Fears and vulnerabilities run deep in Assam’s refugee camps

The ethnic violence in lower Assam has abated, but the fault lines exposed by the clashes remain. The divide resulted in a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions, rendering lakhs of people homeless. It also drove a wedge between Muslims and Bodos, who had lived side by side in the region for decades.

The rioting and the massive displacement that followed, shattered the trust between the two groups. The collective psyche remains wounded.

The most pertinent question at the moment is perhaps whether the two groups would be able to bridge the divide and start life afresh by returning to their homes from refugee camps spread across districts including Kokrajhar, Chirang, Bongaigaon and Dhubri. Nearly six weeks after the violence set off the movement of people, there are no ready answers.

Had it not been for bandhs called by organisations such as the Bajrang Dal on August 27 and the All Assam Minority Students’ Union the following day, that sparked fresh violence, the situation in the refugee camps may well have been different. Many of the camp inmates were contemplating a gradual and guarded return back home, when in the last week of August renewed tensions and another wave of panic swept through them. Owing to the fresh spell of violence, even many of those who had returned to their villages or taken shelter in adjoining villages were forced to flee for a second time.

Beyond holding out assurances and promises, the administration has been unable to instil confidence among those in the camps and persuade them to return. The fear of a recrudescence of violence haunts most of those in the camps. Appeals from leaders from both sides trying to reach out to them and encourage them to go back home have mostly fallen on deaf ears.

Land, the issue

They continue to feel vulnerable and sceptical even as Bodo and Muslim leaders visit the camps and urge them to put the scorched memories behind them. They are invariably assured that things are returning to normal in their villages, that peace is back and that all illegal weapons have been seized.

But doubts remain in the tormented minds. Those whose houses were razed to the ground are the most reluctant to leave the camps — simply because they have no homes to go back to. The others, whose homes were spared, remain a wary lot, eager to get back but not as yet sure whether it would be safe to do so.

The overwhelming concern expressed by a delegation of MLAs and MPs, its members handpicked by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, that visited the camps was that the longer the victims stay in camps, the more difficult it would be for them to return. For there is always the likelihood of encroachers usurping their homes and their fields that lie abandoned. Land is indeed a key issue involved here.

Camps, after all, cannot be a permanent residence.

The Assam government’s intent in adopting an approach that is empathic rather than overly dependent on force, has the backing even of the Opposition parties. But till now, although many have returned home (till September 3, according to official estimates 2.42 lakh people have returned home from camps), the government’s initiatives have not fully yielded the desired results.

Gripped by fear, some of those in the camps say they would never return to their villages. Instead, their hope is that the government would arrange for their rehabilitation in areas where there is a strong and reassuring presence of people of their own community.

With every passing day, the anger in the camps against the administration for having failed to protect them and their homes seemed to give way to despair and gloom. Resigned to their fate, some say life would never be the same again. There is a sense of loss that pervades their questions. “Why should we fill forms?” “What happens to those among us whose identity documents were destroyed in the fire when our houses were attacked, or just left behind?” “Will my land or house be allocated to someone else if I do not return?” The apprehensions reflect their vulnerabilities. Their anxieties are writ on their furrowed brows. There is a pattern in the location of the camps. They are separated by distance but share the same fate. While most of the camps for Bodos are in Kokrajhar district where there is a high concentration of people of the community, a majority of Muslims are in camps in the adjoining Dhubri district where the minority population is predominant.

But even in the midst of such adversity, there has grown a fraternal solidarity among the camp inmates — a bonding that comes with shared suffering. They may be in cramped confines but each finds refuge in the other — there is no fear of another attack from the other side. There is also the odd moment of celebration when a child is born or a couple united in marriage. Suddenly despondency gives way to hope. But before long the fears are back again.

The toll that Assam’s ethnic clashes have taken has indeed been heavy. But as in every act of violence there is also the silent victim whose story goes largely unheard. Just as the children in the refugee camps do not know whether they can go back to their schools in the villages, the students of schools that have been converted into camps have no idea when classes would resume.

shivsahay.s@thehindu.co.in

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