Approximately 23 km from Kokrajhar town and roughly 5 km away from NH-31C, residents of Manikpur, Dimapur and Mynapur (all Bodo villages) now don’t crisscross paths with inhabitants of the neighbouring Labdanguri, Sedamari, Uttar Lotagaon, Rakatola, Dobragaon and Kachatola villages and vice versa. And the reason is all too obvious—the latter are all Adivasi villages. In fact, movement of any stranger through these villages, especially at night, now raises suspicion among the residents. The same state-of-affairs exists in the entire Kokrajhar district.
Ironically though, what binds together residents of most of these villages is their common fate—of being displaced from their home and hearth due to the orgy of ethnic violence that followed the brutal massacre of 65 people by the dreaded Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB-S) on 23rd December last year. Three Bodo villages were ransacked by the neighbouring Adivasi villages forcing its 80-odd families to take shelter in a nearby relief camp. In fact, the gunning down of innocents in lightning strikes across villages in Chirang, Kokrajhar and Sonitpur districts on the night of 23rd December 2014 by suspected NDFB-S militants and the subsequent violence that resulted in the death of at least 20 more and displaced over 1.5 lakh people has had a telltale effect on the age-old ties of brotherhood and harmony between both the communities. Living as next-door neighbours since several decades and until a month back, the Advasi and Bodo villagers now remain wary of each other. The air of mistrust and suspicion between the communities hangs quite heavy these days, giving enough indication that the thick veil of animosity and suspicion between them will not lift any time soon.
No New Phenomenon
In fact, the slaughtering of innocent men, women and children by armed groups, resulting in stoking of fresh flames of ethnic conflict that claimed several lives besides uprooting 1.76 lakh people (as per State Government sources) from their homes across the northern bank of the Brahmaputra follows a pattern that Assam, nay the Northeast, has become quite familiar with. The year-end violence was not an aberration or a one-of-a-kind incident as the Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts (BTAD) comprising Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang and areas around them have become a veritable cauldron for brutal communal and ethnic conflicts over the past few years. Before the December violence, bloody clashes between Bodos and Muslims in Baksa and Barpeta districts in May last year preceded by similar killings by armed groups claimed at least 45 lives, while several thousands were displaced. Similar violence between the two communities that rocked the BTAD and spilled over to Dhubri in 2012 claimed 109 lives and displaced 4.85 lakh people. While the BTAD has gained notoriety in recent times for violent ethnic and communal strife, other areas of Assam like the twin hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao (formerly NC Hills) and Goalpara too have not remained unscathed from such a virulent phenomenon. And the pattern invariably remains similar – militant strikes followed by bouts of bloody communal/ethnic clashes.
In a way, the issue of conflict-induced internally displaced people (IDP) has become a common thread that binds some of the Northeastern states. According to some human rights activists, almost 20 lakh people have been displaced due to internecine conflicts in the region in the last two decades. Manipur witnessed displacement of about one lakh people in bloody Naga-Kuki conflicts between 1992 and 1997, while Mizoram saw dislocation of approximately 35,000 Brus in 1997 who were forced to flee to neighbouring Tripura. Assam, however, has seen the highest number of IDP. If estimates of New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) are to be believed, a whopping 15 lakh people were displaced in Assam due to conflicts from 1993 to 2012. And if the numbers displaced by subsequent bloodsheds are taken into account, then the tally of IDP in Assam adds up to well over 17 lakh.
No wonder, conflict-induced IDP has become a major cause of concern in some of the Northeastern States, particularly Assam. There have been at least 13 major communal/ethnic clashes since 1993 in Assam, claiming over 1,100 lives, while displacing lakhs of people. Each conflict displaced thousands of people, if not more, depriving them of their basic human needs like food and clothing, access to proper drinking water and sanitation, shelter, essential medical services and education, besides snatching their means of livelihood. The tragedy of this man-made crisis is that while there is immediate relief, there is no proper rehabilitation of the IDP. And the worst part is that many of those affected by violence and shifted to relief camps are unable to return to their homes even after normalcy returns.
Thousands of IDP continue to stay put in camps that they have converted into permanent settlements in many parts of Assam. For instance, Bangaldoba and Salnatari camps in Kokrajhar district and Chalabila and Vidyapur camps in Bongaigaon district have become virtual villages now with the passage of time as the inmates refused to move out despite the government announcing closure of the camps after providing them ‘requisite compensation’. Inmates of the first two camps were victims of bloody clashes between the Bodos and Muslims that rocked Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar districts in October 1993, while the inmates of the latter were affected by the bitter ethnic violence between the Bodos and Koch Rajbongshis in 19.
In fact, a total of 33,600 IDP were sheltered in 12 government-run camps in Kokrajhar district till June 2009. These included 4,991 persons displaced in 1993, 9,265 persons displaced in 1996 and 19,344 persons displaced in 1998. The failure to rehabilitate these IDPs for more than a decade speaks volumes about Dispur’s seriousness in their proper rehabilitation.
Talking to ENe, Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju conceded that the issue of IDP was genuine and serious. ‘It’s very unfortunate that people get displaced in their own country due to violence. It shouldn’t happen,’ he opined.
Castigating the government for its ‘inaction’ on IDP, Samujjal Bhattacharya, North East Students’ Organisation president and All Assam Students’ Union adviser, says time-bound programme for rehabilitation of those displaced by violence is a ‘necessity’. ‘This is crucial for building confidence among communities. For, if the government rehabilitates the IDP and provides them security, civil society groups will take forward the agenda of peace through dialogue among communities,’ he explains.
Needed: a Rehabilitation Policy
Strangely enough, despite tracing its origin to the blood-soaked past manifest in the senseless orgy of communal violence that gripped the sub-continent, 67 years down the line, independent India still does not have a proper policy on providing relief and rehabilitation to the conflict-induced IDP. There is no fixed parameter or a structured formula on the quantum of relief and rehabilitation to be provided to the inmates of relief camps. The State governments fix the rates as per their own convenience. The lack of priority vis-à-vis rehabilitation is also manifest in the blatant disparity and incoherence often witnessed by the government’s responses.
So, while the IDPs of Assam are generally provided Rs 10,000 and three corrugated sheets by the State Government as per the obsolete Assam Relief Manual of 1976 in the name of rehabilitation, Tamil IDPs in Sri Lanka affected by violence were provided houses free of cost by New Delhi. The Indian government had sanctioned construction of 50,000 houses at a cost of Rs 1,372 crore for the Tamil IDPs in the neighbouring country.
Even the Kashmiri Pandits forced to flee their home State due to militant violence are getting a better deal compared to the IDP in the region. The Centre continues to provide provision of assistance towards housing, transit accommodation, continuation of cash relief, students’ scholarships, employment, assistance to agriculturists/horticulturists and waiver of interest on loan for the displaced Kashmiri Pandits.
Even within the region, the disparity is often too blatant to be missed. For instance, while the Brus who were displaced from Mizoram were given Rs 80,000 as rehabilitation (Rs 38,500 for building houses and cash assistance of Rs 41,500/- per family) by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Sakhan Mizos from Tripura allegedly displaced by the Brus were given Rs 1,50,000 in July 2012 by the same Ministry.
A major problem that has cropped in Assam while rehabilitating the IDP, especially in the BTAD, is the fact that most of them were encroachers on forest lands. Rijiju asserted that rehabilitation of IDP is not possible on forest lands as it is not permissible as per the laws of land. ‘Obviously, development activities can’t take place on forest lands,’ he reiterated. However, he agreed that a solution will have to be found out as it is a ‘humanitarian problem’.
The MoS has a point. Villages like Ultapani in Kokrajhar district where militants struck with sheer savagery on the night of 23rd December is basically an encroachment on forestland. So, those residing in relief camps are unlikely to be rehabilitated. The Assam Government does provide financial aid to the IDP to relocate to a different location. However, as mentioned above, the amount provided is too meagre to encourage a camp inmate to relocate and rebuild his life anew.
Cause & Effect
So, compared to the rest of the country, why is the region witnessing a spurt in communal and ethnic strife resulting in an increase in the number of IDP? Opinions vary.
According to Rijiju, the problem of IDP in the Northeast has arisen because its root cause has not been addressed. He said different indigenous groups in the region have political and social aspirations, often leading to clashes among competing groups. Besides showing the region in poor light, he said the frequent clashes also reflect the ‘failure’ of the State governments of the region to win the confidence of various sections of the society. The Minister feels the issue has to be tackled by the State Government at the grassroots as it involves basic governance. He agreed that both the Centre and the State governments need to view the IDP issue very seriously.
Well-known social commentator and National Fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) Dr Apurba Baruah is not ‘surprised’ at the social conflagration that has engulfed the region given the fact that it is home to ‘300 plus’ communities. He attributed rise of newly educated middle class, scarce resources and competition over land, small trade and government jobs as the primary reasons for the rise in ethnic conflicts and social fragmentation in the region leading to the problem of IDP.
‘The situation is, however, not beyond redemption or as bad as it appears. With positive interventions, especially by the government, a turn-around is definitely possible. The government should speed up economic development initiatives. Civil society groups, especially the intellectuals, should take the lead in mobilizing people on socio-economic background, rather than ethnicity,’ he explained.
According to Suhas Chakma of ACHR, killing of innocents, and thereby starting a chain of communal and ethnic riots, has been a policy of the armed groups operating in the region. ‘While the government has failed to fix accountability for such killings, it has also totally absolved itself of the basic responsibility of providing relief and rehabilitation to those affected by violence,’ Chakma stressed.
Meanwhile, Kampa Borgoyary, deputy chief of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), has put the onus for the latest conflagration in the BTAD at the door of the militants. ‘The recent ethnic violence in Chirang, Kokrajhar and Sonitpur districts was triggered by NDFB-S militants’ cowardly attack on innocent Adivasis. So, the government should use all means available at its disposal to crush the outfit. Unless these armed groups are subdued with a heavy hand, such tensions will continue,’ he explained.
Meanwhile, on the ground, initiatives are afoot to contain the situation and improve the relationship between the two communities. The All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) and the All Adivasi Students’ Association (AASA) have jointly organized 30 public meetings in Adivasi and Bodo villages to instil confidence and restore trust among ordinary people. The BTC also convened a meeting with the AASA leadership in Kokrajhar on 8th January to discuss the latest crisis and inspire confidence among the Adivasis. While blaming ‘security lapse’ and militants for the latest bloodbath in BTAD, All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) central committee member and former Kokrajhar unit chief, Lawrence Islary conceded that the biggest challenge is to restore trust among communities. Reflecting on the deep mistrust and suspicion between the two communities, ABSU volunteers accompanied ENe representatives to Bodo villages affected by violence, while All Adivasi Students’ Association (AASA) activists escorted them to Adivasi camps. AASA Vice-president Stephen Lakra said peace was a pre-requisite to restore age-old harmony and underlined that both the AASA and ABSU were determined to carry forward their agenda of peace and harmony.
The startling number of IDPs in Assam is a serious humanitarian issue; the need of the hour is for the society at large to take an unequivocal stand on the subject and force the government to develop a proper rehabilitation policy. Apart from long-term rehabilitation of the affected in a timely manner by the State government, community efforts in rebuilding life after the tragedy will also help in getting over present acrimony. Also, the free flow of small and illegal arms to the surrendered/non-surrendered militants should be immediately stalled; guns can only be a part of the problem, and never a part of the solution.
Mangal Murmu (22) was just three-years-old when he had his first brush with the ugly reality of ethnic conflict in 1996. Forced to flee from East Maligaon village along with his parents and three sisters due to the Adivasi-Bodo conflict that year, Mangal now resides beside Joypur High School, which has once again become home to several hundred Adivasis affected by the recent conflagration that swept through the BTAD. Mangal’s father bought a plot of land near the school, which is around 21 km from Kokrajhar town, and settled there permanently as he could not return to his ancestral village. So, does Mangal have any regret or harbour any ill-feeling towards anyone? The young man, who always has a smile on his face, says he only wishes that the ‘periodic’ cycles of violence ceases once and for all. ‘I have no hard feelings against anyone, but please give peace a chance so that youths like us can live to realise our dreams. We had had enough of this senseless violence,’ Mangal adds.
Suresh Brahma, headman of Dimapur village, under Kokrajhar police station and roughly 5 km south of NH-31C, is a symbol of fortitude. Having lost his father right in front of his eyes on the afternoon of 24th December, Suresh has put his personal tragedy behind to help fellow villagers rebuild their lives. The Bodo village with 27-odd families bore the brunt of the reprisals carried out by neighbouring Adivasi villagers. As the arsonists put fire to his granary and house, Suresh, like other fellow villagers, fled for his life. However, Suresh’s aged father was not that lucky as his old legs didn’t allow him to run to safety, and he was killed right in front of his son’s eyes. The village headman, however, harbours no hatred for the Adivasis of the neighbouring villages. He says he wants to get on with his life and does not want past incidents to colour his future dealings with the Adivasis. ‘It was an unfortunate incident and a nightmare for me. I’ll definitely miss my beloved father. But then, life has to move on too,’ he says with a smile, even as the sadness in his eyes is more than evident. Enthused by the headman’s positive approach, the villagers are now busy rebuilding their lives and moving on with life beyond the tragedy.
Source: Anirban Choudhury and Aiyushman Dutta
(This story was published in Eclectic Northeast print edition of February 2015)