Illegal arms and political games keep the violence alive
While the state has failed to rehabilitate the July riot victims, Kokrajhar erupts again. Ratnadip Choudhury reports
Of wounds past A burnt school building of the July-August riots
Photo: Vivek Singh
BAJUGAON IS a village of Gossaigaon sub-division of the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) of Assam, one of the worst-affected areas in the ethnic riots between Bodo tribals and Muslims in July-August this year. Four months after the violence, which left around 100 dead and more than 5 lakh displaced, the people were slowly returning to their villages — or to new relief camps near their villages — to harvest the paddy in the fields. Poor villagers, Muslims and Bodos alike, were making efforts to start life anew, when violence erupted again in Kokrajhar. This time, the casualty, albeit controlled, seems to have driven a wedge deeper into the trust deficit between the two communities.
Ainal Sheik, 38, had lost everything to the riots. Like his neighbours from Bajugaon, he moved with his family to a relief camp at Howraipet, near their village in Dhubri district, where they stayed for three months. On 10 November, Ainal and his friend Shahjahan Talukdar, 34, were working in their rice fields near Bajugoan, when unknown miscreants surrounded them. While Shahjahan narrowly escaped getting shot, Ainal was shot dead from point-blank range. “I can identify the killers,” says Shahjahan. “They were local cadres of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). I have given their names to the police, but there has been no action as yet.”
Sheik’s death was the beginning of a fresh killing spree; within a week, Kokrajhar district has counted 10 dead and several injured in clashes. The result is that both communities find themselves back where they were four months ago. Indefinite curfew, massive security deployment and a crackdown by the police have returned to Kokrajhar.
Fear has again started making its presence felt in every nook and cranny in the district, and tensions have flared up with the sensational arrest of top Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF) leader Mano Kumar Brahma. The police raided Brahma’s house and found two illegal AK series rifles and 60 magazines. Brahma, a former rebel of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and an executive member of the Bodoland Territorial Council (equivalent of a Cabinet rank), a close aide of BPF supremo Hagrama Mahilary, also the chief of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). The BPF has been an ally of the ruling Congress government in Assam for three consecutive terms.
Brahma’s arrest has opened up a longstanding debate in the Northeastern state regarding the easy availability of illegal arms in the BTAD areas. In 2003, 2,600 BLT rebels surrendered to sign the Bodoland Accord. According to Assam government sources, less than 1,000 weapons, mostly country-made, were surrendered. The Tarun Gogoi government did not question the rebels about their automatic weapons, owing to what was seen as political compulsions; the Congress needed the Bodos’ political support in BTAD areas.
Today, the Congress finds itself in a more comfortable position. Gogoi no longer needs Hagrama’s support, and can ill afford to be seen as doing nothing, particularly after two back-to-back outbreaks of ethnic violence in the area. Sources reveal the CM had sent word to Hagrama that the BPF must “exercise restraint” after the July-August riots. The arrest of Brahma is an indication of the government’s seriousness. Earlier, BPF MLA Pradeep Brahma was also arrested for involvement in the riots. He is now out on bail, but Gogoi maintains that Bodo rebels are behind the recent violence.
“The BTAD is flooded with illegal arms,” says Assam DGP Jayanto Narayan Choudhury. “These come from Dimapur, Bihar and West Bengal. At least 100 automatic weapons and many more country-made guns are in circulation. We have launched a crackdown and no one will be spared.”
Interestingly, it is not only the Bodos who possess guns. According to the police, Muslim settlers in the region, who live a hand-to-mouth existence, are also arming themselves. On 15 November, Nirishan Basumatary, a Bodo vendor, was shot dead at Tilipara under the Gossaigaon sub-division, and the police claim to have found that some Muslim youth were involved.
Kokrajhar has had a troubled past with weapons. The area has been a major arms transshipment route. Military Intelligence sources say even the Maoists have used the route to smuggle weapons. Smaller outfits like the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation and other extremist Adivasi organisations have also been known to use this route to get their weapons.
While the state government admits that illegal migrants did settle on forestland in the BTAD, the fear of a minority takeover has been gnawing at the Bodos. A growing battle for agricultural land has since ensued between the two agricultural communities. At a time when the call for a separate Bodoland is renting the air in Assam once again, the rise in the Muslim population is also causing a lot of concern to the Bodos. The situation is just right for any inflammatory speech or, worse, one targeted killing, to spark off another riot.
However, Bodo leaders are calling Brahma’s arrest a “political conspiracy” by the Congress. “All information about illegal arms was available with the police and the government earlier. Why are they acting only now?” asks BPF Rajya Sabha MP Biswajit Diamary. “One cannot blame only the rebels, because they surrendered through a government policy. Why were they not disarmed then?”
The BPF has also hinted at “secret killers” being behind the recent killing spree, but has interestingly not snapped off ties with the Congress yet.
In this game of targeted killings, illegal weapons and political chess, the biggest casualty is the ordinary citizen staring at a dreary future. As Shahjahan puts it: “First they tried to drive us from our land, now they are not allowing us to cut our harvest. They are killing us economically.”
Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.