Kokrajhar, Assam: “Please write your comments, sir. How did you like it?” the polite young man said handing me a hardbound ruled exercise book. I am nonplussed. I didn’t expect to be handed a comment book after visiting a refugee camp.
But Harmohan Brahmo wants to make the point that even though almost 600 Bodos are squished into this Swrang High School in Kokrajhar after the tit-for-tat violence that swept lower Assam in July, they are still trying to maintain some kind of decorum. “We can keep things clean. Even our old ladies know how to use the latrine properly,” he says. “We had everything in our village”
Camps for show?
The camp is clean and orderly. There is a television set and a carom board. A group of little boys sit on a bench and bounce a football. The washing dries in the hot August sun. “We only get rice, dal, potato, onion, salt,” says Brahmo. “No soap, mosquito coil, candles.” That’s the story of all the camps. But donors and NGOs have made sure that the Bodos who fled the violence are at least reasonably well fed. There’s a huge pile of gourds and squashes in one corner. A man stirs a big communal pot of chicken curry in the kitchen. At another camp children sit in a row to eat some parched rice (chira) with dollops of jaggery.
Some Muslim leaders have been dismissing these camps as showpiece camps, set up just to show that Bodos are equal sufferers. Kampa Baragayari, the deputy head of the Bodo Tribal Council angrily rebuts that notion. “Both sides were scared. Both communities fled to separate places. And miscreants looted the empty houses,” he says. Bargayari says the July conflagration was a classic case of fear spreading fast because rumours built upon rumours.
The politics of pigs
The question now facing both sides is can they go home? If the Muslims insist on permanent CRPF pickets to protect them, the Bodos are not sure even that will be enough. “Going back is impossible,” says Ringchand Brahmo. “What if there is trouble again in three months? Or nine months? Can the government give a guarantee it won't happen again?”
Jizali Boro has just come back from her village of Bamungaon. Sitting in the Debargaon High School refugee camp she says there’s nothing to go back to. “There is no house, no television, no cows, no fan, no cycle. The temple is destroyed. Even the latrine is broken. They have cut down the tamul trees. It is all ashes now.” Deuki Narjari says even her pig is gone. “They don’t eat pig, why did they take my pig?” she asks.
“Where will we sleep? What will we cook in?” asks Sanzeeta Basumathari. She is living in a camp with her five year old twins while her husband works in Kerala.
The big issue is fear. “There is too much fear,” says Ringchand Brahmo. Twenty-four year old Brahmo had stayed back with some of the other young men to guard their village after sending the women and children to Kokrajhar. But he says there were too many looters who came from all sides. “Where did so many people come from? We didn’t have that many Muslims in our village!”
Pramod Boro, the president of the All Bodo Students Union says there’s no point “using force” to make people go home. “That will be animals in a zoo,” he says. “People will need to use police just to go to the market. Why is the government in such a hurry? Why have this August 15 deadline?”
The other issue is property. A Rajbansi activist says Muslims were probably affected in greater numbers, but it’s quite likely that Bodos had greater property damage. Many families in the camps have not seen a loss in life. But they have all lost property. Some were fairly wealthy families, many of them ex-servicemen. They owned a lot of land on which the Muslims had once worked as labourers. Ringchand Brahmo says bitterly that’s why the community knew their houses well. “If I go to the Muslim area I am sure I will see our stuff there,” he says. The families are refusing to go back because they believe the compensation the government is offering is too little. The Gogoi government has allocated Rs 30,000 for property damage for each family. The Bodos say that will cover nothing.
While the Muslim community leaders have used this violence to demand the entire BTAD autonomy agreement be scrapped, Bodo leaders are saying this proves even more that the government has to get realistic about illegal migration from Bangladesh through districts like Dhubiri. Pramod Boro wants the government to draw up three kinds of lists – refugees who have property documents and voter ID cards, those who have only voter ID cards and those who have neither. The last set, Boro says, should not be allowed to go back.
Bodo leaders complain that the violence is going to become pretext for all kinds of funny arithmetic. Badruddin Ajmal, the AIUDF leader has said there are 5 lakh Muslims in Keonjhar’s camps. “But we are not even a year away from the census that said the Muslim population in Keonjhar was 2.31 lakh,” says Bargayari. “Where are all these others coming from?”
In a city where slogans like No Bodoland, No Rest are scrawled on walls everywhere, other Bodo leaders are talking even tougher. “Illegal immigrants have no right to live in tribal belts and blocks,” NFDB-Progressive leader Gobinda Basumatary told a press conference. “The government is protecting the Muslim immigrants for its vote bank politics.” Bargayari's own party is an ally of the Congress which his Bodo rivals keep pointing out gleefully. Bargayari says his party has no power when it comes to home affairs. "We have no power to evict anyone even if they occupy government land," he complains.
Chidambaram told a press conference that “there is no denying the fact there is illegal immigration” but Dhaka has just added a twist with its Foreign Secretary Mohamed Mijarul Quayes telling The Sentinel newspaper “It is not an issue that has been raised by the Indian government. Therefore, we would assume that they are also quite satisfied that it is an issue that does not need to be talked about.”
In the relief camps across southern Assam both sides have their talking points ready. The Muslim refugees never fail to bring up the Bodoland autonomy agreement. The Bodos always mention the problem of illegal migration.
But as Deuki Narjari pounds the cumin seeds into a paste in her mortar and pestle she has other things on her mind. She has two daughters, one aged 14, the other aged 11. Neither is able to go to school.
“Their books are burned, their exercise books and pens are gone,” she says. “And what use if they had them? Their teachers are sitting in relief camps. There is no school.”
She smiles wryly, understanding full well the irony of that statement, living as she does these days in a high school.