NOTES FROM THE GROUND ZERO: KHAGRABARI VIOLENCE

Fragile Politics, Illegal Settlers and Rangers’ Fury

By M MOCHAHARI| The Password | JUNE 2014

IT WAS A BRIGHT HOT Sunday morning of May when I stepped out of a crowded metro station to meet a handful of Northeast’s well known intellectuals currently based in New Delhi. The general elections were just concluded. It was before the counting of the general elections results. The entire nation was anxiously waiting for who would become the next Prime Minister- RaGa or NaMo? Primarily the idea was to extract some expert opinions on the possible electoral outcome in the Northeast region. However an unexpected killing of thirty-six migrant Muslim settlers in Assam’s Baksa district on 2 May 2014 shifted the whole arena of the discussion. Although I tried to avoid the contentious Bodoland issue and its repercussion in the Bodo frontier, it was pulled into the discussion. I spent two weeks in Delhi meeting some key opinion makers of Northeast, including a handful of politicians. However, by default my conversations in Delhi, also in Guwahati immensely narrowed down the possibilities of broader understanding of protracted tension and complex political geography in Bodoland – a region which has been breaking the media headlines for all the wrong reasons. As usual, one expected unqualified response was that fanciful territorial aspiration by Bodo tribe is perceived as a potential challenge to multicultural coexistence in Assam. I have no idea what political theory or methodology was applied to arrived to this authoritative discourse. It was reiterated that the quest for “Bodoland” or the campaign “Divide Assam Fifty-Fifty” is exceedingly producing unpredictable social unrests in the region. Violence, that keep visiting in this part of the country is the direct result of this fanciful territorial arithmetic, they argued. Such narratives, in all practical sense, confirm to the hegemonic discourse that persist in Assam’s political discourse. Apart from being a speculative in nature, such diabolical narratives fail to explain the state’s abdication of responsibility and failure of the successive State government while addressing the genuine grievances of the tribal communities, whose development imaginations are always placed at the footnote. Problems, whether political or ethnic divides, or instances of killings has been the result of unwise political reactions by the state itself, to the needs of the local communities. In a situation, where the state itself is failing to fulfil even some basic socio-economic needs, agitation is bound to happen.

One authoritative argument, often put forwarded by political scientists is that the notion of territorial governance is yet to reach its finest shape. The concept of democracy and peoples desire to be liberated from political entrapment is a political phenomena. This has precisely been the logic of innumerable political unrests taking place across the globe. From the global north to the global south there is an endless story of democratic and non-democratic uprisings. And, where democratic revolution has failed, people have picked up guns to fight against the brutal system. The Northeast region is no exception to varied political agitations. Assam, which is the gateway to Northeast, is leading from the front. Since, 1967, there has been endless political agitation across the state. The Bodo movement is one among them. However, it is often agreed that the Bodo political agitation (began in the late 1967s) tremendously contributed to decentralization of power and creation of tribal autonomous/development councils in Assam. For instance, Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council, Mising Autonomous Council, Tiwa Autonomous Council, and numerous other autonomous councils were created after the Bodos movement.

To me, the aforesaid political narratives on of the contentious political unrest in Bodoland rather appeared deceptive and ambiguous. It is over simplified. Pragmaticism, or for that matters say theoretical clarity, as regards to why Bodos are actually demanding homeland was missing. And, why each and every incidents/violence that keep occurring in Bodoland areas need to be located within the language of the Bodo movement? Why the Bodo tribe and suspected immigrants Muslims from Bangladesh have to engage in an endless existential struggle? Are not the State’s invincible political entrepreneurs involved? Are those violence not designed elsewhere and implemented in the sacred tribal geography where the blame can be so easily passed on to the unknown ghost? I found no clear answer to these pertinent questions. It is perplexing. Deeply unsatisfactory. Uninterrupted flow of one-sided narratives were pretty old-fashioned and disconnected from the fragile political situation. It was perhaps a two-dimensional perspective that can hardly explain a situation which has assumed a multidimensional character over the years. I have no reason to question the originality of their thoughts, but I have no appetite for a black and white perspective. In a situation of complete political marginalization, exploitation and state negligence towards the indigenous community, including all other tribal groups, tribal uprising is bound to happen. The government itself is party to decades of exploitation of tribal communities. There are twenty-two tribal communities in Assam. Unlike the hills tribal tribes, the plains tribal communities such as Bodos, Rabhas, Tiwas, Missing, Garo, never came under the ambit of Constitutional protection. It was after the formation of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in February 2003, the Bodos (a largest community in Northeast India) were given a limited constitutional/political space by amending certain provisions of the Sixth Schedule of Indian Constitution. However, a practical functional democratic autonomy is still a political nightmare even in the case of BTC.

One should not be shocked to read that all tribal communities in Assam, including the tea tribes are at the lowest socioeconomic strata. For instance, the literacy rate among the Bodos is little more than 44 per cent and that of Rabha tribe is less than 35 per cent. As per the 2011 census, average literacy rate in Assam is 78 percent. It is unbelievable that in the twenty-first century the literacy rate among Assam’s tribal communities is negligible. As of now, 90 percent Bodos depend on agriculture and allied activities for their livelihood, but over 70 per cent Bodos are landless due to poverty, land alienation and encroachments in the tribal areas by non-tribal communities. Ironically the tea tribes, who are enslaved in the ’empire’s garden’ (tea gardens) continue to live in inhuman conditions. There are about 800 big tea gardens in Assam. Similarly, communities such as Tiwa, Garo, Nepali, Mising are in the same pool of economic backwardness. Who take stock of their tragedies? Who is responsible for economic marginalization? In all accounts, since India’s independence in 1947, Assam has been ruled by the Assamese linguistic community. Politics, bureaucracy, and all government apparatus, are tightly controlled by them. An elderly poor many in a tribal village in Udalguri said, “We have seen and experienced multiple layers of Assamese hegemony over the years. I am about to embrace my coffin but I haven’t seen a slightest change in Assam politics even today.” Statement like this one, perhaps is distinctive enough to tell the true of Assam that is not often told in the public sphere. But reality manufactured in the media lab, have become a source people’s knowledge.

In the third week of May, I preferred to invest my little time to investigate the truth on my own. Fuelled by my intense curiosity to get an insight story on the Khagrabari violence, I made a trip to the ground zero. The place is located approximately 170 km from Assam’s capital city Guwahati. My friend was deeply excited; equally worried because he was warned that travelling in Bodoland is risky at times. But this wasn’t the case. He enjoyed the exotic landscape of Bodoland. Of course, the Manas National Park was fascinating. “It is not that troublesome as has been often framed in media. It is just like any other nondescript landscape I travelled across the country”, he told me. It took four hours from Guwahati city to reach Khagrabari village. After three days of inquiry in the area, also a couple of interviews with the locals, I found the debate -“ethnic cleansing” by Bodos against the minority Muslim community rather contentious. Such narratives possibly egg out of hatred toward the Bodos who continue to challenge the socio-cultural and political hegemony of the Assamese ruling elites. To me, in its entirety, it is a problematic way of conceptualizing issue to further complicate the situation by adding more fuels to the fire. Humanists will have a tough time to accept such this fanciful explanation. People are simple. They are least worried about their political belonging. My co-traveller had a similar observation. Although we had differences in our initial understanding of the problem, but after the field visit, we came to a same conclusion that there is hardly any chance of ethnic divide in the area. The question of ‘ethnic cleansing’ is inappropriate to be raised there. Neither the local Bodo tribe nor the Bengali Muslim migrant settlers were willing to accept such an explanation. They said, “The outsiders say whatever they like, but the stigma remains that is neither good for the tribals nor for us. We want peaceful coexistence”. Everyone does want peace.

Unqualified debate: Ethnic Cleansing

One fundamental question is: How does one translate a violence emerging out of an illegal poaching by illegal settlers into an “ethnic cleansing” by Bodos in Baksa district? I have no answer to it, but the media, politicians, and opinion makers in civil society have invented a magical formula to call each every incident “a peculiar case of ethnic cleansing’ against the minority Muslims. Wasn’t it a pure disinformation? Statistically, I find there is a systematic reverse form of ethnic cleansing of indigenous Bodo people taking place in Assam. The facts clearly indicate that in the past 27 years of Bodo political unrest, approximately 5,000 Bodo people were killed. This figure is not inclusive of those who died during ethnic tensions that devastated the region in 1993, 1996, 1998, 2008 and 2014. If  one estimate commulative deaths, on an average at least 185 Bodos were killed every year. Most killings were by security forces.While some died in mysterious circumstances. A sizeable number of (innocent) Bodo youths were suspected as militant and killed in stage-managed fake encounters by the paramilitary forces. And large number of civilians is put behind the bars without any trials. Of the total 1.5 million Bodos, over 9 lakhs (close to a million) Bodos have faced either direct or indirect violence till now. Confrontation among the Bodo leadership partly added agony to the community. Well these facts are written on the walls, but what do these statistics tell us? Who has appetite for genuine facts?

Again, one important question that must be raised here. The question is: How many suspected Bangladeshi Muslims died in the past 27 years in Bodoland to claim that they are facing a situation of ethnic cleansing? The conservative estimate says less than 300 Muslims (Bangladeshi immigrants) died in the region. A few thousand people has been displaced during ethnic disturbances in some pockets of Bodoland, but this figure is mere one-third of the total Bodos affected in the past three decades. I read over 500 news articles of some popular national and regional dailies/magazines (from 1993-2014) to estimate the actual number of deaths till now in Bodoland. It is surprising none of the news articles/editorials/opinions peices put an exact number of casualties. Ironically, over 400 news articles/opinion pieces examined, I found terms like “ethnic,  cleansing, genocide” etc were repeatedly used. But there were no facts to substantiate whether that is actually happening. There are no government statistics as well. My attempt to find some authentic government reports bore no results.

Subjective bias combined with unethical journalistic practices has been twisting the story. It has been for several years, people are being told this story. Moreover, facts are miscalculated to create a virtual situation of enmity. The only event that led to large scale killing of immigrant Muslims was the Assam Agitation launched by All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AGSP) between 1979 and 1985 against the Bangladeshi immigrants. Over 2000-plus alleged immigrants were killed by the agitators at Nellie in Nagaon district of Assam. The incident is notoriously known as “Nellie Massacre.” This gruesome incident was not even remotely connected to Bodo unrest. Bodo leaders did not participate in the Assam Agitation. However, there is an attempt made in different quarters to connect this genocide to the Bodo agitation. Such falsification of unconnected events will produce dangerous consequences. Bodo movement began in 1986, that is after four years of the Nellie Massacre.

Who really is Minority Community in Assam? 

Of Assam’s total population 3.12 crores (Census 2011), Muslims community constitute 34 percent (2011 Census). A single largest community that is able to influence 54 Assam Assembly seats and four Parliamentary Constituencies. Total tribal population is 12.5 percent, and Assamese linguistic community (read as ruling elites) is close to 15 percent. The rest belong to other smaller groups such as Bengali Hindus, Koch-Rajbongshis, Sarania Kachari, Nepali, Tea tribe, etc. There are 126 Assembly constituencies and 14 Parliamentary Constituencies in Assam. The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF was formed in 2005), which is strongly supported by the religious minority (Muslims) in Assam is the Opposition party in the State Assembly. The party won three parliamentary seats in the last General Elections held in May 2014. Currently the AIUDF is a kingmaker in Assam’s politics, and Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) has been reduced to unheard political party. AGP did offspring from the Assam Agitation (1979-1985) against the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants launched by AASU. Indigenous Bodo tribe does not enjoy such a favourable political space. Politically, except the Muslim community, no community enjoys such an enormous political space in the State. I would say, the now political and numerically a privileged class. In the backdrop of rising AIUDF, the Assamese linguistic community, is finding hard to navigate their control over State’s politics. The traditional vote bank (illegal Bangladeshi immigrants) of the Assamese ruling elites has shifted in favour of AIUDF. The party is able to capitalised its numerical strength. The party is even trying to make entry in the forthcoming BTC election likely to be held in April 2015.

The 46-member BTC council is still in an experimental stage. It was formed to fulfil some basic socio-economic and cultural interests of the community, but the real democratic political autonomy of the Bodos is still a nightmare. The Council has neither financial power nor political authority to function independently unless the State government supplies fresh oxygen. It does not have financial autonomy. Bodos lost even the single reserved Kokrajhar Parliamentary seat in the last general elections. Former member of United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) Hira Sarania, who is alleged to have furnished a fake Scheduled Tribe (ST) certificate during the filing of his nomination paper for the election, won the Parliamentary elections from Kokrajhar ST Constituency. It is rather surprising that a non-scheduled Tribe, can furnish a fake caste certificate and contest in a reserved Parliamentary constituency in Assam. As per the official record, Sarania Kachari community, to which Hira Sara belongs, has never been recognised as Scheduled tribe. His electoral victory is still being challenged by some tribal organisations in Gauhati High Court. The final Court verdict is yet to be delivered. He was a sponsored candidate of three communities (Assamese, Muslims and Koch-Rajbongshi) who are challenging the notion of tribal autonomy in Bodoland.

The aforesaid facts tell us who actually minority community in Assam is. But a loosely categorized “religious minority” positioned them above the limit of sociological definition of community. The real problem/challenge in the entire Northeast India is all about ethnic minority or indigenous people. Whether it is tribal uprising in a remote Indo-Myanmar international border in Manipur or in Bodoland, the local tribal groups are fighting to negotiate rights of the indigenous people – right-to-self-determination. Nonetheless the problem of religious minority has become a talking point in Assam. It hardly deserves any critical political debate. It is quite contradictory. In a normal situation or whenever the demand for Bodoland gains momentum, there is a general consensus particularly among the suspected Bangladeshi immigrants and non-tribal communities that Bodos are minority in Bodoland area. Therefore the question of Bodo homeland is unthinkable. But whenever any violence occurs in the region, they brazenly shift their identity and claim that they are ethnic minority. People feel that this posturing of flexible identity has become an effective mechanism to ensure that they receive enough public sympathy and financial benefits. It has been a peculiar trend since 1986 when the political campaign “Divide Assam Fifty-Fifty” was launched by All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) under the leadership of influential tribal intellect Bodofa Upendra Nath Brahma. On the other hand, the Bodo agitators argue that they are majority constituting 70 percent of the total population in the region. They say “they do not have to count those who have settled illegally in the tribal areas”. There is a merit in the argument. If the tribal communities were not a majority in the area, the Bodoland region would not probably have come under notified as Tribal Belts and Blocks. Tribal Belts and Blocks were created in 1948 to restrict encroachment of non-tribals in tribal areas. However the provisions of tribal belts and blocks have remained a farce act. The Act is yet to be implemented in its letter and spirit. According to government statistics there are over 1.5 million non-tribals who have settled in the tribal areas. Currently there are at least 46 tribal belts and blocks in Assam, out of which 39 tribal belts and blocks fall in the proposed Bodoland state. It ranges up to twenty-five thousand square kilometres.

Illegal Settlement, Timber Smuggling, Rangers’ Fury

As I had more conversations and interviews, the truth emerged there has been a deep rooted conflict between the forest officers and the immigrants Muslim settlers. There is a general consensus that dispute between the forest rangers and the illegal poachers belonging to the migrant settlers led to the Khagrabari killings. It is agreed there was no such symptom of enmity among the local communities in the area. Moreover Baksa district has not witnessed any major conflict in the past. One interesting fact, often overlook by many observers, is that twelve years back the area where the incident took place, was actually inhabited by a single Bodo family. There were no Muslim settlers. It is a remote inaccessible area. It is a hostile geographical terrain where there is no means of livelihood. There are no proper healthcare facilities. The remote village is adjacent to the Manas National Park, which can only be reached by taking a boat across the Beki River. Since there is no source of livelihood in the area the Bodo family vacated the area and moved elsewhere. The family didn’t sell the land but just left it. Two years after they left the area, two illegal migrant families settled there. Many settled in the subsequent years. People alleged that this silent demographic transition in a protected area was under the nose of the government. But the State government turned a blind eye. Geographically the Manas National Park falls under the BTC Administration, but the Council does not have power to prevent land encroachment in the national park. The sole responsibility lies with the Assam government.

The Bodo family can’t reclaim that little plot of land. Any effort to reclaim that piece of land can only cause trouble. With gradual transformation of the area and growing population, the place which was initially called “Hagrabari” (forest areas in Bodo) was alleged to have been changed into “Khagrabari”. Similarly, “Narabari” village (Bodo word) came to be called as “Narayanguri” over the years. Most of the places are named in Bodo words in different parts of Assam. But over the years, these names have been renamed with some non-Bodo terms to represent non-tribal geographical meanings. For instance, previously called “Thalirbari” (Banana garden) in Udalguir district has been name as “Kolbari”, which is an Assamese word. Similarly, “Gossaigami” (God’s Village in Bodo) in Kokrajhar district has been renamed as “Gossaigaon”. These changes of names have been a silent process to de-identify specific tribal geographical characters. As alternative livelihood opportunities is unavailable there. It is alleged the settlers continue to engage in illegal timber business and poaching of endangered animals like Rhinos in the Manas National Park. A matured tree, which has high market value, can fetch around Rs. 60,000 in the market. It became their regular (illegal) business for years causing deforestation and poaching of endangered animals like one horned rhinos. People opined that despite being warned by the forest rangers/foresters they continued their illegal activities. Illegal poaching has been a serious challenge to protection of animals in all national parks in Assam. Particular, the Kaziranga National Park, Orang National Park and Manas National Park have witnessed series of poaching of one-horned rhinoceros over the years. Moreover encroachments in the protected forest areas have increased manifold times. The question of protection of national forest and endangered animals has been seriously undermined. A few attempts made by the government officials to evict forest encroachments created a political storm in Assam in the past.

According to the some local inhabitants, quite a handful of them were wanted for poaching in the national park. The foresters were alleged to be in the hit list of the poachers for opposing their illegal activities in the national park. They were targeted by poachers in numerous occasions. One forest ranger informed me that they are now sandwiched between the roaring tigers and the illegal poachers. What I perceive here is that it created a situation of virtual warfare between the forest officials and the illegal settlers. The villagers were well aware of this situation, but they didn’t move an inch to normalize the groundswell. As per the local source they were actually mentally prepared to challenge the forest rangers/officials who are ill equipped to handle such a situation. One of the poachers was arrested, but strongly resisted by them. People alleged this was the turning point in the whole game of death. So what happened on the fateful day of 2 May 2014 is the result of this virtual warfare between two opposing forces. Most them who died were women and children. What happened to the men in the village when the incident took place? Where were all the men when the incident occurred?

Twisting the Story Around?

It ended where it began, but the debate has been pulled beyond Khagrabari village and given a communal polishing. The incident has been termed as an “ethnic cleansing by Bodos” although this was not case. Wild theories such as “movement of militants” and “presence of unidentified tribal youths” were constructed. How genuine are the post conflict narratives? Killing in any form is unacceptable, but communalising the issue is often more destructive than the real events taking place on the ground. But this has been a notorious trend in Assam, where influential opinion makers/elites take advantage of the incapacity of the tribal intellectuals to deliver timely and accurate information. In this endless blame-game, the damage has already been done to the local interdependent communities. Those who brand any random violence as ‘ethnic cleansing’ have nothing to gain from it, but possibly they love seeing people living in contradictory terms, always. The obvious reason is that it has a destabilizing effect on the Bodo movement.

According to the local source, in the First Information Report (FIR) filed by the victims, the names appeared were actually the names of the perpetrators. Some of them were known by the victims. But authenticity of such claims can be doubtful. However, it said, they were forced to change the names in the FIR by the invincible government agencies. It is unclear why they were compelled to change? What was the real intention of the state apparatus? The end result is that the NDFB-Songbijit was suspected. On 4 May 2014, two suspected Bodo youths were killed on the pretext of perpetrating the heinous crime. But the sources say the youths were innocent randomly arrested by the Assam police and killed in fake encounters. If they were indeed perpetrators of the crime, why did the security forces killed them straightforward? Wasn’t it necessary to interrogate them in order to find out the truth, if they were the perpetrators? There are genuine clouds of doubt here. Moreover the involvement of the local political party turned negative. The case is currently investigated by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). It is quite early to say whether the investigation by the premier agency is heading towards the right direction.

According to the credible local sources, people in the area have not received any threat from the insurgent outfit in the recent past. They said they haven’t faced any of such situations. Their real challenge was actually coming from the forest officials who objected to illegal timber business. And, Bodos living in the area didn’t have any problem with the settlers. They said, it is the responsibility of the state government to see that the lands are protected. They are equally pained when bloods spelled out of Khagrabari village. In fact the Bodo villagers were extremely willing to extend them protection (Rwikathi in Bodo) if the situation were to spiral out of control. In many places like Paneri, Dimakushi and Thilapara in Udalguri districts, there are Muslims villages surrounded by Bodo villages. But no violence has ever occurred in those places till now. There could be more of such beautiful examples of coexistence. But how many journalists/intellectuals/researchers are willing to explore those beautiful landscapes? We visited some of those extraordinary villages.

Where is the truth behind that tragic incident? Terms like “ethnic cleansing, massacre, and genocide”, are being repeatedly used by the elites and forces identified as O-Bodos to blame the Bodo community. I suspected whether such wild fanciful proposition is helping in finding out the truth. But it has become a habitual on the part of the non-tribal intellectuals to cover up the truth. They do not want to touch the beehive (vote bank) and be stung during the elections. But the traditional vote bank of the Congress in Assam is switching side in favour of AIUDF. Moreover rise of BJP in Assam is a worrying factor for the Congress party. In the recent concluded Parliamentary election, Congress was reduced to three seats, but AIUDF improved its tally from one to three and BJP bagged seven seats. This new political equation has the ability to create a different set of political scenario in the state. We conceive this emerging political situation itself creates a space for possible violence in the future. In addition, rise of non-democratic organisations like O-Boro Suraksha Samiti (OBSS) in Bodoland is turning out to be a potential threat to society due to massive polarisation of local communities on the lines who are Boros and who aren’t. There has been absolutely no step initiated by the state government to contain rise of communal groupings in tribal frontiers.

The possible summery that one can make here is that a vicious cycle of blame on the Bodo community is a possible way to protect the dysfunctional state government. All marginalized communities and migrant Muslims are victimized due to abdication of State responsibility. The tribes particularly the Bodos have been vocal about state’s apathy and negligence. In turn, the community has been at the receiving end for creating tremor in the corridors of power- DISPUR. I travelled to some of the remote corners of Bodoland, meeting people of all walks of life. They have one last word to say, that “the region is yet to see development.” The state government in the past sixty years had done too little to uplift the communities who are marginalised socially-politically and economically. The region is unmatched with Upper Assam where development has become a new hallmark. The roads leading to Khagrabari is a concrete example of thick layers of underdevelopment in lower and western Assam. I stayed in a village in Udalguri district for five days. The total power supply in 120 hours was just for about nine hours. It was erratic. I was compelled to reduce my working time as there was no regular power supply.

Who love riots?  

In a geographically inaccessible region, where underdevelopment is the hallmark, people have no courage to fight one another and destroy one another’s hard-earned properties. Any form of unpredictable dispute is capable of taking the local communities back to stone-age. And, no communities can behave irresponsibly, if they wish to survive peacefully. Moreover the disunity and complexes within the tribal communities restrict any sort of collective mob behaviour. The capacity to stimulate collective force to fuel ethnic fissure is absolutely not seen in place like Khagrabari. The presence of paramilitary with sophisticated weapons, itself is a threat to forces (if any) who want to create trouble.

But it can be conclusively said that any hiccup within the power hierarchy among the ruling elites leads to violence in the tribal areas. Is Dispur not a bigger part of the trouble?

The Khagrabari incident could be an answer to this billion dollar question. Think about it.

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