It was meant to look like an act of ethnic cleansing. Police say it shows Bodos’ desperation

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By Avalok Langer

Snuffed out Six of the 22 bus passengers gunned down in Sonitpur district of Assam on 8 November
Snuffed out Six of the 22 bus passengers gunned down in Sonitpur district of Assam on 8 November
Photos: UB Photos

JK MISHARA stared at the moving horizon as the bus hurtled its way to Sejusa across the border in Arunachal Pradesh. Lost in his own thoughts, he snapped back to reality as the vehicle screeched to a halt. The initial curiosity quickly turned to fear. Herded by armed men, Mishara and six other persons of Bihari origin were lined up and killed after their co-passengers re-boarded the bus and drove off. The National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) killed 22 passengers that day.

Deadly message Bodies are carted away from the site of the massacre
Deadly message Bodies are carted away from the site of the massacre
Photo: Ujjal Dev

The sporadic attacks on civilians on 8 November evening and the next morning in and around Sonitpur district of Assam were in line with the warning issued by the NDFB on 1 November via email. “One innocent Bodo will be equal to 20 Indians or maybe more and we don’t care who they are, (they) may be Indian civilians or security forces,” warned B Jwngkhang, self-styled lieutenant of the outfit. These killings were in response to the supposed fake encounter of Mahesh Basumatary on 8 November, whom the NDFB spokesperson claims is an innocent Bodo civilian.

Known to be one of the most aggressive and brutal underground outfits of the Northeast, the NDFB is the present avatar of the underground outfit championing the cause of Bodo sovereignty.

The Bodos, an ethnic community of Assam, have had a longstanding and deep sense of discrimination and neglect. In the late 1980s, land alienation and cultural suppression pushed the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) to demand a separate Bodo state within the Indian Union. Subsequently disillusioned by what they read as the state government’s lack of commitment to equity and justice for tribals, the Bodos prepared for battle. With the guidance and support of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), the early 1990s witnessed a mushrooming of Bodo militant outfits. Having been previously exposed to elementary guerrilla tactics at the Special Security Bureau training camps set up in the wake of the Indo-China war of 1962 using the Burmese jungles, the Bodos easily slipped into the familiar pattern of extortion, kidnapping and killing. Despite the creation of the Bodo Autonomous Council (BAC) and the surrender of the Bodo Volunteer Force (BVF), the NDFB remained at large.

TODAY, THE demand is not sovereignty but statehood, which is why three of the four NDFB battalions agreed to a ceasefire and came to the negotiating table. The ‘Third Battalion’, under the leadership of Ranjan Daimary (now in jail), remained active and carried out this massacre.

Returning from Ground Zero, the state’s Health Minister and Congress spokesperson Himanta Biswa Sarma said, “In the past nine years, we have dealt with many underground groups. We have found that when a militant outfit is strong and high on morale, it directly attacks the security forces, police and army. But when it is about to be defeated, it attacks civilians to create a fear psychosis. We have defeated 80 percent of the NDFB.”

In the past three months, the security forces have cracked down on the group, killing over 20 cadres and arresting more than 15. So it comes as no surprise that Sonitpur SP Jitmal Doley also put the killing of the 22 civilians down to frustration within the cadres. “The NDFB is going through a difficult time, their movements are now restricted,” he says. “Their numbers are reducing, they are facing a leadership crisis and to add to that the security forces are applying a lot of pressure.”

‘We are Indian and just want our rights. Until the government removes illegal arms, innocent people will die,’ says ABSU chief

But sources close to the ground had a different take: that the recruitment process is on and with every encounter, popular support for the NDFB grows. Not only does the NDFB have operational camps in the jungles of the Assam-Arunachal border, the Garo Hills and Myanmar, but 70 cadres are being trained by Anal Borphukon and Kokok Borgosiam of the ULFA in a joint NDFB, ULFA and NSCN(K) camp in Myanmar.

Jailed Bodo leader Daimary
Jailed Bodo leader Daimary

Anjali Daimary, head of the Bodo Women’s Justice Forum and the sister of jailed NDFB leader Ranjan Daimary said, “Before we talk about the killings of these 22 innocent people, let’s talk about the killing of Mahesh Basumatary. On Monday, we got a call from his village. They said that they had been surrounded by the security forces, who then dragged Mahesh, a father of two, out of his house. They took him to the riverbank and shot him in cold blood. Eyewitnesses said that two hours later, the police showed up, put a gun in his hand and took pictures for evidence. The killing of any innocent civilian is highly condemnable. Violence is not the solution, it only unlocks a vicious cycle.”

She also believes that the government would be foolish to put the recent attacks down to growing frustration among the NDFB cadres. As she puts it, “We need to take this very seriously.”

This attack on Hindi speakers seems to be an act of ethnic cleansing. While the government spokesperson and Anjali rubbish these claims, a police source said that a communal pattern is emerging. “This is the second incident in two years on communal lines. The NDFB tried to pin their 30 October (2009) blast on the Muslims, by suggesting an ISI-SIMI angle to the local media to generate an anti-Muslim feeling. This was revealed to us by the NDFB cadres we arrested. The recent attacks are again communal in nature. For one Bodo killed, they selected and targeted ‘outsiders’ (Biharis, Nepalese, Adivasis, Assamese and Muslims),” the source said.

The government has promised to come down heavily on the group and is planning an extensive joint operation of the police and army. But the president of ABSU, Promod Bodo, is not reassured. “We are Indian and are not asking for sovereignty. We just want our rights. Until the government removes illegal arms from the state, innocent people will die. Since 2008, 150 innocent people have already died.”

The areas in which the NDFB operates control the gateways to the Northeast. The recent attacks are worrying when put into the context of what an underground contact let slip during a meeting — “Something big is coming.”

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