Frontline
Volume 25 - Issue 22 :: Oct. 25-Nov. 07, 2008
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
from the publishers of THE HINDU
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THE STATES

Communal inferno

SUSHANTA TALUKDAR
in Udalguri and Darrang

Clashes in two districts create more than two lakh refugees.

PHOTOGRAPHS: RITU RAJ KONWAR

A riot victim with her newborn baby at a relief camp in Udalguri district on October 6.

A TRAUMATISED Nuruda Amin writhed in pain on a tarpaulin sheet at the Burigaon High Madrassa relief camp in Darrang district, bleeding profusely and clutching her one-day-old baby girl. Nuruda, whose husband is a daily wage earner, had barely delivered her sixth child when a mob torched her home at Khoirkata village in Udalguri district on the night of October 5. With other neighbours whose homes were also set on fire that night, she crawled to relative safety in a nearby paddy field, carrying her newborn with her. There are over 10,000 immigrant Muslim settlers now staying at the Darrang camp.

Nuruda is not the only woman with a newborn child among the victims of the recent clashes in Assam. A number of Bodo women at the relief camps for them delivered their babies in the most unsafe conditions, under an open sky, without any medical aid. They and their children continue to spend their days without proper food and basic amenities. Older children at the camps are traumatised by the horrors they witnessed: mob attacks, burning homes and granaries, and the murder of close relatives and neighbours.

The clashes that broke out on October 3 between Bodos and immigrant Muslim settlers in Northern Assam’s Udalguri and Darrang districts led to the displacement of over two lakh people. Some fled when their homes were burnt, while others were driven to relief camps by the fear of attacks. Villages on either side of National Highway 52, which passes through the two districts, were turned into virtual battlegrounds.

The clashes left 55 dead: 39 immigrant Muslim settlers, 10 Bodos, two Garos, one Bengali Hindu, one Assamese, and two unidentified people. There were 31 dead in Udalguri alone, where the clashes broke out first: 19 Muslim settlers, nine Bodos, and three others. There were 21 dead in Darrang, where the violence soon spread: 17 Muslim settlers, one Bodo, and three others. In Chirang district, an immigrant Muslim woman, who was seven months pregnant, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen. An adult and a child belonging to the community were killed in Baksa district.

Official reports said 54 villages were directly affected by incidents of arson and mob attacks, in which 2,505 houses were either completely burnt or partially destroyed. The residents of about 150 other villages fled their homes out of fear though there was no attack in their villages. Sixteen Army columns were deployed in Udalguri and Darrang districts and troops carried out flag marches to restore people’s confidence. Companies of the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CPRF) were also deployed. Yet, panic-stricken villagers continued to flock to the relief camps and their numbers swelled to 2.12 lakh.

The State government asked for 21 additional companies of paramilitary forces and got 14 companies for deployment in the two districts. Curfew was clamped, and the police and the security forces were asked to invoke the provisions of the Indian Penal Code to shoot at sight whenever they spotted anyone indulging in rioting or any other form of violence. Among the 55 people killed in the violence, 24 died in police firing: 11 in Udalguri and 13 in Darrang district. GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, Lt Gen V.K. Singh and GOC, 4 Corps, Lt Gen B.S. Jaswal visited the two districts and asked soldiers to help the affected villagers. Troops also contributed a day’s ration to provide cooked food in some relief camps and organised medical camps.

The seeds of the October violence were sown in the middle of August when clashes broke out between the two communities at Routa in Udalguri district and later spread to Darrang and Sonitpur districts, claiming 17 lives. The riots began on August 14 following the killing of a Bodo youth by supporters of a bandh called by the Muslim Students Association, Assam. The bandh had been called in protest against the harassment of Indian citizens in the name of identification of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. The incident led to violence in different parts of the three northern Assam districts where many homes were burnt. A total of 14,279 people sought shelter in nine relief camps. There was a spillover effect in Lower Assam’s Chirang district where a Muslim couple was shot dead.

The pattern of violence in the October clashes indicated that both sides had stockpiled weapons such as bows and arrows, machetes, sticks and crude bombs after the August clashes. That such a thing could happen seems to have escaped the attention of the administration and intelligence agencies. When clashes broke out in October, both sides brandished these crude weapons. However, inmates of the relief camps claimed that some of the rioters were also armed with sophisticated weapons and were dressed in battle fatigues.



The remains of a house burnt at Amin Para village in Udalguri on October 7.

The hoisting of a flag resembling the Pakistani flag at Jhargaon, a Bodo village in Udalguri district on October 4, a day after clashes broke out in nearby Mohanpur village, added to the tension and quickly snowballed into a major controversy.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) and various Bodo organisations, including the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), the Bodo Sahitya Sabha, the Bodoland People’s Progressive Front (BPPF) and the Bodo Women Justice Forum, began a vociferous campaign claiming that the “Pakistani” flag was hoisted by illegal Bangladeshi migrants who also allegedly shouted slogans such as “Pakistan Zindabad” over loudspeakers in the two trouble-torn districts.

The parties and organisations that took up the issue expressed concern that the country’s sovereignty was at stake and saw in the incident a larger design by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and jehadi elements to make Assam a part of Bangladesh. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi denied that a Pakistani flag had been hoisted and claimed that the media and the local people had mistaken an Id flag for the Pakistani flag.

This drew allegations that he was trying to hush up the incident. Later, Gogoi announced that his government would seek an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the clashes and the flag-hoisting incident. As the controversy raged, inmates at the Bodo relief camps and residents of Bodo villages unfurled the Indian tricolour.

State Health Minister and government spokesman Himanta Biswa Sarma alleged that the hoisting of the flag was the handiwork of miscreants trying to defame the government. Equipped with video footage of the flag fluttering in the Bodo village, he said: “It is not the Pakistani flag.

The flag has the crescent moon placed upside down. In no way could this have been done by a Muslim, leave alone an Islamic fundamentalist, who grows up seeing the crescent moon, which is associated with Id celebrations.” He also pointed out that the flag was hoisted in a Bodo village the day after clashes broke out in a nearby village of immigrant Muslim settlers and said that no Muslim would have dared enter the Bodo village under such circumstances.

A first information report (FIR) has been lodged with the police and the government has asked Inspector General of Police (Law and Order) Bhaskarjyoti Mahanta to probe the matter. Sarma said that the government would vigorously pursue the investigation.

The controversy and the government’s inept handling of it have only muddied the waters further and increased confusion in people’s minds. The campaign orchestrated by the BJP, the AGP, AASU, the AJYCP and Bodo organisations has called into question the territorial loyalty of the Muslim minority. The campaign has blurred the distinction between illegal settlers and Indian Muslims in the State. Muslim organisations have reacted sharply, seeing in the situation a conspiracy to drive out Muslims.

Who is to blame?



While tens of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes following mob attacks and arson, many others were driven to relief camps by the fear of violence.

The Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, a literary body engaged in popularising Assamese language and literature among immigrant dwellers of Chars and Chaporis (large sand islands in the heart of the Brahmaputra), has accused successive governments of neglecting the question of security of Muslims in Assam.

It has alleged that the ground for the clashes was laid by the Sangh Parivar and organisations such as AASU and the AJYCP when they harassed Indian Muslims, branding them as Bangladeshi immigrants, particularly in Upper Assam.

The Left parties blamed the State government for not taking timely action to defuse the tension and said that inmates at the relief camps had alleged that the police and paramilitary forces had played a partisan role in the violence. Hindu communal forces and Islamic fundamentalists, they said, were active in the State, trying to fan communal passions and divide the people on religious lines.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh responded to the violence by sending Union Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahmed to Assam as his emissary. Congress president Sonia Gandhi deputed an All India Congress Committee (AICC) team comprising Union Minister of State for Home Shakeel Ahmed, former Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Mukut Mithi and senior Member of Parliament A.H. Khan Choudhury to Udalguri and Darrang. Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh and All India Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind general secretary Mehmood Madani also visited the relief camps. At the meeting of the National Integration Council (NIC) in New Delhi on October 13, the Prime Minister voiced concern over the clashes.

Gogoi said at the NIC meeting that the people involved in the clashes in Udalguri and Darrang were all Indian citizens. Though certain political parties projected the violence as a conflict between illegal Bangladeshi migrants and indigenous people, he had not come across any foreign national when he visited the affected areas, he said. He stated that his government would not allow any internal or external aggression and was committed to protecting the country’s territorial integrity. As for the detection of illegal immigrants and the protection of the rights of genuine citizens, his government was committed to the implementation of the Assam Accord in letter and spirit, he said.

The Congress-Bodo People’s Front (BPF) coalition government sought to blame the militant National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) for the clashes. Gogoi threatened to call off the ceasefire with the outfit if the allegations about its involvement in the violence were found to be true. Sarma even accused the NDFB of trying to effect an “ethnic cleansing” of non-tribal people in the two districts and warned that Assamese, Bengali and other non-tribal people could be victims of such projects. He told journalists that the NDFB’s charter of demands submitted to the Central government on September 20 expressed concern over the encroachment of tribal belts and blocks by non-tribal people and illegal migrants. He claimed that he was in possession of the document and dared the outfit to make it public. He added, however, that the NDFB did not represent the Bodo community and it would be wrong to conclude that the Bodo community was with the militant outfit in its project of ethnic cleansing. He also said that a Muslim group was trying to make trouble in Udalguri and Darrang, but did not name it.

The NDFB and other Bodo organisations, in turn, accused Sarma of conspiring to create a rift between Bodos and non-Bodos. Senior Bodo political leader and former Rajya Sabha member Urkhao Gwra Brahma alleged that Sarma was also trying to divide Bodos and said it would further disturb the peace. The NDFB denied involvement in the violence and dared Sarma to prove his charge.

Indeed, the attempt to blame the NDFB for the clashes has exposed the government to questions as to how the NDFB cadre, who are bound by the ceasefire ground rules to remain confined to three designated camps, could slip past monitoring agencies, including the Assam Police, to take part in the clashes. The ruling Congress’ political equation with the rulers of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) – the BPF, formed with members of the erstwhile Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), an arch rival of the NDFB – may have spurred the allegation against the NDFB.

Alienation of tribal land



At a relief camp in Udalguri district.

Animosities between immigrant Muslim settlers and tribal communities have increased in Assam over the years with the immigrants settling in areas previously dominated by tribal communities. This now makes the two sides fight for the same political and geographical space. The administration’s failure to protect tribal belts and blocks resulted in vast tracts of land previously belonging to the tribal people being illegally transferred to various non-tribal and immigrant settlers, leading to the displacement of tribal people to forest as well as non-forest areas. The Chief Minister has said that land-grabbing might be one of the reasons for the clashes.

The All Assam Tribal Sangha, an apex body of tribal organisations, has accused successive governments of failing to implement Chapter X of the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation, 1886. In contravention of the provisions of Chapter X, revenue officials granted mutation of land deeds to non-tribal people and other non-notified classes of people and allowed the registration of sale deeds sought by non-tribal people. The alienation of tribal people from their land is believed to be one of the root causes of the various tribal upsurges in Assam, including the Bodo statehood movement.

This ethno-nationalist assertion also saw the birth of armed rebellion alongside the democratic mass movement among Bodos, the largest among the nine plains tribes of the State. One of these two armed groups, the erstwhile BLT, fought for statehood but in 2003 settled for autonomous territory under amended provisions of the Sixth Schedule, paving the way for Bodo rule in a territory – with a mixed population of Bodos, other tribal groups and various non-tribal people including immigrant Muslim settlers – spread over the four districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Darrang along the India-Bhutan boundary stretch.

The other armed group, the NDFB, which asked for a “sovereign Boroland”, is now engaged in a ceasefire that makes the BTC rulers, who are erstwhile BLT members, worry that a change in the political dispensation in Delhi might force them to make way for the NDFB. Allegations have been raised about the involvement of the Bodo Royal Tiger Force (BRTF), believed to be an outfit formed with some ex-BLT cadre, in the clashes.

Relief and rehabilitation

As the blame game goes on, the administration faces the daunting task of rehabilitating 2.12 lakh displaced people who are still too scared to leave the relief camps and go home.

Thousands of internally displaced people, who lost their homes in past clashes, already live in makeshift relief camps without proper food and with limited access to livelihood opportunities in Lower Assam’s Barpeta, Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts. These people were the victims of clashes between Bodos and immigrant Muslim settlers in 1993 and ethnic clashes between Bodos and Adivasis in 1996 and 1998.

Clashes between Bodos and immigrant Muslim settlers led to the displacement of thousands of people in Kokrajhar district in 1993 and in Barpeta district in 1994. The violence that rocked Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts in 1993, 1996 and 1998 led to the displacement of 3,14,342 people belonging to Bodo, Muslim and Adivasi communities. The children of these displaced people are growing up without basic education and health care. Many have died young, while many others have been preyed upon by human traffickers. These are the kind of larger humanitarian issues that the administration will face in Udalguri and Darrang districts, where schools and colleges have been converted into relief camps.



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