Inside Assam’s relief camps…

Refugees from hate crowded in sparse makeshift spaces, cradling subdued, bewildered children. Sunken eyes, haunted with fear and grief. Reeking toilets, makeshift open stoves on bricks, a single change of clothes received in charity. Private sorrow exposed for public exhibition. Quiet weeping, nightmares, heavy silences laden with terrifying memories — of murderous mobs, burning homes, betrayal, loss and overnight destitution. Restive young people, whispering menacingly of fantasies of revenge. Dread, the unseen presence in every corner of the camp, battling the aching longing to return home.

I have seen many relief camps — too many, indeed, for several lifetimes. Camps which housed the survivors of the anti-Sikh carnage of 1984, persons attacked during the Babri agitation of the late 1980s and early 90s, people driven out of their homes by the brutal massacre in Gujarat in 2002, and by waves of violence against various ethnic groups in Assam.

More than 200 relief camps sprang up after ferocious violence convulsed Bodo regions this monsoon, driving nearly five lakh people from their homelands. I travelled recently to eight camps in Dhubri, Chirang and Kokrajhar districts of Lower Assam.

Similar stories

The narratives of the Bengali Muslim and Bodo refugees which I heard in these camps strikingly mirrored each other. They talked of neighbours of the ‘other’ community suddenly turning foes, burning their homes and fields, and looting their cattle and chicken. Some young men were shot or hacked to pieces. None acknowledged that men of their community had also attacked the ‘other’; they saw people of their community only as victims, not simultaneously as perpetrators of atrocities and arson. Such selective memory is intrinsic to the grammar of siege in relief camps everywhere.

There were the same terrible stories of flight, through dark nights, fugitives hiding in fields and forests, crossing swollen rivers, dreading fresh attacks. A woman wept as she recounted running for two days in her ninth month of pregnancy. She was nursing her emaciated baby born in the camp.

The one major difference in the stories told by the two communities was that the Bengali Muslims charged that the police deliberately stood by when they were attacked. “We have no orders to protect you”, they told the victims.

The camps were lodged in schools and college buildings; sometimes a few classrooms and a courtyard were temporary home to a few thousand people. Unlike in Gujarat in 2002, the Assam state government assumed full responsibility for the camps, and its officials coped with the sudden explosion of four to five lakh refugees. The state supplied food, a little money for utensils and clothes, and ensured primary health protection. But the camp residents complained that they could not live on just bare rice and dal everyday; they needed at least a plastic sheet to sleep on and mosquito nets; and the camps desperately required many more toilets and clean drinking water, the lack of which threatened epidemic outbreaks, of cholera, gastro-enteritis and malaria.

The state and humanitarian agencies — the latter culpably absent so far — must help people return and rebuild their homes, schools and livelihoods. From the peak of nearly five lakh residents in the camps, the numbers thinned to about half by the end of August 2012, when I visited the camps. But the official count of 2.35 lakh internal refugees still reflects a continuing, enormous humanitarian emergency. Those who returned are people who fled in fear but their homes were not destroyed. However, those whose habitats were set aflame and houses destroyed cannot think of returning home soon.

Teams of young men and boys from both Bodo and Bengali Muslim communities keep day and night vigil at their settlements, often brandishing arms. The entire region resembles a war zone. Armed soldiers patrol the regions, and a stray round of gun-fire or a stealthy assault with knives, or even rumours, are enough to set off a fresh round of arson and blood-letting.

Most affected

Children suffer a triple whammy. There are no arrangements to study in the camps, and most students lost their books to the fires that consumed their homes. Since most camps are housed in schools and colleges, local students cannot study. And adolescent boys and youth are recruited and armed to guard their villages.

Former Bodo militants flaunt automatic weapons, and there is evidence of a growing radicalisation of Bengali Muslim youth, reflected in violent protests and intemperate speeches. The major political parties — the weak-kneed Congress, the BJP, the AIUDF and the AGP — are all fishing in troubled waters. In this dangerous maelstrom, hotheads from both sides are holding maximalist positions. Bodos insist that Bengali Muslims must prove their Indian citizenship before they are ‘allowed’ by them to return to their villages. Bengali Muslims on the other hand demand the disbanding of the Bodo Tribal Council.

There are legitimate anxieties among the Bodo people that they will be culturally swamped and economically subordinated in their own historic homelands. At the same time, Bengali Muslims claim — and independent demographers bear them out — that the large majority of them are lawful Indian citizens; still, all Bengali Muslims are demonised as illegal ‘foreigners’. The descendants of Santhal tea garden labour brought in centuries back by colonial plantation owners and missionaries inhabit Bodo regions and have nowhere else to go. Many other indigenous tribal and caste-Hindu groups live here as well, part of the colourful tapestry of this achingly beautiful land.

I believe that a large silent majority on both sides of the dispute are ready for a peaceful search for solutions. They recognise that due legal process cannot be accomplished at gunpoint. People must first be assisted and supported to return home. We must find ways to disarm all civilians; rein in communal and violent elements; effectively seal international borders; and establish effective, transparent and lawful ways to identify illegal immigrants. But the long haul is to rebuild trust; and to affirm the rights of different people to live together, in Assam and in India, with mutual respect, while protecting local cultures and economies.

Without all of this, Assam will continue to bleed. And refugees from hate will search endlessly for a safe homeland.