Human Rights

In India’s Assam, Muslim families evicted weeks before elections

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After battling for life for five days at a hospital in Guwahati, the capital of the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Kulsuma Begum succumbed to her injuries on March 11.

Her mother-in-law alleged police and paramilitary forces barged into her house to physically remove Kulsuma – who had given birth to a baby boy just two hours ago – during an eviction drive at Sarkebasti village in central Assam’s Hojai district, about 150km east of Guwahati.

Authorities in the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) forcibly evicted more than 600 Muslim families from their land in Hojai, saying the families, including Kulsuma’s, had encroached upon government land.

“Seven to eight policemen entered the house and started ransacking it. I could take some stuff out. When I came back I saw Kulsuma was lying on the floor and couldn’t move,” Ramisa Khatun told Al Jazeera.

“I took up the baby as I feared they might kill him,” said Ramisa, 50. As Kulsuma was being ushered out of the house she collapsed, said Ramisa.

The 22-year-old was rushed to Guwahati after a local hospital in Hojai referred her to Gauhati Medical College and Hospital, where a doctor said she had “suffered shock”.

In one corner of the Guwahati hospital corridor, the newborn baby was sleeping next to Ramisa on a visibly dirty blanket. The baby has now been handed over to the family.

FIR filed

Following public outrage, a formal police complaint (First Information Report) was filed against several KAAC officials as well as a local police officer.

“A case has been registered and the investigation is going on,” Hojai Deputy Commissioner (DC) Tanmoy Borgohain told Al Jazeera.

A court in Guwahati has put a stop on the evictions [Courtesy of Ain Uddin/Al Jazeera]

Tuliram Ronghang, chief executive member of the KAAC and leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam, alleged that undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh had encroached upon the land, which belonged to Karbi Anglong.

However, the evictees refuted Ronghang’s allegations, saying they are genuine Indian citizens. Some activists questioned the legality of the entire operation, saying Sarkebasti village fell under Hojai district and not under KAAC jurisdiction.

“The Karbi Anglong district doesn’t have any locus standi to evict the people here,” Saidur Rahman, president of Hojai district committee of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a peasant movement, told Al Jazeera.

A letter by a top Hojai official to Assam’s chief secretary corroborated their claims. The letter written on February 28 rejected the allegation that people had encroached upon forestland and warned against any eviction drive.

Despite concerns of human rights violations and legal complications, the Karbi Anglong administration still went ahead with its operation to uproot hundreds of families weeks before the general elections scheduled in April and May.

A court in Guwahati finally put a stop on the evictions asking the administrations in Hojai and Karbi Anglong to settle the border dispute.

Eviction drives

Under the BJP government in Assam, which came to power in 2016 on an anti-immigrant plank, eviction drives have escalated.

Less than six months after coming to power in Assam, the BJP government – the first in the northeastern states – launched eviction campaign near the famous Kaziranga National Park against what it called “illegal encroachment”.

In February 2017, the government informed the Assam assembly that about 3,481 families were evicted from 13 districts. While most of them were Muslims, they also included other marginalised social groups such as the tribal people.

However, government records reveal hundreds of people were evicted from the lands they officially owned.

Indrajit Bezbaruah, an associate professor at Assam’s Lumding College, said those evicted were either internally displaced persons (IDPs) from flood-affected areas, IDPs from ethnic conflict-ridden Bodoland districts, or the local landless peasants belonging to the indigenous Kachari Muslim community settled in the area since the 1970s.

Experts say that recurring ethnic strife and floods in Assam have resulted in the state having one of the highest numbers of IDPs in the country. In 2015, Assam hosted an astounding 74.4 percent of all the IDPs in the country.

Assam has 362,450 landless families spread across 31 of its 33 districts, Forest Minister Pramila Rani Brahma told the state assembly in February last year.

Peasant organisations in the area have been demanding the government to provide them with land ownership for more than two decades.

However, neither the central nor the state government has laid down any policy to rehabilitate Assam’s IDPs. With little institutional support, many of them have settled on government land over the decades.

Muslim IDPs

Suprakash Talukdar, a leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), alleged that Assam government has not conducted any land settlement survey since 1965, which has denied land to the landless and kept them vulnerable to forced evictions.

Bhabesh Kalita, Minister of State for Revenue and Disaster Management in Assam, however, said his government was working to rehabilitate those displaced by erosion.

“We have a policy for rehabilitation for erosion affected families only for those people who are displaced from patta [documented] land and we are rehabilitating them,” Kalita said.

“Our government has taken a target to provide land patta to one lakh [100,000] people this year. No government has taken such target based initiative so far.”

Muslim IDPs in Assam carry an additional risk of being stripped of their citizenship rights, according to Guwahati-based activist Hafiz Ahmed.

Ahmed alleged the government has built an anti-Muslim sentiment to marginalise the community.

“BJP came to power in the state on the premise of hatred against the Muslims. They want to keep the momentum of hatred on till the general election,” he said, referring to the national elections.

Kalita, the Assam minister, however, denied the government was targeting a particular group.

“Eviction policy doesn’t discriminate against people based on caste, creed or religion,” he told Al Jazeera.

Syed Burhanur Rahman, a lawyer at Gauhati High Court, said the eviction could result in the affected Muslims being declared stateless.

Last July, nearly four million people, mostly Muslims, were excluded from a draft citizenship list, effectively stripping them of their citizenship. A Supreme Court-monitored body National Register of Citizens (NRC) is working to publish its final list that aims to identify undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants.

“Despite the warning from the highest authority of the district administration that it will affect the NRC process, how the government could go ahead with the eviction drive,” asked Rahman.

Meanwhile, Mafijul Islam, Kulsuma’s brother-in-law who works as a construction worker in Guwahati, told Al Jazeera that they were asked to attend the NRC hearing in Nagaon district, about 50km from Hojai, three days after their house was demolished.

Nearly 3,000 people have been rendered homeless [Courtesy of Ain Uddin/Al Jazeera]

As Kulsuma fought for her life at the Guwahati hospital, her family members travelled over 120km to Nagaon to meet the NRC official, who refused to meet them since they had reached the venue after the 4pm deadline.

Back in Hojai, hundreds of families have been rendered homeless.

Hojai Deputy Commissioner Borgohain said on “humanitarian grounds we have sent a medical team and trying to provide drinking water”.

Activists have raised concerns at the timings of the evictions as elections are barely a couple of weeks away.

But Borgohain assured his administration has taken steps to address the concerns regarding the conduct of the elections (among the displaced people).

In Guwahati, Talukdar’s CPM party and other civil society groups organised a protest march to seek justice for Kulsuma.

Assam’s Muslims are more vulnerable as certain political forces treat them as “second class citizens because of their identity”, Talukdar said.

Originally published at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/03/india-assam-muslim-families-evicted-weeks-elections-190325064004315.html

How the BJP weaponised evictions as a tool against Assam’s Bengali Muslim residents

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On 8 March, the KAAC officials, police officers and paramilitary personnel returned to the Hojai-Karbi Anglong eviction site for a third round of evictions. But the eviction was halted by the intervention of the Gauhati high court, which issued an order that day, taking note of Borgohain’s letters and instructing the chief secretary to “stop the eviction drive before final boundary demarcation is done.”

The high court’s order did not prevent police excesses at the eviction site, where a group of residents were protesting against the drive. In the afternoon, while I was visiting Kulsuma Begum at the hospital, Ain Uddin, a 29-year-old resident of the area, called me to inform me that the police was lathi charging the protestors. In the background, I could hear people screaming and praying. A short while later, he sent me several photographs of the police assault—one image showed a traumatised-looking old man with a white beard, standing with the support of two young men. Uddin had added the caption, “Police has broken his leg.”

The BJP had begun the practice of evictions soon after forming the government. On 6 February 2017, Pallab Lochan Das, the state’s revenue minister, informed the assembly that the government had evicted 3,481 families from 17 districts across Assam within the first six months of coming to power. Since then, the state government has continued to conduct large-scale eviction operations across the state, but it has not provided any data concerning the drives. Bhabesh Kalita, the minister of state in the revenue and disaster management department, told me he did not have updated data because the evictions drives were still ongoing. Though precise demographic statistics are unavailable, most of the evictions have taken place in Muslim-dominated areas, and have also led to the displacement of Adivasi communities in some cases.

My colleagues and I have been visiting the eviction sites to document as much as is possible. Over the last three years, I have visited at least ten eviction sites across Assam. A clear pattern emerges from studying these evictions—the Muslims residents of an area are described as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, an eviction drive is carried out without prior notice or compliance with such procedural requirements, and it is marked by the use of brute force and impunity for those responsible. This modus operandi was visible in the BJP-led state government’s first eviction operation, in September 2016, near Kaziranga National Park, in central Assam’s Nagaon district.

On 19 September, following an October 2015 Gauhati high court order, the state government conducted an eviction drive in three villages—Bandardubi, Deosursang and Palkhuwa—located on the periphery of the Kaziranga National Park. During the drive, the government destroyed the houses of nearly two hundred families—all but seven of these belonged to Muslims. The police shot two people dead, including a 12-year-old girl; several were injured in police firing and lathi charges. Soon after the eviction drive was conducted, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the state finance minister, posted a tweet congratulating the district administration and declaring that the BJP government would “never compromise on JATI, MATI & BHETI.”

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Around two weeks later, I went to the eviction site as part of a fact-finding team of academicians and activists. At the office of a farmers’ collective near Kaziranga, one of the farmers showed me his land documents and said, “We are neither encroachers nor illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, we were evicted from our patta land”—referring to the official land-holding document. Even government records reveal that Bandardubi and Deosursang villages were given the patta in 1961, whereas Kaziranga was declared a national park only in 1974. In fact, Abdul Hamid, one of the victims of the eviction violence, gave me certified copies of land records that clearly stated that the land does not fall within the national park’s demarcated area. He also gave me a copy of a six-month old revenue receipt and said, “I have been paying the revenue regularly, how could the government evict me without resettlement?”

None of the mainstream Assamese media houses reported on the apparent illegality of the eviction. Instead, the media largely portrayed the victims as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who encroached upon the land of the indigenous Assamese. After the Hojai-Karbi Anglong eviction too, the media continued the same narrative. I spoke to a journalist who covered the eviction for one of the oldest and most widely circulated English dailies in Assam, whose story framed the victims as “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.” When I asked him how he was certain that they were Bangladeshi nationals, he argued that he has to call them “Bangladeshi” because the politicians and the people in position of power have identified them as such. The journalist requested not to be identified out of fear for his safety.

The next morning, I experienced the reach and might of the Assam government first-hand, during my attempt to carry out a fact-finding mission at the eviction site. Upon reaching Lanka railway station in Hojai district, I got a call from a police officer summoning me to the Lanka police station. I informed the police officer that I was waiting for a colleague and that we would come to the station together. But over the next ten minutes, the police called me not less than ten times. At the police station, at least five officers, including a deputy and additional superintendent of police as well as an officer of the special branch, questioned us for almost seven hours.

The officers were polite and served us snacks, but they were relentless. They asked me why I was interested in knowing about the situation, about my background, about where I work and for whom I write, and about the international news organisations for which I have written or given an interview. The police officers were particularly suspicious about my connection with Al Jazeera, the news website for which I was reporting on the evictions at the time, treating it not as an international media platform, but almost as an outlawed organisation.

Eventually, the police refused to let us visit the eviction site or meet the deputy commissioner Borgohain. The deputy commissioner later told me over phone that the police had prevented us from visiting the site “in fear that our visit would escalate tensions in the area.” He evaded questions about why the state administration had proceeded with the eviction drive despite his letters. I tried contacting Alok Kumar, the chief secretary of Assam, and Mahananda Hazarika, the principal secretary of the KAAC, to ask why they did not take heed of the deputy commissioners concerns about the eviction. Hazarika asked me to visit the KAAC office, but did not respond to messages or calls seeking a phone interview. Kumar did not respond to multiple calls and messages.

Over the last few months, the BJP’s popularity in Assam has been on a downward spiral. The disaffection with the party began with the BJP’s introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, in 2016, which sought to give citizenship to all the immigrants except Muslims, whereas even the BJP’s Assamese allies are opposed to the Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh. While the BJP appears to have brokered peace with its allies ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, in Assam’s tribal areas such as the Karbi Anglong, the disillusionment is compounded by allegations of rampant corruption in handling the funds allocated to the autonomous council and the KAAC’s proposal to allot land in the area for a Patanjali herbal and food park to the business tycoon Ramdev. The Hojai-based activist Rahman, who is the president of the Hojai unit of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti—a peasants-rights organisation in Assam—said that the BJP was losing ground in the Diphu Lok Sabha constituency, which consists of the autonomous districts Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong.

“The BJP was in desperate need of a situation through which they could consolidate the tribal vote before the general election,” Rahman said. “What could be more appropriate than orchestrating an eviction drive against the Muslims, that too, through which the BJP can claim that they got back the council’s land, which was never under their possession.” Prafulla Nath, an assistant professor with the centre for tribal studies at Assam University’s Diphu campus, said that the BJP government could exploit the situation by portraying the situation as an encroachment of tribal land by the Muslims residents. “The government knew that if the eviction is done by the Hojai district, there would be lots of hue and cry,” Nath said. “As it is done by Karbi Anglong administration, they can use the tribal card.”

In the wake of the Citizenship Amendment Bill protests, ministers in the Assam government resorted to spreading communal and polarising rhetoric, terming the state’s Muslims as illegal immigrants who snatched land and resources from the indigenous Assamese people. For instance, in 2016, the finance minister Sarma began spreading misinformation that Muslim residents had encroached upon the land belonging to a satra—socio-religious monasteries established by Srimanta Sankardev, the architect of modern Assamese society.

For the Assamese, the satras are an emotive part of their state and culture, and Sarma sought to invoke their pride in order to exploit it and target the Muslims. “Does secularism mean that the satras have to move out of their original places?” Sarma asked in a November 2016 press conference. “Does secularism mean some people will snatch away land belonging to Batadrava satra? Does secularism mean some people will encroach upon land in Kaziranga and Pobitora?” But Sarma’s inflammatory rhetoric was defeated when Kalita placed government records before the state assembly, which revealed that the satra land was not encroached by the so-called Bangladeshi Muslims, but that it was eroded by the Brahmaputra river, and that the government had failed to protect it.

In present-day Assam, no one questions the government—not even the human-rights organisations. Once in January 2017, when I was talking to a senior officer of an international child-rights organisation, my friend sent me a photograph of the dead body of a three-day-old infant, who had died in a resettlement camp a few days after an eviction drive in Sipajhar town, in Assam’s Darrang district. I showed him the photograph and requested to do something for the evicted children. “Officially I cannot do anything, Abdul,” he replied. “This is a different government. But if you ask me personally, I would be happy to donate something.”

During the Kaziranga fact-finding mission, one experience was particularly telling of the fearful conditions prevailing at the resettlement camps. At one of the camps, I saw a young boy curiously looking at us. When I opened the lens of my camera to take a picture of him, the boy cried out loud and his mother rushed out from her shelter and immediately took him into her lap. The mother explained that since the eviction, her son lives in fears of the “khaki dress and anything that resembles a gun.” The incident brought to mind a disturbing parallel—the viral photo of a Syrian girl who surrendered to a camera, mistaking it to be a gun.

Originally published at https://caravanmagazine.in/religion/bjp-weaponised-evictions-tool-assam-muslim-residents

Growing up Miya in Assam: How the NRC weaponised my identity against me

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He has settled down now. He has many friends. Every day, he has a new story to tell. In the living room of our rented house he often plays with our landlord’s young daughter. They sometimes sing together: “bilote halise dhunia podumi phool”—In the pond a lotus sways. I never had the flawless Assamese pronunciation that he has already acquired in the first three years of his life. Listening to him, I feel immensely proud.

But when I look at him, I also feel immense fear.

I am reminded of my own childhood. My father never told me that the world outside his warmth and protection would be hostile to me. This only became apparent to me when I first visited Guwahati. It was here that I first realised that I have another identity, a subordinate identity—I was miya, a Bengali-origin Muslim, seen in Assam as an outsider, a suspected Bangladeshi.

Every year, a large number of people from my native place in Barpeta district of western Assam migrate seasonally to Guwahati to work in various unorganised sectors. When I was 14 years old, I went to see the city and write a homework essay on how I spent my summer break. Late one afternoon, my uncle Sirajul Haque and I were waiting to cross a busy road in Guwahati’s Lalganesh area. My uncle, who was then in his forties, had not been keeping well for two days, and had been unable to ply his rickshaw.

A group of young men stood nearby. They asked him to help push start a vehicle. My uncle began telling them about his health. The words had barely left his mouth when the young men began cursing at him. They called him “Kela Miya” and “Bangladeshi” while kicking him. My middle-aged uncle pleaded for mercy with folded hands, but the young men did not relent. I was scared and fled the scene. I ran down a dark lane and disappeared, reaching the rented tenement where we were staying. Uncle also returned after a while. He didn’t go to the pharmacy. As my other relatives prepared the evening meal, he lay in one corner and would not speak to anyone. He could not eat properly. I also kept quiet, did not tell anyone about the incident. I could not sleep that night. Whenever I closed my eyes, the image of my uncle played again and again, like a motion picture.

I came back to my village with a heavy heart. I could not write that essay. For some reason, I resolved that day that I would continue to study, at any cost. I wanted to be Assamese—a better Axomiya then anyone else, whose identity cannot be questioned by anyone. I learned the language. I imbibed the cuisine. I immersed myself in the tunes of Bihu songs. I did not realise when this became my life’s biggest mission—from my classroom to my workplace, from my emotions to my imagination, my focus was to be Axomiya.

But every so often, I would be reminded that my efforts to be Axomiya were not enough. My accent was not pure—I was reminded that the dialect I spoke at home was filthy. I was warned that my lungi could not be a part of Axomiya identity. I was reminded that my ancestors were not the sons and daughters of this soil.

Sometimes these warnings were violent—either verbal or physical—but sometimes, they were devoid of any action. I studied law for a few years at Assam University in Silchar, although I was unable to complete the course due to financial constraints. Silchar, a town in the Barak Valley, is known as the heartland for Bengali nationalism in Assam. One day, I met an Assamese senior in the hostel. We introduced ourselves. When I told him where I lived—an address in the Barpeta district—he nonchalantly replied, “Oh, tumi Miya?”—You’re a Miya? When I said yes, he silently walked away down the stairs, as if uninterested in talking to a Miya. I could not move for a few moments. I never had the courage to talk to him again.

I often wonder what makes him—and others like him—so powerful, and me so vulnerable. I ask myself why I felt subordinate in the first place. Why did I not revolt against the young men who punched my uncle? Why didn’t I kick them back? What made me think the quality of their Assamese accent, the language and culture they possess is superior? What compelled me to think that without imitating their way of life, I could not be a dignified Assamese? Why can’t my accent, my dialect, my costume and culture be the part of the greater Assamese identity?

 

The answer lies in the century-long histories of oppression, persecution and production of unlimited fear. Miya Muslims like me are not part of the Assamese vision, which begins and ends with the indigenous Axomiyas. Though we have been living and working on this land for centuries—often for the so-called indigenous Axomiyas—we are not to be allowed in. This xenophobia has been formalised in the National Register of Citizens, which threatens to delegitimise any person who cannot prove their credentials to the satisfaction of the Axomiya state. It has weaponised all aspects of our identity, using them to keep us out of our own state and nation.

*

My uncle, who was abused by the so-called sons of the soil, has lost his soil to the erosion of the river Beki, one of the ferocious tributaries of the mighty Brahmaputra. Every year in Assam, thousands of people living on the chars—riverine islands—and along river banks, mostly Miya Muslims, get uprooted because of erosion. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries swell during the rains, swallowing parts of the chars and leaving their residents with no choice but to move inland. In any other part of the country, the victims of such erosion would be likely to receive compensation and rehabilitation from the government, or at least ask for it. In 1995, my uncle lost his land to the river and shifted to our village, hardly three kilometres from his previous home. Instead of a rehabilitation grant, he was served a notice by the Foreigners Tribunal, asking him to prove his Indian nationality.

He was not the only person in the family whose identity fell under suspicion after they moved inland. His elder brother, who also settled in our village along with him, was marked a D-voter—a “doubtful” voter, suspected of being an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant and required to prove his identity before the tribunal as well. Though our village is hardly seven kilometres from the district headquarters, it still does not have access to all-weather roads. Throughout the summer and monsoon months, our houses remain surrounded by water. Often, my uncle would call out my name in his loud voice, telling me to come to his house, or he would sail his banana raft across the water to come to ours. We would discuss the progress of their cases. In these conversations, he would appear confident in his ability to prove his Indian nationality. But I could see the fear and anxiety on his face.

One Monday, both my uncles went to the Foreigners Tribunal at the district headquarters to face trial. While they were on their way back, the elder brother suddenly collapsed from a stroke. He died before he could be taken to the hospital.

This is the cost my uncle paid to defend his Indian citizenship—the life of his elder brother, then five bighas of land, which he sold to cover the court expenses. After his brother’s death, my uncle also became responsible for four more family members. He risked the abuse of being called a Bangladeshi once again, and went back to Guwahati to pull a rickshaw so that he could feed his family.

My uncles are not my only relatives to be labelled D-voters. In 1997, nearly four lakh people across the state—mostly Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindus—were marked D-voters. Two members of my extended family made this list—a widowed aunt, and another uncle. My aunt became a widow at a very early age. She had a tough time looking after her five minor children. Being designated a D-voter increased her vulnerability, but her indomitable courage and resilience helped to look after the family with her meagre income from labouring in the fields. My “doubtful” uncle has a master’s degree in economics from Gauhati University and teaches in a government school. During elections, he would perform the duty of a presiding officer, even though he was barred from exercising his voting rights for almost two decades.

“D” is not the only category that haunts my family members and me. A few years ago, personnel from the Assam Police’s border unit—which has over four thousand members, who have the power to ask anyone to prove their identity as Indians, and to refer any citizens to a tribunal—raided a rented house in Guwahati’s Dhirenpara neighbourhood, where residents of my village, who had travelled there to work in the informal sector, were staying. The police asked for their citizenship documents, noted down their names and addresses, and took impressions of their fingerprints on blank papers. After almost a year, they started receiving notices from the Foreigners Tribunal, asking them to prove their citizenship. Among those who received these summons were two of my uncles, and one cousin, who sells jhaalmuri—a type of rice puff—on the streets in Guwahati. My relatives were able to successfully defend their citizenship, but I cannot forget the looks of fear on their faces when they first received the notices.

Compared to many others, my family members were fortunate. Even aside from the D-voters, nearly 2.5 lakh people in the state—most of them poor like my uncles and cousin—have been referred to the Foreigners Tribunals under suspicion of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. There are cases where government officials, including those from the army, the air force, the border security forces and the police, as well as schoolteachers, have been suspected and referred to the tribunal. There are cases where one person has been referred to the tribunal several times, even after the same tribunal declared them an Indian citizen. The border police is never held accountable for such errors, or for inflicting this burden on citizens—it does this work with absolute impunity, guaranteed under the draconian Foreigners Act of 1946.

The tribunals themselves have become houses of horror for Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindus. The institution is supposed to deliver justice, but has in reality worked like a slaughterhouse, snatching the citizenship and rights of rightful residents of Assam. Like the border police, the tribunals are a one-of-a-kind system, plying only in Assam. The quasi-judicial body hears the cases of people whose citizenship is doubted by the state. The cases are decided not by judicial officers, but by mostly lawyers appointed as members of the tribunal on a contractual basis. There are a hundred such tribunals operating across the state. Their members are appointed by the government, remunerated by the government, appraised by the government, and if found unsatisfactory, shown the door by the government. In 2017, 19 members of the tribunals were removed from office. It has been reported that these members were removed in part because they did not declare enough people “foreigners,” as the border police that referred these cases had claimed they were.

According to government records, over ninety thousand people have been declared foreigners, of which more than twenty-six thousand cases were decided by ex-parte decree in the absence of the respondents. Nearly a thousand of them are being held in six makeshift detention centres, housed inside jails across the state.

I visited several of these jails. I went to the detention centres as part of a research contingent—in January this year, the activist and writer Harsh Mander, then the special monitor of the National Human Rights Commission, invited me to join an NHRC Mission to examine the due process through which a person is sent to a detention centre, study the centres, and assess the human-rights situation of the detainees.

Over these visits, the little hope I had remaining turned into despair. The detention centres are nothing but sections within district jails that have been cordoned off to house those who have been declared foreigners. The detainees are not allowed any formal communication with their relatives. The detainees do not have access to legal recourse such as appeals—the tribunals do not hear appeals, so the detainees can only file cost-intensive writs in the high court or the Supreme Court. Inside the detention camps, they live as convicted criminals.

At a camp in Kokrajhar, I met an elderly woman detainee, who couldn’t stand straight. With her half-bent body, she crawled towards me, and tried to touch my feet. I stepped back. She rolled on the floor of the camp and began howling, with what seemed like all the might of her skinny body. She begged me for death—a mercy death.

I met a woman whose four-year-old son lives in the camp with her. She told me that when she was brought to the detention centre, he was 14 days old. Since then, the boy hasn’t seen the world outside the four walls of jail.

In the Goalpara detention centre, there were more than fifty actual Bangladeshis. Their circumstances showed how little concern the state has for those it deems foreigners. Some of the people we met had been there for nearly a decade, with little or no contact with the outside world. One of the detainees showed me a torn piece of paper with a Bangladeshi phone number. He had memorised the number five years earlier when he was first brought to the centre, and had now scrawled it on the paper, in the hope that he would one day get to call his family and inform them of his whereabouts. While my community is abused as illegal Bangladeshi on a daily basis, while lakhs of us are stripped of our citizenship rights, thousands arbitrarily declared foreigners and hundreds detained, actual Bangladeshis are dying to go back to their country. The government is taking no steps to make this happen.

*

After I returned from the detention centre, the innocent face of the boy continued to haunt me for a long time. Even now, I imagine my son in his place. The very thought sends a shiver down my spine.

I tried thinking of my visit as a privilege. After all, I had a firsthand experience of the horrors that people from my state were being subjected to. I became hopeful. I worked to document every important detail, so that when the report went to National Human Rights Commission and subsequently to my government, it could result in some positive change. My confidence was bolstered by various details that I was privy to—for instance, the mother of the four-year-old child was neither a Miya nor a Bengali Hindu, she belongs to the so-called indigenous Muslim community, a khati—pure—Axomiya. I was sure that my chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, who has built his political career on the campaign platform of protecting the rights of indigenous Assamese, would not tolerate this gross violation of their human rights.

But I was wrong again. Mander submitted the report to the NHRC, detailing the inhuman conditions of detainees and the procedural drawbacks of the process, as well as suggesting remedies. The NHRC—the highest quasi-judicial body in the country, which is mandated to protect the human rights of every individual, especially disadvantaged groups such as women, children and minorities—did not respond even after repeated follow-ups. This forced Mander to resign from the position of special monitor. He wrote a compassionate essay calling the detention centres “the dark side of humanity and legality.”

In June, four special rapporteurs of United Nations Human Right Council wrote a letter to the ministry of external affairs, expressing its alarm and concern at complaints it had received about the exclusionary measures being taken by the NRC authority and the Election Commission. The measures, it feared, would exacerbate the discrimination faced by Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindus, “who may wrongfully be declared as ‘foreigners’ and consequently rendered stateless” or deprived “of the right to political participation and representation.”

The letter cast the national spotlight on the NRC process. National and international media, which had so far paid little attention to the issues and concerns of Miya Muslims such as myself, began giving us coverage. No doubt there were issues—a community, many members of which have lived in Assam for generations and have done everything within their power to assimilate into Assamese society and culture, was referred to simply as “Bengali,” either Muslim or Hindu. Nevertheless, these stories highlighted the plight of the Assamese speaking Miya Muslims, especially the role of foreigners tribunal and border police, or the pathetic conditions of people living in the chars of Assam.

I expected that this would help bring some justice to the people fighting the biased tribunal and languishing in detention centres across the state. But the Assamese nationalists had a different plan. A counter-campaign soon ensued in Assamese media, accusing an imaginary vested interest group of acting against the interests of the state, and attacking human-rights workers such as Mander for attempting to throw a spanner into the works of the NRC.

An error-free NRC is not the demand of only the so-called Assamese nationalists, but also for a Miya like me, whose Assamese identity has always been under question. In July 2010, along with three others, my wife’s nephew was killed in police firing. They were protesting against the pilot project of the NRC being conducted. One of the columns in the form led to much anger as it asked for the country of origin. They were demanding an error-free NRC. My community viewed the NRC—a document that would officially grant us our identities—as a weapon to fight the humiliation and persecution we faced.

This belief was systematically destroyed as dozens of exclusionary filters were put into the updating process, including the clause of the so-called “Original Inhabitants” to exclude Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindus. The issue of D-voters could have been solved along with the NRC updating process, but excluding the descendants of people deemed foreigners by the tribunals has created more problems.

When someone raises these questions against these exclusionary and discriminatory processes, they become anti-Assamese even in the eyes of the so-called liberal Assamese intellectuals. My liberal Assamese friends accuse me of not being sensitive to the “threat” they are facing from the supposed large-scale migration from Bangladesh. I almost want to feel this threat, but when I look back at my life, I realise that this threat is me—a Miya.

I think of my mission to be called Axomiya.  If I lay claim to Srimanta Sankardev, the architect of modern Assamese society, if I prefer organising Bihu over an Eid mehfil—we stopped celebrating the Bengali New Year over a century ago—if I feel proud when my son sings the songs of the revolutionary Assamese cultural icon Bishnu Rabha, then what threat do I carry? Why do the Assamese chauvinists question my identity despite me having a history of five generations living in this land?

I realise that my Axomiya qualities do not matter. What matters is that I am not them. They are not concerned about deporting illegal immigrants. The “threat” is not about a threat to the Assamese language or the culture—Miya Muslims like me are a threat to their privilege and supremacy.

I do not know how to explain to them how I feel when I see my mainstream Assamese friends and their children being included in the NRC without having to produce so much as a document, while our credentials are examined thoroughly. If the NRC process is a test and everybody consented to participate, why is there not a level playing field?

Even our supposed allies appear not to understand. During the Assam Agitation in the 1980s, when the demand to update the NRC became a point of fierce contention, Hiren Gohain was one of the few intellectuals who described the agitation as hollow. An outspoken public intellectual, Gohain is also a fierce critic of the BJP’s majoritarian rule. But even he couches his descriptions of the suffering of Assam’s Muslims with the terms “seems” and “maybe.”

Although he said in an interview with Al Jazeera that everyone who came to Assam before 1971 should be termed natives of this land, Gohain clarified many things for the people of Assam, especially Miya Muslims, in a recent Assamese-language article. He gave us a suggestion, saying that Miya Muslims “should not forget that seeking safety from platoons of police and CRPFs is delusional. Their safety and the preservation of their basic day to day life is chiefly dependent on the trust and goodwill of the indigenous people.”

If I understand him correctly, I must console myself that my self-respect, my pride of being Assamese, or even my mere existence in this part of the world, is not only dependent on the trust and goodwill of the indigenous Assamese people but also on their kindness and grace. If the indigenous people do not trust us, Gohain appears to be saying that the world’s largest democracy cannot provide us security or protection. Gohain is not just another intellectual— for our community, he was the epitome of courage and struggle. When he suggests that we not seek protection and justice from the state and surrender before the supremacy of indigenous people, I understand why thousands of my community members massacred in Nellie, Nagabanda, Chaolkhuwa, Bahbari, and Khagrabari did not get justice.

Gohain’s words, though hurtful, have a kernel of truth—I no longer trust the state to accept that I am Axomiya, to protect my rights. But I will survive. Swallowing abuse and humiliation has made me resilient. I have learnt how to live like a second-grade Axomiya. I only wonder how to prepare my three-year old son.

 

Originally published at https://caravanmagazine.in/politics/growing-up-miya-in-assam-how-the-nrc-weaponised-my-identity-against-me

Karbi Anglong Lynching: The other side of Assam

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The divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is the main culprit behind the Karbi Anglong violence that led to the killing of two young men on June 8

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.

Assam NRC Draft: How Women in Char Areas Were Left High and Dry

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The news of four million people being excluded from the final draft of Assam NRC and pushing them to the verge of being stateless has caught the attention of various stakeholders across the country and beyond. The media has also brought out cases of large number of well-established individuals, including a former Chief Minister of Assam, family members of former President of India, family members of former deputy speaker of Assam Assembly, number of armed forces personnel who couldn’t make it to the final NRC draft. But the stories of fear and anxiety of the marginalised and vulnerable sections have still remained unreported.

Among Muslim dominated areas in the state, Kalgachiya in Barpeta district is one of the most affluent with a high literacy rate. According to community leaders and few government officials, only a nominal percentage of applicants have been excluded from the final draft. People who are capable of raising their voice and have access to proper documentation were able to apply and hence made it to the NRC draft.

A visibly anxious boatman said that while his name is there on the list, his wife has not been included in the draft NRC. Most passengers in the boat also described stories of how their family members, mostly women and children, are not in the list.

On the bank of the river, in a crowded small tea stall everyone was speculating about the reason of rejection. Their major apprehension is that the panchayat certificate provided by married women to prove linkage with the legacy holder has been rejected. Gani Dewani, an influential community leader, said, “Only 15-20 families have all members in the list. NRC has divided families with some members being included and others excluded.”

The NRC authority, concerned of ‘breaching of privacy’ of the excluded, hasn’t made the reason of rejection public. Those rejected will have to file another application to get to know the reason for being excluded from NRC.

The discussion in the char village centred around the panchayat certificate and delayed birth certificate. They said initially these certificates were accepted by the NRC authority but later they declined to accept birth certificates and started scrutinising panchayat certificates “strictly”.

Fifty years old Moriyam Begum lives in a tin-roofed house surrounded by the jute and paddy fields in the char. Illiterate Moriyam was trying to find a particular document with the help of her 12-year-old daughter from a pile of papers scattered on the floor. “Keeping documents in order is a challenge,” she murmured.

Almost every year char dwellers experience flood and erosion and often have to move from one place to another. In the last two decades, Moriyam has shifted her residence thrice often taking shelter in the temporary relief camp during the flood. Keeping valuable documents safely becomes a major challenge for these people who are often labelled as illegal immigrants.

Though her husband and eldest son’s name appeared in the draft, she along with two of her daughters and one son were left out from the final draft NRC. Since Moriyam doesn’t have any admissible education documents (only board certificate is accepted), she provided a panchayat certificate.

More than 4.7 million married women submitted panchayat certificate as linkage document out of which 1.7 million women were brought under “original inhabitants” status, a privileged category and were exempted from the stringent verification process. However, Muslims and Bengali Hindus, didn’t fall under the category thus despite being from one of the most marginalised social groups, Muslim women from the char areas had to go through a stringent verification process. Moriyam is one of the 2.9 million “unfortunate” women who submitted panchayat certificate.

It is speculated that most of these Muslim women are from char areas of Assam, which accommodates nearly 10 per cent of Assam’s population. There are more than 2,200 river island villages spread over 14 districts in Assam, which are geographically plagued with floods and erosion.

As per the last survey by Assam the government in 2002-03, as many as 68% of char people live under the below poverty line (BPL) and over 80 per cent of them are illiterate. Assam Human Development Report (2014) says that the Mean Year of Schooling (MYS) in char areas is 4.76 years which is the lowest among all marginalised communities in Assam. The abysmally low female literacy rate was one of the reasons of higher number of women submitting panchayat certificate from these areas.

Another reason that is equally responsible for making the char women most vulnerable in the NRC updating process is the feudal legacy and continuance of core patriarchal practices like child marriage. A study conducted by Manoj Goswami says that in char areas the mean age of marriage remains low 17.1 years.

National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 4 data reveals that in char dominated districts nearly half of the women get married before the age of 18. When women are married off before attaining the age of 18, they miss the opportunity to get enlisted in the voters list in their parental house. In absence of other documents (read educational document), it effectively delinks them from their parents and forces them to use panchayat certificate to prove linkage with parents. If they were married after getting enlisted in the voters list at parental address i.e. after attaining the legal age of marriage, they could have used the voter’s id for linkage

Today, it seems the “masculine state” is hell bent to snatch the citizenship right from women like Moriyam. She hasn’t been able have proper sleep and food ever since the final NRC draft was published. Now her only concern is ‘would they send me to ‘Kalapani’?’ She used the infamous cellular jail in Andaman and Nicobar Island to describe possible detention centres.

Originally published at https://www.news18.com/news/opinion/assam-nrc-draft-how-women-in-char-areas-were-left-high-and-dry-1835325.html

How Sword of NRC is Destroying Families in Assam

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On a soaring summer morning, Ilim Uddin Dewan (50) drove his SUV to the Chenga Circle Office in Barpeta district of Western Assam. He met the circle officer, the executive magistrate of the revenue circle and the designated Circle Registrar of Citizen Registration (CRCR), for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) within the jurisdiction of revenue circle area.

Ilim Uddin, a middle age successful businessman and politician, who fought for assembly seat in 2011, alleged that his wife Mamataz Dewan was harassed in the name of being illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. A case under Foreigners Act was referred by the border police to foreigner’s tribunal in 1997 and the tribunal upheld her Indian citizenship in 2016 after a decade-long legal battle.

The NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela has said time and again through the media that once the alleged foreigner or D voter gets clearance from Foreigners Tribunal and found to be Indian citizen will be included in the NRC. The NRC website also says “D voters can apply for inclusion of their names in the updated NRC. However, a D Voter’s name will only be included in NRC only after getting clearance from the Foreigners Tribunals.”

However, the Circle Registrar of Citizen Registration (CRCR) Rajiv Kumar Das said “My hands are tied; I can’t do anything. We are doing what the state office has instructed us to do. State office has a sent list and asked us to keep those names on hold, I can’t do anything”. As per media report, the NRC authority has blocked 63,000 D voters or doubtful voters.

The officer inquired with his junior officer and confirmed that the database sent by the state office contains her name. “Even though you won the case, I can’t accept the papers,” said Rajiv Kumar and advised Ilim Uddin to contact additional deputy commissioner, who is his supervisor if a person is not satisfied with the officer’s response.

The persons, who have been declared as Indian national by foreigner’s tribunal since 2015, will have to wait till the complete draft is published. They will have to go through the claims and objection process along with those whose name do not appear in the complete draft. A window of one month will be provided for re-examination citizenship documents who wouldn’t figure in the complete draft or someone who is wrongfully included in the list.

How Significant is Doubtful Voters in NRC?

In March 2018, Assam Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary informed that state assembly that as on December 31, 2017, there were 4,85,640 D voters and suspected citizen (2,44,144 D voters and 24,14,96 reference cases), out of which 2,40,583 (1,31,034 D voter and 1,09,549 reference cases) were disposed of. The foreigners’ tribunal has declared over 92,000 persons as foreigner and remaining were able to prove their Indian citizenship.

However, out the 92,000 declared foreigners nearly 15,000 declared foreigners were found to be pre-1971 immigrants, who are treated as Indian citizen as per Assam Accord. Interestingly, over 26,000 cases out of the declared foreigner cases were declared as foreigner through expatriate decree. That means that those 26,000 declared foreigners didn’t appear before the court and court didn’t examine their citizenship credential. On other words, in many cases, those so called declared foreigners even don’t know that the foreigners’ tribunal has declared them as foreign national!

On May 2, the NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela sent memo to all district magistrates to block the name of declared foreigners and their family member’s names entering into the complete draft NRC. The NRC coordinator says that the letter has been issued based on an order given by Gauhati High Court last year. Considering the timing and far reaching and retrospective impact of the letter, the religious and linguistic minority communities perceive it as a ploy to exclude large number of genuine Indian citizen from complete draft and make them vulnerable for torturous battle in the foreigners’ tribunal and augmenting the risk of landing in the detention centre.

However, NRC coordinator has clarified that out of 92000 plus declared foreigner they could have identify only 4259 applications submitted by those declared foreigners. He speculated that the number of family members of the 4259 declared foreigners would be around 50000.

Meanwhile, the decision of excluding the family members of declared foreigners, who have documentary evidence to prove their Indian nationality and whom the NRC updating authority itself had provided the legacy document, not only created public outcry in Assam but also got attention from national and international media as well human rights bodies and human rights defenders.

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Opened the Pandora’s Box?

On June 11, four Special Rapporteurs of United Nations Human Rights Council has sent a strong communication to the MEA Sushma Swaraj. The eight pages letter alleged that the order “may lead to the wrongful exclusion of close to two million names from the NRC, without a prior investigation and trial.” The letter also questions the independence and impartial functioning of foreigners’ tribunal and terms it as “so-called foreigners’ tribunal”.

It labelled serious allegation “members of Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam experience increasing pressure from State authorities to declare more persons as foreigners. On 21st June 2017, 19 members of the Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam were dismissed on ground of their under-performance over the last two years. More than 15 additional Tribunal members were issued with a strict warning to increase their efficiency. Considering that tribunal members serve on a contractual basis for two years, which may be extended on a needs and performance”

One of the terminated members of foreigners’ tribunal, on the condition of anonymity said that one of their performance indicators was – how many cased they decided in favour of the state’ or in other word how many cases they declared as foreigners!

In the wake of the controversy regarding the May 2 letter of the NRC coordinator, another important and shocking development is observed. Earlier this year, noted human rights worker and former IAS officer Harsh Mander led the National Human Rights Commission’s Mission to detention centres in Assam as Special Monitor to NHRC. His mission studied the conditions of detainees inside two detention centres in Goalpara and Kokrajhar district of Assam and studied the process of the identifying doubtful voters and functioning of border police who refers cases to foreigners’ tribunal. Harsh Mander submitted the report but NHRC didn’t take any step on his findings and suggestions. He resigned from NHRC as Special Monitor and made his report public.

The report alleges “these detention centres lie on the dark side of both legality and humanitarian principles”. There are nearly 900 hindred declared foreigners who are detained in six detention centres across the state. Some of them are detained for nearly a decade. Their families have been separated; they don’t have any right to payroll, means of communication with the family members. There is no manual or proper guideline for the administration of these detention centres. In one hand the detainees are treated as convicted criminals on the other hand they are not allowed the basic rights like payroll and wage against which are available to convicted criminals.

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Harsh Mander further wrote, “Overall, I am convinced that for a process that can result in the disenfranchisement, indefinite detention or expulsion of a person, the state government needs to ensure due process and, with it, compassion and an understanding of the predicament of persons with a poor education and lack of economic resources and social or political capital.”

However, the Assam government and the NRC authority have not reacted either to UNHRC Special Rapporteurs letter or Harsh Mander’s report.

Changing Narrative

The citizenship tangle in Assam has a long history and many complexities. Apart from the administrative complexities involving multiple agencies, nearly a dozen of Acts, Rules and Accords, numerous state and non-state stakeholders; the complexities of narratives are also emerging.

The narrative of large scale, uninterrupted influx of migrants from Bangladesh causing threat to demography, language and cultural heritage of Assam has been slowly shifting towards the narrative of persecution and mistreatment of genuine Indian citizen who are religious and linguistic minorities in the state of Assam. There is little doubt that the ‘doubtful voter’ and its ecosystem has been the breeding ground for such counter narrative and the May 2 letter issued by NRC authority has given the long awaited exposure to the issue.

This will be interesting to observe how the things get unfolded once the complete draft NRC is published.

Originally published at https://www.news18.com/news/india/despite-valid-documents-my-wife-is-a-doubtful-citizen-how-sword-of-nrc-is-destroying-families-in-assam-1827111.html

School girl raped in Assam, Panchayat offered money to keep quiet: Victim committed suicide

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When the entire country was celebrating 68th Republic Day, a tenth standard student of Sidhuni High School in Barpeta district of Assam was raped by her neighbour Jahidul Islam (22). The Gaon Panchayat president Mr. Abdul Karim barred her father from accessing legal remedy and the panchayat offered eighty thousand rupees as compensation. Traumatized girl committed suicide soon after the kangaroo court pronounced the verdict.

I often get telephone calls regarding violation of child rights i.e. trafficking, child marriage, sexual abuses etc. Interestingly, most of the calls I get are from two difference areas (a) conflict affected areas of Bodoland Territorial Area Districts and (b) flood and erosion affected char and chapori areas of lower Assam. I try to bring the matter to the notice of various government and non-government bodies which are working for the protection of child rights. In most the cases, the agencies, both government and non-government quickly take up the cases and surprising results are delivered.

For example, September last year, a thirteen year old girl child from Barpeta was abducted by a suspected gang of human traffickers. The girl was taken to Nalbari district and her father was pleading before the police officer for her rescue. Police wasn’t willing to register the case until her father would pay them bribe. When I brought the matter to the notice of the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (ASCPCR) and Universal Team for Social Action and Help (UTSAH), the girl child was rescued within 24 hours. In another case in Baksa district, a tenth standard girl student was trafficked and sold in Rajasthan. The Investing Officer (IO) took money from her widow mother to fuel the police jeep. Police didn’t arrest the perpetrators even after being handed over by the community people. When the matter was brought to the notice these agencies, Assam Police team went to Rajasthan and rescued the girl and arrested the members of trafficking racket.

But it is challenging to bring the matter to the notice of these child protection agencies. When the grass-root institutions – the family, the school, the Panchayat, the police station do not realize their roles and responsibilities in child protection or not even realize why the children need care and protection; it becomes really challenging to bring the matter to light. Often heinous crime against children is not even considered as a crime; it is doused and put under the carpet by the powerful people in the society. My experience of working in these areas makes me believe that our grass-root social as well as democratic institutions are not child friendly and there is something seriously wrong. Often these institutions don’t allow the information of child rights violation to reach the modern child protection agencies. Sometimes, it reaches too late to protect the children.

In one of such tragic incident which occurred in Sidhuni village in Barpeta district of Assam. When the entire country was celebrating 68th Republic Day, a tenth standard student of Sidhuni High School in Barpeta district of Assam was raped by her neighbour Jahidul Islam (22). The Gaon Panchayat president Mr. Abdul Karim barred her father from accessing legal remedy and the panchayat offered eighty thousand rupees as compensation. Traumatized girl committed suicide soon after the kangaroo court pronounced the verdict.

On the fateful evening of 26th January 2017, S*****n Nessa was raped at her residence. After the heinous crime, perpetrator Jahidul Islam asked the victim to keep quiet and promised her to marry. Her father Taizuddin, an illiterate poor farmer approached the Dewanis (Community Leaders) for help to give justice to his minor daughter. President of 78 No Sitoli Gaon Panchayat, Mr. Abdul Karim (elected PRI member) stopped him from going to police station and suggested to settled the case in the panchayat itself.

Next day i.e. 27th January 2017, the president called panchayat at his residence and invited the Dewanis (community leaders, similar to the leaders of khap panchayats) including the president of nearby Chachra Gaon Panchayat, who happens to be the brother-in-law of the perpetrator. The victim was interrogated by the president and other Dewanis in front of hundreds of villagers in the panchayat (they call it bichar). An educated youth from the same village who was present in the panchayat informed me over phone:

“Dewanis repeatedly asked the girl every detail of how she was raped. She was terribly frightened and traumatized. But they were asking questions after questions. The questions were so terrifying that one of the Dewanis asked her where and how she was touched during the course of sexual assault.”

After listening to the interrogation, the president Mr. Abdul Karim held the victim responsible and remarked “If the female goat is set free; the billy goat will try to have some fun”. Mr. Nayan Ali, one of Dewanis and a trusted ally of president explained why the victim shouldn’t go to court. He tried to inculcate the gathering by drawing his knowledge (?) and experience that if she goes to court, her medical check-up will be done by police and doctors from other caste (read religion) which is against their religious believe and practice! Finally, the panchayat offered eighty thousand rupees to be paid by the perpetrator in installments and asked victim to keep quiet and move on. Soon after the pronouncement the victim committed suicide by hanging herself. Listen to the verdict of the kangaroo court here

From this particular area of Barpeta district, I have been getting reports of violation of child rights on regular basis. The incidences of child marriage, child trafficking, child labour and child sexual abuses are really alarming. In one hand, people living in this area are devastated by annual flood and erosion. Poverty and illiteracy have been helping to feudal minded Dewani and other powerful social groups to keep their grip over the marginal groups intact and thus undermines the rights and entitlement of the children. On the other hand, the democratic institutions like Gaon Panchayats and police stations are highly corrupt and has miserably failed to live up to their mandates as far as protection of child rights is concerned.

It has been almost two days; police hasn’t even tried to arrest either the rapist or the Dewanis who conducted the panchayat and abetted the child to commit suicide. Moreover, I am being informed that the Dewanis are now trying to compromise the case by paying three lakhs rupees to the father of the victim and settle the case. How shameful is the fact that our society has different slab of amount fixed for different types of crime that too in case of crime against children!

I don’t know who is to be blamed or what is to be done but as far as child protection is concerned we should at least acknowledge the fact that there is serious problem with our grass-root social and democratic institutions. Various stakeholders, who are concerned and mandated for ensuring care and protection of children, should rethink about their strategies and approaches.

Politicans playing dirty over displaced Bodos in BTAD: Promising Land Patta inside Forest

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This is election time in Assam and political parties are not leaving any stone unturned to get as much vote as possible. If someone is promising to create 2.5 million jobs in next five years, other one is promising to protect civil and human rights of the persecuted minorities. In reality, all these hollow promises will be going to the cold storage of politicians’ conscience without a second thought. However, one such hollow promise and great deal of hypocrisy paining me since 29th of March, 2016. Deputy Chief of Bodoland Territorial Council Khampha Borgayari conducted an election meeting at a newly encroached forest village called Laimuti on 19th of March, 2016. Mr. Borgoyari promised to provide land patta along with other services to the forest dwellers who settled in the forest most recently. But to know more about his hypocrisy and political gimmick, let me take you through the village.

Three of my colleagues along with our local resource person Dan Narzary, we crossed the bamboo bridge over river Chapma a beautiful place around 10 kilometers from Runikhata under Chirang district of BTAD in Assam. River Champa is a narrow but powerful river as its water follows fast and during monsoon it becomes ferocious. A middle age man was hurling his fishing net near the bamboo bridge. The big trees in the upstream of the river made the scenario picturesque. Laimuti 1

Soon after crossing the bridge, we found a small hut on the bank of river Champa. I talked to Dhaneswar Basumatary – the owner of the hut. His family members were busy in planting tapioca tree. His son was cutting the tapioca tree into equal pieces to plants. The plant was new to me; our local resource person Dan Narzary who did his masters in Ecology, Environment and Sustainable Development from Tata Institute of Social Sciences introduced the tapioca plant as a “poverty resilient food”. The hut itself was enough to correspond to the level of poverty faced by the family. But the story of tapioca escalated the brutality of poverty and hunger. Dhaneswar Basumatary’s family was forced to move into the forest in 2005 to live such a miserable life when his 8 bighas (over a hector) of agricultural land was eroded by river Champa. Dhaneswar Basumatary is not the only victims of river erosion, many of the forest dwellers of the area were uprooted by river erosion.DSC_0073[1]

It is worthy to give a glimpse of the larger picture of erosion affected people of Assam. Study revealed that in 50 years (1950 to 2000) river Brahmaputra alone had eroded 7 percent of Assam’s total land and tens of thousands people have been displaced. Till 2015 Assam Government didn’t have any rehabilitation programme for the erosion induced IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) of the state. In March last year, Assam Government came up with a scheme called “Chief Minister Special Scheme for the Erosion Affected People”. The scheme talks about providing land as compensation for both homestead and agricultural purpose, if government land is not available cash compensation is to be offered. But the scheme remained defunct for almost a year. No effort was made by the government to disseminate the information regarding the scheme among the displaced people. We tried our best to make the affected people aware about the scheme and encouraged them to apply for compensation. But nothing happened till January 2016 and finally I filed a RTI petition seeking some crucial information like how many applications received and processed etc. Assam State Disaster Management Authority which is the nodal agency for implementation of the scheme; scandalously replied my RTI petition saying that the agency had not received any application! Later on one of my journalist friends investigated the matter and revealed that despite no promotion and advertisement, ASDMA had received a large number of applications and as the agency couldn’t deal with such huge number application. Before replying my RTI government changed the scheme through another circular. The modified scheme is equal to nothing! The government has modified it in such a way that almost no erosion induced IDP can avail any benefit under the scheme. This kind of government indifference and apathy have been pushing the erosion induced IDPs to settle generally in forest areas and to migrate into urban areas for livelihood.

We continued walking through the path recently cleared by chopping down the trees in Laimuti. Though the roots of big trees were burnt down to decompose early but are still visible thorough out the fields. Dan Narzary lamented that, being a professionally trained environmentalist he felt like crying after seeing the destruction of the forest just 10 kms away from his house. He feels that tribal people are losing their belongingness towards forest and overlooking the importance of forest conservation. He pointed out a number of factors which attributed towards this change in attitude. At one hand poor people are being uprooted by river erosion, violent conflict and they are not compensated by the state. On the other hand the government forest department is destroying the forest by partnering with smugglers. How the poor people can think about conservation of forest? Dan questions. Laimuti 2

By the time we reached the village market in Laimuti it was late afternoon. The village headman Sukur Basumatary took us to an open school. Few fixed desk benches and a pair of wooden chair-table and a tinned roof hold up by not many concrete pillars were the only infrastructure in the school. However, name of the school Rwdwmkang which means ‘uprising’ in Bodo language actually points towards the aspiration of the villagers. More than 50 students are getting educated without any government support. The villagers collect money and other resources among themselves to pay the monthly salary of Rs. 1000/- to the teacher. Around 8000 people are living in 25 forest villages in Laimuti area without a single government school, no Anganwadi centre, no health facility, no source of drinking water or any other government services. In other words, they are still living right inside the forest, where there is no presence of government.

Three out of the 25 villages faced retaliatory attack from Adivasis on 25th of December, 2014 i.e. two days after the massacre of over 70 innocent Adivasi people by suspected NDFB (S) militant in Sonitpur district of Assam. At least 23 houses in those three villages were burnt down to ashes by the miscreants. The Bodo inhabitants were forced to set up shelter camp in Laimuti market. Hundreds of terrified Bodo men, women and children had continued to live in the camp for over two months without any support from government. Chakra Basumatary one of the victim said “forget about relief, rehabilitation or compensation, no government departments including police department didn’t visited the affected villages”. When one of the civil society organizations took the victims to government office in Kokrajhar, the victims were abused by the officials and their request for compensation was out-rightly rejected.DSC_0113[1]

Mr. Khampha Borgayari who served as Deputy Chief of BTC in the previous term also never did anything to minimize their suffering, even during the toughest time of arson and forced displacement. The villagers at Laimuti said that Mr. Borgayari is now campaigning for his colleague Chandan Brahma and he has promised to provide land pattas along with other services like education, health, water etc.

If this is the fate of displaced Bodos – to protect whose right the territorial privilege was granted, then anyone can easily imagine the condition of displaced non-Bodos living in the model BTC!

 

RECENT MILITANT VIOLENCE AGAINST ADIVASIS IN ASSAM : A Fact Finding Report

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By Delhi Solidarity Group

On December 23, the Bodoland autonomous region of Assam and some adjoining areas suffered an eruption of ethnic violence, particularly in the two districts of Kokrajhar and Sonitpur. These outbreaks of violence have been a disturbingly recurrent feature of the quarter-century long campaign for autonomy in the districts north of the Brahmaputra. Between January 10 and 12, a fact finding team constituted by the Delhi Solidarity Group comprising senior journalists Seema Mustafa and Sukumar Muralidharan, and human rights worker Harsh Mander, visited the villages ravaged by the killings as well as relief camps where terrified residents had fled.  The team was assisted by Shefali from the Delhi Solidarity Group and Mangla Verma from the Centre for Equity Studies. In Guwahati, Kokrajhar and Sonitpur, the team was rendered invaluable support, assistance and guidance by Raju Narzary of North East Research & Social Work Networking (NERSWN) and Abdul Kalam Azad from Aman Biradari.

 

  1. Findings

As the sun was setting over the low forested hills and farmlands of the northern districts of Assam on December 23, armed militants in military fatigues, their faces masked, walked into small and remote adivasi hamlets to carry out a chilling series of coordinated attacks. Residents in these hamlets, at five locations in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Sonitpur districts were mowed down by indiscriminate firing from what were reportedly automatic weapons. More than 70 people, including at least 18 children and 21 women, were killed in a matter of minutes.

The armed intruders burned down and ransacked several of the mud hutments in these hamlets before retreating into the jungles. In retaliatory attacks the following day, at least 5 Bodos were murdered and several homes gutted. In Sonitpur district, a protest demonstration taken out by adivasi political groups in Dhekiajuli was fired on by the police with three deaths and several injuries. In Udalguri, a protest demonstration taken out by adivasi youth was set upon, resulting in injuries on both sides and an atmosphere of tension.

Initial reports about the number of the displaced were wildly contradictory. Kokrajhar was clearly the district worst affected in this respect. News reports datelined December 25 and attributed to the Deputy Commissioner, Kokrajhar, put the number of the displaced at 25,000 in that district alone. On December 28, the figure was scaled up to 100,000 in all four Bodoland districts, Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang. The following day a very precise figure of 176,440 was put out as the total number of the displaced, of which 101,272 were identified as adivasi and 61,000 as Bodo. The greatest incidence of displacement was in Kokrajhar, where an estimated 100,000 had fled their homes. On January 1, the number was revised upwards yet again to 236,349 in all four districts, of which again the largest part by far was in Kokrajhar, where 197,189 persons were sheltering in 81 camps for the displaced.

It seems finally from the inquiries of this team, that roughly 300,000 left their homes in the aftermath of the first attacks and the retaliation. A large number may have gone back soon afterwards, but as the harsh winter days and nights passed, the district administration did have to reckon with human displacement on a major scale. At the time that this fact-finding team met the Kokrajhar Deputy Commissioner on January 10, the numbers had begun to shrink. Of the initial displacement of close to 200,000 he said, fewer than 71,000 remained in camps within his jurisdiction.

This team visited camps for the displaced in Kokrajhar district and villages that had been targeted in Sonitpur. We found the inmates deeply traumatised and profoundly insecure. Desperately impoverished and defenceless to begin with, the targeted and displaced adivasi communities in particular stand in dire need of security assurances they can rely on.

Testimonies from victim survivors:

Sonitpur district: The armed attackers chose hamlets of adivasi settlers which were deep in the forests and close to the borders of Bhutan and Arunachal, where they hid after the attacks. Team members visited both the hamlets in Sonitpur district in which six and thirty villagers had been slaughtered respectively, Dhekiajuli and Biswanath Chariali. To reach the hamlet in Biswanath Chariali, in which the largest number of killings occurred, we had to walk around five kilometres further into the forests after the motorable road reached its end. We found residents camping there under thin plastic sheets just in front of a camp of paramilitary soldiers who had been rushed to extend them protection.

The villages we visited, we were told, were settled some 15 to 20 years earlier. Elders among the villagers had laboured hard to fashion paddy fields after clearing the thick forest cover. Some settlers came because there was no work for them in the tea gardens of the area, others reported fleeing earlier settlements in Kokrajhar because they were fed up with the extortion by armed militants. Sonitpur district falls outside the boundaries of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), which is why the adivasi communities expected to find relative safety there. But many Bodo families also settled in the same forests around the same time. The adivasi and Bodo settlers maintained mutually cordial ties prior to the attack, and invited each other for weddings and funerals. However in recent years, some local militants had begun to extort informal “taxes” from them, even for every headload or bicycle-load of firewood gathered from the forests. There was no violence though: the December 23 attacks were the first time they suffered physical violence, which is why they have been left more shaken and frightened.

In both villages, the accounts of the raids were similar. Armed young men, their faces covered and with only eyes showing, arrived at their homes and first asked for water to drink. After they were served, suddenly and without any warning they opened fire with their automatic weapons, killing whoever they saw – children, women and men. They chased villagers down as they fled in terror. The survivors hid behind trees, and watched as many of their homes were set on fire and their meagre belongings vandalised. Eye-witnesses reported that the intruders danced in celebration as they left after the slaughter, unhurried and unafraid that the police would catch up before their escape.

Leaders of the adivasi student unions came in after nightfall, and it was they who offered solace, called in the police, helped with the last rites, and took the traumatised survivors to the safety of the roadside. Here the local administration later established makeshift camps, as thousands of adivasi settlers, and often their Bodo neighbours, fled separately in panic to the security of camps. At the peak, there were 200,000 people in makeshift camps in the affected districts, battling trauma, fear and the winter cold. They felt safe only when trucks with large deployments of paramilitary soldiers drove into these forest interiors. In some places, the student leaders and volunteers marched with the villagers to local police outposts, shouting anguished slogans and parading the corpses of the dead. Police personnel in some of these outposts panicked and fired at the peacefully protesting crowds. It is officially learnt that three adivasi protestors were killed during police firings.

A few houses in Dhekiajuli under Sonitpur district were burned down in retaliatory attacks. Agitators also vandalised the local office of the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) in Dhekiajuli.

The prospect of violence spiralling out of control was defused. In Sonitpur, the student leaders and village elders took care to reassure their Bodo neighbours that they had nothing to fear from them. Despite similar precautions by adivasi student leaders and elders, at least three Bodos in Kokrajhar district were killed in revenge for the Adivasi slaughter. Bodo student leaders joined the protests against the firing, and tried to assist with relief for the affected adivasi people.

In our discussions with the adivasi villagers, we encountered extreme fear about their security once the forces deployed to guard them were withdrawn. Though the state administration is committed to a deployment of the men in uniform for as long as they are required, the targeted communities are not quite reassured.

There was virtually no outreach of the development state in these villages. Even the nearest primary school was more than seven kilometres distant, through the jungles; not surprisingly most children never went to school. There were no ICDS centres for young children, no health worker, and no MG-NREGA public works. Almost none of the households had ration cards, and the PDS shop was again seven kilometres distant. We spoke to the local development officers, and it was clear that the first time most had visited the village was after the slaughter.

We met in these villages an extremely impoverished people. They owned almost nothing, and had no titles to the small paddy plots which they had cleared and cultivated. Among the families we spoke to, we met a young teenage girl who had been sent to Gurgaon near Delhi to work as a domestic help. We met many male migrants who worked brief stints in factories and construction sites as distant as Gujarat and Chennai.

Korakjhar: The team visited a camp for the displaced people in Saralpara in the Ulta Pani reserve forest area. There were an estimated 9,011 inmates there, all of them from local adivasi villages. In all 51 villages from the far and near environs had evacuated into this camp, which was set up in the immediate vicinity of a Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) base on the Bhutan border. We met with inhabitants of the Shantipur village, some ten kilometres from the Saralpara camp, which had suffered a lethal attack in which an estimated twelve were killed. Most of the 32 houses in the village were gutted and large parts of the 15 bighas of agricultural land, freshly sown with sesame, mustard and ginger, were laid waste. A number of inmates of the Saralpara camp had also sought refuge from Pipargaon village, located again at a distance of about ten kilometres. This village had also been attacked at the same time, though without loss of life.

Terrified villagers ran into the forests where they cowered in fear until the militants left. A young girl Munni Hembram, told us how her mother and elder brother were killed. Clearly not comprehending the magnitude of what has happened, she said she was on her own, with no surviving member except a cousin. A young man said that the militants dressed in black had their faces covered, were heavily armed, and ruthless. He said he ran into the forest until the firing stopped and he was sure they had left.

The forest hamlets belong in a different age. Very little is perceptible in terms of what could be called the markers of “development” despite the creation of Bodoland with its own administrative council. The people have small tracts of agricultural land, and supplement meagre incomes with manual labour as and when they can find it. There are no schools, no roads, no health centres, just utter, unrelieved penury where man has forsaken man and there is no sign of governance.

Dense forests connect this part of India to Bhutan. Recent years have seen alternating attacks by the militant groups—with new factions emerging every now and again—on Muslims and Adivasis. The reasons vary but have largely to do with land and political differences which typically become fierce in electoral contexts. Muslims were brutally targeted last year soon after polling in the Lok Sabha elections just because they were believed to be wavering in their support for a Bodo candidate. And speeches had been made by top BJP leaders stirring the communal cauldron as it were.

Locally the displaced villagers have no idea of why they were targeted. Everybody that this team spoke to in the relief camps confessed to a sense of bewilderment: “no we have had no problem, no confrontation, we don’t know why they just came and attacked us.” There were no threats or prior warnings although the local police chief said that they had intelligence information of a possible attack without specific knowledge of the precise location. With or without the information the administration was ill prepared for the attack, with no effort made to strengthen security in the area at all.

Nearly 300,000 people ran for their lives as news of the attack swept through the remote villages. On December 24 some adivasis grouped together to launch a counterattack on Bodo villages in the area. Thousands of Bodos fled as well and today Kokrajhar’s jungles are full of relief camps for both communities, the adivasis of course being the worse hit. Of the 300,000 now about 90,000 villagers remain and are looking for concrete assurances that they will be secure in their homes before venturing back. The district authorities are making arrangements for police pickets in the more sensitive villages, but even they know that these cannot be permanent arrangements. Neither is there the faintest pretence that they will be able to provide security in all parts of the area, where villagers are widely spaced and dispersed.

The camp for displaced adivasi people that this team visited was a dismal place. Most hutments were built on short bamboo poles no more than three feet high. They had typically single sheets of plastic or tarpaulin as roofs. Supplies were not reliably available. A young man that this group met had a modest sized bundle of potatoes, onions and spinach with him, for which he had paid a hundred rupees. Medical units were not in evidence. Despite the environment of fear, inmates were keen to return home given reliable security assurances. The squalor of the camp they were in was undoubtedly a powerful push factor.

Much of the relief material has been provided by local civil society organisations and unions. The district administration has been involved in mobilising and distributing relief material, but not to the extent required, according to most of the inmates of the camps for the displaced.

We observed a decided difference in the camp for the Bodos we visited, some ten kilometres off the main highway between Guwahati and Kokrajhar. Most dwelling units here had two layers of plastic or tarpaulin for their roofs, were closed on at least three sides and were built sufficiently high for an adult to enter standing up. A butcher seemed to have set up shop in the camp. A medical van fully equipped under the National Rural Health Mission arrived while this team was at the site. The adivasis seemingly had to seek safety in the vicinity of an SSB base to ensure that they would be secure. But the Bodo camp had a full contingent of the Assam Police under a sub-inspector rank officer and some fifteen personnel, assigned to guard it.

The inmates of the Bodo camp that this team spoke to said that they were not over-anxious about returning to their villages. Kokrajhar Deputy Commissioner Thaneswar Malakar told us that except for those whose huts had been burnt, all others were in the process of returning to their villages.

Causes for the current upsurge of violence

The reasons for the attack on the Adivasis are unclear. The state administration believes that recent operations have cut the Songbijit militant faction of the National Democratic Front of BOdoland (NDFB) very close to the bone. The terror strikes may have been an effort to terrorise villagers in areas they routinely move through, to pre-empt any possible information being passed on to the security agencies. They could also have been a way of taking the pressure off their more vulnerable flanks by diverting the attention of the security forces elsewhere.

Media reports have suggested that communications intercepts by the intelligence agencies revealed an intent to cause a wave of violence after a number of cadre of the I.K. Songbijit faction – referred to as the NDFB(S) – were captured or eliminated in recent encounters. The group was under pressure and may have carried out the massacres to divert security forces to protective patrolling. Kokrajhar’s Police Superintendent Sunil Kumar confirmed that intelligence inputs were available suggesting an imminent attack. But with an overstretched force and a vast territory to guard, it was impossible to prepare adequately.

Other local observers suggest that the attacks may have been in retaliation for the cancellation of the captured Bodo militant leader Ranjan Daimary’s bail. Since being taken into custody in Bangladesh and transferred to India in 2010, Daimary’s faction of the NDFB has entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Indian authorities. However, he still faces trial for a string of bomb blasts in Assam in October 2008, carried out with ostensible intent to wreck the peace talks then underway between another faction of the NDFB and the government. Sonbijit is a former military commander of the Daimary faction who opposed the ceasefire deal. Though ostensibly operating autonomously of Daimary, there are several who believe that Songbijit could still be working covertly on an operational agenda that is coordinated with his former leader.

Still another possibility is the intent of the underground groups to wreck the imminent elections to the Bodoland Territorial Council. The BTC is currently under the control of Hagrama Mohilary, whose Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT) ceased hostile actions in 1999 and concluded a disarmament agreement in 2003. First by nomination and then through elections, Mohilary’s group has been in control of the BTC ever since. Mohilary has emerged as an important powerbroker in the Bodo regions, whose patronage is courted by mainstream regional parties like the Asom Gana Parishad, and national parties such as the Congress and BJP. Rivalries with other Bodo militant groups, notably the numerous factions of the NDFB, remain intense. And there are several players who would be keen to ensure that the election process is derailed.

Glimmers of hope are evident in the manner that student bodies and civil society organisations have stood up to condemn the wave of terror and extend all possible sustenance to the victims and survivors. The All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) and the All Assam Adivasi Students Association (AAASA) have coordinated their efforts and forcefully asserted a message of peace and communal amity. They are also working in concert to persuade the displaced persons to return to their villages and set up cooperative mechanisms of self-defence.

The major security operations launched by the Assam Police and local army units have the full support of Bodo political groups and civil society. They tend to share a view of the NDFB(S) as a group wedded to terror without a larger political or ideological goal.

Youth leaders and civil society organisations point out that the violence of the 1990s when the Bodo identity movement was at its peak, could be described as ethnic clashes, given the competition for scarce land and resources that was particularly acute then. The recent violence though, could possibly be called “terror strikes” since they have been carried out with the intent to shock and awe the authorities and the civilian populations that are seen as threats to militants’ freedom of manoeuvre. Further, unlike the earlier episodes when militant groups seemingly had some support outside their ranks, now there are very few people in the wider population who are willing to speak even the slightest in their support.

These are some of the positives of the current situation. Yet the situation of the adivasi communities in Assam remains precarious. This is poor testament for India’s commitment to the principles of equality and fair opportunity, since these are people who have been calling the state their home for several generations. The story of the adivasis of Assam is one of forced displacement and tremendous resilience against formidable odds. Well over a hundred years since they were settled in Assam and other parts of the north-east, it is time they were assured a fair deal.

  1. The Adivasis of Assam: a Brief History

The murderous attacks carried out on December 23 on adivasi communities in Assam’s northern districts were in themselves a deep human tragedy. Still greater as tragedy is the fact that the assault targeted one of the most oppressed and dispossessed communities in the entire north-eastern region, and indeed, all of India. This was not the first such attack which the community has endured, and it is unlikely to be the last. It is a measure of political and social disempowerment that their slaughter has not caused even a blip on the collective conscience of the country, let alone the rest of the world.

A meticulously researched paper by the University of Toronto scholar Jayeeta Sharma, recounts the grim history of the adivasi settlement as indentured labour in Assam since the mid-nineteenth century, which it characterises as an element of the great colonial capitalist enterprise.[1] The discovery that Chinese tea could flourish in the hills and plains of Assam led to the clearance of vast forest tracts for tea plantations. Whereas land for these plantations was available in abundance, the tea planters confronted the continuing challenge of finding hardy, submissive and industrious labour. Originally they relied briefly on labour imported from China, which was found unequal to the hard work required for clearing the thick jungle undergrowth. This gave way to the employment of workers from indigenous tribal communities like the Nagas, who they found sturdy and hard-working, and often willing to work in return for as little as some rice, shells and beads. But they worked when they chose, and refused to be regimented and controlled. The colonial tea planters experimented with other local tribes, but resistance to the iron discipline of tea gardens led them to search for other workers.

Around that time, tribal communities from the Chotanagpur plateau of Central India were recruited in large numbers to labour at dirt wages in burgeoning colonial enterprises such as sugar factories, indigo plantations and railway construction. These workers were resilient and acquiescent, quite able to meet the tough standards of labour the plantation owners sought. They were called coolies, and the colonial government assisted the planters with coolie indenture contracts, strengthened further by ruthless penal legislation. Sharma recounts that “Men, women, and children were sent from Central India, a long, difficult journey by steamers, roads, and later railways, into the jungles and gardens of Upper Assam. By the end of the nineteenth century, Chotanagpur labourers acquired the highest rank among Assam coolies. They became known as ‘Class I junglies’ in the planter’s lexicon”.

These indentured workers and their families were housed in cramped and poorly serviced workers’ lines. As Sharma records: “They were virtually imprisoned in the squalor of the housing lines and locked in at night. These migrants found themselves living in the middle of remote, forested terrain. They were allowed little or no contact with local villagers. Flight was almost impossible since ignorance of the terrain, coupled with bounties offered to hill people to track runaways with dogs ensured that the plantation existence had to be borne against all provocation”. To make matters worse, British planters were armed with penal powers of arrest of workers who tried to leave before their indenture contracts were completed. Plantations worked with their own system of legality.

The availability of large tracts of forest land attracted workers to Assam and induced them to remain even after their contracts ended. They cleared the forests to carve out paddy fields, and were also available as contract labour, called “faltus”, (or extras), during the peak plantation seasons. Settlements grew gradually in erstwhile forests in which indigenous tribal communities like the Bodos, former coolie adivasis, caste Hindu Assamese, and Nepali and new East Bengali settlers lived side by side. Their links with original homelands gradually snapped, although they spoke their native adivasi tongues, and learnt Assamese and often Hindi.

Conditions of virtual slave labour persisted right up to the 1920s, when a nationalist agitation led by Gandhi and C.F. Andrews finally put an end to the indenture system. But even though they were now nominally free, these workers remained submissive and severely exploited, and continued to work under near-colonial conditions of employment and housing even long after Independence.

It is estimated that the so-called “tea-tribes” today constitute between 15 and 20 percent of the population of Assam, but they survive with the poorest human development indicators in the state. The tea-tribes are not notified as Scheduled Tribes (ST) in Assam, though counterparts in Jharkhand and the central Indian tribal region enjoy this benefit. Adivasis in Assam are deprived of the benefits of reservations. Labour economist B. Saikia reported in 2008 that tea-garden labourers are typically paid wages lower than the minimum and even paid partly in kind.[2] Tea garden labour lines have been always kept under-developed and dependent for their basic survival needs on tea-garden managements. The underlying design is simple: even if nominally free, they are to be always on call to meet requirements of cheap labour.

Compared to the state average of out-of-school children in the 6-14 age group of 22 percent in 2002, the proportion in tea gardens was 43 percent. Teachers are employed by management and are often “part-time teachers” who work on the gardens for the remainder of the day. Child labour is highly prevalent, with children leaving school to work for a nominal wage. A 1990 government report estimated that children working in tea gardens constituted about 14 percent of the total labour force. Children were subjected to strenuous tasks such as carrying heavy loads, plucking, fertilisation and even working at the factories.

A 2007 study by the central government revealed a high incidence of under-nutrition among the Assamese adivasi communities. Among children, 59.9 percent were found to be underweight and 72 percent to be suffering from deficiency disorders like anaemia. Hypertension affected 45.9 percent of the population. This is caused in part by the high intake of salt by the community. To save costs, British plantation owners got workers used to drinking tea with salt, a practice which continues to the present day. Infectious diseases such as worm-infestation (65.4 percent) and pulmonary tuberculosis (11.7 percent) – both linked with poor hygiene and nutrition – are prevalent to a much higher degree than any control group. Over 40 percent of workers, in a survey, reported that they had no access to medical facilities.

A 2012 case study by Hazarika in the Jorhat tea gardens found that average daily earning per labourer was about Rs 84; over 64 percent women workers and 40 percent male workers were illiterate; 80 percent of married women had 5 children or more; and 40 percent did not have pucca houses. Although tap water was available, facilities for filtration were not. The study showed that living conditions of tea garden labour were extremely poor, highlighting their dependence on garden managements who were apathetic as a rule. Levels of literacy, awareness of contraception, quality of housing and availability of water were some of the indicators evaluated.[3]

The misfortunes of this oppressed and deprived people were compounded following the creation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council in 1993. In this region, indigenous tribal Bodos, Bengali Muslims and adivasi communities all constituted roughly equal proportions of the population. Waves of violence successively targeting Bengali Muslims and adivasis were unleashed by armed militants in a bid to establish an original ownership title over the land. Some of the most brutal attacks on adivasis were mounted between 1996 and 1998, at the peak of which 300,000 among them sought refuge in relief camps. Some of these camps have not been dismantled despite the passage of two decades, as adivasis live in an official state of limbo and have never managed to secure any kind of assistance from the state government or the local authorities, or the newly created territorial council, in seeking a life of dignity and security.

Custodians of the forests are against rehabilitating adivasis since this would in their estimation amount to a legalisation of encroachments. Without a formal notification as ST’s, they do not have the protection of the Forest Rights Act (FRA). In situations of displacement, resettlement procedures are determined by revenue status. Typically, the inhabitants of revenue villages and forest revenue villages are entitled to resettlement rights. Those deemed inhabitants of forest encroachments however, are cast into an official limbo.

Official policy at both the state government and the territorial council levels, mean that schools will not be built in areas deemed forest encroachments. In a land where living space is constricted by tea plantations on one side and protected forests on another, large numbers of people are finding themselves without a place where they can say they belong. With people of the Muslim faith, the same argument works in a different way: since the entire land is deemed to be under a “schedule”, they cannot claim any title over it.[4]

Indentured labour from the central Indian regions who were transported to countries like Fiji and Mauritius have today acquired education, economic strength and substantial political influence. As Sanjib Baruah, a scholar of the history and ethnic politics of the north-east reminds us, indentured workers from the central Indian plains were transported to Mauritius and Fiji at the same time as they were brought into the north-east of India. In many instances, the contractors who undertook the tasks of recruitment were the same.[5] In Mauritius and Fiji, the descendants of those indentured workers have now achieved power in a substantive sense: several have risen to the rank of Prime Minister. And in a standing reproach to the quality of India’s democracy, the gentle and industrious adivasis settled in Assam remain to this day exiles condemned to inhabit the outer margins of survival: exploited, malnourished, uneducated, and powerless pawns subject to wave after wave of targeted violence.

  1. The Bodo autonomy movement: a brief historical sketch

There is much that is unique in the political evolution of Bodoland and much that is shared with other parts of Assam and the wider north-east, where the typical response to the competing pulls of ethnicity has been to create a proliferating number of zones of supposed tribal autonomy.

Bodoland has been a reality on the political map since 1993, taking on a fresh definition in 2003. It is a reality that continues to be defined by various forces, both overt and covert, pushing their particular visions. Some of these groups have earned their credentials as dialogue partners of the state and central governments through acts of violence. And once these dialogues have begun, they have progressed under a shroud of secrecy and opacity.

The most recent spurt in violence is attributed to the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) led by I.K. Songbijit, a shadowy figure commonly believed to be from the Karbi ethnic community. The NDFB(S) as it is called, is itself a breakaway from the Ranjan Daimary faction, or the NDFB(R), which in turn emerged out of a 2005 schism.

The background to this last-named split is a story of how both concord and coercion have been elements in the history of Bodoland autonomy. An accord concluded in 2003 empowered one among several militant groups, the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) which soon afterwards secured control — through nominations at first and then through elections — over the newly created Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). While bringing some militants into the tent of political legitimacy, this alienated others and sharpened rivalries based in part on religious differences.

Recalcitrant elements were dealt with rather roughly when the Indian army soon afterwards in coordination with Bhutan, launched “Operation All Clear”, to confront and eliminate armed groups from the forests north of the Brahmaputra. A faction of the underground groups – which has since adopted the “progressive” appellation and is now known as the NDFB(P) – then accepted an offer of talks and entered into a truce with the central government. This faction was, even as large-scale violence erupted in Bodoland and the neighbouring district of Sonitpur on December 23 last year, engaged in talks with central interlocutors in Delhi, though with an agenda that remains unclear.

Ranjan Daimary’s faction in 2005 remained resolutely opposed to any manner of engagement with the state or central governments, underlining its resolve in October 2008 with a serial bombing in Guwahati and nearby urban areas which claimed close to a hundred lives. Following his 2010 capture in Bangladesh and subsequent transfer to India, the NDFB(R) declared a unilateral ceasefire in April 2011. Daimary in April 2013 was granted conditional bail. His militant group, the NDFB(R), in November 2013 entered into a “suspension of operations” agreement with the state and central governments. In all, 579 NDFB(R) cadre surrendered their firearms, which curiously, numbered no more than 40 pieces.[6]

Daimary’s bail was cancelled in September 2014 and he has since been in prison. His group remains in a state of suspension of operations, though doubts remain about the true extent of its separation from the Songbijit faction in operational decisions. By way of background, Songbijit was the military commander of the Ranjan Daimary faction till the 2011 ceasefire, when he declared he would go his separate way. The military logic by then had seemingly acquired its own momentum.

Bodoland’s political history is part of a story of militarised ethnicities that persists to this day. The movement began in peace but soon acquired a military dimension which has been in continuous mutation. On January 12, 1967, just a few weeks after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit to Shillong, then the capital of Assam, an official government statement announced that Assam and the wider north-east would be reorganised in accordance with the “federal principle”. Within a month, the Plains Tribes Council of Assam (PTCA) and the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) were formed to campaign for a state on the north bank of the Brahmaputra. The name they chose for the campaign was “Udayachal”, geographically specific, but ethnically neutral.[7]

Always consigned to official neglect, the north-east receded further in national attentions in the years of turbulence that followed – the Congress split, the 1971 war, the Emergency and the Janata interlude. Important territorial rearrangements were nonetheless effected through this period, all seemingly in conformity with the “federal principle”. Of the five autonomous districts created in Assam in 1952, the United Khasi-Jaintia Hills and Garo Hills were consolidated into Meghalaya state in 1972. The Lushai hills and North-East Frontier Agency were similarly redesignated as the union territories of Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, a preliminary to both being conferred full statehood in 1987. Two other autonomous districts were given explicitly ethnic appellations to replace geographically referential names: the Mikir Hills became the Karbi Anglong district in 1976. A demand for redesignating North Cachar Hills district after the Dimasa tribal grouping was concurrently emerging, though this was not formally conceded till 2010.

The PTCA joined the Janata government in 1978 and the Udayachal demand, subdued for a while, was soon engulfed in the Assamese identity movement of the 1980s. In a familiar action-reaction sequence, the Bodo identity emerged with greater political salience from this turbulence. In the assessment of some scholars, this was partly on account of active political encouragement from the centre, which saw the Bodo homeland demand as a way of undermining the aggressive assertion of Assamese identity.

The central government sued for peace in 1985, following which the leadership that had spearheaded the Assam movement came to power through a newly constituted political vehicle, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). The Bodo leadership was insistent in its opposition to Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which spoke of safeguards for the cultural identity of the Assamese people. Among other irritants was the AGP government decision, soon after it assumed office, to declare all forest settlements made after January 1, 1980 as illegal encroachments, which were to be reversed.[8] In 1987, the ABSU with Upendra Brahma as leader, launched its agitation on the basis of a 92-point charter of demands. PTCA stayed away from this agitation, holding the Congress responsible for “inciting ethnic passions and having a direct hand in the ABSU-led movement”. Targeted attacks on PTCA supporters were a feature of this phase of the ABSU agitation. These clashes, as Udayon Misra, a scholar of ethnicity and politics in Assam and the wider North-East put it in a 1989 article, “lent a fratricidal element to the Bodo agitation and… placed the two major Bodo organisations in an irreconcilable position…. Attacks on school buildings, bazaars and public buildings… had a negative effect even in the ABSU strongholds, not to speak of areas where the PTCA or other tribal organisations (held) sway”.[9]

Among the other plains tribes, substantial elements such as the Rabha, came out in opposition to the Bodo autonomy demand. Though often considered a part of the larger Bodo identity, the Rabha had apparently been alienated by the violent turn in the movement. The 1981 census had bypassed Assam because of the violent conditions in the state. Best figures available for the debate on Bodo autonomy were from the earlier census. Figures recorded in 1971 put the number of Bodo-speaking people at 530,000, i.e. 3.65 percent of Assam’s total population. And in Kokrajhar district, which was really their area of densest settlement, they numbered just about 28 per cent of total population, while all the plains tribes numbered 35 per cent. The organisational spearheads of the movement then – the Upendra Brahma faction of the ABSU and the United Tribal National Liberation Front (UTNLF) – refused to accept the census figures as anywhere near authentic, putting forward their own figure of 4.2 million as the plains tribal population, out of a total of 6.1 million in the districts north of the Brahmaputra.[10]

In a letter of October 1984, the Union Home Ministry placed on record its scepticism about these claims: “It (had) not been established that the plains tribal population constitutes a majority in (areas designated as the autonomous region). It has also not been possible to substantiate the inaccuracies pointed out in the 1971 census as regards alleged miscounting of tribal population. The demand, therefore, for a separate political unit does not appear to be in the larger interest of the plains tribals of the north eastern region as a whole”.[11]

There were other events in the wider north-east that did not attest to great consistency of principle on the part of the central government. Apart from the grant of full statehood to Mizoram in 1986, a sub-regional autonomy arrangement was finalised with the Gorkhaland movement in West Bengal. A ceasefire agreement with the Tripura National Volunteers was concluded at the same time, allowing them the opportunity to integrate into the mainstream political process.[12]

As the Bodo agitation gained force, the best the AGP government could offer was greater devolution under existing district administration and panchayati raj laws. In 1990, following an upsurge of violent attacks by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the AGP state government was dismissed and central rule imposed.

With the Congress winning Assam’s state assembly elections in 1991, the environment turned more favourable for the Bodo autonomy demand. Negotiations picked up momentum through 1992, but dragged on with no seeming prospect of decision, ostensibly on account of an absence of relevant demographic data. In October 1992, another wave of violence swept through the Bodo region, with a new force, the Bodo Security Force appearing on the scene as an actor. The Autonomous States Demand Committee (ASDC), which was then campaigning for statehood for the two southern Assam districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar, lent support to this demand, multiplying the pressures for a settlement.

An agreement signed in 1993 involving the Upendra Brahma faction of the ABSU and the wider coalition of the Bodo Peoples Action Committee (BPAC), came apart over details. The accord opened the way to a Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC), but left the territorial question undecided. Despite state assembly ratification of the accord, the territorial deadlock proved more difficult to dissolve. Faced with an impossible situation, the state government unilaterally imposed a decision covering 2,570 villages against the BPAC demand of 3,085, which was itself a radical rollback of ambition from an initial figure of 4,453. As political agitation and violence resumed, two new forces – the BLT and the NDFB — emerged on the scene.[13]

The issue boiled over soon after the AGP returned to power in state assembly elections in May 1996. Within days, Bodo militants began a series of attacks against adivasi villages. The trigger was the alleged killing of three Bodo women by adivasi militants, though later investigations revealed that the three were in fact Bhutanese sex workers whose bodies were dumped near an adivasi village to instigate revenge attacks.[14] Over 200 adivasi villagers were killed in this wave of violence, and 200,000 forced into camps for the internally displaced. Some continue to languish in these camps. As recounted by one such camp inmate to a researcher in 2007, the attacks happened without warning:

“This was around two o’clock in the afternoon… Suddenly we saw plumes of smoke and heard shooting from nearby villages. Before we even realised what was going on, a group of masked men dressed in black, came out of the jungle behind us. At first we thought we could handle them, but they had guns… We had no other option but to run and leave everything behind… Nothing could be saved.. they burnt and demolished our houses, looted our cattle and chopped down our trees. It was as if they wanted to erase every sign of us ever been there.”[15]

Other ethnic groups acquired their own armed vigilantes in this time. The Adivasi Cobra Militants of Assam, the Adivasi National Liberation Army, the Birsa Commando Force and the Santhal Tiger Force appeared on the scene, though without the lethal firepower that the NDFB and BLT seemed to have accumulated.[16] After a period of mounting violence, the BLT in 1999 declared a ceasefire in response to an offer of talks from the central government. Again, the negotiations acquired a fresh momentum after the AGP was voted out and the Congress assumed power in state assembly elections in 2001. In February 2003, a memorandum of settlement was agreed at a tripartite meeting involving the state and central governments and the BLT. Hagrama Mohilary, the BLT supremo, on December 6, 2003, led 2,641 armed cadre in a mass ceremony of laying down arms. The following day, an interim Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was formed with Mohilary as chief.[17]

A federation of 18 non-Bodo organisations in the designated area of the BTC united under the umbrella of the Sanmilita Janagosthiya Sangram Samiti (SJSS) to register their vehement opposition to the accord. It seemed that in conformity with an older pattern, a political accord designed to heal an older divide ended up creating new schisms. At the other end of the spectrum, the NDFB denounced the agreement as “an insult to the Bodo nation”. It was purportedly a “faulty pact that had the backing of a handful of opportunists and Bodo people with leanings towards Delhi”.[18] Under subsequent military pressure and the stresses generated by the Bangladesh government’s new attitude of cooperation with Indian security agencies, the recalcitrants in turn fissured, though the remnant bits retained sufficient capacity to inflict pain.

Among the grounds for the NDFB’s opposition were the supposed concessions made to the security of the region’s numerous ethnic groups, which in their perception, seemed a higher priority than Bodo welfare. One of the issues that called for immediate attention after the conclusion of the deal was that of rehabilitation and resettlement of the internally displaced. An estimate made at the time, quite contrary to the NDFB narrative, put the number of those displaced through the years of the Bodo agitation at 179,872, comprising 6,089 Bodo and 33,255 non-Bodo families.[19]

In clause 13, the BTC Accord explicitly made provision for a “Special Rehabilitation Programme” for persons displaced in the ethnic violence. The clause reads as follows:

“The Special Rehabilitation Programme (SRP) for the people affected by ethnic disturbances in Assam, who are at present living at relief camps in Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon etc. shall be completed by the Government of Assam with active support of BTC. Necessary funds for their rehabilitation shall be provided by the Government of India and lands which are free from all encumbrances required for such rehabilitation shall be made available by the BTC.”

Yet the problem of internal displacement through the decade-and-a-half of the Bodo autonomy movement and the sporadic incidents of insurgent violence it involved, has remained almost entirely unaddressed.

As it was finally agreed, the BTC embraced four districts – Kokrajhar, Udalguri, Baksa and Chirang. These were carved out of seven existing districts to aggregate villages of perceived Bodo concentration within a contiguous administrative area. Constituted as a 46-member body, the council reserved 30 seats for scheduled tribe (ST) communities and left ten seats open. The remaining six seats were to be filled by nomination from unrepresented communities.

Basic demographic data from the Bodoland districts would show that this representational arithmetic ran the risk of being less than fair to certain communities. ST communities as a percentage of the total population in Bodoland, number 37.1 percent in Chirang, 34.8 percent in Baksa, 31.4 percent in Kokrajhar and 32.1 percent in Udalguri. The predominant share within this demographic group is of the Bodo. Yet, a 65 percent reservation in representative institutions for communities whose cumulative share would not be more than 35 percent, may be perceived by others as a gross injustice. Statistics on the adivasi population in the Bodoland districts are not available since this is a community that inhabits a limbo in the official classification. But through the entire state of Assam, adivasis number an estimated 17 percent of the total population. In the Bodoland districts, they may well number about 20 percent of the population, as also in the upper Assam districts.

A breakdown of population in terms of religion is not available at the district level from the 2011 census. And the reorganisation of districts since the 2003 accord makes the figures from 2001 less than representative. But to consider the seven districts from which the Bodoland territory was carved out, the Muslim population ranges from a low of 15.9 percent in Sonitput district, to median figures of 35.4 in Darrang and 38.5 percent in Bongaigaon, to a high of 59.4 percent in Barpeta.

In whatever manner considered, the quantum of reservation for the STs, which is a category that the Assam adivasi community has for long been seeking to break into, but to no avail, represents a less than fair outcome for them and for the Muslims.

The Bodo cause is a just one but signs are abundant of the territorial autonomy experiment failing generating fresh fissures while failing to deliver substantive benefits. Yet the autonomous councils process remains the favoured policy, as attested by the number of such bodies created between 1993 and 2005 in Assam: Mishing, Rabha Hasong, Tiwa, Deori, Thengal Kachari and Sonowal Kachari.

A further democratic deficit arises from sub-clause 4.8 of BTC Accord, which abolishes the panchayati raj system within the council area and virtually bars the non-Bodo population from participating in the grassroots development process and decision making. When panchayati raj was brought into the scheduled areas through the Panchayat Extension in Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), it was abolished in the BTC jurisdiction. The relevant clause of the BTC accord reads as follows:

“In the event, panchayati raj system ceases to be in force in the council area, the powers of the panchayati raj Institutions in such matters shall be vested with the council”.

In 1960, a committee appointed by the Assam Governor had inquired into the functioning of the councils as they existed then. The final assessment was far from positive. The councils, the committee concluded, “suffered from an excess of clerical over field staffs and spent government subsidy meant for development purposes on administrative expenses. There was no adequate effort to increase revenue, no inspection of offices and coordination with the state government”. Another inquiry in 1966 returned a similar verdict: “there were serious complaints against the accounts of the councils”.[20] Subsequent experience has provided little ground for revising these early, unfavourable judgments. Yet as long as state and central governments remain within this mode of thought, the pressures from various other ethnic groups that have reason to feel alienated from governance processes, will remain unrelenting. New modes of imagining the challenge of ethnic diversity are clearly called for as the north-east suffers through unyielding and unremitting cycles of violence

  1. Recommendations

The fact finding team was distressed to encounter a community living in intense social and economic distress, with grave development deficits, highly insecure and demoralised after the recent organised attacks. Our recommendations proceed from immediate steps required to longer term interventions.

Relief: For around 70,000 persons still in camps, the state government needs to urgently improve services in the camps, particularly in light of the winter cold. The quality of tents and blankets, and food, health and sanitation services need urgent and significant upgrading. Some camps that we visited are very overcrowded, such as the one we visited in Saralpara where 9000 people from close to 51 villages were living on the day of our visit.

The fact finding team also observed with some dismay that the quality of services were very different for different affected communities. We recommend that given the repeated acts of violence in Assam, the state should lay down statutory standards of relief and rehabilitation, and these must apply in all cases without exception.

Security: The affected communities are extremely insecure after the attacks, especially because of the remoteness of their locations. Whereas a permanent presence of military personnel is not socially desirable, the security forces should not be withdrawn until affected communities feel completely secure.

The sense of security would also be heightened with a dedicated and systematic campaign for the genuine disarmament of all non-state groups in the region, beginning with the surrendered militants.

Investigation: We have observed that one of the major reasons for the recurrence of violent ethnic clashes is a long history of impunity for the attackers. In other words, beginning from the fatalities in the Assam agitation and the Nellie massacre of 1983, guilty persons have not been punished till now. As a result, conditions have not been created for ensuring that such killings do not recur. We recommend that all the criminal cases connected with the attacks be handed over to the newly created central body, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the state government render its full support for independent investigation.

Following a fact-finding exercise on the last serious outbreak of communal violence in the region in May 2014, a fact finding team that some of us were members of, recommended that victim-survivor statements should be recorded by a magistrate camping in the affected villages under Section 164 of the CrPC. We commend the steps taken by the state government along these lines, and urge that the same practice be adopted for the December 2014 attacks as well.

Rehabilitation: The state government has taken early steps to pay death compensation as well as compensation for destroyed houses. It should be ensured that residents are not prevented from rebuilding destroyed houses in old locations. The assistance of reputed social workers may be taken to assist the families which receive large quantities of cash compensation to use their grants wisely, making longer term investments such as in property or bank fixed deposits.

Likewise the state government should take the assistance of professionals and students from social work and medical institutions to extend community based psycho-social care to the affected households, especially to children, women and the aged.

The state government should also undertake large-scale works under the MG NREGA in all the affected villages to help the affected people get back to a normal life, and to also assist them with basic subsistence in this difficult time.

Development Deficits and Entitlements: The fact finding team found the communities living in extreme poverty, with obvious signs of malnutrition, and many narratives of distress migration and trafficking of young adolescents for domestic work. Matters are aggravated by the failure of almost any government programme to reach them. We found that most did not have ration-cards, and ration shops were located too far from the village. RTE was not implemented as the nearest primary schools to some of the settlements were as far as 7 kilometres. There were no ICDS centres in the adivasi villages. Most old people did not access pensions, and the majority of deliveries were still unprotected at home, with no ante- and post-natal check-ups, immunisation or maternity benefit payments. In the absence of land or other local livelihoods, and virtual non-functioning of MG NREGA, they were more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitative migration.

The Fact-Finding Team recommends that a detailed mapping is undertaken of adivasi settlements, and these basic food and social protection entitlements, mandated both by the Supreme Court and the NFSA are ensured to them in a time-bound fashion. A more detailed and in-depth study of the development deficits and denials of entitlements of the adivasi settlements across the state should also be undertaken, so that a medium and long-term special plan is prepared to ensure that their situation is improved sustainably over time.

In fact there are many communities who are living across Assam in camps, many unrecognised by the state government, sometimes for many years. These include adivasis, Bengali Muslims, Bodos and persons of other communities. A full mapping of all such internally displaced persons in camps is imperative, to ensure to start with that their basic food and social protection entitlements, mandated both by the Supreme Court and the NFSA are ensured to them in a time-bound fashion.

Long-term Measures: A major source of the conflicts as well as the pauperisation of the adivasi communities in Assam relate to their fragile economic conditions born from exploitative conditions within tea-gardens and failures to secure land-titles of lands occupied by them in reserve forest areas outside. The adivasi people are denied ST status, and the benefits of the Forest Rights Act. These are issues which need to be carefully studied, and solutions found. The longer they fester without resolution, the longer the vulnerability to marginalisation and violence will persist.

There also needs to be better protection of the labour and food security rights of workers within tea-gardens, who are mainly from the adivasi community.

The state government should also play a proactive role in facilitating peace initiatives, and also supporting those which are being undertaken by the locals and the student unions.

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