The victims of Bodo-Muslim violence are unable to pick up the pieces of their lives in the face of poor government aid and malicious political campaigns
Three and a half months after violent clashes between Bodo and Muslim factions in Kokrajhar and neighbouring districts in western Assam led to the displacement of nearly 4.85 lakh people, as many as 36,576 displaced persons (including 33,147 Muslims and 3,429 Bodos) are still languishing in sub-human conditions at 80 relief camps, desperately awaiting their turn to return home. While violence in July and August claimed 97 lives, six lives have been lost in the past six days as violence has revisited Kokrajhar.
The Assam government is projecting the decline in the numbers in relief camps as a reflection of the progress made in the rehabilitation process and a sign of peace returning to Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) areas under the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). A closer look at the situation on the ground, however, reveals a different picture — one of a humanitarian crisis overshadowing the rehabilitation process and threatening to expose new faultlines in the BTAD areas.
A large number of families whose houses were burnt and properties looted or destroyed during the clashes and who have returned to their villages with the hope of rebuilding their lives, are yet to receive the rehabilitation grant of Rs.22,700 for each family and other material support, including 21 pieces of tin sheeting, six bamboo poles and a tarpaulin sheet for construction of makeshift shelters and one month’s ration of rice, dal and salt. Those who have received the aid face the problem of making both ends meet as the rehabilitation support is extremely inadequate when compared to the loss of property and livelihood support. With only a blanket and no woollens, the advancing winter has only made matters worse.
As the Assam Relief Manual 1976 is still being updated and the State is yet to formulate an official policy to address the issues of conflict-induced displacement of people, some critical components of rehabilitation like providing livelihood support to conflict-hit families are missing and the official rehabilitation activities have so far remained limited to handing out cheques and material for makeshift shelters.
The majority of the affected families are farmers who have lost their cattle, ploughs and shallow tubewell pumpsets to looting during the clashes. Though the Assam government promised a scheme to assist affected families, no concrete help could be noticed in many villages. This, despite the fact that more than two to three weeks have already elapsed since the return of the displaced families from relief camps and the current agricultural season is almost going to be missed. Many of these families who failed to sow their fields due to the violence cannot expect any produce for the next six months unless the government quickly intervenes and helps them resume agricultural activities to ensure that the current sowing season is also not missed.
In the light of this hopeless situation, some of the affected villages are now witnessing the outward migration of people to Guwahati and other urban centres. In the weeks and months ahead, their numbers can only swell, further vitiating an atmosphere that is already toxic with anti-migrant rhetoric.
The BTAD areas are still gripped by tension over rehabilitation of the displaced with the BTC (run by Bodoland People’s Front, the coalition partner of the ruling Congress in Assam) authorities, various Bodo bodies as well as political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party, Asom Gana Parishad and student bodies like the All Assam Students’ Union raking up the issue of undocumented migration and raising the demand for screening of affected families taking shelter in relief camps before rehabilitating them. They have been alleging the presence of a large number of undocumented migrants among the Muslims displaced from BTAD areas. This led the Assam government to screen the displaced by asking them to produce land certificates to establish their residential status at the time of the clashes. Only those families are being rehabilitated whose credentials have thus been vetted by the BTC authorities.
Fate in the balance
The fate of several thousand displaced who do not have any land certificate (patta) is still hanging in the balance as the Assam government and the BTC authorities are yet to agree on alternative documents which these families can submit for verification of their antecedents during phase II of the rehabilitation process. Another source of threat to the fragile peace is the political campaign now sweeping through the region in which Bodos are being urged to end any dependence on Muslims.
This new faultline must be countered if there is to be hope of permanent peace in the Bodo heartland. And the only way to do it is for the government and peacemakers to ensure the speedy and proper rehabilitation of all those displaced by this summer’s violence and facilitate dialogue between the two communities all the way down to the village level.