For a quarter century, Assam's Bodo heartland has been wracked by conflicts between different communities, accompanied by indiscriminate killings, burning of villages, and large-scale displacement of innocent people. Peace has remained elusive in this troubled zone, and the endless conflicts have made the lives of lakhs of people more uncertain. Hunger and poverty are everywhere.
The most recent round of clashes that broke out during July, between factions of Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers, left 112 people dead and another 88 injured. The fighting broke out first in Kokrajhar, in the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) which is ruled by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), and immediately spread to Chirang and two other neighbouring districts of Dhubri and Bangaigaon in Lower Assam. Nearly five lakh people from both communities were temporarily displaced, most of them agriculturists.
The displaced persons initially took shelter in 340 makeshift relief camps in the conflict-hit districts. Feeding and providing basic facilities - safe drinking water, sanitation - to such a huge number of people was an uphill task for the administration and the state government. Simultaneously the government had to arrange for adequate security to facilitate the return of those whose houses were not burned but who had also fled their homes and taken shelter in relief camps out of panic. On top of this, the administration was also burdened with the additional task of keeping vigil in the abandoned villages to protect the properties left unattended by panicked villagers from looters.
The administration initially made efforts to provide regular rations in every relief camp, and also to ensure the health of people. Apart from providing regular supplies of rice, dal, edible oil and potatoes, free health check-ups were also arranged; doctors attended the camps each day to address health risks of those forced to live amidst the congestion and squalor. Temporary latrines were installed as well, but their numbers were not sufficient, and sanitary levels dropped quickly.
From the beginning, however, the government's main focus was to get the displaced people back to their villages as soon as possible, and vacate the camps. A rehabilitation grant was established, and the numbers of people in the relief camps came down to 30,652. The administration claimed that each family whose house was burned was provided three bundles of tin-sheets (21 sheets), a rehabilitation grant of Rs.22,700 and one month of rations to rebuild their lives upon their return to their villages.
However, many such displaced families alleged that they have been forced to vacate the camps without providing necessary rehabilitation grant. There were also complaints that the grants were simply not enough, given the large-scale losses people had incurred.
According to the Houselisting and Housing Census Data Tables (District Level) - Assam 2011, out of 180,071 families of Kokrajhar district, the headquarters of the BTC, only 41,373 families have electricity connections; only 52,532 families have latrines; only 5191 families have piped water supply; and a meager 14,089 families have LPG connections. The bigger numbers are also on the negative side, with 157,907 families still depending on fire-wood for cooking, and 152,676 families still living in mud-floor houses. Amidst the conflicts and the humanitarian crises triggered by them, these development indices have dropped even further.
"The rehabilitation grant which the government has provided is highly inadequate in comparison to what people lost, and it has rendered the entire rehabilitation process a farce," said Jahirul Haque Sarkar, president of Tulsibil Relief Camp located in Tulsibil High School of Kokrajhar district. "Unlike previous experiences, this time the clashes broke out all of a sudden, making people of both the communities to flee from their villages leaving everything at home. When we returned we found that our properties have been looted, houses burned to ashes by miscreants, and we now have to rebuild our lives from scratch. In such a situation, a mere Rs.22,700 and three bundles of tin sheets is practically nothing,"
"What we have lost cannot at all be compared to the rehabilitation grant as promised by the government. Our woes cannot be described in words," says Pramila Basumatari, a 45-year-old mother of two, who possessed a seven room RCC building with all modern amenities including a refrigerator, washing machine, and television sets, among other items. The riot has practically brought her to the street.
At the Tulsibil camp, which housed 16,000 Muslims initially, the numbers were down to 3820 by September. Now, after receiving their rehabilitation grants, those who possess genuine land documents have begun returning to their villages. But another 485 persons, who do not possess land documents - they typically lived off encroached forest and barren lands - are still languishing in the camps.
In Gambaribil relief camp, that accommodated 2229 inmates initially comprising of 442 families of Tulsibil, Aminkata and Khaskata villages, the men have been making visits to their villages, leaving women and children in the camp to avoid possible attack. Incidentally, these villages are very ancient revenue villages belonging to the Bodo people, and all of them have sufficient agricultural lands and household belongings.
The riots broke out in these districts just when people were preparing their fields. Thus, most of them could not cultivate their lands. In some villages the displaced families found that miscreants had looted their standing crops while they were taking shelter in the relief camps. The government has promised rations for one month for each family, apart from the money to rebuild their houses. It has also gradually stopped providing rations to those who are still living in camps, in a push to get them to move back to their villages. But much reconstruction is needed, and the funds are hardly sufficient even to subsist; most families do not know what they will do once the one-month's ration is used up.
The haphazard rehabilitation process also led to a second round of clashes in early November, in which 11 more persons were killed. The absence of confidence-building measures between the communities to maintain peace and harmony has added to the tension and fear.
Those families that have no land documents find themselves in a particularly bad situaiton. Before the riots broke out, there were many Bengali-speaking Muslims who used to live by encroaching forest lands inside the BTC area, or by working as share-croppers for their Bodo counterparts. Now, while the state government has maintained that everybody would be rehabilitated to their original places, the BTC authorities are objecting to the rehabilitation of those who do not have genuine land documents.
Outside the BTAD areas, the reverse problem is seen; some Bodo families have not been able return to their original places, for fear of possible attacks on them.
The worst part of the recent conflicts is that, it has completely broken down the system of interdependency of both the communities. The Muslim settlers, known for their expertise in agriculture, mostly worked as share-croppers on the lands owned by the Bodos. But after the clashes, that chain of interdependency has been completely broken.
History of violence
Throughout the prolonged period of struggle since 1987 for a separate state of Bodoland, under the leadership of the All Bodo Students Union, the Bodo-dominated areas has seen ethnic and communal clashes between tribes and communities living in these pockets, and also fratricidal killings. The involvement of militant support groups such as the former insurgent outfit Bodoland Liberation Tiger (BLT) during the 1990s, and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland has also kept tensions running high. Despite the formation of the BTC in 2003 - following an MoU between the Central government and BLT - and the peace talks with leaders of two factions of NDFB, violence and unrest are still common.
Clashes between Bodes and Bengali-speaking Muslims in 1993 displaced more than 3000 people. Clashes between the Bodos and the Advisis during 1996 and 1998 displaced 314,342 persons belonging to 48,556 families of both the communities, which constituted more than one third of the entire district. These families languished in makeshift relief camps for over a decade without relief and rehabilitation. It took nearly 18 years for the state government to rehabilitate the Muslim families displaced during 1993 riot.
In 2008, clashes between Bodos and the Muslims in Darrang and Udalguri district again displaced 2.80 lakh people, and led to the death of over 80 persons. The state also witnessed ethnic clashes in other areas including the two hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Halm Daoga during 2003 and 2005, and between Garo and Rabha tribes during 2011. Each of these has led to the displacement of large numbers of people from their homes.
Despite this long history of violence and displacement, the state still does not have a concrete rehabilitation policy, especially to addresses issues of poverty, hunger and livelihood risks that result from the violence. The conditions of the displaced persons, whether they have been languishing in camps or returned to their original villages, have remained the same, in which women and children are the worst sufferers.
Also, relief camps set up in school and college premises - which are the easiest for the government to comandeer - disrupt the normal functioning of educational institutions, leaving students throughout the region deprived of their right to eduation. The state government decided to run the schools making alternative arrangements, but there was utter chaos and irregularities in accommodating students from other schools, arrangement of classes in different shifts, running the Midday Meal Programme, (MDM) and providing text-books to those whose houses were totally gutted down. The MDM programme stopped completely.