An Uneasy Calm In Kokrajhar

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It is the holy month of Ramzan. Wahidul Hussain, 43, steps out of the makeshift masjid after his daily namaz. Constructed close to a series of tarpaulin tents, sheltering 163 Muslim families, the mosque is a mirror of the life that Wahidul and others like him have been living in the past year. A year ago, on 19 July 2012, when four Bodo youths were lynched by some Bengali-Muslim men at Joypur in Kokrajhar, it triggered violence of an unprecedented scale that soon spread to neighbouring Chirang and Dhubri districts. Over 100 people were killed and about 4.5 lakh people rendered homeless in the riots that lasted over a month. On 23 July 2012, Wahidul’s village, Rampholbil, in Kokrajhar district, was attacked by suspected Bodo rebels armed with automatic rifles.

A year later, TEHELKA visited these riot-affected areas to try and assess the life the survivors of the riots lead. What we found was dismaying.

“We have been shuttling from one relief camp to another, from one tarpaulin sheet shed to another, without food, medicines and livelihood,” narrates Wahidul. “All we had back in the village is lost. For two years, Ramzan has been full of sorrow for us, we did not even have food to break roza (fasting).”

In the Gossaigaon sub-division alone, 68 km from Kokrajhar town, around 1,100 Muslims are still staying at the No.1 Joymaa Relief Camp. The state government has asked these people to go back to their villages, and has even offered compensation, but there are no takers. “Our village is remote and in an isolated pocket surrounded by Bodo villages,” says Wahidul. “There is still an undercurrent of hate, and if we go back, we feel we will be targeted again.”

The Assam government admits that more than 3,500 riot victims are yet to be rehabilitated, and although the relief camps are officially closed, thousands of people who went back to start their life afresh, have actually returned to Kokrajhar town due to lack of security and livelihood. In the heart of Kokrajhar town, TEHELKA came across 20 Bodo families in the Nursing Centre Relief Camp. These people had returned from different fringe villages on the Kokrajhar-Dhubri border. In government records, the relief camp is now closed. In reality, it still houses riot victims.

“We got Rs 50,000 as rehabilitation package, but that is too less,” says Dharmendra Brahma, 37, a Bodo farmer. “We lost our livestock and crops, our houses were razed. Since our paddy fields are close to Muslim villages, we cannot go back there now. For the past four months we are here in this camp, managing to somehow live on the compensation money, but for how long?” asks Dharmendra. His neighbour Geeta Brahma, 33, from Gungunikhata village in Dhubri district, who lost her husband in the riots, says she wants to go back to her village, but is afraid for her children’s safety. Geeta has since moved her daughter and son to a school in Kokrajhar, but being unskilled, she does not know what she can do for a living.

The way the riots have changed the equations between the two communities is clearly reflected in the various challenges to eking out a livelihood. “I am an electrician and most of my clients were Muslims from the neighbouring village,” says Bimal Brahma, 45, of Takimari, an hour’s drive from Kokrajhar town. “Before the clashes, there was no animosity between the communities, but now the situation has changed. My shop was burnt down and I cannot think of putting up another. I don’t own any land for cultivation, and don’t dare to go to the neighbouring Muslim villages for work. I have no option but to live on the 50,000 I got as compensation.” The same fate awaited 32 other Bodo families, who were sent back with compensation but could not start life afresh and came back to Takimari, where they have been staying for over six months in makeshift houses close to security pickets.

“We go to our fields only with CRPF patrols,” says Dipankar Brahma, 35. “Our village is only 500 metres away, yet we are afraid to go there. Forget building houses, whenever we go to the weekly market, we go in groups. We are isolated and the government has never come to see how we are surviving.” At the time of our visit, even the security picket had been lifted.

The sense of fear haunts both communities and has left them paralysed. Life has been miserable for the 82 Muslim families who returned to their villages in remote Dansiapara and Ballamguri in Chirang district. “We had very good relationship with the Bodos before the riots, but our village was attacked in front of the police,” recalls Abdul Hamid Munsi, 82, at Ballamguri. “Those memories are still fresh. Now, they call us Bangladeshis. We are genuine Indians and have proper land documents, but we are treated as foreigners.”

In the entire Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) area — the area most affected by the Bodo-Muslim clashes — many Muslim settlers used to work on the lands owned by Bodos. After last year’s riots, these people are left in the lurch. “I don’t own any land,” says Minazur Rahman, 40, of Dansiapara. “I used to work on the land owned by Bodos. My livelihood was assured, but now I can’t go to Bodo villages looking for work. I have no money and my family has been eating only one meal a day for the past four months.”

The lone security picket at Dansiapara stands unmanned by any security personnel; the villagers themselves stand guard at night. In some remote Muslim settlements, people are talking of Bodo rebels extorting money. Many have already dug into their compensation to pay up the extortion money.

In a community hall in Kokrajhar town, about 20 young Bodo students from remote Diabari are staying on their own to pursue their studies. Diabari is on the fringes of Kokrajhar and surrounded by Muslim villages. These youngsters were studying in schools and colleges in Bilasipara in Dhubri district. They were forced to flee their villages when the riots broke out. They are now too scared to go back. “We have to travel through Muslim settlements and the majority of the students are Muslims. What if we are targeted again?” asks a student, too scared to give his name. As a result, many students had to change schools and even residence, and move to Kokrajhar town. Having lost everything in the riots, many had to eventually drop out. This disgruntled lot is seething with anger, a dangerous portent. As the young student puts it, “they will have no other option but to join rebel groups”.

Amidst all this, the government has been found talking only of rehabilitation packages. “All the schools in the district which were used as relief camps are back to regular classes now,” explains Kokrajhar Deputy Commissioner Nitin Khade. “We have been able to send back about 2.15 lakh people to their villages with compensation packages in Kokrajhar district. Given the magnitude of the violence, it was an uphill task for the administration to restore normalcy within a year.” The government has disbursed Rs 79.8 crore as compensation to 13,220 families in Kokrajhar district to rebuild their homes, but as the testimonies have shown, these numbers don’t add up in real life.

“Teachers haven’t gone to school for months out of fear,” says Rezaul Karim Sarkar, general secretary of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU). “Many people had to construct makeshift shelters out of the charred tin roofs of their burnt down houses because they didn’t have money to buy building material. We have appealed to the government for review of the compensation package but it hasn’t replied so far.”

Adding to the anxiety of the displaced, the shoddy nature of investigations has not helped much. The Central Bureau of Investigation, which is probing seven cases related to the riots, has chargesheeted 37 people in connection with the killing of four Bodo youths, which sparked the riots. According to sources, 12 of them are absconding while the rest have been arrested. In Kokrajhar alone, 5,634 cases of violence were registered, and although the police have nabbed 406 people for taking part in the rioting, investigation has not been concluded in even a single case.

“Ten people tried to hack me to death. I can recognise five of them,” says Atul Basumatary, 70, of Paroura village in Kokrajhar. “They are from neighbouring villages. I named all five, but the police have not arrested them. They roam freely on motorcycles. Now if they target me again on a personal grudge and it takes a communal turn, what will the police do?”

Deputy Commissioner Khade concedes this is a “major concern post the riots, as we have seen that often personal feuds between Bodos and Muslims were pushed to the brink of a communal flare-up. Our prime objective is to avoid this.”

The BTAD area has always been a flashpoint for the Assam government. From calls for a separate Bodoland to an autonomous region, Bodo separatist forces have demanded an independent regional identity for the people of the area. The riots last year have added fuel to a boiling cauldron, and the result is an undercurrent of tension and distrust that pervades the region.

“A lot of people from both communities are still missing,” says Pramod Boro, President of the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU). “The rehabilitation process has happened in a haste. Security is a major concern because the state police failed miserably last year. Added to it are the issues of growing number of migrants and legitimate land rights of the Bodos. By not addressing these key issues, the government has once against sown the seeds of another conflict.”

Over the past few months, Chirang district has seen eight kidnappings and six people are still missing after last year’s violence. With the underlying tension and threat perception, the BTAD area is showing ominous signs indeed. Signs of something that can perhaps be nipped in the bud if only the more pressing issues of food, shelter and security are addressed.

ratnadip@tehelka.com

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Special Correspondent

A young IT professional by training and a journalist by chance, Ratnadip comes from the smallest Northeastern state of Tripura and has been reporting out of Northeast India for ten years, as of 2014. An award winning Journalist, Ratnadip started his career with the Tripura Observer and went on to work with the Northeast Sun, The Northeast Today, News Live, Sahara Time and The Sunday Indian. He has also contributed to BBC, CNN, NatGeo TV, NDTV, CNN-IBN and TIMES NOW. Before joining Tehelka, Ratnadip worked with the national bureau of the television news channel NewsX. He specialises in conflict reporting and has a keen interest in India’s eastern neighbours. He has won the RedInk Excellence in Journalism Award 2013, Northeast Green Journo Award 2013, LAADLI Media awards for Gender sensitivity 2013. He is among 10 young Indian scholars selected by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on trans-boundary river issues of the subcontinent. He is based in Guwahati.

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