Assam elections: Bloody Outsiders, My Enemy!

In 2016, Assam will face elections. The Congress, which has held power for so long by manipulating tribal and communal differences, is on the backfoot. A resurgent BJP is building on the narrative of the Muslim as an outsider and sharpening politics in those areas that easily lapse into barbaric brutalities. Hardnews travelled around Assam to gauge what is happening on the ground. And the report is deeply troubling 

Sadiq Naqvi (Kokrajhar/Chirang/Baksa/Guwahati) 

The road meandered from the picturesque Fatemabad Tea Estate on to a dirt track lined with traditional Bodo houses, before coming to an abrupt end at the riverbed of the Beki, which originates in Bhutan. The Beki cuts through the Manas National Park, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site, before disappearing into the mighty Brahmaputra. On the other side of the river, along the lush green forest, one can spot some 60 tents and a bunch of people - women washing clothes while some men chat by the river.  “Can you imagine that it is the place where militants gunned down 38 people in May 2014?” asks Aman Wadud, a lawyer who has been providing legal help to the victims of violence, as we hop on a rickety boat.

Violence is very much a part of this verdant landscape. The graffiti on walls calling for peace, memorials to the dead and burnt-out thatched houses stand as mute testimony to the violence in the Bodo Territorial Administrative District (BTAD). The Bodos have been locked in a battle with the establishment, demanding a separate Bodo state.  A disadvantaged community of tribals, they have been seeking control over their resources and more funds for development of the backward region. The contest has resulted in a lot of ‘collateral damage’ suffered by people of other communities and ethnicities, people who have been a part of this landscape for many decades—the so-called ‘outsiders’—whom they perceive as a threat to their hegemony.

This theatre of violence, one among the many in a highly fragmented Assam polity, is also a rich field ready for harvest for the national political outfits. Intense competitive politics is being played out in this state that has sharpened resentment and hate amongst the indigenous people towards the outsider. The Congress also contributed in deepening the social divide to create new social constituencies. This politics of opportunism has created a social environment that helps the BJP mount a serious challenge to reorder Northeast politics. The conflict between the indigenous people and the outsider — ‘Bangladeshi’ — defines the politics of the BJP. Its national president, Amit Shah, has been working hard to wrest the state from Congress control. The elections to this important state’s Assembly take place in 2016.

The BJP is assiduously trying to placate the Bodos, the Central Indian Tribal Community (by giving them ST status), the Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh (promising them citizenship rights), and the indigenous Assamese Hindus to build a manifestly Hindu alliance, while it repeatedly calls for an ouster of all the Muslim immigrants. This has led to the other group, the East Bengal-origin Muslims, moving away from the Congress. Largely seen as inept and corrupt, the Congress is ceding space to the AIUDF, a party floated by a wealthy perfumer and former Congressman, which claims to fight for their rights. With the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) becoming a non-entity in the last Lok Sabha elections (its vote shifted to the BJP, resulting in the party winning an impressive seven seats), the AIUDF too is rapidly gaining ground and, even the state BJP president admits, will play an important role in the Assembly elections. The BJP does not mind the growth of the AIUDF as it diminishes the Congress further. (See interview)   

Aggressive jostling for power by political parties is damaging ordinary lives. Since the Nellie massacre in Assam in 1983, the state has been witness to horrific violence on some pretext or the other. Everywhere, one hears about brutalities by contesting groups that would outdo the barbarians of history. Sometimes, the State is complicit in the unending bloodbath. In Khograbari, the village on the other side of the river, the memories of the violence rouse fear. “We are mostly engaged in grazing. But now we can’t even go to the jungle for fear of being attacked,” a villager said. “We would easily earn Rs 1 lakh every year after selling the harvest from the cotton trees in the forest. Now even that has stopped.”

The attack in Khograbari, in Baksa district, started at 4 pm on May 2, 2014. “I had barely reached my home on Barpeta Road after attending the funeral of three people who were killed in Norsinghbari village on May 1 that I heard of this attack,” Shahjahan Ali Ahmed recalled. “Some 30-40 people came from the jungle and started firing indiscriminately,” said Abdul Hamid, another resident of the village. “Some of us ran towards the jungle, others to the river.” By the time the attackers fled to the jungle, which is an easy route to Bhutan, 38 lives had been lost. The count includes 22 children. Three-year-old Sofia Khatun’s legs were torn apart so brutally that she died on the spot. “My nephew jumped into the river to save his life,” says Hamid, pointing to the spot in the Beki where the body was found. “His body was recovered after six days in a mutilated state.”

The 60-odd tents in this makeshift camp belong to Muslims of East Bengal origin. The attack, on the other hand, was allegedly carried out by militants of the NDFB(S), an armed Bodo outfit, who were aided by officials of the local forest department, which mostly comprises former Bodo Liberation Tigers militants who were absorbed after the formation of the autonomous BTAD. “All of them have been given guns (.303 rifles) by the state government,” said a police officer. “Some of the villagers ran to the forest checkpost, thinking they would help, only to discover that they too were with the attackers,” Hamid recalled. “The accused persons used arms of the Bansbari forest office,” the NIA chargesheet reads. A total of 83 used shells belonging to the forest department were recovered in addition to the bullets fired by semi-automatic weapons belonging to the alleged NDFB militants.

“The attack was meticulously planned by one Rajan Boro, a grasscutter with the local forest department,” said Hamid. “Boro visited the local forest checkpost for three days prior to the attack. He again appeared with the attackers.” Boro is now in jail in Guwahati along with other forest department officials who are accused of murdering innocent people. The militants continue to be at large. The local forest post is now manned by a Muslim official and there is a camp of paramilitary personnel to guard the small settlement. “The government has been saying that it is difficult to relocate these people for they don’t have rights to the land here. In the eyes of the government, they are still encroachers,” explained Abdul Kalam Azad, an activist. This is despite the fact that Hamid has been living in the village for 40 years. “I came from Barpeta, a neighbouring district, in 1971,” he recalled.

Meanwhile, the cycle of violence is not new. On the outskirts of Bongaigaon, tucked in a corner in Hapashara, is a settlement of tin shacks where some 1,000 families of East Bengal origin Muslims have been living since 1999. “We were in Potabari village in 1993 which was then a part of Kokrajhar district,” says Kifayat Ali who works as a casual worker with the local police station. “The violence started after the 1993 Bodo Accord,” he recalls. “They would call us Bangladeshis and harass us. I tried showing them my NRC certificate which I got in 1951. But they wouldn’t believe me,” says Ahmed Ali, an octogenarian. He was born in Gwalpada in Lakhipur district before his father decided to move to Kokrajhar in search of work. These victims of the 1993 violence lived in several camps over the next six years.

“Fifteen days after the violence, the government decided to move us back to our village and lodged us in a school. But our people were being routinely killed when they moved out for work. So we finally decided to move here,” says Ali. The sarpanch of the village rented out his land to these people for Rs 10,000 per year. Now the rent for each shack has gone up to Rs 200 per month. “As per the 2003 Bodo Accord the Bodo Territorial Council was supposed to provide land for our rehabilitation, while the state government had to chip in with financial assistance. Nothing has moved,” Ali laments.

A similar story unfolds in Joyma Gosayan village in Gossaigaon sub-divison of Kokrajhar. Some 163 families have been living in tarpaulin shacks since they moved here after Bodos attacked Ramphul Bazaar village in July 2012. “The local Bodos had been warning us to leave or face the consequences. We went from pillar to post, seeking help,” says Rajib Hussain. “We told the District Collector and the SP that this is our land and we can’t just leave it and go away but they expressed helplessness,” he recalls. “Soon the attacks began and we were forced to move out. They burnt our houses,” says Anwarul Sheikh. “And the government just gave us tarpaulin sheets and some rations in the name of relief.” Out of the 163 families, only 103 have received the Rs 50,000 compensation.

“My father was an employee of the forest department since 1949. Why do they still call us Bangladeshi?” Sheikh asks. “We also want that they throw out the Bangladeshis. Being a Muslim is a curse in this country,” Hussain complains.

“It seems that the people have forgotten the partition of Assam. Sylhet is closer to us than Calcutta and Kokrajhar used to be a part of Bengal after it was the first region to be annexed by the British in the 18th century,” says Professor Monirul Hussain who heads the Department of Political Science at Gauhati University. “The history of humankind to me is a history of migration,” he says.

Interestingly, while ‘Bangladeshi’ is being increasingly used to run down all the migrant Muslim community, this section is deeply divided.  While the peasants who came from Maimansinh in the 19th century are not liked by the ones who migrated from Sylhet, both groups are looked down upon by the indigenous Assamese Muslim community which sees itself culturally closer to the indigenous Hindus. 

“The bodos have become insecure,” says a top police official in Guwahati. “The last time, they even lost the Kokrajhar parliamentary constituency.” He says it could be the reason for the disquiet among the community which forms a little over 30 per cent of the population in the area (BTAD) it demands as homeland. The rest of the population comprises Muslims and other tribals, with the tea tribes (a rainbow of several tribals who migrated to work on the tea gardens in the past centuries) forming a significant portion. The May 2014 massacre was carried out as a retribution for the Muslims voting for a non-Bodo candidate in the elections. 

“There is some merit in their demands for they have been a disadvantaged community but you can’t give everything to 30 per cent of the population at the cost of 70 per cent who come from other ethnic groups and communities,” says Prof Dilip Bora, who heads the Department of Modern Indian Languages at Gauhati University. “In Bodoland, the Bodos want to dominate and eliminate all other groups. It is not going to be easy,” says Siddhartha Bhattacharya, president, BJP Assam unit. “History repeats itself. It was the Bodos who would detest Assamese chauvinism, and now it is the other communities which are victims of Bodo chauvinism,” says Prof Bora. “It was a mistake to name it Bodoland. They should have named it Udayachal. That would have been a neutral name.” (See interview)

Interestingly, the BTAD was carved out during the previous NDA regime and it was LK Advani, the then Home Minister, who ensured it was done.

Indeed, the area has a history of ghastly violence targetting those the local Bodos perceive as ‘outsiders’. East Bengal-origin Muslims are not the only community which has been facing persecution. In December 2014, another attempt at ethnic cleansing happened in Sonitpur when alleged NDFB(S) ultras targetted villages inhabited by the tea tribes. The violence soon spread to Kokrajhar. Interestingly, Sonitpur doesn’t fall in the BTAD area.  However, Songbijit Injit Kathar, the chief of the NDFB(S), who is not a Bodo but is from the Karbi tribe, belongs to Sonitpur. It is this faction which refuses to talk to the government, and allegedly carries out most of the massacres. “It is part of a larger political game. Some groups have been working against the Bodos to destabilise the council. Groups like the Non-Bodo People’s Security Council are working against the spirit of BTDC,” says Niom Mwshari, an office-bearer of the All Bodo Students Union.  

Meanwhile, the December 2014 violence killed almost 81 people, mostly from the Central Indian Tribes. “My husband and I were going back to the village at !0 am. I was walking a bit ahead. Suddenly three people came on a motorbike, shot him dead and fled,” Lukhi Kisko, a Santhal tribal from Bharatpur village, recalls. Kisko and several other tribals have been living in tarpaulin tents since the December violence. “We came here 200 years back. Why do they still consider us outsiders?” she asks. “We lived in camps for 12 years after the 1996 and 1998 violence. And at the end of it, all we got was Rs 10,000 as compensation,” says Philomon Toppo, of the Adivasi Relief Camp Coordination Committee.  

“This is not the first time we have been butchered,” says Amit Hembrom, a young man in his thirties. He is an active member of the Adivasi Cobra Force, a militant outfit which has entered into a ceasefire with the government. “After the violence targetting us in 1996 and then again in 1998 we realised that the State is not interested in protecting us. It is then we formed this outfit to protect our people,” Hembrom says. The group was mostly engaged in fighting with the NDFB before it agreed to a ceasefire.

These tribal groups have been rightfully demanding ST status in the state, a demand that has not gone down well with the local Bodos who see it as a threat to their opportunities and their representation in the Bodo Territorial Council which has seats reserved for the STs. “The decision may be taken soon. The Union Cabinet in all likelihood will clear the proposal to give them their due,” an intelligence source said. “It will change the dynamics of the area. That is also why the militant groups are targetting the Adivasis, trying to scare them away,” says another top police officer of the state. “We are not against reservation for them. But we just have 10 per cent reservation in the state for STs. They should increase this quota before extending it to other communities,” says Mwshari.  

The police officials see the violence through a different lens. “In my reckoning it is a contest for land,” says Sunil Kumar, Superintendent of Police, Kokrajhar. “It has lately taken a communal colour,” he says, while adding that the Bengali Hindus are not the target of these militants.  Moreover, they feel threatened by the Adivasis for they also live in the forests. And the December attack was to instil fear in the minds of the Adivasis for the NDFB believes that they are actively working as informers. “These militants do carry out one or two big operations every year to stay relevant. The governance in this part of the country is just confined to the urban centres,” another police officer says.

However, Kumar believes that the NDFB(S) also carries out killings to divert the security forces who are on the lookout for their cadres. “Sometimes it is an act of desperation. Till December 2014, a total of 35 militants were killed in Kokrajhar alone while a huge cache of arms was seized. To revive they divert attention by carrying out killings,” Kumar says. “In Assam, the insurgency is not that strong now. It is also because of the good relations with Bangladesh. But these groups continue to be active as weapons and refuge are easily available through either Nagaland or Bhutan,” says a top intelligence source.   

Rajib hussain believes that the proposed National Register of Citizenship will settle matters. “We are ready for it. We have all the proof of being Indian citizens. It’s Hindus who came from Bangladesh after 1971 who will suffer,” he claims.

In Guwahati, Hussain’s assertion doesn’t find much acceptance. The larger belief is that while the degree may vary—some think a large number of people are crossing over regularly, while others claim it is just a trickle - an influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh continues unabated. The security apparatus of the state too believes that it is happening. “It is certainly not a bogey,” as a top intelligence official put it. However, they have nothing concrete to offer as evidence. “I know it because the local people claimed that they are seeing a lot of new faces in the area,” a police officer posted in Nagaon explained. But they could be just ordinary villagers moving to the city for work. “I don’t think there are a large number of Bangladeshis coming in, but there are certainly a few,” says Prof Bora, “and it frightens the locals.” 

Many also believe that the extent of their numbers can be gauged in the next elections by the number of seats the AIUDF, a party which has the support of Muslims of East Bengal origin, wins.  Badruddin Ajmal, an MP and a Muslim with origins in Sylhet, has been called a Bangladeshi too. In October 2014, the BJP demanded that there be an inquiry into his links with jihadis—another routine charge made against Muslims of East Bengal origin. The charge doesn’t resonate with the local security agencies. “There is no big threat of fundamentalism in this part except that recently a few people were caught for connections with the Burdwan blasts,” says a senior intelligence sleuth. “Even the madrassas are mostly regulated here,” another senior police official says. “After the 2012 violence, a few misguided youths formed a local organisation called the Muslim Protection Tiger Force of Assam. But most of them surrendered,” says Kumar.  

“It is the BJP which is pushing this idea of the ‘other’ or the ‘outsider’,” says Prof Hussain. “However, it will be difficult for them to convince the indigenous Assamese to take up their brand of communal politics. The state has a rich syncretic tradition,” says a political observer. 

Meanwhile, there is a larger consensus, including among the Muslims of East Bengal origin, that the NRC, the proposal for which has been rolled out again recently after a botched attempt earlier, would settle the question of who is an ‘outsider’.  But only if it is allowed to culminate. For now, it has renewed the debate on who is an ‘indigenous Assamese’—which many perceive as a diversionary tactic to derail the NRC. The Muslims of East Bengal origin, the Bodos and other tribal groups are strongly contesting the definition pushed by the Assam Sahitya Sabha and the All-Assam Students Union where the Assamese language is being given precedence over other aspects.

Meanwhile, there are growing fears that the violence will worsen as the 2016 elections draw closer.  

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2015

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