I am walking on a narrow track on the Karbi Hills, about 150 km from the spot where two men — Abhijit Nath and Nilotpal Das — were killed by a mob a little over a month ago. I am escorted by Ananda Teron, a 55-year-old Karbi community leader, who recalls the fear that spread well beyond the Karbi Anglong region after the two were lynched by a crowd that thought they were child-lifters.
His 30-year-old son, who works in the forest department in Guwahati, panicked. The fear of retaliatory attacks on Karbi people from those belonging to other communities in Assam forced him to flee his government quarters and rush to his village. He stayed there until the situation improved.
On June 8, the two men — who were travelling in an SUV — were beaten and axed to death by the villagers, who had been hearing and reading about men picking up children from the region. For the villagers, the men were the archetypal “other” — they were in a car, one had dreadlocks, and they did not belong to the neighbourhood.
In video recordings of the incident, the victims are heard pleading for their lives, stressing that they were not abductors or outsiders. “Moi Axomiya (I am an Assamese),” one said. But for the crowd, even the identity of an Assamese was alien. “Pleading for his life as an ‘Axomiya’ did not touch the perpetrators; rather it might have made the victims more vulnerable,” says Prafulla Nath, who teaches at Assam University’s Diphu campus.
There is a great divide between the people of Karbi Anglong and those elsewhere, and there is little sign of the gap being bridged. Daniel Langthasa, a cultural activist from Haflong, says he was sickened by the video. “At the same time I am forced to review my idea of a greater Assamese society,” he says.
Members of the marginalised tribal group in Assam have long felt a sense of alienation, he says. When he came to Guwahati for higher studies, he heard the tribal people being referred to as ‘jungli’ (barbaric) and bloodthirsty. Langthasa says he experienced a “cultural shock” but overcame it by learning the Assamese language and adapting to its culture. “But is ‘adaption’ the sole responsibility of marginalised groups? Doesn’t the mainstream community have a responsibility to at least respect tribal groups such as the Karbis or Dimasa or Bodos,” he asks.
A horrific crime such as mob lynching is mostly propelled by fear and hatred. The ordinary person in the crowd has to overcome his or her basic human instinct of empathising with fellow human being. Experts hold that such brutalities are legitimised by people who create and propagate a sense of “otherness” and demonise a victim as a child-lifter who is outside the group the crowd belongs to.
Assam has a history of seeing other communities as a threat. As far as Karbi as a social group and Karbi Anglong as a geographical area are concerned, the gap between large sections of the people and the Karbi community project has been widening.
The Karbis are one of the most marginalised indigenous tribal communities in the State and have for long been demanding autonomy. However, they have also had a fairly amicable relationship with the mainstream Assamese community.
“We had the opportunity to move with Meghalaya in 1970, when it got separated from Assam, and enjoy the full benefit of the sixth schedule tribal State, but we remained with Assam because of our good terms with the Assamese people,” says Bikram Hanse, general secretary of Karbi Students’ Federation.
But times have changed. Nath believes the “inclusiveness and progressive outlook” of the Karbi leadership took a downward turn soon after they won a share of political and economic power through elections to the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council in the late ’70s.
Langthasa holds that the problem doesn’t lie with the “institution of the autonomous council” but with the attitude of politicians who want to control the council from the state capital and underscore their cultural and linguistic hegemony. “That creates a sense of alienation and manufactures a ‘fear of the other’, which can turn lethal if it is orchestrated into something like a mob lynching,” he says.
Hanse stresses the role the State can play in embracing people on the margins. He recalls that the place where the two young men were killed is by a picturesque waterfall.
“Just imagine what would have happened if the Assam government had read our aspiration and developed the place as a tourist destination? There would have been roadside eateries, and the Karbi youth who were a part of the lynch mob could have been the tourist guide leading the two Assamese men to them,” he says. Instead, they were led to death.