It is said of suffering that it ennobles you. At the end of his ordeal, the sufferer is enriched for what he goes through. Try telling that to eight-year-old Sajida Khatun, who has lost her mother and her sister to bullets within a space of seconds. Sajida is terrified to talk to anyone she doesn’t know. Running to hide behind a makeshift tent in a relief camp near the banks of the Beki river in Assam’s Baksa district, her eyes look for her abba. It takes a lot of cajoling, before she finally talks about the horror.
On 2 May, between 3-3:30 pm, violence struck Khagrabari and Narayanguri villages of the district. To escape the shooting, the villagers fled to the other side of the Beki river to Bhangarpar. “We were having lunch. Abba had gone to the market,” says Sajida. “We heard gun shots nearby, which soon turned into indiscriminate firing. We stepped out to see what was happening and we saw houses on fire. A group of people, black clothes covering their faces, were rushing towards us and shooting at us. My mother asked me and my two sisters to run for safety. Everyone was running towards the Beki river as the attackers were gaining on us.”
Sajida pauses when she comes to this part, the most difficult and heart-rending of her narration. “I was running when I looked back and saw my mother fall down,” she says. “She had been hit by bullets. Before I could even grasp what had happened, a bullet hit my younger sister Amina and she fell down next to my mother. Both were lying in a pool of blood. I held my other sister Hafiza’s hand and jumped into the river. We swam our way to the other side.”
The bloodshed that raged for over two days has left many Sajidas in its wake. Children have been its biggest casualties. Of the 40 dead and counting, as many as 20 are children. In Baksa alone, 32 people have died, as bodies were recovered from different places. TEHELKA visited a relief camp in the district, where over 500 people are from Narayanguri and Khagrabari villages, both villages only a kilometre away from the camp site. “We don’t want to go back, perhaps we never will,” says Sajida’s father Saiful Islam. “I have lost my wife and daughter, almost every house has lost a family member. There is no safety for non-Bodos in the BTAD.”
Indeed, the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) have been in the eye of every storm that has raged in the state on ethnic and regional issues. In 2012, clashes between the Bodo tribals and Bengali Muslims had left over a 100 people dead, besides displacing over five lakh more. The riots drove a sharp wedge in the already fragile relations between the Bodo and non-Bodo communities. The recent spell of violence began on 1 May, when three members of a family were gunned down in a remote village of Baksa, adjoining the Manas National Park that runs into neighbouring Bhutan. Those killed were from the Bangla-speaking Muslim community.
This incident was soon followed by another attack at Balapara in Kokrajhar district, where eight people were killed, again mostly women and children from the Bengali-speaking Muslim community. This suggested a clear pattern. The killings were neither random nor run-of-the-mill terrorist hits, but pre-planned targeted attacks. Soon, more bodies were recovered from Khagrabari, 190 km from Kokrajhar. Now, a deeper political conspiracy seemed to emerge behind these brutal killings.
“I guess we were attacked because of the way people voted in the Lok Sabha polls this time,” says Saiful. “A majority of the non-Bodos, especially the Muslim community, has voted for non-Bodo candidates. The attackers were former Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT) rebels who had jobs in the Forest Department. They support the Bodo People’s Front (BPF), which is likely to lose the election.”
Nearly 3,000 people gathered at the Bhangarpar Bazar at Baksa. They surrounded 18 bodies, which had been handed over by security personnel. The people demanded that until Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi visits them, the janajas (funeral) would not be held. They finally relented when the CM sent a missive, assuring that he would visit the camp.
Everyone in the BTAD areas is talking about the trigger of this recent spate of violence and almost everyone sees it the way Saiful does. Since 1952, Kokrajhar and adjoining areas have always voted a Bodo candidate to the Lok Sabha. Things have been different this time around. Beginning with various incidents of pre-poll violence — nothing as big as now — Kokrajhar witnessed an intense multi-cornered fight as polling was held on 24 April. As many as six candidates were in the fray for the reserved tribal seat.
The non-Bodo communities had united and thrown their weight behind independent candidate Naba Kumar Sarania alias Hira Sarania, a former commander of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). Sarania has the backing of the Sanmilita Janagostiya Aikkyamancha (SJA), a conglomerate of 21 ethnic and linguistic non-Bodo groups in the region.
While the 2012 ethnic clashes widened the rift between the Bodos and non-Bodos, the creation of Telangana in 2013 has given a fresh lease of life to the call for a separate state of Bodoland. But, even within the Bodos, there are several lobbies, all having different takes on the Bodoland movement.
Although riots are not a new occurrence in the region — Bodos have clashed with other settlers, including the Adivasis, the Bengali Hindus and their arch-rivals, the Bengali Muslims — people seemed to tire of the repeated violence after 2012. Non-Bodos, or Obodos as they are commonly known in the area, make up 70 percent of the population, while Bodos form 30 percent. Most non-Bodo organisations are against the idea of a separate Bodoland state and see it as a total Bodo takeover. In fact, the non-Bodos want the exclusion of 600 villages from the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) run by the Hagrama Mohilary-led BPF. The militant-turned-politician has been an ally of the Congress in the state since 2006.
“Over the years, the non-Bodos have faced only violence and threats,” says Dilwar Hussain, secretary of the Obodo Suraksha Samiti. “The Assam government, particularly CM Tarun Gogoi, has left us at the mercy of Bodo bullets. So, we decided that if we have the majority votes, we might as well use it to resolve the problem through ballots. In the past, we have elected Bodo candidates to the Lok Sabha, who not only cannot protect us, but also justify killings, branding every Bengali Muslim as Bangladeshi. Therefore, we decided to back Hira Sarania. We need a strong man like him to fight for the right of non-Bodos.”
Rehmat Ali, a college student from Baksa, echoes these apprehensions. “If we have the numbers, we want more political assertion,” says Ali. “We have faced riots, extortion and kidnapping at the hands of Bodo rebels, and if Bodoland happens, we will be driven out.”
And Sarania has made an impact in the polls. The Bodo votes will get split between three strong candidates. BPF candidate and Assam Transport Minister Chandan Brahma is locked in a three-way fight with UG Brahma and Sansuma Khunggur Bwiswmuthiary. Brahma, an independent candidate and former Rajya Sabha MP, is identified with the demand for a separate Bodoland. Bwiswmuthiary, another independent candidate, is a former BPF leader, besides being a Lok Sabha MP from Kokrajhar for the past 16 years. He has also been the most vocal in Parliament on the Bodoland issue. The presence of so many cooks promises to spoil the broth for the BPF, and the recent attacks are being seen as a direct fallout of that apprehension.
Sarania seems very confident that the BPF will be rejected in the election. “They are scared that their fall has begun,” says the independent candidate. “I have strong support in the remote areas of Baksa, and the BPF cadres have attacked those areas, killing women and children to send the message: don’t dare vote against us. But people want change and they want an end to the anarchy.”
However, a deeper, more disturbing, thought that concerns some people, but no one is willing to spell out, is the question of economic control over the region. A state intelligence officer points to the strategic importance of Kokrajhar. The entry point to the Northeast shares its border with West Bengal at Srirampur, where it is linked to mainland India through the chicken neck corridor. “At the Srirampur Gate, the extortion syndicate collects a whopping Rs 60 crore over every few months,” says the officer on condition of anonymity. “The money is then shared between rebels, politicians, police and Bodo leaders. No truck can enter the Northeast without paying this illegal tax.” What the officer does not say is that now other groups have realised the ‘potential’ of Srirampur Gate and they too want a share of the pie. That would explain the presence of so many arms in the region and also the worried lines on the Bodo militants’ foreheads.
In the run-up to 24 April, a series of poll-related violent incidents were reported. On election day, an angry mob, comprising mostly Muslims, vandalised a polling booth in the Gossaigain sub-division. They broke EVMs and pelted stones at the polling staff and security personnel. One policeman succumbed to his injuries. The Muslims in the area were reportedly supporting Sarania and had turned violent after a rumour had spread that EVMs were malfunctioning. The event triggered calls for “political revenge”.
This was almost made clear when it emerged that many men from the Balapara village, where eight people were gunned down, were wanted in the Gossaigaon election day violence. At night, most of the men of Balapara did not stray out of their homes fearing police arrest. The attackers must have known that they would find the men at home when they raided the village.
Abida Bewa, 57, lost her daughter in the Balapara attacks. “We were apprehensive and had approached the district administration for more security,” says Abida. “A BSF patrol came in the area and told us that everything was fine. Half-an-hour later, the attackers came and killed seven people, including my daughter. They came out of the forest and were on foot. There was no one to stop them.”
In an already polarised General Election, the violence could not have come at a worse time. The Congress government in the state has time and again failed to arrest the tide of ethnic unrest simmering in the region, choosing instead to turn it into a high-stakes game for political points. It is perhaps telling of the misgovernance that even during the recent violence, the Congress has flagged the issue as one of communal violence fanned by BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s rallies in the region. Modi had spoken about the illegal immigrants issue in Guwahati. The saffron party has also hit back at the Congress, blaming it for using illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh as a vote bank.
The outcome of this political war of words has been that the real issue has gone unaddressed once again. “While the influx of illegal immigrants into Assam and their settling down in the plains of lower Assam have definitely created a huge pressure on land and resources, in the BTAD, the issues are far more complex,” says Rajeev Bhattacharyya, a journalist and a Northeast observer.
Bhattacharyya paints a gloomy picture. A band of former rebels rule the territorial council using muscle power. These areas are underdeveloped; right from the beginning of the Bodoland movement, violence became the norm, because governments also used force on the people. Then there is a three-decade- long history of Bodo insurgency for a separate state to contend with, besides other ethnic armed groups operating in the area. Illegal arms, therefore, are available in plenty, which are then used in such riots. “If someone had proper vision,” laments Bhattacharyya, “they would have addressed one issue at a time, but that initiative is clearly missing.”
At the heart of such violence is the complex demography of Assam, where no single community can claim to be a majority. The Bodoland issue, too, is an extreme manifestation of this demography. On 2 March 1987, the Bodoland movement started under the leadership of Upendranath Brahma of the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU). The group demanded a 50-50 division of Assam. The agitation met its first success when the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) was formed in 1993, but the experiment failed.
A spell of severe insurgency unleashed by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the BLT rocked the region in the ’90s. After the BLT surrendered en masse, the Bodoland Accord was signed in 2003 between the rebel group and the then NDA regime, which led to the formation of the BTC.
But, the formation of the BTC did not bring the desired result; paradoxically, it gave rise to newer tensions. The non-Bodos were uncomfortable staying under a Bodo regime, rather a regime of rebels-turned-politicians. This led to increasing political resentment among the non-Bodos in the area, particularly the Bengali-Muslims, a factor that proved very important in the rising popularity of the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) in the fringe areas of the BTC in lower Assam. Since then, the party has been gaining a steady share of the votes in the region, so much so that it is now the second- largest party in the state Assembly.
A lot, therefore, is at stake in Kokrajhar. The Tarun Gogoi government, which has been in power since 2001, has long been accused of neglecting the rights of tribals in Assam. The Bodos also know that with the Congress rejecting the creation of a separate Bodoland, their best bet lies with the BJP. However, different Bodo groups see different ways to achieve this end.
“Why have we supported an independent candidate against the BPF? Because it is not only the non- Bodos, but even the Bodo community, that is tired of violence,” explains Pramod Boro, president of ABSU. “We don’t want power to be with people who only understand the language of guns. Years of alienation did provoke Bodo youth to take up arms. Even a territorial council under the Assam government was achieved, but it did not fulfil the people’s aspirations. Bodos are also being killed, armed groups also extort from them. Therefore, we want a separate state, a peaceful Bodoland.”
The pro-Bodoland sentiment runs deep among the Bodo youth of BTAD. Simsang Boro is an avid blogger, who writes frequently on the region. “There is a huge political game to divide the communities,” says Boro. “In Bodoland, even innocent Bodo youths are gunned down by security forces. Why is there no media focus on that? A few days ago, a Bodo girl was allegedly gangraped by Muslim youth, and in the 2008 violence, Muslims had put up a Pakistani flag in one village. Why are such events not getting reported in the media and why are there no television debates about them? For years, Bodos have been targeted in Kokrajhar and the political masters in Assam have deprived the indigenous people.”
It is hard to counter such feelings of persecution, particularly when violence happens with such alarming regularity. The need to go back to the drawing board has never before been more keenly felt. Among the few sane voices in the region is Shibnath Brahma, editor of Bodoland Guardian. Brahma sees development as the one alternative to strife. “Common people, whether Bodos or non-Bodos, want peace,” he says. “There is a desperate attempt to keep this area divided, stereotyping Bodos as insurgents. This is not true. Bodos have peacefully coexisted with other communities here. If the government wills it, then it can solve the problem easily. The youth of Bodoland want progress.”
There are 40 Assembly seats in the BTC, 30 reserved for tribals. The BPF, which is a party mainly formed by surrendered rebels of the BLT, has been in power in the region since its inception. This time around, if Hira Sarania wins from Kokrajhar, it would have serious repercussions on the 2015 BTC polls. Non-Bodos, including some tribals groups like the Rabhas, might decide to go against the Bodos. It, therefore, becomes very important to arrest the charge even before it begins.
Locals in the area believe that the violence erupted after a top BPF leader, Pramilarani Brahma, allegedly made public statements that non-Bodos have not voted for the BPF. Though BTC chief Hagrama Mohilary has denied the charge, he has a warning for his allies, the Congress. “Every time there is violence, the BPF is blamed,” says Mohilary. “Why should we be worried when the police has already said that it is the handiwork of NDFB rebels? If the Congress wants to sever ties with us, we don’t have any problem. We have worked for all communities, and who said that rebels cannot run the administration?” Interestingly, the NDFB (Songbhijit faction) credited with the recent killings, has denied any involvement at all.
The Muslim groups are enraged and want the whole idea of Bodoland to be revisited. “All Bengali Muslims in Assam are not Bangladeshis,” says Rezaul Karim Sarkar, secretary of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU). “Similarly, every Bodo is not a militant. To bring peace between the communities, those with weapons should be thrown out of power. Since the Bengali Muslim community, which was once a huge vote bank of the Congress, is trying to assert itself politically, and the BJP is riding on a communal agenda, Bengali Muslims of Assam have become soft targets. How can 30 out of 40 seats be reserved for tribals in a non-tribal majority area?”
Miles away from the BTAD, capital Guwahati is abuzz with rumours of a political conspiracy to derail the Tarun Gogoi government. After a third straight win in the 2011 Assembly polls, the chief minister’s Cabinet has developed deep fissures. An anti-Gogoi camp is supposedly being led by his one-time close aide and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma.
Since Gogoi also holds the home ministry, the responsibility for failing to prevent the Kokrajhar violence can be laid at his doorstep. Moreover, a strong anti-Congress wave in the country has also polarised votes in the General Election and there are chances that the Congress might not be able to hold on to its seven Lok Sabha seats in Assam. If that were to happen and incidents of violence were to continue in BTAD, it would be a double whammy for Gogoi’s detractors. In such a situation, the chief minister would be left with no option, but to tender his resignation.
However, an ever-defiant Gogoi refuses to quit. “We know the NDFB is behind these killings,” he says, “and if BPF’s involvement is proved, we will at once break ties with them.” As if to make a point, his government has ordered an NIA as well as a judicial probe into the recent violence. But, before you can say when, the CM has his own spiel to give. “And yes, I do believe Narendra Modi is trying to play up the contentious issue of illegal Bangladeshis in Assam and targeting a religious community. I would also not overrule a political conspiracy to embarrass my government, but I will not leave the battlefield,” he adds.
Politics, it seems, will once again take precedence over human lives and Kokrajhar will live again, if only to burn another day.