Trucks loaded with women, children, mattresses and bags of rice rolled into a refugee camp in India's northeastern Assam state on Thursday as security forces tried to stamp out some of the worst communal violence in a decade with shoot-on-sight orders.
The death toll from clashes between Bodo tribespeople and Muslim settlers has risen to 44, Assam's chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, said after police reported finding more bodies overnight. Police also opened fire on groups armed with sticks and spears for violating a curfew. Fearing for their lives, tens of thousands of Muslims and Bodos have fled their homes in remote hamlets along the border with Bhutan, and sought shelter in camps in larger towns.
Roving armed bands have set ablaze hundreds of tin-roofed homes, many made of hay and clay, in the nearly week-long orgy of violence. Gogoi said 200,000 people had been displaced by the fighting. The relief camp in a school in the town of Bijni is just one of nearly 60 hastily set up to cope with the flood of refugees, officials said.
Many of the camps lack food, water and security. Angry refugees surrounded a group of state lawmakers visiting the Bijni camp on Thursday and demanded they take action. "Go back, go back," they chanted. The lawmakers, clearly rattled by the encounter, cancelled plans to visit another camp and returned to the state capital with a security escort.
"There is no security at all," complained Habibur Rahman, 45, who fled to Bijni school camp earlier this week along with his parents, sister, wife and daughter.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who represents Assam in parliament's upper house, may fly to the area on Saturday, his office said. Ringed by China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan, India's northeast is home to more than 200 ethnic and tribal groups and has been racked by separatist revolts since India's independence from Britain in 1947.
In recent years, Hindu and Christian tribes have vented strong anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment against settlers from mostly Muslim Bangladesh, which neighbours Assam. The Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a government-funded think tank in New Delhi, said the government's failure to develop a coherent policy to deal with the ethnically volatile region meant Assam would remain vulnerable to ethnic clashes and communal tensions in the near future.
The latest violence erupted days after floods killed more than 100 people and left at least 400,000 homeless in Assam. Bodos have felt marginalised in their homeland by waves of immigration since the 1950s, accusing the central government of allowing the flow of immigrants to win votes from the settlers.
The IDSA said in its commentary the migration of large numbers of Muslim migrants had created "enormous pressures on agriculture land, one of the vital means of livelihood for the indigenous communities".
In 1983, at least 2,000 people, mainly Bangladeshi immigrants, were killed in clashes in central Assam, and in 2008 more than 50 people died in fighting between Bodos and Muslim settlers.
The violence of the past week has been concentrated in the Kokrajhar and Chirang districts, situated in a narrow strip of land sandwiched between Bhutan and Bangladesh. Both districts were reported to be quiet overnight after army reinforcements were dispatched to help police and paramilitary forces.
But in recent days the pattern has been for attacks to be carried out under the cover of darkness. Railway officials said train services between Assam and the rest of India resumed, escorted by "pilot" engines carrying armed guards, after attacks forced a halt earlier this week.