Guest post by SABA SHARMA
Since the evening of the 1st of May, it has been reported that at least 23 people have been killed in Kokrajhar and Baksa districts in Assam, administered under the Bodoland Territorial Council. All the victims were from the Muslim community, and were allegedly shot by the militant Bodo group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit), named after its ruthless leader Songbijit, from the Karbi Anglong area in Assam. Indefinite curfew has been imposed here and in neighbouring districts as well, as rumours of other killings and beatings filter in, impossible to separate from facts in the atmosphere of panic that currently prevails.
Polling ended in the Kokrajhar constituency in Assam on the 24th of April, ending a temporary sense of calm and normalcy. Ethnic violence between Bodos and Bengali Muslims took place in July 2012, majorly affecting Kokrajhar, Chirang and Dhubri district. Nearly 5 lakh people were displaced from their homes, and most did not return until January 2013, staying in relief camps, too afraid to return. Once the camps were formally shut down and people returned to their homes, normalcy was still a distant reality. An economic boycott imposed by Bodo leaders on the Bengali Muslim community meant that agricultural labour, a primary occupation for Bengali Muslims, was all but non-existent. In the last year, this economic boycott has slowly been relaxed in some areas, while in other areas, it prevails as strongly as ever. In most areas, markets were among the first spaces to become mixed again, an almost neutral zone where people began to interact with one another again. But in other markets, like Koila Moila bazaar in Chirang, Muslims are still ‘banned’.
Nonetheless, a thaw seemed to have begun to appear, with people less scared than a year ago to travel through a village dominated by the other community, or to interact and attend a mixed public meeting, something that was unthinkable even a year after the violence took place. Sporadic incidents continued to happen, of course – around independence day, a few grenade bombs went off; in January 2014, militants gunned down Bihari migrants in a bus; a spate of kidnappings of Bengali businessmen led to days of bandhs and protests. None of these events, however, threatened to spiral out of control, and were seen as isolated incidents perpetrated by an irate group that has taken to terror, extortion and kidnapping as a way of existence. And suddenly, it was election season.
Kokrajhar, a constituency that has, for the last ten years, been politically dominated by the ruling party, the Bodoland Political Front, was suddenly facing a potential upheaval. Minority non-Bodo communities, alarmed by the increasingly vigorous calls for a separate Bodoland, decided to field their own, ‘non-Bodo’ candidate in the elections. Bodos themselves, disgusted by what they see as the poor performance of the BPF over the last decade, fielded a ‘rival’ Bodo candidate to the BPF’s own, thus potentially splitting the Bodo vote as well. Reports were heard, in the run up to the election, of the panic caused within the BPF at the prospect of a loss, for the first time since they came into power. The BPF itself is a political party that emerged after the Bodo Accord of 2003, signed between the central government and the militant Bodoland Liberation Tigers. Many, if not most politicians in the BPF, are ex-militants.
In the run up to the elections, about a month before polling was to take place, a young Bodo girl was gangraped and murdered in Chirang, allegedly by a group of seven Muslim men. Four of these men were caught, while three remain missing. In the immediate aftermath of the rape, Chirang froze into a panic, expecting retaliatory attacks, and a repeat of the sort of horrific violence they had seen less than two years ago. The body of a Muslim trader was found a few days later, and although it could not be confirmed if it was related, it nonetheless had the effect of fuelling further panic. Things, however, did calm down, perhaps most because it was election season, and no one could really afford a riot.
After polling, things seemed as they were. Assam recorded the highest voter turnout ever in a Lok Sabha election, and discussions were abuzz about who would win. It is a week later, and we have strayed very far from ‘normal’.
Going into villages of the Chakrashila area in Kokrajhar, a remote and hilly region, a day after the first round of incidents, an almost imperceptible stillness has set in as people began to expect the worst. In many ways, life seemed to go on as before, but if one looked closer, one saw that people were sitting in groups with their neighbours, trying to decide how serious it was. Phones were constantly ringing, false and correct information being delivered, confirmed, reconfirmed and denied. Fears were spelled out, with one common theme: outsiders.
‘It is not that I worry about my neighbour burning down my house, or that he will harm me. But what about the person in the next village? Or someone further away, who has bad intentions? How can I be sure those people will not come for me?’
These sentiments are echoed repeatedly, and are hard to argue with. Muslims and Bodos in Chakrashila sat together and organized joint guard duty, in case mobs came at night. As they talked, a young Bodo man joked with his Muslim friend: ‘You see, you and me? You see how we’re sitting here and drinking tea together, so beautifully? Won’t you miss this if I have to run away because my house is on fire?’
By the next day, on 3rd of May, more killings had happened, and many places in Kokrajhar saw Muslims and Bodos alike starting to flee from their homes. Muslims ran for fear of being targeted, while Bodos, especially in Muslim majority areas, ran in fear of retaliatory attacks. In Chirang, no incidents were reported, although the situation was tense.
Suggestions have been made that the violence could be linked to the elections, a fact that both the government and the ruling party have denied. The same area in Kokrajhar that bore the brunt of the violence on 1st May saw a police constable killed while on election duty at a polling booth, after a mob set upon it. If the violence is related to elections, there is a possibility that it may worsen after results are declared. Theories and counter-theories are all that people have to work with, as they wait to hear whether their worst fears have been confirmed. The violence of July 2012 was of a scale never seen before in this region, and left most inhabitants in shock. These are not people that can watch a second act unfold in this tragedy.
Saba Sharma is a researcher working with Aman Biradari and the Centre for Equity Studies in Lower Assam, on conflict and reconciliation.