BODO, IMMIGRANTVIO SHAKES ASSAM LENCE
Communal hatred ravages the state as old tensions surface. The chief minister’s ineptness deepens the crisis.
Ameena Begum, 46, was waiting for her son, Sanwar Ali, to come home for lunch after working in the family’s one bigha plot at Makhanaguri village in Chirang district. It was 2 p. m. on July 22 when neighbours brought home Ali’s body. He had been shot dead. She fled from there, taking her daughter- in- law and grandson with her, seeking shelter in a jungle until they found their way to a makeshift refugee camp in a primary school in Purani Bijni, 20 km away. With little food in the camp and nowhere else to go, Ameena doesn’t know where her next meal will come from. Fifteen kilometres away in Khujuramguri, a pregnant Sushila Bodo, 22, and her family saw smoke rising from a neighbouring Muslim settlement. Fearing retaliation, they fled to a relief camp and on July 23, amid strangers and without any medical care, Sushila gave birth to a baby boy.
Over 47 people have been killed in sectarian violence in Assam since July 20, when violence broke out in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts ( BTAD). Muslims perceive it as a well thought out plan to drive them out of BTAD. Among the dead are 11 Bodos. “If it was a communal riot, the toll would have been much higher. But the attackers are targeting our homes. The Bodos don’t want us in Bodoland,” says Jamil Ali, 35, from Howrahguri village in Chirang district, whose house was burned down and vehicle taken away.
Ali could be right. Muslim villages in Chirang district have been torched but there is hardly any damage to Bodo set- tlements. But most Bodos are in relief camps, fearing retaliation. The violence has escalated. Over 200,000 people from 400 villages have moved to 120 relief camps without sanitation or medical care, and barely enough to eat.
The state government had adequate warning of trouble brewing. On July 7, state Congress Vice- President Y. L. Karna went to Kokrajhar following the murder of two minority student leaders on July 6. Karna told INDIA TODAY that in his report submitted to Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, he had written that the simmering tension between Bodos and Muslims— mostly illegal immigrants from Bangladesh— could soon escalate into a riot if immediate steps were not taken to prevent it. The chief minister did not react till Kokrajhar started burning two weeks later. Gogoi held a meeting with top police officials on July 8 to review the law and order situation, but the report was not discussed. “Had the chief minister swung into action then, lives could have been saved,” Karna said.
Some Muslim organisations allege the government is in collusion with the attackers. “On July 22, no government force was deployed to our village. But we found a bullet that belongs to Assam Police during the attack that day. Bodo teenagers were shooting at us,” says Saiful Haq, 28, president of Bijni unit of All BTAD Minority Students Union.
That the government’s response to the attack has been lacklustre is evident from the resignation of Bijni SDPO Narayan Das. Sources close to Das told INDIA TODAY that the SDPO was asked not to take action against the rioters. His request for more forces was also turned
down. “He saw no point in donning the uniform as he could not save lives,” says a police officer in Bijni.
There are other indicators to suggest that the current clash could have been planned against Muslim settlers. While two villages, Bhelatol and Basarbari, in Chirang district have become ghost settlements, it’s business as usual in adjacent Batabari, dominated by KochRajbangshi tribals of Assam. Barring three Muslim homes, not a single other home was torched in Batabari. In Basarbari and Bhelatol too, Bodo homes remained untouched. “We knew we wouldn’t be affected,” says Manoranjan Barman, 38, a Rajbangshi farmer from Batabari, as he ploughs his land while convoys of armed forces drive past.
“The attackers knew which houses belonged to Muslims. The idea is not to kill us but to drive us out,” says Haq. Agrees a senior Congress MLA who did not want to be named: “The next target will be Adivasis. The Bodos don’t want non- Bodos in their land. Soon they will restart their agitation for a separate Bodoland and there will be none to oppose inside their territory.”
BTAD is administered by Bodoland Territorial Council ( BTC), an autonomous council which formed after the signing of a tripartite peace accord among Bodo Liberation Tigers militants, the Assam government and the Centre in February 2003. BTC Deputy Chairman Kampa Borgoyri’s statement that Muslims who have fled the area should not be allowed to return points a finger at BTC’s role in the violence. “If they return, it will lead to problems,” he said.
On July 6 two members of the All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union were shot dead by unidentified people at Anthihara in Kokrajhar district. Soon after, unidentified men fired at a group of people killing one person on the spot while another succumbed to his injuries in the hospital. On July 20, four activists of former militant outfit Bodo Liberation Tigers were shot dead by unidentified persons in Joypur. In retaliation, armed Bodos attacked Muslims and soon violence spread across the four districts of BTAD— Chirang, Baska, Kokrajhar and Sonitpur— and Bongaigaon and Dhuburi.
AMAN CARRIES THE BODYOFA BABYKILLED DURING COMMUNAL VIOLENCE IN KOKRAJHAR ON JULY 22