Has militancy turned Assam's Kokrajhar into a killing field that will never have a happy headline?
Despite the idyllic settings that district is blessed with, Kokrajhar has however been known to the world mostly for the wrong reasons.
Bullet-ridden bodies of unassuming individuals had again drenched the soil red in Kokrajhar. Falling to a hail of bullets sprayed from automatic weapons on Thursday at Balajan Tiniali market, the 14 deceased would be a part of the long list of casualties who were victims to similar incidents the district has previously witnessed.
Located on the north bank of the river Brahmaputra, the Kokrajhar district in Assam has a picturesque landscape and is a true embodiment of the rustic life with which the state is usually associated. Over 93 percent of Kokrajhar's population lives in rural areas. Kokrajhar is one of the westernmost districts in Assam sharing its western boundary with West Bengal and northern boundary with Bhutan. It has Chirang district to its east and Dhubri to its south. The district also serves as the gateway to North East India with all road and rail traffic entering the region through Srirampur.
Despite the idyllic setting that the district is blessed with, Kokrajhar has however been known to the world mostly for the wrong reasons. The rise of Bodo militancy in the '80s shattered the peaceful atmosphere and turned it into one of fear and bloodshed. The Bodos dominate the district demographically and there is a large section which still believes that they were purposefully marginalised by the majority Assamese in the state.
Lack of basic facilities and proper academic avenues, inadequate employment opportunities and large scale poverty all cumulatively fuelled the Bodo nationalism to such an extent that the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) straightaway demanded sovereign freedom from India. The Bodos were given the status of Scheduled Tribe (Plains) under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution in 1988 but this half-baked approach has clearly proved insufficient.
The National Democratic Front of Bodoland took off with its initial nomenclature of Bodo Security Force in 1986. It took its current name in 1994. Soon after its birth, the NDFB had only one mission — ethnic cleansing of non-Bodos from the Bodo areas. The adivasis — Santhal, Munda and Oraon — bore the brunt of the first round of violence. This finally led to the birth of the Adivasi Cobra Force in 1996 to protect the Adivasis from the marauding Bodo militants.
What made matters worse was the beginning of fratricidal killings as the NDFB often exchanged fire with another Bodo militant group called the Bodo Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF). The BLTF was born in June 1986 but it surrendered in 2003 and became the Bodo People's Progressive Front under the leadership of Hagrama Mohilary.
The NDFB signed a peace agreement with the Centre and the state in 2005 but this has not led to any solid development on the ground as the group got divided into pro- and anti-talk factions. The result is that peace has always remained fragile and innocent lives are lost as it happened on Thursday in Kokrajhar.
"I feel sad because no one ever writes about the positive things that happen in Kokrajhar. Perhaps we Bodos don't know how to highlight the good things that happen here. Our culture never gets reflected but only these killings do. Probably we are missing out because we are not forward looking as a tribe," Assam Forest Minister Pramila Rani Brahma told Firstpost. She represents Kokrajhar (East) constituency in the state Assembly.
"What happened on Thursday is really sad. I don't understand the need for such brutal killings. In the end they are killing their own people. Perhaps they wanted to show they are still around," she said.
Since the December 2014 carnage that saw the deaths of 78 innocent individuals in Kokrajhar and other areas governed by the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD), the Indian Army along with paramilitary forces and Assam Police had jointly launched Operation All Out to finish off the NDFB-Songbijit faction.
"What kind of operation are they conducting? Former Assam DGP Khagen Sarma had said that there were less than 50 NDFB-S cadres who were active. But now they have gunned down 70? Don't they know what they are doing?" asked Pramod Boro, president, All Assam Bodo Students' Union (ABSU).
"State Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said police arrived within seven minutes after the incident happened. But people are saying that the security forces took at least half an hour to reach. IGP LR Bishnoi is saying that it was an unplanned attack and so the attack could not be prevented. If an unplanned attack can inflict so much damage what will a planned one do?" he questioned.
Boro blamed the government for Kokrajhar being negatively perceived as a killing field.
"Violence is associated with Kokrajhar only because of a few people. The state government, Centre, civil society and even the administration have never helped the Bodo community sincerely. Kokrajhar has seen violence for nearly 50 years be it in a small or on a large scale. What is worrisome is that terror is taking new form," the ABSU chief said. "Even after the BJP government took over, the extremist problem has not got resolved despite pressure from civil society. There has to be a policy decision, not half-hearted efforts," he said.
Hundreds of security forces, civilians and militants have died in violent attacks such as bomb blasts. This is true not only of Kokrajhar, but other districts under the Bodoland Territorial Council as well. Violende didn't spare Guwahati either where the Bodo Security Force killed 40 in 1992. Who can forget the deadly blasts that ripped apart many places in Guwahati, Barpeta Road, Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar killing nearly 100?
Bloodshed is a brutal reality that Kokrajhar can't afford either to overlook or ignore.
"We can't control the media. We neither have a strong electronic media presence nor too many media personnel from the Bodo community," said Kamala Kanta Mushahary, general secretary, Bodo Sahitya Sabha.
"We have so many good things like tie-up with universities, sensitisation programmes against the violence by the extremist groups including NDFB(S), ULFA(I) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). We have documented everything but nothing is attractive to the media. Obviously, if a massacre of this scale takes place then media will be there to report. Kokrajhar now has a Central Institute of Technology, an university, even a medical college is coming up but these are all not featured," Mushahary said.
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