Why this hot wind blows

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 36, Dated 08 Sept 2012[1]

Even if the contested migrants were shunted out, the Bodos would still have many adversaries in Assam. Jay Mazoomdaar and Ratnadip Choudhury explain why

ON 25 August, a group of Muslim youths from the Amguri High School-turned-relief camp in Chirang left for their home at Mongolian Bazaar village close to Bijni town in Chirang. They were intercepted at Choudhurypara, apparently at gunpoint, chased and hacked to death. Five were killed, one is missing and their two pick-up tempos driven away and set on fire.

Choudharypara is a Bodo village flanked by Muslim villages and surrounded by pockets of Koch Rajbongshi settlements, one of the many tribes of Assam. The bodies of the five men lay by the roadside, in paddy fields, suggesting the victims had run for their lives. “This is not a hilly area and the road (quality) is not bad. A speeding vehicle with a Muslim driver would not stop if a Bodo waves,” said a senior CRPF officer at the spot. “We are sure armed rebels must have stopped them at gunpoint.” The two pick-up tempos were found charred the next day.

“Some people would have noticed their movement and timings,” said a source in the state intelligence. Indeed, the victims had been recently moving between the relief camp and their village daily, shifting household items and cattle, under pressure from the administration. On the day the five youths were killed, they had already made two trips back and forth; they set out at 4 pm on what was to be their last.

The next day, the Muslim settlers blocked the national highway and rail link, protesting against the killings. Lower Assam was back to square one.

It has been six weeks since the present cycle of violence was triggered after four former Bodo militants were lynched in Kokrajhar on 20 July. Tension had been simmering, though, since 29 May when Bodos and Muslims fought over an idgah maidan on forestland. That feud claimed its first victim, a Muslim, on 6 July. Next, two local Muslim student-leaders were grievously injured in a gunfire. on 19 July. The killing of the Bodo youths the next day was the proverbial last straw.

The spiral of violence that followed has claimed nearly 90 lives so far and is still continuing. As homeless Bodos and Muslims made their way to relief camps — said to be India’s biggest internal exodus of around 5 lakh people — instigatory SMSes, MMSes and blog videos, purportedly from Muslim groups, spread across the country, triggering random attacks against people from the Northeast. Thousands rushed home to safety from across India. But for the majority of the displaced, in hundreds of relief camps at the epicenter of the tragedy, home is still a dangerous word.

The current spate of violence is but the latest episode in a two-decade-long conflict between Bodos and other ethnic groups. From the call of the Plain Tribals Council of Assam in 1967 for a separate Udayachal, to the All Bodo Students’ Union’s demand for “50-50 division” of Assam in 1987, Bodos have always sought to protect their identity and land against non-Bodos.

The bipartite Bodo Accord of 1993 collapsed within a year in the face of a brutal spate of violence. In 1994, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) demanded a sovereign state. Two years on, the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) was formed, many believe as a RAW-prop, to take on the NDFB.

The mass surrender of BLT cadres in 2003 led to the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) under an agreement between the BLT and the state and central governments. The “reformed” BLT leadership launched a political outfit that soon split into the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and the Bodoland Progressive People’s Front (BPPF).

Former BLT chief Hagrama Mohilary is the head of the BPF, which has been in control of the BTC since its inception, with Hagrama as its chief executive. The BTC runs the show in Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri, the designated Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD). Meanwhile, the NDFB signed a ceasefire with the Centre in 2005 and the group split between the pro-talk (NDFB-PTF) and antitalk (NDFB-ATF) factions, the latter led by Ranjan Daimary, who is now in jail.

Since the early days of the Bodoland movement, different Bodo outfits have frequently attacked and killed scores of non-Bodos, including Koch-Rajbongshis (2002), Adivasis (1996 and 1998), Assamese (2009), Biharis (2010), Nepalis (2009), Bengali Hindus (1994-1995) and Bengali Muslims (1993, 1994 and 2008).

In the last decade, the Bodoland movement has largely been reduced to a brutal extortion syndicate. A number of Muslim villagers in different relief camps testified that each village paid Rs 2 lakh in tax to the NDFB every year. They have little choice. The memory of the Bhimajuli massacre in 2009 when 14 Assamese and Nepalis were gunned down in Sonitpur district for refusing to pay the NDFB is still fresh in the state.

The resulting mistrust, animosity and counter-violence have indeed made this stretch of Assam, to quote Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, a volcano. But much of this descent into chaos progressed under his deliberate watch.

 • •

Sifting through claims and counter-claims, it can be concluded, with a degree of certainty, that the lynching on 20 July of four ex-BLT youth was triggered by a longstanding resentment against extortion by former Bodo militants. While the killing of three Muslims earlier in July was the immediate provocation, a number of factors aggravated the Muslim discontent in the BTAD in recent months.

The BPF was instrumental in forming the All Bodo Minority Students Union (ABMSU) which backed the party in the initial years. But the educated Muslim youth soon realised that the Bodos monopolised economic opportunities in the BTAD. Resentment also grew among the politically ambitious minorities. In the 46-member BTC, six are government appointees, 30 seats are reserved for Bodos and the remaining 10 divided equally between general and non-Bodo members. Competing with other non-Bodos for this limited political opportunity, the Muslim politiicians of the BTAD soon realised that they would never find a voice against the overwhelming Bodo majority in the council.

The dissent reached its boiling point a few months ago when rumour spread that the NDFB was paving the way for a union territory of Bodoland. Already cornered in the BTC, the non-Bodos feared for their future. All those fears came true when the NDFB claimed that it had bargained with the Centre for a Bodo battalion and began to train Bodo youth in the villages “for the army”.

Muslims in the BTAD began to assert themselves through frequent mass rallies. Hostile wall writings against the BTC became common in Muslim villages. But when they tried to enforce a bandh in Kokrajhar, the Bodo seat of power, the balance was tipped.

• • •

The government, admit senior ministers in the Gogoi government, had no inkling that the discontent was fast approaching its threshold. The state administration has long been following an unstated doctrine of minimum interference in what it perceives as a sustained political, rather than a law-and-order, problem in the BTAD.

After failing to pre-empt the showdown, Gogoi drew flak for failing to intervene in time.

As the toll touched 73 on 6 August, he asked for a CBI probe. In an attempt at damage control after LK Advani’s visit, the CM insisted that all people in relief camps were Indians and dared the BJP to visit a camp and pluck out one illegal migrant.

Then, in less than two weeks, the CM made two unprecedented moves. On 22 August, he asserted that only genuine Indian citizens would return to their villages from the relief camps: “There is no question of rehabilitating illegal immigrants. Providing relief on humanitarian grounds is completely different.” The next day, his police arrested Pradeep Brahma, an influential Bodo MLA allegedly involved in the violence.

Perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal’s political ambition drew him closer to the Congress but Gogoi apparently snubbed his overtures. Ajmal launched his own political outfit in 2005. On paper, the All India United Democratic Front’s (AIUDF) objective was to defend the interest of the oppressed minority. In public, it aspired to give Assam its first non-Assamese speaking chief minister.

In 2006, the AIUDF debuted in the state Assembly with 10 seats, five of those earlier held by the Congress, and an 8 percent vote share. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, Ajmal won from Dhubri and his party secured the highest vote share in 25 Assembly segments. In last year’s Assembly poll, the AIUDF’s tally reached 18 and its vote share crossed 13 percent. The party emerged as the principal Opposition.

Before the 2011 polls, when the Congress was uncertain about a clear majority, Ajmal had offered to back the party in a possible post-poll alliance if Bhubaneswar Kalita, the state Congress chief, and not Gogoi, were made the chief minister. Gogoi survived the scare with a sweeping majority but next time he may not be as lucky. “Eventually they (the Congress) will not be able to do without us, it is a matter of time,” Aminul Islam, AIUDF General Secretary, told TEHELKA.

Any victimhood, perceived or real, leads to further gravitation of Muslim votes towards the AIUDF and Ajmal has not missed an opportunity to cash in on the ongoing violence. A month into the clashes, the CM could not be seen as complacent to Bodo offenders any more. So Brahma was picked up by the police.

• • •

Muslims were not the only restive lot in the BTAD. In 2006, the Congress depended on the BPF’s 11 MLAs (rather than the AIUDF’s 10) to form the government. In the run-up to the 2011 polls, an unsure Congress stoked BPF aspirations to emerge a bigger kingmaker. Though the BPF maximised its BTAD seats in 2011, the Congress swept the polls. The BPF’s share in the Cabinet was reduced to one.

The BPF’s political frustration was compounded by the emerging challenge from within the community. Before last year’s election, the NDFB left the Bodo National Conference, an umbrella organisation of Bodo outfits floated in 2010 to rein in fratricidal killings, because the BPF refused to share the 12 BTAD seats with the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF), the political front of the NDFB.

The BPF leadership, sources maintain, politiis also getting fidgety about being kept in the dark on the peace talks between the Centre and the NDFB. When the peace negotiations work out with the two NDFB factions, the BPF will have to share power with them, ending their free run over BTAD politics.

The emerging challengers might well break ground, given the discontent in BTAD districts over widespread corruption in the BTC, lack of coordination with the state bureaucracy and the excesses committed by former BLT cadres. A cornered Hagrama had to revive the demand for statehood before the 2011 election to tide over these misgivings.

Death knell Bodies of victims killed outside a relief camp in Chirang

Photo: Ujjal Deb

The insecurity hit a peak with the formation of the Oboro (non-Bodo) Suraksha Samiti five months ago by Congress BTC member Kalilur Rehman. In May, Hagrama accused Rehman of creating communal tension in Goreswar and “playing a destructive role” in seeking “to divide Bodos and non-Bodos”. When violence erupted after 20 July, say ex-BLT sources, the BPF leadership had reasons to welcome an upsurge of nationalism.

On 2 August, when an All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) delegation visited the CM, Gogoi was as usual all ears. “Gogoi assured us that everyone will be sent home from the camps by 15 August. Then he went back on his word,” Abdul Aziz, ex-president and adviser of AAMSU, told TEHELKA.

In the last decade, the recurrent ethnic violence in Assam has drawn little outside attention, but for the customary visit and communal rhetoric from Advani. But this time, Ajmal played to his growing support base by calling for dissolution of the BTC. The national ramification of statements made by Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen put Gogoi in a tighter spot. Then the violent protest in Mumbai on 11 August and subsequent exodus of Northeasterners from across the country created an emotive space for all non-Congress organisations in the state to close ranks, blaming the government for leniency towards illegal migrants and demanding action against Ajmal.

As trains kept bringing people to Guwahati, the wave of emotions threatened to affect the non-Muslim vote that ensured a thumping Congress victory last year. Before arresting Brahma, Gogoi had to concede that his government would not rehabilitate Muslims from any camp without ascertaining their Indian identity.

The so-called Bodo cause against illegal migrants has strengthened the unity of disparate forces in Assam since. “Brothers have no fight among themselves. We all are together against illegal migrants,” says AASU ideologue and the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) chief Samujjwal Bhattacharya. His claims belie the long history of violence among different ethnic groups of Assam as also attacks on Indians from other states.

Anjali Daimari, sister of jailed NDFB leader Ranjan Daimari, accepts that even if the illegal migrants are deported overnight, Bodos will still have too many indigenous adversaries in the state. Then she quickly returns to the illegal migrant issue: “Riots and floods are festivals for them when they use the camps to settle in. In 2008, around 12,000 Muslims in relief camps did not have either voter’s card or land patta. We opposed their rehabilitation but all of them slipped out and occupied land wherever possible.”

This time, though, it may not be easy. While the Congress government is trying to go by the 2011 voter’s list to identify and rehabilitate people to their villages, there is pressure to ascertain individual identity as per the Assam Accord. While the AASU has finally agreed to accept people who entered Assam before 1971, others such as the NDFB stick to the demand of 1951 as the cut-off year.

What unfolded in the week after 20 July, was orchestrated violence from both sides till the Muslims ran out of steam. After a brief lull, the miscreants are now launching targeted attacks and also trying to spread the tension beyond the BTAD areas. “The purpose of these typically low-casualty, high-impact attacks seems to be to keep the scare alive so that people do not leave relief camps. To that end, the attacks are also suitably timed a few days apart,” explains a source in the security forces.

The gruesome killing of five men from the Chirang relief camp on 25 August followed two days of peace. On 22 August, two young Muslim petty fishermen were shot dead and one sustained bullet injuries near Chapar on the Kokrajhar–Dhubri border. This attack too came after two incident-free days that created a false sense of security.

At the Hapacharra relief camp in Bongaigaon district, a few Muslim families that had gone back to their village in Chirang returned after violence revived. “We came here on 23 July after 13 Muslim villages in our area were attacked. We tried to return to our village, Bhawanipur, after the officials asked us to. But we came back since there is no police picket,” says Muzamul Haq, 36.

Ashok Mushahary, 21, has the same complain at a Bodo relief camp in Titaguri: “My house in Malgaon is gutted. It was the last Bodo village before the Muslim settlement starts. My brothers have gone there. Nobody has assessed the damage, there is no police or Army.”

Assam Police DGP Jayanto Narayan Choudhury claims there is a security picket for every 3-5 villages. Driving to Malgaon, about 35 km from Kokrajhar town, TEHELKA did not find a single picket in a cluster of 13 villages. Ashok’s brother Swapan, 26, stood guarding a charred structure that was their home for four generations.

“Everything was broken, all valuables have been looted and cattle taken away. I don’t think we can start life all over again,” Swapan broke down. The girl he loved and was about to marry is in a relief camp with her family. He is not sure if she will return and even if she does, what he has to offer.

Before flying to New Delhi, BTC chief Mohilary appeared unusually poised at Kokrajhar this weekend: “We are not against the Muslims. But we want only those people with proper land patta and citizenship certificates to be rehabilitated. We want a mandatory citizenship and land record check of every refugee in every camp. Our genuine Muslim brothers will definitely get their land rights if they have patta, but we cannot allow encroachment of our forestland.”

Muslim leaders have also upped the ante, apparently preparing for a long haul. Leaders from the AIUDF and the AAMSU have asked the displaced not to leave relief camps till the security situation improves.

While the Centre has rescued Gogoi by asking the Army to launch a counter-insurgency operation against the armed Bodo rebels, the CM is yet to crack down on the organised propaganda that is provoking Muslims in the camps and elsewhere. TEHELKA has copies of morphed inflammatory videos being circulated in almost all Muslim relief camps. In one such video, the killing of a Bangladeshi intruder by BSF personnel is portrayed as the killing of a Muslim youth on the bank of the Gaurang River in Kokrajhar by Bodo rebels.

Illegal migration is very much a reality in Assam. But the AIUDF and the AAMSU leaders are livid that the numbers are “absurdly inflated to create a fear psychosis”. The steady flow of a large number of new settlers in towns and districts, they say, is due to internal migration. Over four lakh hectare has been lost to floods and erosion since 1951 in Assam.

But in the context of the BTAD, the rise in Muslim population in the bordering Dhubri district is more of a threat perception than an immediate cause for alarm. In fact, the steady fall in the population of Kokrajhar district is an obvious sign of non-Bodos — Muslims and others — leaving the BTAD heartland in substantial numbers.

In 2010, a pilot project to upgrade the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was put on hold after four AAMSU supporters died in police firing while opposing the move as a witch-hunt against genuine Assamese minorities. “The bogey of illegal migrant tag has haunted us for so long now that we also want the identity issue settled for good,” says AAMSU’s Aziz. “But the government does not have the full NRC records of 1951 or the complete voting list of 1971. Moreover, everybody says that identity proofs are fake. So how will one prove one’s citizenship?”

With even Muslim organisations not opposed to the idea, it is intriguing who benefits from delaying a ground-truthing that can settle the issue. “Nobody, including the AASU, wants to settle the illegal migrant issue. This is the political plank for all parties in Assam and without it we will all feel lost,” says AIUDF General Secretary Aminul Islam.

But what will befall those, irrespective of numbers, identified as illegal immigrants in any enumeration agreeable to all sides? There is little chance that Bangladesh will accept them back. While Bhattacharya says the illegal immigrants can be given limited (“second class”) citizenship, Daimari suggests they can be “distributed among other states so that the burden is divided”.

• • •

When the BLT surrendered, its cadres gave up around 1,000 guns, mostly countrymade. A large number of sophisticated automatic weapons remain with the former militants of BLT and NDFB. Besides, Bodos have not been the only militant group in the region. With almost every ethnic group having its own militant outfit, weapons are plenty in supply.

Sources in the security forces maintain that most sophisticated weapons in circulation in Assam are made in China and enter through Nagaland, peddled by the NSCN. While Chittagong has been a prime hub of arms smuggling, a few caches of weapon cross the Bangladesh border.

With so many weapons in the hands of the Bodo rebels, it is no surprise that many dead among Muslims were victims of gunshots. The Bodo leadership does not like to be quizzed about the use of automatic weapons. “Assam had a history of insurgency and it is natural that illegal weapons might remain with some people. It is the duty of the state government to seize them,” says Mohilary.

AIUDF’s Islam dismisses the intelligence claim that Islamic terrorist outfits are flourishing along the Assam-Bangladesh border and backing the Muslim resistance in BTAD. “We don’t know what the ISI is up to. But if the poor farmers had guns, would they be at the mercy of Bodo gunmen?” he asks.

After the Bodo rebels went on a killing spree in 1993, the refugees stayed in relief camps till 1995 when the government took them to their native villages, providing temporary shelters and security. But in 2000, the government decided to withdraw security and Bodo rebels again chased them out. Refugee camps in Bongaigaon filled up again.

“There are 10,000 people, all Muslims, petty farmers, driven out in the similar fashion by the Bodos. The same is happening again. If the government could not rehabilite 10,000 people in two decades, how can it send back lakhs?” asks Habiluddin Ahmed who describes himself as “a permanent refugee in his own country”.

The methodical attacks of the past few days to sustain the fear seem to justify Ahmed’s skepticism. Unclaimed attacks by non-Bodo groups — Kamtapur Liberation organisation (KLO) hand is already suspected in some attacks — may further muddy the waters. Even the ULFA has threatened to hit “Indians in Assam”.

The insistence on identity checks before rehabilitation will also prolong the misery setand deepen the anger of the displaced. The 2008 bloodshed was triggered by an aggressive AASU campaign to determine the identity of Muslims in the state, which angered Muslim student organisations and, in turn, led to a violent Bodo retaliation. If illegal migrants are threatened again, a more organised and aggrieved Muslim community may retaliate.

“More than anything, these events have deeply polarised a secular state and we will realise the damage in the next election. For now, it may take much more than the usual couple of months to reach a temporary truce. This time the Muslims are unlikely to concede ground because they know the nation is watching,” explains a senior intelligence officer.

That grim forecast rings true, especially given the sense of victimhood on both sides. “Everybody here is anti-Bodo. We have been exploited and denied our rights for too long. Today, we are blamed even if someone gets a skin rash. Today, we are pitted against illegal migrants. Yesterday, it was the Adivasi. Tomorrow, it will be somebody else. There will be no lasting peace unless there is a change in this anti- Bodo psyche,” says Anjali Daimari.

Will that history of persecution ensure the Bodos treat others as equals in the BTAD or will they continue to live by the gun? “Of course, every community is equal,” she cuts in. “But that land is ours.”

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.

Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.


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