Ethnic Violence

Method in the Massacre

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A week of madness in Assam

Her body was found floating in the Gaurang river. By the time a BSF constable was alerted, it had moved a little ahead. Along with another man, the constable ran along the riverbank and jumped into the water to fish it out. The woman was in a sari, her hands tied behind her back, and with deep lacerations on her neck. A sharp weapon had been plunged under her left breast.

It was the day Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Kokrajhar, the wounded district of Assam.

Six hours after the police were informed, two policemen arrived in a mini-truck. The body was soon identified as that of 50-year-old Jamila of Kokrajhar’s Dhuramari village. Her face was recognised by some of those who had fled Dhuramari earlier. Her son Subhan was called, and he said his mother had gone missing the day they were attacked in the wee hours of 23 July.

The Muslim village had just woken up in preparation for sehri (a Ramzan ritual of a pre-dawn breakfast before a daytime fast), when dozens of men in military fatigues opened fire in their direction. “There was utter chaos,” recounts Subhan, “and most of us ran towards the school building right at the entrance of our village.” A police party arrived three hours later and took two injured people to hospital. The rest were so scared, says Subhan, nobody dared return to the village. From the school building, they saw their entire village go up in flames.

At about 11.30 am, they were attacked again. That evening, a platoon of the Assam Police’s 7th Battalion was despatched to Dhuramari.

The same night, the village found itself under attack again. “Bullets were flying all over. They kept firing throughout the night. We were very scared, but we thought the police [firing back in our defence] would force them to retreat,” says Asghar Ali, a private school teacher. By midnight, however, the police had run out of both ammunition and courage. “They said they would leave by the first light,” says Ali, “They asked us to run away and save our lives.”

Thinking that an escape in the darkness of the night would be too chaotic and risky, the men did not break the news to their families. It is not clear how many people had taken refuge in the school building, but the number ran into hundreds. “Throughout the night,” says Islamuddin, another villager, “I was in touch with the police, but nobody came to rescue us.”

The moment the platoon left, the people of Dhuramari slipped out towards the River Gaurang. “I knew there was a boat anchored at one spot,” says Ali, “and I took them there.” Upon touching ground on the other side, they found paramilitary forces standing there with Kokrajhar’s police chief. They could have come to Dhuramari’s rescue, says Ali, but did not. So he and the rest walked on and sought refuge in a relief camp in the neighbouring district of Dhubri.

The day the Dhuramari villagers left their homes, a group of Muslims met Assam’s Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi in Guwahati and apprised him of sophisticated weapons being used to target Muslims in Kokrajhar and other districts. “Gogoi said there were hardly any weapons around,” recalls one of the delegation’s members, Mazedur Rahman. Gogoi, he says, did not even appear concerned about how pathetic conditions were in relief camps. “He dismissed us by saying that it takes time to make arrangements,” he says.

The people of Assam have long had a term for their casual pace of life: ‘lahe, lahe’ (slowly, slowly). But settlers from East Bengal, many of them brought to Assam as tea plantation workers by British colonialists in the early part of the last century, were people in a hurry. They knew that land held the key to a better life. In contrast, the indigenous tribals of Assam, of which Bodos form the largest group, had no cultural concept of land ownership. Bodos were engaged in shifting cultivation, the land for which was considered a possession of the community, not individuals.

In 1971, after East Pakistan became Bangladesh, the illegal influx of migrants from there to Assam saw a manifold increase. It seemed to have state sanction; Bangladesh President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman once remarked how his country faced a shortage of land and that some inhabitants should be encouraged to settle in Assam.

East Bengali immigrants, hardworking as they were, mostly settled along the riverbeds and turned into cultivators. Gradually, they moved inland, buying land from Bodos and other tribes. The population of these settlers was soon large enough for them to claim a share of political power in Assam. In the late 70s, an agitation broke out over the issue of illegal migration. Ethnic conflict had begun, and the tensions of this phase reached a bloody peak with the brutal 1983 Nellie massacre of nearly 2,000 Muslims.

But the Congress party saw political potential in this dramatic demographic shift. It facilitated citizenship papers for East Bengali immigrants, and they in turn voted en masse for successive Congress governments in Assam. Various laws were passed to have illegal immigrants deported, but in the absence of a proper framework for implementation, they failed.

In Bodo populated parts of Assam, Bodos had dreamt of a state of their own, but they realised that it would never be realised with such large numbers of settlers around (and still moving in). The tensions resulted in a series of clashes. In 1993 and 1994, thousands of Muslim families were forced to flee. Most are still languishing in relief camps. In 1996 and 1998, Santhal and Munda Adivasis were targeted. Militancy among Bodos had been on the rise, as groups of these tribals took up arms in the 90s for their cause of statehood. A peace accord in 2003 saw the creation of a semi-autonomous Bodo region under the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), which is headed by a former Bodo insurgent leader. There was no let up in the ethnic violence, though. In 2008, there was yet another surge against Muslims in which many lost their lives. The Congress administration stood idly by as Muslims were mowed down. The party had the community’s votes, by and large, and that’s what counted.

The violence did not discourage illegal immigration. Police sources say that in some cases, their citizenship papers are kept ready by relatives (who’d migrated earlier) even before they cross over into Assam. For the police, there is no incentive to identify and deport illegal immigrants. If they take such detainees to a border checkpost for deportation, it usually takes days for Bangladesh to let them back in. And the cops have to use their own money to feed themselves as well as the detainees. Naturally, the police are not interested.

In some districts, this has resulted in a drastic increase in population. The decadal growth of Dhubri, which shares its border with Bangladesh, was the state’s highest, according to the 2011 census. Its population rose by 24.40 per cent, against Assam’s overall 16.93 per cent. It was also the highest in the 2001 Census, going up by 23.42 per cent as compared to Assam’s 18.92 per cent.

Over the past few years, Muslims have been asserting themselves in areas where they are in the majority. What exactly happened last month is not entirely clear, but by some accounts, it all started with a fracas over an Eidgah maidan being set up on a patch of forest land that was declared an ‘illegal encroachment’ by BTC authorities. Afterwards, on 19 July, two Muslim student leaders were shot at and grievously injured. A day later, a Muslim mob lynched four former Bodo insurgents.

Then, the butchery began. The Bodo militia, who possess a huge cache of weapons from its days of insurgency, surrounded village after village inhabited by Muslims and went on a killing spree.

The administration was paralysed. The police could do nothing. It took the Assam government days to ask for Army deployment. But it was too late by then.

The state government now says that the region is under control and there have been no fresh incidents of violence. But as the elderly Zubaid Ali, who fled Kokrajhar for a relief camp in Dhubri, says, “There is no fresh violence because there is nobody left to direct it against.”

In Nankargaon High School, Sahija Khatoon lies on a jute sack. She can barely sit up. It was here, on 25 July, that she gave birth to a baby girl who was named Noorja (it means ‘harbinger of light’). With her baby in her womb, she had to run for miles from her village in Chirang district. Her husband is a driver currently stranded in another camp. The camp houses about 3,000 inmates. In all, more than 400,000 people are believed to have been rendered homeless over the past fortnight.

In the Chapor relief camp, Tausir Ali from Kokrajhar’s Kounia Hati village recalls how men in army fatigues had surrounded his village. “They carried big guns and I also saw hand grenades in their hands,” he says. To prevent them from running, the militia blasted a small bridge near their village. But they managed to flee somehow. Mohammad Iman Ali, who is from Chirang’s Pakhriguri village, says he had warned the district police chief and collector many times of the impending danger. But they never paid heed. While fleeing, one of his neighbours was shot from behind and died in front of his eyes.

Most of the camps are housed in schools. There is rainwater logged all around and the threat of an epidemic looms large. Many camps smell of rot, a stench that the sprinkling of a little limestone cannot contain. There is no medical help on hand. A few inmates have already died as a result. In many camps, no government relief has reached so far. Inmates here survive on rice and vegetables provided by non-affected community members and voluntary organisations.

“The government says we will be sent back in seven days. But those rendered homeless in 1993 are still homeless. Gogoi thinks it is a joke,” says Ali Akbar, an inmate of the Chapor camp.

More than the fear of disease and death, refugees are worried about having to prove their ‘Indian’ identity. “All our documents have been burnt,” says one, “Now we will all be dubbed Bangladeshis.” Some admit that their fathers and forefathers had made their way to Assam from across the border. “We’ve been living here for 40-50 years now,” says a community leader, “If an Indian goes to the US, doesn’t he ask for a Green Card after a few years?”

While Muslims from Kokrajhar and Chirang took refuge in Dhubri, many Bodo villages in Dhubri and elsewhere also emptied out, with people taking refuge in Kokrajhar. Nileshwar Basumatari from Dhubri’s Aghari village says they had to run away after they were attacked by thousands of Muslims. “In the last few years, they had been troubling us,” he says, “They would steal our cows.”

In the early 90s, says 80-year-old Narayan Basumatari of Dhubri’s Boromal village, there were seven Muslim families there, but gradually unknown settlers built houses as well. “There are hundreds of Muslim families in my village now,” he says.

At his office, Pramod Bodo, president of All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), curves a hand over his belly to suggest pregnancy. “While our women have two or three children, [Muslim] women bear children every year,” he says, “We have been raising this issue, but nobody in Guwahati or New Delhi pays any heed. Forget Bodoland. As an Indian, how can I tolerate them if they burst crackers to celebrate a victory of the Pakistan cricket team?”

But then, nothing justifies the organised butchery that the Bodo militia has perpetrated. The way that Muslim villages were attacked points to an orchestrated massacre. “We lost our patience,” says Dersen Daimari, secretary of the ABSU, “They had the numbers… [so] they became overconfident.”

The police have taken custody of Jamila’s body. Subhan goes with them. His immediate worry now is his mother’s burial. The BSF constable who had retrieved her body is a Muslim. He stands there, watching the body leave with the police and others. He tries to retain his composure, but his emotions take over. He was in Malda, West Bengal, when he heard of the attacks. He rushed home to be with his family. Curfew had been declared in Kokrajhar, but he managed to reach Panbari, about 35 km away from his village, where a BSF battalion is stationed. “There were armymen and a company of the Indian Reserve Battalion as well,” says the constable, “I begged them to move in, but they said they were helpless in the absence of any directive.”

Later, the BSF constable managed to evacuate his family. They have moved in with a relative now. “I have seen action in Manipur and elsewhere, and my heart beats for my country,” he says, “It is so humiliating, turning homeless like this.” He was with the paramilitary forces when the deputy police chief and the area’s police in-charge walked in. “They saw me in a lungi and instantly started enquiring about me,” he says. They were still discussing the deployment, he says, when a Bodo man walked in. “He threatened me in front of the police officers,” he says, “I know that Bodo man. He is a criminal.”

Gradually, a crowd starts to form. Far too many people are missing. Four kids, an old man says, are still stranded in Dhuramari. They are in the care of a non-Muslim family. “Can you please do something about it?” he pleads. They have spoken to the police, but the cops are busy with the PM’s security arrangements.

The Kokrajhar police chief’s cellphone rings, but he does not answer it. Not very far from where we are, we learn that the PM has arrived at a Muslim relief camp. We rush there. From a distance, we see him talking to some camp inmates. We are behind a wall—in an enclosure meant for the media.

The Prime Minister looks set to leave, along with his retinue of advisors and the Chief Minister. “Mr Prime Minister,” I shout for his attention. He looks up, stops for a moment, and walks towards us. I tell him about the four kids and inability of the police to rescue them. “It has been take note of,” he says. Behind him, a visibly restless Gogoi keeps uttering the name of the village: “Dhuramari, Dhuramari…” By the time the PM walks away, we see the Army’s Brigadier Bhaskar Kalita approach.

“Dhuramari you said, right?” asks the brigadier.

“Yes, can we come with you?”

Just hop in, he says.

In about five minutes, we find ourselves racing towards Dhuramari. Inside his car, Brigadier Kalita and I talk about the situation, while his deputy Colonel Raj Kumar asks one of his officers located nearby to reach the village.

Dhuramari is about 25 km from there. It takes us about 30 minutes to reach. At the entrance of the village is the school, now half burnt, where the villagers took refuge on the morning of 23 July. As we get down, we see two houses on fire on our right. We rush ahead with Colonel Raj Kumar leading us along with his men. Two houses ahead, we see a motorcycle on its side with a key in its ignition socket. Some miscreants had been setting houses aflame again, we gather, and they must have fled after spotting us.

“Is there somebody out there?” shouts the colonel in Assamese. There is no response. The whole village is deserted. All houses have been burnt, some clearly plundered. There are sundry household articles lying on the road. We see a stack of tin sheets tied with a string. Part of the loot, we guess. In the middle of the village, inside a burnt house, we see books and notebooks strewn around. There is a class VII textbook in Assamese with Mahatma Gandhi on its back cover. It is titled Our Society.

In the compound of one house, a container of flour lies upturned. The lady of the house must have been preparing for sehri when the first gunshots rang out.

There are no kids to be found anywhere.

We survey the ghost village. On its periphery, we finally see some men scampering off. They are Bodos, running back to the safety of their own village. We return to the place where we had entered the village. Near the school, there is a gutted hut, and behind it lies a body covered with a colourful sheet, his head visible. It is partly decomposed. The man is middle-aged and must have been shot while trying to escape to the fields.

Meanwhile, another Army column joins us. They have seen more bodies. We cross a field submerged in water. We see a black dog, floating belly up, with a bullet in its abdomen. In a grim corner of a hut on the periphery of this field, we spot a semi-burnt body of an old man in a seated position. Pieces of a cheap sound system lie in front of the house. I pick up a VCD marked with recent footprints, perhaps of the marauders who walked out after finishing their job. I play it later at my office in Delhi. It’s a Bengali mythological drama about a snake king and his lover.

We leave. The Army informs the police of the bodies. For the Army, these are not a priority. Understandably so. They have been called in to ensure the safety of survivors.

The next morning, I receive a call from a man called Usman, who is now lodged in Dhubri’s Bilasipara refugee camp. He says he has received a call from one of his Bodo friends from Simbulgaon village near Dhuramari. The Bodo man, named Onirbari, has custody of two Muslim kids, aged seven and ten, who had strayed into his village after fleeing Dhuramari on 23 July. Onirbari, Usman says, has told him that he would like to hand them over to some ‘peace committee.’

I want to cross-check this. I take down Onirbari’s mobile number and ask a Bodo waiter in my hotel to speak to him. On the phone, he repeats the same story. I take the phone to speak to him. He hears my voice and disconnects his phone, switching it off. But the lead is enough. I inform the Prime Minister’s Office, and get in touch with Brigadier Kalita. “No problem, let us go again,” he says. In an hour’s time, we are headed for Simbulgaon. In 30 minutes, we are there.

Brigadier Kalita asks his gunmen to stay back. “I don’t want to scare the family,” he says. An Assamese, he knows the language. He enters the compound of Onirbari’s house by asking for the ‘lady’ of the house.

All of Simbulgaon’s able-bodied men have fled in fear of police action. In Onirbari’s house, his wife and mother sit while his three children look on. The lady is cutting betel nuts. Brigadier Kalita asks the women politely about Onirbari and whether he is in possession of those two kids. He asks one of his men to bring a packet of toffees, which he hands over to Onirbari’s daughter. A Rs 500 note is offered to his wife. The wife confirms that her husband had indeed seen those two kids in the nearby village of Potibari, but could not bring them home. He feared a Bodo reprisal. But, yes, in an act of compassion, he gave them jackfruit to eat.

The kids have disappeared. The murderous rage might have claimed them too. There is no way to find out.

As we leave, I receive a call from the Kokrajhar police chief. He had also been alerted of the kids. “My men searched the whole house, but they could not find them,” he says.

“Will you try searching in other neighbouring villages?” I ask. The phone line gets disconnected. I call again. The number is unreachable.

In her critically acclaimed novel, Neela Noi (Blue River), on the killings of 1996 in the Bodo region, Assamese writer Aparna Goswami describes how a man was carried on a chang (bamboo stretcher), his head hanging from his body by the skin of his neck. ‘Already, a lot of blood has poured out,’ she writes, ‘Still it is bleeding.’

That blood, it seems, is yet to stop pouring. But it is not visible at all to the government. Hours before he ceased to be India’s Home Minister, P Chidambaram said that in Assam, “ultimately, people of all communities would have to learn to live together in peace”.

It is easy to say this at a sanitised relief camp. A little too easy. He should have tried saying it to the father of the two missing kids.