Bongaigaon (Assam): When I ask for directions to the refugee camp at the military checkpost, the man in uniform is bemused.
“Which camp?” he says. “There are so many.” When I tell him it’s in a high school, he shrugs. That does not narrow down the search much at all.
Amidst the sun-dappled bamboo groves and waterlogged paddy fields of southern Assam, in districts like Bongaigaon, Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Chirang, many schools are now closed because they shelter the victims of July’s violence that have left almost four lakh homeless and at least 53 dead, according to official estimates. The end of the unexpected summer holiday was supposed to be 31 July. Now it has been extended by another week at least.
Promises to keep
The government, caught flat footed in its initial response, is trying to make up for lost time. The top police officials in the worst affected areas have been transferred. P Chidambaram flew in here in one of his last acts as home minister as did Manmohan Singh and LK Advani. Now Assam’s Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has said 14 camps have been closed, 12,000 people have gone back home already and the rest will go home by 15 August.
At the camp housing Muslim refugees in the high school in Basugaon in Chirang district no one is buying Gogoi’s promises. There are 7,442 people here from 17 villages. Chidambaram came to this camp with promises of protection.
“He gave his assurance and left,” says Harun Rashid Mandal, the camp secretary. “I will believe it when I see it.”
These refugees have different stories about how they fled. Seventy-year-old Abdul Karim puts his hand halfway up his chest to show how deep the water was when he waded across the river. Some came under the cover of rain-sodden nights walking 25-30 km. Some waited till the first huts were set ablaze, allegedly by Bodo miscreants dressed in army fatigues, before fleeing. Some managed to bring a couple of goats or a cow.
Halimi Bibi says she had to leave her old husband behind with their 15 chickens. He was too ill to go anywhere.They tell stories of one deaf and dumb man whose hacked body floated up the river and was found near a rickety wooden bridge. But most families are intact, just scared.
The script of demands
But while the personal stories differ, when it comes to the future they seem to be all reading from the same script. They will not leave until they get compensation for their homes and cows and chickens. They will not budge unless the CRPF sets up permanent outposts near their villages. “The Assam police will not do,” says Mohammad Amir Hussain from Nalbari village. “Our houses burned in front of them. We called the police officers again and again. They said they were coming but no one came until it was all ashes.” And now there is a political demand – scrap the Bodoland Territorial Areas District agreement that gave these districts autonomy.
In effect, these refugees are laying down demands that the government cannot meet. Jayanta Narayan Chowdhury, the Director General of Police in Assam, already infamous for saying the police cannot be always available like an ATM after the Guwahati molestation case, has also said the villages are too dispersed and there can never be enough police pickets. The Bodo community has its counter demands. They want illegal migration stopped (which these refugees stoutly deny is happening) and they want all camp residents to prove their Indian citizenship before they are repatriated.