Dusk brings dark forebodings and the prospect of another sleepless night for West Gumargaon village in Chirang district of western Assam.
Three months after they fled the reign of terror unleashed by gun-toting extremists, displaced families are returning to camp here even as they await financial aid from the government to rebuild their ravaged homes. Their shelter is makeshift, the tarpaulins that cover the lean-tos drip at night because of the mist, and there are no blankets, but it is fear that keeps sleep at bay.
“I lie awake for hours, straining my ears for any unusual sound,” says 55-year old Motiur Rahman, a small-time businessman in West Gumargaon, who lost his home and everything in it in late July in the orgy of violence that shook the state and the country. The violence claimed about 100 lives and triggered the largest internal displacement in Indian history since Partition, forcing nearly half-a-million people out of their homes.
A fresh bout of violence claimed 10 more lives in November.
A majority of those displaced are Muslims of Bengali descent such as Rahman, although in several villages, mobs of Bengali Muslims burnt the houses of Bodos after driving them out.
The memory of 24 July, when motorcycle-borne masked gunmen, suspected to be Bodo militants, arrived in West Gumargaon and fired incessantly in the air till the panic-stricken villagers fled, still haunts Rahman. The empty homes were then looted and torched.
Other villagers, in other parts of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD), a special administrative region comprising of four districts in Assam, narrate a similar tale.
And all of them express surprise at the events of late July.
“We never had any conflicts with our Bodo neighbours, who live in East Gumargaon,” says Rahman.
Bengali-speaking Muslims offer cheap labour to the middle peasantry, which now includes a wide section of the Bodos. They dominate several villages in Chirag district. Most work as labourers or share-croppers, on land owned by the Bodos.
“We have been working on the fields of Bodo land-owners for generations and did not face any problems till now,” says Sahar Ali, a farmer in Bhawanipur village.
Ali cultivates jute and paddy on leased land under an informal arrangement, known locally as adhi, which involves splitting the harvest equally between the landowner and the cultivator.
But Ali fears he may not get his due share this year.
Some of the Muslim houses in Bhawanipur are still standing, but the residents are fearful of returning.
“The Bodos have asked us not to enter the villages, for now,” says Ali. “They say they fear for our lives and that Bodo extremists may attack us if they see us harvesting their fields.”
“We have always trusted them and maybe they mean well, but I am not so sure of people’s intentions now,” he adds.
A systematic campaign
Armed attacks in BTAD tapered off, but that erupted again in November. Meanwhile, Bodo extremist groups have been trying to enforce an economic boycott of sorts, and have warned Bodo farmers against employing Muslim farmhands.
The identical pattern of the July attacks across the region and the fact that most deaths were from gunshots suggests the violence was in large measure, organized rather than spontaneous, analysts say.
“The clashes are part of a systematic campaign to drive out the Muslim migrants and establish a homogeneous Bodo territory,” says Hiranya Saikia, a Guwahati-based political analyst and mediator in peace talks between the government and the banned United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa).
That belies the perception of Bengali Muslims such as Ali and Rahman, but while the issue boiled over in July, it had been simmering for some time.
Bodos are the largest tribe in the plains of Assam and share a history of loss with other tribals in the valley, having seen their traditional rights over land and forests being taken away. It was a process that started under the British Raj, and it continued after India’s independence in 1947. The state’s attempts, after independence, to resolve the issue by identifying tribal blocks has only been partially successful. All too often, corrupt land revenue officers have allowed the sale of tribal land in these blocks to non-tribals, even allowing the sale to be registered without a corresponding transfer of land titles.
That dubious practice has returned to haunt BTAD in the current crisis, with the Bodo leadership demanding eviction of all “encroachers” who do not own land titles.
It isn’t just venal revenue officers, even the government de-reserved large tracts of tribal land for various public purposes, such as building Assam’s capital at Dispur.
Tribal discontent found expression in the 1960s and 1970s in the call for a separate state of “Udayachal” by the Plains Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA), which represented all major plain tribes including the Bodos. PTCA’s stir was successful in articulating the grievances of tribals, but it failed to move the state to address these, laying the ground for a more militant leadership to emerge, especially among the Bodos, in the late 1980s. The resentment of the Bodos against other Assamese gained strength during the Assam agitation, which was perceived to be exclusionary.
The Bodos demanded a “Bodoland” state, but were a numerical minority in the area where they wanted this state. The government promised an autonomous council comprising villages where the Bodos were in a majority, as part of a peace accord in 1993, which soon collapsed. The accord sowed the seeds of successive campaigns of ethnic cleansing by Bodo extremists since 1993, targeting indigenous communities such as the Koch-Rajbongshis as well as immigrants, to create a majority where none existed, explains Saikia. The inclusive agenda of PTCA was lost forever as Bodo extremists managed to hijack the movement for Udayachal, he adds.
One militant group, the Bodo Liberation Tiger (BLT), gave up its demand for a separate state and signed another peace accord with the state and central governments in 2003, which led to the formation of BTAD, which has been governed by former BLT militants since then.
The move to create BTAD was, ironically, supported by Bengali Muslims.
The peace accord granted autonomy and majority representation to the Bodos, breeding discontent among non-Bodos, who account for nearly two-thirds of BTAD’s population. Growing extortion by former militants added to their woes.
“It is not just Bengali-speaking Muslims who feel insecure in BTAD today; a significant number of Assamese-speaking Hindus have moved away from districts such as Kokrajhar and Udalguri to towns outside BTAD,” said Monirul Hussain, head of the political science department at Gauhati University. “The escalating land prices in towns such as Bongaigaon and Mongoldoi reflect this silent migration.”
When the movement for a separate Bodo state was renewed earlier this year, it met with sharp opposition from non-Bodo organizations. In western Assam, the opposition was largely led by Bengali-speaking Muslim leaders, and was fiercer than in other parts of BTAD.
If the tribals have struggled to find a toe-hold in the modern economy, then so have Bengali-speaking Muslims. The zamindari system in Bengal wreaked havoc on the lower peasantry in Bengal, and some started migrating to the less dense plains of Assam in the 1800s. The pressure of population growth and the limited avenues for purchasing land forced many immigrants to settle in vulnerable riverine silt islands or “chars”.
These islands are often gobbled up by the mighty rivers in which they are formed, turning their inhabitants into internal refugees and suspected “Bangladeshis” in the eyes of natives. Faced with the history of dislocation owing to both natural disasters such as floods and man-made ones such as the attacks by extremists, they have now begun to aggressively assert their rights, backed by increasingly powerful political organizations.
Politics of identity
The power struggle between Bodo and Muslim politicians gathered steam in BTAD in the run-up to the July violence, and the conflict has only grown sharper since then. The BTAD leadership has opposed the rehabilitation of Muslim peasants without proof that they owned land on the grounds that they are likely to be “Bangladeshis” who have illegally settled here.
Muslims of Bengali descent, some of whose forefathers migrated to Assam during British rule, view such a move as a ruse to evict them from BTAD, given that not all have land titles. Their leaders have denounced such moves and demanded dissolution of BTAD instead.
Although the pace of the influx from Bangladesh has likely declined over the past two decades, according to analysts, the state’s weak track record in identifying illegal immigrants continues to rankle many in Assam. The anti-immigrant rhetoric has found resonance beyond the BTAD region. It has given wing to the politics of identity in Assam, and widened the rift between natives and Muslims of immigrant origin, reviving memories of the six-year-long Assam agitation in the early 1980s.
There are two proximate reasons for the conflict: the power struggle between Bodo and Muslim elites and the fault lines in the successive Bodo peace accords, and a third underlying cause: the history of impoverishment of two of the largest communities in western Assam, Bodos and Muslims, which has bred deep-rooted insecurities.
Thousands of Santhals, Koch-Rajbongshis and immigrant Muslims, who bore the brunt of attacks by Bodo militants, still languish in camps spread across the region. Moderate Bodo leaders who voiced dissent also faced the wrath of militants and were gunned down.
The first clashes happened in May, with an increasing number of protests and bandhs organized by both Bodo and Muslim organizations turning violent, but the violence was largely localized. The easy availability of arms in BTAD and an ineffective state response paved the way for a violent eruption across the region in July, analysts said.
The root of the problem lies in the lack of an overarching democratic framework to deal with ethnic issues in the NorthEast, says Dilip Gogoi, assistant professor of political science at the Guwahati-based Cotton College. “The state’s approach is completely arbitrary and alternates between coercion and appeasement to deal with any protest movement in the region, creating new conflicts while trying to solve an older one.”
Settlements such as the Bodo accord fail to bring about lasting peace because they are internally negotiated, offering little scope for an inclusive dialogue, and leading to further divisions by alienating left out groups, he adds.
A widening divide
Identity politics and the state’s response to it have widened the wedge between the two communities. Bodo landowners are dependant on the labour of Bengali Muslims like Ali and it is an interdependence that Bodo extremists are desperate to end.
“We have been asked not to lease land to Muslims,” says Anjana Mushahary of Malegaon village in Kokrajhar district, roughly 100km away from West Gumargaon. “But who will till the land then?”
Employing Muslim farmhands has become a common practice and the violence can’t change that, says 58-year-old Amiya Kumar Narzary, whose house in Bakuabhangi village of Dhubri district, was burned down by a marauding mob of Bengali-speaking Muslims. Narzary, who is staying at a relief camp in Kokrajhar, was warned by a Muslim friend from a neighbouring village about the impending attack, allowing him time to flee.
“It is a Muslim who warned us, but I would be lying if I say that I am not angry with the Muslims for attacking us,” said Narzary. “We won’t forget, but we may learn to forgive.”
The formation of BTAD has failed to meet the common man’s aspirations and has benefited only a narrow class of Bodo elites and contractors, says Akhil Gogoi, who heads the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and is one of the state’s most influential political activists. Neither the BTAD leadership nor the minority leadership has any vision for development and both gain from the polarization across ethnic lines, he adds.
There are larger issues as well.
The mass displacement in western Assam is one of the biggest humanitarian crises the country has ever faced and the conflict in the region, so close to the strategically crucial “chicken’s neck”, among the more complicated ones in India’s frontiers, poses a security risk. The chicken’s neck refers to a stretch of land just 20km wide that links the North-East with the rest of India.
At West Gumargaon, meanwhile, people like Rahman are caught between a rock and a hard place.
“We supported the movement for BTAD, and took part in their rallies, but now Bodo leaders have turned their back on us,” says Rahman. “Our own community leaders have turned brokers and are siphoning off relief funds, denying us our dues.”
“We haven’t got any money to rebuild our homes and living in this fashion is tough,” says Rahman, who is among those considered “rehabilitated” in official records.
“All I crave for is a good night’s sleep.”
This is the first of a two-part Mint series exploring the roots of the simmering territorial and economic insecurities that resulted in the violence in Assam earlier this year.