The bloodied Beauty of Assam

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In the aftermath of the Kokrajhar clashes, Niha Masih travels through the serene landscapes of Assam and captures its scars

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After the Riots: Deaths by Railroad

After the exodus and the SMS scare, a chain of deaths along rail tracks throws the state into another bout of tension, reports Ratnadip Choudhury

Killed by apathy Bodies of Sanjay Ray in Kokrajhar
Photos: UB Photos

PARMESHWAR SAIKIA, 23, heaved a sigh of relief as he got off the special train. A week ago, after SMSes and MMSes had gone viral and morphed pictures of attacks on Muslims in the lower Assam riots were all over social media sites, the country witnessed an exodus like never before. Students, security guards, hotel staff, working professionals — in all, 50,000 people from the Northeast, left in droves from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, fearing the worst. Bengaluru alone saw 30,000 people fleeing the state in a week’s time.

Parmeshwar hails from Majuli in Jorhat district. “I was working with a security agency in Hyderabad,” he says, “and earning Rs 12,000 a month. But I will not go back. I will find something here.” Parmeshwar was allegedly threatened by some local Muslim youths when he was at home one night. He left the very next morning.

Parmeshwar’s neighbour, Anil Das, 22, was not so lucky. Anil’s body was found on the railway track near the Burdwan station in West Bengal. He was working as a security guard in a posh hotel in Hyderabad. “Anil called on 18 August to tell us that he had left for Guwahati,” says his brother Nitul Das. “We did not hear from him after that. Now we hear that his body is lying in Burdwan. I feel I am to blame, I should have brought him along.” Nitul and his brothers Anil and Gopal all worked as security guards in Hyderabad. Following the threat SMSes, Nitul and Gopal left Hyderabad on 17 August. Anil could not join them owing to his duty schedule and was supposed to follow them the next day.

A month after clashes broke out in lower Assam between Bodos and Bengali Muslims, the state is still picking up the pieces. Over 85 people have reportedly lost their lives, and nearly 5 lakh have been displaced. Sporadic incidents of violence continue as over 2.5 lakh people languish in relief camps. As the state grapples with this new wave of exodus, shocking reports of at least 11 bodies along railway tracks have stoked the embers. All of them were thrown off trains bound for Assam.

Sanjay Ray, a Kochrajbonshi from Kokrajhar, died after he was thrown off a train between Palasa and Sompeta Railway Station in Andhra Pradesh on 14 August. His body finally reached his village Dimalgaon on 20 August. Tragically, Sanjay met his end when he had gone to Andhra Pradesh to bring Khanin Ray, another youth who was also attacked and thrown off a train on 7 August on his way to Kokrajhar from Kerala. Four people, including Sanjay, had gone to bring Khanin back to his village. On their way back by the Trivandrum Express, they were attacked at the Sompeta Railway Station, and Sanjay was thrown out of the train. The Railway Police later confirmed his death.

Worse was to follow. On 18 August, between 9.45 pm and 10 pm, 14 youths were thrown out of a special Guwahati-bound train from Bengaluru after it had crossed the New Jalpaiguri station in West Bengal. Local villagers recovered four bodies between Falakata and Belakoba in Jalpaiguri district on the Assam-Bengal border; 10 others were seriously injured. All 14 were Muslims in their early 20s.

Three of the dead — Atiqure Rehman Majumdar, Saibur Rehman and Iqbal Hussain Choudhury were from the Hailakandi district of lower Assam. The fourth, Mohammed Sharif Ahmed, was from Manipur. “We boarded the general compartment of the train thinking it was a special train for Eid,” recollects Seikh Saddam, 22, one of the survivors, “but later realised that it was carrying people who were fleeing Bangalore. During the journey, some people got violent and attacked us, took our wallets and mobile phones. They got aggressive the moment we told them we are going home for Eid. After crossing New Jalpaiguri, they pushed us all outside, one by one.” Saddam is one of the 10 injured admitted to the North Bengal Medical College in Siliguri.

One of the Muslim youths in Hailakandi
Photo: Ujjal Deb

Sharif Ahmed’s body was flown into his native Thoubal district in Manipur. Sharif’s brother Mohammed Nasir told TEHELKA that Sharif was studying in Cotton College in Guwahati and had left for Guwahati on 14 August after visiting home for a few days. The family is clueless as to how the youngster ended up in a special train from Bengaluru. They suspect that Sharif might have been killed and later dumped on the tracks in West Bengal. The locals have formed a Joint Action Committee to demand for a probe.

The bodies of the other three were taken to Hailakandi in lower Assam amidst tight security. News of the bodies’ arrival a day after Ramzan led to a tense situation in the Lala Bazar area. Bodos from the adjacent Cachar district have allegedly been asked to “Quit Barak Valley” by some Muslim organisations. The pro-talk faction of the banned National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) has, on its part, threatened that it won’t allow any Muslim to return to the Bodo heartland without a citizenship verification.

A PRELIMINARY report sent by the West Bengal Police to the Ministry of Home Affairs points to the lapses by the Railways. According to the report, the victims did not see any railway police personnel come to their compartment. “We were anticipating trouble even on special trains,” says Assam DGP Jayanto Narayan Choudhury. “Our investigations revealed that there was a design to keep the situation tense, and thus, we had asked the Railways for all possible help.”

Union Home Secretary RK Singh revealed a Pakistani design in all this, which echoed the police chief’s concerns. A safety commissioner of Railways gives a startlingly callous explanation: “We had arranged for patrols. General compartments do not have vestibules; so patrolling was not possible. The victims could have pulled the chain in an emergency.”

As many as 11 deaths have so far been reported as being thrown off speeding trains. The Railways has failed to provide security

The Kerala-based Popular Front of India (PFI), a radical Muslim outfit, is under the scanner of security agencies for allegedly spreading inflammatory content posted online that later viralled as bulk MMSes. Hundred labourers working mainly at construction sites fled the Muslim-dominated Malappuram district fearing violence. A majority of them were from Manjeri, a PFI stronghold. “There is an attempt from a section of the media to link PFI to terror-related cases. Our members are not involved in terrorising people from the Northeast,” says PFI General Secretary Abdul Hameed.

In Tamil Nadu, around 5,500 persons from the Northeast have reportedly left the state. Locom Jumbho, President of Northeastern Students Association, Chennai, has appealed to students to rejoin campuses before 24 August.

Ministers from Northeastern states rushed to Hyderabad and Bengaluru in a bid to assure the returning masses, but hope and faith were not easy to come by. Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi has been in firefighting mode after his speech in Parliament when he said that unless rehabilitation was done quickly in Kokrajhar, India could see a “third wave of radicalisation among Muslims”. Owaisi has since urged Northeasterners in Hyderabad to not flee the city.

For a whole week, scenes at the Guwahati Railway Station were reminiscent of a war situation. Relatives waited anxiously for their loved ones. When they finally reached Guwahati, the relief was visible, but so was the worry and tension. “Thousands of students from the Northeast stay in the metros. Racial discrimination is nothing new for us. We have learnt to live with that; we will adjust with this new threat too,” says Arup Jyoti Kalita, 25, an engineering student who fled Bengaluru.

Post Eid, students and workers have slowly started moving back to the southern states. Bodos and Muslims are jointly calling for peace. Several bodies, including Muslim organisations, have demanded the arrest of AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal for allegedly giving a communal colour to the violence in lower Assam.

However, it’s still a one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back situation in Assam. At the time of going to press, news came in of another Bodo, Durga Basumatary, being thrown out of a train from Chennai. Basumatary comes from a very poor family in Lakhimpur district. The incident happened in Nellore in Andhra Pradesh and Basumatary is admitted to the Nellore hospital but his family has no money to go and see him.

With inputs from Jeemon Jacob and TS Sudhir

Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
ratnadip@tehelka.com

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