In the Bodo village of Malgaon in Kokrajhar, Monish Musahari has just returned from a relief camp, to scenes of ruin. He shows us the remnants of his fair price shop: Charred canisters of kerosene, bottles of hair oil. “They were a mob of 4,000-5,000. I didn’t recognise most of them.” He points, with bewilderment, across lush paddy fields. “Some of them came from there – Solmari”. And how was it before, with the Muslims of Solmari? “It was good. Very good.”
At Solmari, there is a strange stillness. Most of the village has emptied out fearing Bodo retaliation. At our presence, a small crowd gathers. They say they had no role in attacking their neighbour. “We don’t know who it was.” To the question of how it was before with the Bodos, the same answer: “It was good. We used to visit each other’s villages often.”
Who is responsible for turning neighbour against neighbour? Bodo vs Muslim? Violence of this scale suggests that beneath the surface of coexistence, tensions seethed. All it took was someone to light the spark. Culpability rests, in varying degrees, with the three main actors of Bodoland.
First, those who run the administrative unit known as Bodoland Autonomous Council —four districts, Chirang, Baksa, Kokrajhar and Udalgiri – carved out of a strip of western Assam. Formed in 2003, it is headed by Hagrama Mohilary, former boss of the militant Bodo Liberation Tigers who fought a violent agitation for a separate Bodo state in the mid-nineties. They gave up the gun in 2003 but nagging doubts have persisted over their commitment to reflect the interests of all of Bodoland’s communities — Muslims, Santhal tribals, Bengali speaking Hindus – not just of Bodos. When we met the blunt-speaking and shaven-headed Hagrama at his party office in Kokrajhar town, there was little trace of political statesmanship. Instead, he articulated the Bodo paranoia of a ‘takeover’ of their land by illegal Muslim migrants. He cites a figure of two lakh ‘illegals’. Where is the proof? No one – the chief minister, the police, or the border agencies — denies illegal migration, but suggest that it is more a trickle than a deluge. This is borne out by the 2001 and 2011 census figures, which find a population growth in the 4 Bodoland districts no higher than other parts of Assam. When I point this out to him, Hagrama directs me to the revenue department, which comes under the council. In a shockingly partisan exercise, they have been tasked to survey the extent of land encroachment by Muslim settlers, and have come up with a figure of 76,563 acres of land encroached by 38,209 families. These are the illegal migrants, Hagrama says. I point out that this is a hugely controversial claim. Encroachment is no proof of nationality. Hagrama casually shifts the goalpost. He says it’s no longer about nationality, only about land ownership. “Whether they are Indian or Bangladeshi Muslims, it doesn’t matter. We won’t let them return from relief camps unless they have the land pattas (documents).” These veiled threats have fuelled suspicion that the leadership of the Bodo Council may have had a hand in the violence to achieve its goal of ousting Muslims from their homes and villages. Four ex-cadre of Hagrama’s former outfit, the Bodo Liberation Tigers, have been arrested for the shooting and killing of three Muslims in Raniguli village in Kokrajhar. More directly, the people of Bangalipara relief camp for Muslims in Dhubri allege that Pradeep Brahma, MLA from Kokrajhar West of Hagrama’s party, led the mobs, shooting from his Bolero vehicle. (Hagrama has denied this allegation). These cases are now before the CBI, which has been tasked with investigating the organised/conspiracy dimension to the riots.
Culpability also vests with state and central governments, both coincidentally headed by the Congress. For starters, the Congress is an ally of Hagrama’s party. Surely there is scope for leverage to rein in the divisive statements and actions of Bodoland’s ruling regime. More fundamentally, both the Centre and state need to get serious about repairing the abysmal law and order machinery meant to tackle illegal immigration. The task of monitoring “foreigners” vests with the border branch of the Assam police, a force of 3,500, headed by a DIG rank officer. Cases detected of doubtful nationality are put up to the Foreigners Tribunal, one in each district. The tribunal in Kokrajhar is a bamboo shed attached to the irrigation department. On the day we visited, retired Justice PK Brahmo was sitting outside, fanning himself because of a power cut, completing the air of official apathy. In the six years since its inception, they have only found 22 foreigners. The judge says that the moment a notice is served against a suspected foreigner, the person simply relocates, and the case stagnates. The number of pending cases before all the Foreigners Tribunals is a whopping 3 lakh. No wonder that since 1986, only 2,400 deportations have taken place from Assam. Political will to enforce the rule of law will give credence to Congress denials of secretly benefiting from the migrant vote. And give Bodo leaders little room for vigilante politics.
Finally, there is enough reason to suspect dangerous political opportunism by Bodoland’s Muslim leadership. The creation of the Bodo Council has been paralleled by the rise of the All Bodo Muslims Students Union (ABMSU) and the AIDUF, formed by controversial businessman-turned-politician Badruddin Ajmal. Both are competing — with increasing stridency — to be the sole protector of Bodoland’s Muslims. Police statistics show that the ABMSU held 13 bandhs from January right up to the current crisis. The IG Police, Kokrajhar, told us that Bodos were the frequent targets of these bandhs, creating a climate of extreme friction. The accusation against Ajmal, the MP from Dhubri, bordering Kokrajhar, runs deeper. While his own voters insist the violence is not religious, but a fight over land, Ajmal has had no reservations in clearly positioning the Assam riots as communal in nature, organising countrywide protests with Muslim organisations. This may suit his pan-Indian political ambitions, but it worsens animosities in his home turf.
Unless all three actors demonstrate greater responsibility, the tinderbox of Bodoland is bound to erupt again. And as already evident, the flames can rapidly spread outwards, from Assam to Bangalore to Bombay.
Sreenivasan Jain is Managing Editor, NDTV. He anchors the ground reportage show, Truth vs Hype, on NDTV 24x7.