothing," she tells me. She just wants to get back to her home and peace to return.
But most of these homes have been gutted. Nothing remains. Mob frenzy is written all over. And, not surprisingly, to travel to these villages you need the help of gatekeepers. Else, you invite the wrath of people who have lost friends, near and dear ones and whose life has been completely thrown off track because of the violence.
I travel to Moinaguri and meet Sushmita Basumataray, who still refuses to accept how violence destroyed her neighbouring Muslim village of Naobhita. It's hard for the women in Moinaguri to understand how and why friends from the other community had to escape to relief camps. "For years we have been together. No clue what happened. I am sad and worried as I think what will be on their mind when they come back," says Sushmita, inconsolable. Greed for power, land and the politics behind it have redrawn the maps of hatred for her. She stands in the middle of the road, not knowing why things happened the way they did.
Not strange to India, I think. Not strange at all. The hypocrisy of our democracy stands exposed and we let politics of violence rape our citizens over and over again.
There must be incentives but. Or else, what will lead one person to tie another person's hand and shoot him and throw in the river? And then we have state heads defending policies in the name of 'complexities'.
The people might stand resolute in their peace efforts. But the flames of hatred are remote controlled by someone else. It is doused and set at will.
Everywhere I went, it was the same story. 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 eat food from. And many have accepted it as their fait accompli.
The Prime Minister waved his hand in an almost robotic manner to the crowd. It was different from the time when he came to Assam for flood relief. That time, he was airborne for 90 minutes. This time he was on the ground. On the last occasion, the flood relief measures were worth Rs 500 crore. This time, for riots, he announced Rs 300 crore. Politically correct to the core, the Prime Minister visited two relief camps. His press team put it up on Twitter.
The day after his visit, when I went to a relief camp, it had moved away from the spotlight and had gone back to its uneasy and uncertain pace of life. I found people squatting on the floor and eating rice. Just rice - nothing else. There were no mosquito nets. No proper bathrooms, no proper beds.
Close on the heels of the PM's visit, then Indian Home Minister, P Chidambaram arrived in Assam. "Learn to live together," he said, and took the flight back to Delhi to the cooler environs of the Union Finance Ministry.
All this while, the Chief Minister was shouting his lungs out that all will be okay.
The Opposition leader LK Advani was not far behind. "Illegal migration is the root cause," he shouted at a press conference in Guwahati.
"Mr Advani, there are other layers to the story. Former cadres of the BLT are still carrying arms," I offered him.
"I know, but illegal migration ... Even Home Minister mentioned this," was his answer.
It is time that the hypocrisy stands exposed. How leaders communalise politics and make false promises. Probably, it is also time to stop the clock, look back at all the peace hypocrisy, the criminality of these promises and ensure that these little wars and those who fight them are stopped.