In Kokrajhar and neighbouring districts of Assam, almost every person is able to recount incidents of communal and ethnic violence. Ever since the struggle of the Bodos for a separate homeland began in the mid-1980s, the western parts of the State have witnessed several clashes between the Bodos and other communities.
Through the Bodo Accord of 1993 and then through the constitution of the Bodoland Territory Areas District (BTAD) in 2003, attempts were made to bring some semblance of order in the region. The Bodos were given control over the BTAD through the constitution of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).
Social tensions have, however, prevailed as issues of land rights, migration, ethnicity and religion have been used by vested groups to fan acrimony and stir up violence. This time it was no different. As the ethnic-communal tensions between Bodos and Muslims flared, many rushed to pin the blame on one or the other.
But on the ground no one cared to listen to argument and reason to know if this time too, as in the past, the violence was spontaneous or orchestrated by a third party.
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Kokrajhar following the Bodo-Muslim violence in three of the four districts of BTAD and the adjoining district of Dhubri, BTC chief Hagrama Mohilary made a representation to him accusing the Oboro Suraksha Samiti of fomenting trouble in the area as part of the conspiracy of forces which wanted to scuttle the plans for a separate Bodoland State and which were keen on dissolution of the Council. Dr. Singh declared that an impartial enquiry would be conducted and “if the conflict has been instigated, the guilty must be punished.”
What few noticed was that earlier, on May 24, Mr. Mohilary had accused Congress BTC member Kalilur Rehman of creating communal tension in Goreswar. He had also criticised Mr. Rehman, who represents the Turibari constituency, as “playing a destructive role” in seeking “to divide Bodos and non-Bodos.”
Observing that Mr. Rehman was the main person behind the formation of the Oboro Suraksha Samiti, Mr. Mohilary had noted that he would be urging the State Congress leadership to expel him.
The Congress government in the State led by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi did not catch the import of the message quickly and the situation worsened. The killing of two Muslims on July 6, followed by another murderous assault on Mohibul Islam of the All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union (ABMSU) and Abdul Siddique Sheikh of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union in Kokrajhar on July 19 and the killing of four Bodo youths in retaliation the following day, led to a chain of attacks and counter-attacks.
Kokrajhar Deputy Commissioner Donald Gilfellon had on July 21 described the four Bodo youth as “reformed militants.” The local Army had stated that these youth, who were riding motorcycles and were armed, were former cadre of the Bodo Liberation Tigers which had been absorbed into the mainstream after the 2003 accord. They had actually surrendered their weapons to the police and were being escorted out in a vehicle when a mob forced them out of the vehicle and lynched them.
The Muslim residents were agitated because of random killings by similar motorcycle-borne youth, which have been the bane of the region for several years now. Last year, in the wake of some such killings in Kokrajhar, the Superintendent of Police actually imposed a ban on the use of helmets by two-wheeler riders.
Rather than being defiant, almost all the major Bodo leaders — Deputy Chairman of the BTC Kampa Borgoyri, U.G. Brahma of the Bodoland Peoples’ Progressive Front and president of the All Bodo Students Union Pramod Boro — that The Hindu spoke to stated that the involvement of Bodos in the killings of the Muslim student activists had not been established and yet they were being targeted.
However, Moinul Haq, founder-president of the All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union, whose brother Mohibul Haq was among the two shot on July 19, squarely blamed the Bodo groups for the attack.
Asked why the non-Bodo forces have been seeking dissolution of the Bodoland Territorial Council, All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) president Maulana Badaruddin Ajmal accused the BTC administration of involvement in the Bodo-Muslim violence and alleged that this was being done to “make the non-Bodo population less than 50 per cent of the total population of BTC controlled areas.”
Mr. Ajmal insisted Bodo militants were also involved by the administration in the ethnic violence and demanded the seizure of all legal and illegal arms from the BTC area to curb more killings.
The AIUDF said the Bodos constitute just 29 per cent of the population in the BTAD, which comprises Kokrajhar, Chirang and Baksa — that witnessed violence — as also Udalaguri district, but want dominant control over the entire region.
Leaders of non-Bodo groups such as Rajbongshi, Adivasis and Bengalis are also sceptical of the real intention of the BTC.
They nevertheless do not rule out an economic aspect to the whole problem.
“On the face of it, full Statehood for the region would mean more funds for the development of this area, which has already gained ever since the BTAD was carved out in 2003 following the Bodo accord and its administration was handed over to the BTC under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. But it should be ensured that all communities gain and no one is discriminated against,” said social worker Bijoy Krishna Roy.
Many of the non-Muslim, non-Bodos are also concerned that the constitution of a full State would compromise their security.
Right now the police and security forces are controlled from Guwahati and ethnic communities which have had confrontations with Bodos in the past are not comfortable with the idea of the local police being entirely controlled by them.
On the other hand, they also agree that full Statehood would mean greater development of the region as has been witnessed since 2003. It would also bring Central funds straight into the region and enable it to collect taxes from all vehicles bound for the ‘Seven Sister States’.
In the present instance, these non-Bodo groups blame the State government for not acting quickly and thereby precipitating the crisis. “The government did not bother to look into the concern being expressed by Hagrama, who is a plain-speaking man with a good heart,” said Lakhindra Rai, adviser of the All BTAD Koch Rajbongshi Sanmiloni. The Rajbongshis constitute about 15 per cent of the BTAD population.
The Rajbongshis, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s had their own set of problems with the Bodos, also agree that over the past six months a concerted attempt was being made by some non-Bodo groups to incite other communities against the Bodos.
Mr. Rai said: “This area of Kokrajhar has a history of sporadic incidents of firing by one group on the other and both Bodos and Muslims have fallen prey in the past.” This time, he acknowledged that while the Bodos kept insisting that the attacks on Muslims were not their handiwork, no one listened to them.
He also insisted that the manner in which the four Bodo youths were hacked to death and their heads smashed with stones triggered the bloodbath. The Adivasis in the area, who again comprise nearly a sixth of the population and had waged a long and bloody struggle against the Bodo groups in the 1990s, also insist that the need of the hour is to provide security to the displaced people, ensure speedy rehabilitation and development, and give land rights to all non-Bodos.
Santhal leader Durga Hazda, who was chairman of the Bisra Commando Force and who still heads the 600-odd armed cadres of the force, recalled how the Adivasi-Bodo clashes had started with the dumping of the bodies of some Nepali girls from Bhutan in the Adivasi areas and the resultant anger being used to target the community.
With the creation of a separate Bodoland not being in the interest of the Assam government, as it would mean lesser administrative and financial control in the hands of Guwahati, Mr. Hazda said the killings now too should be seen in the light of who actually gained from them.