Bijni, Assam: There is a burned twisted bicycle lying on its side, next to a blackened pump. The ground is charred and the banana trees are dying, the green leaves turning a dull brown. Posts stick out of the ground, the tin roofs stolen by looters. A tea kettle lies without a handle but unburned – startlingly silver against all the rust and black and grey around it. All around the scorched skeleton of this little village, a few kilometers outside Bijni, the landscape is still idyllic – white storks land daintily on rolling green paddy fields, monsoon clouds gather in the distant horizon, a goat bleats and birds chirp. But there is hardly anyone to be seen. Next to the village that has been razed, there’s another village that is intact, the thatched houses unscathed. But it’s a ghost village, empty and silent, its residents sheltering in a relief camp somewhere. A mongrel dog stands at the gate and looks at us, perhaps in warning or perhaps hoping for some food.
I try and guess which community this burned village belonged to based on the demographics of the area and the little experience I have garnered in a few days of reporting. But when I ask the army man sitting in lonely vigil outside the village I find out I guessed wrong.
When you burn a village to the ground and ransack it down to the stumps, there’s not much left to tell a Bodo village from a Muslim one.
Fishing in troubled waters
Herein lies the complexity of what unfolded in Assam and the peril for those of us outsiders who rush in to report on it.We want the short headline that encapsulates the conflict so it fits on a scrolling caption – communal violence, ethnic cleansing, illegal immigration, Assam burning.
And there are plenty of outsiders – from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushwarat – who are happy to fish in troubled waters and reduce the conflict to just those kinds of incendiary bullet points. AIMMM quotes an ex-MLA saying “it is a sin to be born Muslim in Assam.” VHP’s Praveen Togadia says the Bangladeshis are trying to make Assam a “Muslim country” and all Hindus should “unite with the Bodos to fight against this invasion”.
So how do you talk about all the stuff that cannot fit into the headline but have made Assam burn for decades? Groups versus groups where each one – Bodo, Adivasi, Rajbonghsi, Muslim - has its own underground armed militia. Stories of extortion and kidnappings that predate this conflict. A central government that has long treated the north east as a far away step child who needed to just shut up and keep sending oil and tea to the rest of the country. The positions of tribes and tribal land within our laws. The votebank politics that allows politicians to simultaneously turn a blind eye to illegal immigration and then let their villages burn as police stand by idly.
It’s hard to talk about all this without overwhelming the reader, so we tell the story by numbers.