A journey through fear and loathing in Assam

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 there’s not much left to tell a Bodo village from a Muslim one. SandipRoy/Firstpost

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.

The numbers game

Exactly how many Bangladeshis have illegally crossed the border and settled in the villages of Assam, farming patches of land, driving three-wheelers and doing odd jobs?

How many people are actually genuinely refugees? How can there be 5 lakh Muslim refugees in the camps of Kokrajhar if the total Muslim population of Kokrajhar is only 2 lakh?

Why has the amount of mustard oil supplied to camps in Gosaigaon gone up from 4,288 litres on August 1 to 10,752 litres on August 2 if the government claims four camps have actually shut down there?

How many weapons have Bodo militants not surrendered?

But the problem faced by Assam is beyond numbers and no figure of compensation, whether Rs 30,000 or 60,000 can fix that. The relief camps I and other reporters go to are just a manifestation of the problem. Closing them by August 15, as the chief minister wants, will not fix the real problems or allay the suspicions.

The Bodos claim this is a great Bangladeshi conspiracy to overwhelm them on their own land by sheer numbers. “The entire indigenous peoples feel suffocated by these illegal immigrants. They burst crackers when Pakistan wins in cricket,” says Pramod Boro, head of the All Bodo Students Union.

The Muslims claim they are the victims of Bodo militants who have never laid down their arms and want Bodoland for Bodos only. They want to use this violence to strike down the autonomy agreement, open up reserved seats and try to wrest political power.

The refugees on both sides just recite their stories of loss - stories that are almost mirror images of each other.

The arithmetic of animals
After the third refugee camp, the journalist in me feels already dulled by the litany of suffering, impatient at the sameness of the accounts, each laundry list of loss blurring into the next. Cows lost. Goats killed. Houses burned. Crops torched. Each camp seems to have spokesmen who had been schooled in well-rehearsed talking points whether it is about scrapping Bodo autonomy or sealing the border.

I ask a woman fanning her sick child if I can take a picture. She nods mutely and puts the fan down and moves aside. The camp secretary says, “No, no, keep fanning. It will make a better picture.” It is all about the better picture and the more poignant story where people are turned into exhibits of suffering.

As I turn to leave one camp, a woman who has let the men do the talking until then, timidly touches my elbow. “Won’t you write down my story, brother?” she says. “I am from Nithuriabari. You have not written about Nithuriabari.” Her story is really no different from the others. But she tells it with such urgency and hope as if by scribbling it down I can right some great wrong.  She tells me the story because it is all she has. And I write it down dutifully as if Fatima Bibi’s five missing goats, Sanzeeta Basumathari’s two missing pigs and Iman Ali’s twelve lost cows can all add up to something that  will explain the scope of the tragedy that engulfs Assam.

Give peace a chance?

When asked about what ails the state, they all give the same answer. Politics, they say even though they mean different things when they use the word. Now the politicians are in charge of restoring the peace.  Tarun Gogoi has set up a core committee for rehabilitation of the refugees with the politically correct mix – Bodos and Muslims and other Assamese. And politicians are making the  kind of noises that politicians always make after violence like this.

“We must sit together and form a peace committee and go to camps of both communities and start the process of rehabilitation,” says Kampa Bargayari, the deputy head of the Bodo Tribal Council. But when I ask him if he has been to a Muslim camp yet, he says “No, aaj ka din alag hain (today is an exception). Kal parsoo (Tomorrow or day after) we will be brothers but not today is not the time.”

Quran Ali with the All Assam Minority Students Union says pretty much the same thing. “It is not calm enough yet. We are still finding bodies. At this moment there is still a lot of anger. We cannot mix with each other right now.”

Both would do well to listen to what a 76-year-old Koch Rajbongshi man has to say when I ask him about rebuilding trust between communities that once lived side by side.

“First I must trust the administration again,” he says. “Then we shall see about the rest.”