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Assam’s Killing Fields
The Politics of Violence in Bodo Heartland

POSTED ON 12 MAY 2014

WASBIR HUSSAIN & rani pathak das

Once again, the Bodo heartland in Assam is turning into a killing field. Starting Thursday, 1 May 2014, 46 people have been killed, including women and children as young as 2-year-old. Several others have been seriously injured in western Assam’s Kokrajhar and Baksa districts.

Was it just a militant attack or were the killings politically motivated? Local Muslim organizations like the All Bodoland Muslim Students’ Union (ABMSU) say it was the result of a provocative statement made by Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) MLA Pramilla Rani Brahma. What did Pramilla Brahma say? She said Muslims in the Bodo Council area did not vote for her party candidate in the just concluded Lok Sabha polls for the Kokrajhar seat. She later sought to ‘withdraw’ that statement, but the fact remains that the Muslim groups in the area sided with several non-Bodo organizations to back a non-Bodo candidate Hira Saraniya, a former ULFA leader, in the contest for the Kokrajhar seat.

While groups like the ABMSU and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) blamed the BPF, the party in power at the BTC, for triggering the attacks, the Assam Police was quick to blame the Songbijit faction of the NDFB for the murderous raids, a charge the rebel faction was quick to deny. But the arrest of a Forest Ranger of the Manas National Park along with seven foresters, at least two of whom were said to be former cadres of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), have lent credence to the fact that the killings could actually be ‘politically orchestrated.’

The Assam Government has since requested the National Investigative Agency (NIA) to probe the attacks, a plea accepted by the Centre. The NIA has already taken up the investigations. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has also declared that he would institute a judicial enquiry by a retired judge to get at the bottom of things. This may be an attempt to douse the anger of the affected people but the Congress-led Government in Assam is also aware that if things are not tackled now, the party stands to lose base in the coming State Assembly polls slated for 2016.

Although, the violence has been controlled for the time being, the incident has exposed political faultlines in the area. Many feel that if the non-Bodo backed candidate wins the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha seat this time, it will be seen as a verdict against the demand for a separate Bodoland state being pushed by many Bodo groups. Moreover, the BTC polls are also due next year. Therefore, the attacks are seen as an ethnic cleansing attempt to try and alter the voting pattern in the area.

  • First Incident: Thursday, 1 May 2014, Time- 8.15 pm. Place- Narsingbari, about 10 kms from Gobordhana PS, Baksa district. Gunmen who came in four bicycles fired at a compound, shot dead three members of a family, including two women, and injured two girls. All those killed were Muslims who co-habit the Bodo Council area along with various other ethnic group and communities.
  • Second Incident: Thursday, 1 May 2014, Time- 11.30 pm., Place- Balapara village (No. 1) under Tulsibari PS, Gosaigaon subdivision, Kokrajhar district. Seven people, including three children died and three others were seriously injured when unidentified gunmen barged into homes of three families and brutally fired upon them.
  • Third Incident: Friday, 2 May 2014, around 4 pm. Place: Narayanguri and Nanke-khagrabari area in Baksa district. Thirty-six people were killed and several injured. Nearly 100 houses and a wooden bridge were set ablaze. While ninteen bodies were recovered within two days of the attack, seventeen bodies were recovered later from the Beki river, the last one being found on Thursday, May 8.
  • More than 500 people from Narayanguri and Nongke-khagrabari have taken shelter at a school, 200 of whom are minors. Eleven children and six women were missing from the two villages, of whom, bodies of nine were recovered.
  • Out of the total death of 46 in the BTC area, more than 20 were children.

It must be noted that the same violence-hit areas were witness to large-scale riots between the Bodos and Muslim settlers during July-August 2012 that killed 99 and displaced more than four lakh people. That time, too, the Government failed to take note of the early warnings.

What has come as a jolt to the State Government was the statement made by the Assam Border Area Development Minister Siddique Ahmed after visiting the places of violence on 2 May. Speaking to the media on 3 May, Mr Ahmed demanded arrest of BPF MLA Pramila Rani Brahma for her insensitive comment and called for snapping of ties between the Congress and the BPF. The Minister also accepted his Government’s and his own failure to protect the people.

Whatever may be the immediate trigger, the fact remains that the demography of the BTC area is such that to maintain its hegemony, Bodo forces, at least some of them, may continue to resort to tactics aimed at dominating everybody else. Take a look at the following statistics:

  • The total population in the four districts under BTC (2011 census) is: 31,81,149.
  • Bodo population: 8,59,731 (27.28 per cent)
  • Muslims: 6,13,593 (19.47 per cent)
  • Bengali Hindus: 4,09,109 (12.38 per cent)
  • Tea Tribals: 3,70,428 (11.75 per cent)
  • Koch Rajbongshi: 2,46,137 (7.81 per cent)
  • Other tribal: 1,96,000 (6.22 per cent)
  • Scheduled Caste: 1,71,632 (5.44 per cent)
  • Assamese Hindus: 1,60,864 (4.02 per cent)
  • Nepali: 1,15,870 (3.37 per cent)
  • Hindi speaking people: 37,785 (1.19 per cent)

Minister Siddique Ahmed’s comment that, “BTAD violence is a political game…local people’s complaints point at involvement of BPF” is striking while Pramila Rani Brahma said that truth will come out if a CBI inquiry is ordered. Meanwhile, a special investigation team from the Criminal Investigation Department of the Assam Police have begun a probe although the NIA has also started taking stock of things from 5 May 2014.

While trying to bring the situation under control, the Government must be able to read the early warnings and take measures towards that as well. The situation in the troubled districts is highly sensitive. Any retaliation by the Muslims would only aggravate the situation.

And to assume or describe all Muslims in the BTC area as ‘immigrants’ from Bangladesh is not only far from the truth, it is too simplistic as well. But we have to live with the bitter politics over the citizenship issue considering Assam shares a long border with Bangladesh. More particularly, the issue of citizenship has seen parties or candidates win or lose elections in Assam for more than three decades now. (Link: Population break up in the BTC area as on 2011)