Bongaigaon, Assam: Deepari Narjary, 90, defied age and escaped the arson that killed many younger people, including perhaps her children and grandchildren, in her village in Assam’s Chirang district on Monday.

The killing of four Bodo youths in the neighbouring Kokrajhar district on 20 July triggered a communal clash between native Bodos and Muslim immigrants. The unrest spread like a forest fire across four districts—Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri; it has so far claimed more than 50 lives and left around 400,000 people homeless.

The exodus from the districts continues.

Crash and burn: Deepari Narjary, 90, is at the Kajalgaon high school, a relief camp site in Chirang district. Photograph by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint.

It isn’t the first time the Bodos are fighting Bangladeshi immigrants—Assam has been on the boil for decades—but never before has the state witnessed a humanitarian crisis of this order.

On 23 July, Narjary fled her home after it was burnt down by rioters, with only a soot-covered kettle in hand, to seek shelter at the Kajalgaon high school, one of the 62 relief camps in Chirang—the school is now home to some 500 Bodos from the neighbouring villages.

Traumatized, Narjary is unable to say much about her children and grandchildren—they were in the village when it all happened, and she isn’t sure they have survived. As she tries to speak, she pours water into her mouth from the kettle, its soot cover a dark reminder of the charred household she has left behind.

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At the core of the clashes is a struggle for control of land. The Bodos allege the immigrants are fast taking over their land. They have even formed a political party, have lawmakers representing them, and have the resources to fight a bloody war.

The immigrants have a different story to tell. “Tribals with arms surrounded our village. They attacked our homes, set fire to our crops. We somehow managed to save our cattle and flee with our children. We don’t know about our menfolk. They say we are immigrants, but we have been here for 30 years or so," says Jahanara Begum, in her 40s, now staying at the Basugaon relief camp in Chirang.

Both communities have suffered casualties—such is the animosity between the two sides now that the administration cannot risk keeping the Bodos and Muslims in the same camp.

The living conditions are terrible. For instance, there are no toilets at a camp in Basugaon where some 5,500 Bangladeshi immigrants have taken shelter. Most of the inmates complain of an inadequate supply of food and medicines. “We have had rice and salt, one meal yesterday. Today, we are fasting as no food has come," says 50-something Domai Basumataray.

romita.d@livemint.com

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