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India: Citizen’s Report on Violence in Baksa District, Assam on May 1 and 2, 2014

15 May 2014

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Released by Centre for Policy Analysis, New Delhi, 14 May 2014
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On 1 May 2014, violence broke out in the Narayanguri village in Baksa district of the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) of Assam. This violence has claimed at least 45 lives, as officially confirmed so far. At least 10 more people are reported missing. Most of those killed were women and children. Of the 72 households, 70 were completely burned down with nothing left in the village for the impoverished families who managed to survive the carnage.

A fact-finding team organized by the Centre for Policy Analysis, Delhi visited the affected villages and the main camp in Baska where the people directly affected by the violence reside, on 10 and 11 May 2014. The members of the team included Seema Mustafa, Anand Sahay and Satish Jacob, all senior journalists, Anuradha Chenoy, senior academic and political activist, and Harsh Mander, social worker and writer. The team spoke to affected people and many eye-witnesses in the camp, local officials (including the DC Vinod Seshan who could only be contacted by telephone) and local security personnel who were deployed in the affected area, members of the National Commission of Minorities who were also in the area at the same time, and a range of civil society representatives who met the team in Guwahati. This is the report of the fact-finding team .

Investigating the Massacre

The car from Guwahati to Baksa district in Bodoland turned out to be a time machine, transporting the fact finding team within four hours into another era of violence, bloodshed, in an inaccessible terrain crossed only in ancient boats, walking through rocky water beds, wading through high currents in full leg deep water for almost two hours at a stretch to get to Narayanguri and Khagrabari villages.

A tiny muddy road after getting off a second boat takes one into a land that civilisation has not reached. On the one side is the Beki river, deep and with high current, on the other is a thick forest that stretches on for over 25 kilometres to the Bhutan border, and for at least another 12 kilometres after. On the other side are the two villages, if these can be called that, hamlets really with no electricity, no water, no dispensary, nestling against the deep forest, in deep poverty. The villagers too have to take this long, tedious and dangerous route when River Beki displays her nastier side, for their day to day needs, for medical help, for work, for studies, for life. Development has not touched them, and poverty has never released them.

The villages which suffered the violence, are literally the last habitations before the Bhutan border begins, separated from them by the buffer of a thick forest in which still armed militants are believed to enjoy an untroubled haven.

The residents are all Bengali speaking Muslims and as the events of May 1 sadly demonstrate, such has become the environment in Bodoland and in other parts of Assam as well, that to be a Muslim or to speak in Bengali has become a crime.

On May 1, the menfolk had gone to seek work, or buy necessities – as is their regular routine - and mostly women, children and a few aged and disabled men were in the villages at about 4 pm. Suddenly they heard the sound of machine gun fire, and at least 30-40 fully armed men, led by forest personnel that many recognised, emerged from the forests and started firing on the women and children. Terrified they started running to the other side of the village, but within minutes they were blocked again by the armed men. The bullets felled women, and children, and the terrified mothers were left with no recourse but to grab their babies and jump into the turbulent waters of River Beki.

The armed men started shooting at the villagers in the waters. Mothers died and their children were taken to certain death by the waters. Babies were wrenched from their mother’s arms by the currents, and by the time the attack ended 45 persons, mostly women and children were dead, and at the time of writing this ten are still missing. As a last message to the poor, helpless, villagers who have been left at the very end of civilisation to eke a living, the attackers set the village on fire. Of the 72 houses, 70 were completely gutted. A baby left behind was picked up and smashed on a machine, many others were shot as they ran and their bodies were found later in the forests. Tiny children hid behind trees, trembling with fear, as they saw their mothers and siblings die in front of their eyes.

Many of them spoke of their experience later, and were clearly in need of counselling and gentle therapy. A girl of nine years, spoke of her mother trying desperately to escape by jumping into the Beki River with a baby of four months in one hand and her brother of three years in the other. She saw her and her brother shot and the little baby swept away by the currents. She survived by swimming underwater even as the bullets rained. Another boy her age spoke to us about his mother and younger sister being killed in their home, whereas he miraculously escaped to the forest, and watched as the militants shot the women and children even as they jumped into the river, and the attackers systematically set their homes on fire. Many hours later, when the security personnel finally arrived at the village, an announcement was made from the loud-speaker in the village mosque, and they emerged from their hiding places.

It is remarkable that all the children who we spoke to mentioned the names of local forest guards who they recognised including one Rajan Boro, as leading the attackers. We learnt that surrendered militants had been appointed by the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD)as forest guards and armed, and located in the village. The local security personnel also confirmed that some of the bullets in the bodies were from official forest rifles, and others from automatic weapons.

The armed men vanished as suddenly as they had emerged. As stated, the villagers including children recognised many as forest personnel of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD). FIRs were filed with the police naming many of those who had fired and killed innocent children and women, timing the attack to coincide with the men being away, but many of those who did so were told to change or obliterate the names of the accused. No action has been taken to identify and arrest the perpetrators of the heinous crime. The Assam government has, as always, announced a decision to hold a judicial enquiry into the incident that in this part of the world carries the real and present danger of certain closure of the case even before it has been heard (please see the next section on the History of Impunity).

The terrified villagers are living in a camp across the river now. They have flimsy and low plastic sheets serving as tents into which they can enter only of they crouch, with no sanitary or other facilities. The tents are no defence against the rains, and the camp itself is in low-lying areas which would be quickly submerged in any rainfall. The children are traumatised, every family has lost a loved one and more, and no one present could say what their future would be. A pregnant woman swam to safety but delivered her baby as soon as she came ashore. She is currently in hospital. A father, eyes brimming with tears, had lost his wife and two children in the attack. A little girl speaks of seeing her mother die in front of her eyes. The stories were endless, each more depressing and traumatic than the other.

The camps provide no refuge from the torrential rain. And certainly no refuge from more such attacks. Villagers point to a spot of land, less than half a kilometre away from this camp, where another camp had been set up in similar circumstances exactly 20 years back, in 1994, in the first of what would prove to be a series of attacks on Bengali Muslims and what are called the ‘tea-tribes’, descendants of Santhals who were brought in to labour in the tea gardens around 200 years ago. The attackers had come back and set the relief camp on fire again, and again nearly 50 people were killed, once again many of them women and children. This fear stalks the people in the camp, although now they are under pressure from the authorities to go back to their village. Some effort is being made by the district authorities to rebuild the tenements, but as the villagers point out, “at the end of the day we will be alone, until the next time we are attacked.”

The attack was clearly planned and while the Tarun Gogoi government in Assam insists that the perpetrators of the violence were from the banned militant outfit National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) the local people who have been hit deny this. They recognised the killers as the surrendered militants who have been employed subsequently by the BTAD forest department, with some of them on duty in the village, and known to every child there. One of these persons has reportedly been arrested although this could not be independently confirmed by the team, just as reports that he had been released within a couple of days because of connections in the local government could not be verified. The state authorities have been quoted in the local media as saying that 26 persons have been arrested, but again there was no independent confirmation of this. The survivors denied that any of the perpetrators of the violence had been arrested.

The men were heavily armed as mentioned earlier. They had come to kill, not just threaten. They came without warning, or without earlier threats. It is being perceived by even the victims as election related violence, a message sent out to the Bengali Muslims in this case to vote for the Bodo supported candidate, and not as for a non Bodo, surrendered ULFA militant.

These poor, helpless villagers have borne the brunt of existence for decades now. This time they were mowed down because of their voting preferences. Earlier in 1994 when they were first attacked, they were killed because of being illegal migrants, which they are not. The perpetrators of the first and subsequent attacks have not been punished. This of course still determines their non-status in BTAD. They bear the cross of the worst kind of manipulative politics that has placed them on the fringe, literally out of the scope of planning and development and security. There are nearly 500 persons in the camp, all too scared to return, and bewildered as to why they are being asked to go back to a village where they do not even have a makeshift, miserable tent to cower under.

Culpability for the Violence

1. A History of Impunity
This current episode of targeted brutal killing of children and women in Assam is the only latest in a series of several storms of violence which have convulsed the state over the last three decades. Each wave of blood-letting has further deepened fractures between various religious and ethnic groups.

The foundations of ferocious ethnic and religious hostility in the state were laid in the anti-‘foreigners’ agitation which racked the state from 1979 to 1985. The demand of the agitators was for the state to detect and deport ‘foreigners’, or Bangladeshi immigrants. Migrations from Bangladesh occurred from the early twentieth century, partly the result of conscious colonial state policy, mainly of peasants and landless workers, drawn to Assam by land hunger and unemployment.

The Tewary Commission appointed by the state government to enquire into the violence during the agitation reports that in every district in Assam except Cachar and North Cachar Hills, diverse groups attacking each other. Baruah in his definitive account of the agitation recounts that violent attacks against Bengali Muslim settlers in Assam, regardless of their vintage, rose after 1979. The most gruesome communal violence in those years, and indeed since Independence anywhere in India, occurred in fourteen villages of Nellie.

‘On the morning of 18th February 1983, thousands of people surrounded the Nellie area and attacked Bengali Muslim residents... The attackers were armed with machetes and other weapons. They systematically set fire to people’s huts. As residents fled their burning homes, they were hacked to death. Roads to the Nellie area were blocked and the Muslim villages surrounded, so people could not go to Jagiroad police station while violence was unfolding. Unofficial estimates say that the massacre orphaned 371 children and left over 2000 people dead’ .

One remarkable feature of this massacre is that not a single person responsible for the violence has been prosecuted or punished. The Assam accord signed between the Indian government and the leaders of the movement in 1985 included a clause to review criminal offences, except heinous offences. But ‘In practice, what the accord was interpreted to mandate was a full amnesty to all persons charged with crimes, even of murder and rape, during the mass communal violence…Only one, fairly junior police person faced disciplinary measures. Survivors received minimal compensation. ’

This laid a dangerous precedent in Assam of state-sanctioned, officially brokered immunity for people charged with heinous hate mass crimes. This was further nurtured by a policy of enabling, even incentivising ethnic cleaning. The militant agitation of indigenous Bodo tribal people from 1987 was originally not targeted against the East Bengali Muslims: it saw them as allies in a fight against the dominant caste-Hindu Asamiya people. The situation changed drastically in 1993 when the government signed the Bodo accord, which created an autonomous Bodoland within Assam, but laid down that only settlements with populations of more than 50 percent Bodo people would be included in Bodoland. The die was thus cast by state policy itself for violent ethnic cleansing.

Former militants organised themselves to drive out the settlers. In 1993 itself, Bengali Muslims were killed and their homes looted and burnt. The terrified survivors fled into camps that were to be their homes for years. Attacks were then mounted against the Santhal descendants of tea garden workers in 1996, and at its peak around 3 lakh people were displaced by the violence. In 1997, some returned, but were freshly evicted after new clashes in 1997. In 2000, the Muslims were forced to vacate the official camps, but again were subject to attacks. They set up their own camps by encroaching on government or private land, where they continue until today.

These ‘nowhere people’ have lived for more than a generation in relief camps in the Bodo heartland of Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon, and the state has done nothing to assist them to return to their homelands. Up to 2007, we found them surviving on erratic supplies of rice rations for registered camp dwellers for ten days a month, without child-care centres, health centres or schools, unable to return to their lands and homes, boycotted from seeking work, and attacked if they stray back to indigenous habitations. The Assam government indifferently said it can do nothing for the people in camps, who must return to their homes from where they were expelled. The displaced people plead that to return is to only live daily in the shadow of fear of the assured next attack, by a people determined to reclaim their “homeland” from the settlers, spurred by the Bodo accord which recklessly incentivised such “cleansing”.

That next attacks occurred in the monsoon of 2012, when a series of local skirmishes and murders grew into a raging inferno, which rapidly engulfed several districts of Lower Assam: Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Chirang. The homes and fields of Bengali Muslims who lived in enclaves surrounded by Bodo majority settlements were torched and their livestock and belongings looted. In areas where Bodos were in a minority, they faced identical arson and looting by the majority Bengali Muslim population. Fear swept both populations, and terrified people fled their homes, desperately traversing flooded rivers and kilometres of forests to reach areas where their respective communities were in majority. Both fugitive populations took refuge in the grounds of schools and colleges, and at the peak, five lakh more people were exiled to camps.

The state government disbanded the camps in a few months, forcing people to return to their homes. But the hatred and fear did not abate substantially, and in many villages, people lived in makeshift camps outside their villages, still finding safety in numbers. The situation was aggravated by the open call for economic boycott of Bengali Muslims, and posters came up announcing a fine for Bodo people who employed them. This unofficial boycott is still in force in many areas, and deepens further the fractures between the two communities.

As noted, in 1994, it is remarkable that in the same village in which this new bout of brutal violence occurred, 50 people had been killed, again including many children and women. No one was punished for these crimes, although the perpetrators were well known. In this way, the cauldron of ethnic and religious hatred continues to boil, spurred by a bitterly divided people, and state policies which assure official immunity to perpetrators of mass violence, and incentives for ethnic cleansing. Assam has near-fatally imploded with the politics of competing persecutions, as oppressed groups arm and organise themselves to violently drive away other wretched and deprived people, in pursuit of dangerous, impossible (and unconstitutional) aspirations of ethnically cleansed homelands. Their plight is aggravated by bankrupt and opportunistic politics and state policy, and equivocal rationalisations by civilian observers.