What’s left in Gokulkata are rows of burnt houses. The houses with bamboo poles and tin shades have been reduced to ashes while the once-concrete houses are now just sooty walls. Bodies of dead ducks and goats lie amongst the debris. The living have all fled and no one knows when they will be back.
In the past week, villages across Kokrajhar have emptied out, leaving behind burnt homes and an eerie silence.
On Wednesday, Idris Ali walked 35 km with seven others from his family and four cattle from his village Sapkata to the Hatidhura relief camp, only to find it full. So, he continued walking, looking for a relief camp that would take him in.
Ali says the attack on his village last week looked like it had the patronage of the administration. The attackers, he says, came in green camouflage outfits and were seen talking to local security forces before they targeted Muslim houses.
At Tamahata relief camp, Azizul Haque from Moktaigaon village relives the attack that nearly killed him. “I was fired at from close range and a bullet grazed my stomach. I was taken to Gosaigaon hospital first and then to Kokrajhar hospital where again a group of Bodo youth attacked me. I am alive only by Allah’s grace,” says Haque.
At another relief camp in Jaraguri in Gosaigaon block of Kokrajhar, where 3,400 Bodo refugees are taking refuge, Longshri Basumatary of Burichitam village is still perplexed over how the relationship between the two communities soured so quickly. “We had extremely cordial relations with our Muslim neighbours. We used to go to their houses, have tea with them, share meals with them and they too would come over to our homes. The same people set fire to our houses and drove us out,” she says.
Bhadreshwar Basumatary, a forest guard in the camp, says that for the last few years he has been cultivating his one-acre farm along with Muslim farmers in his village Dawaguri. The Muslim farmers tilled his land and he would share his produce with them. They also took care of his banana orchard. With the relationship between the Muslims and Bodos now turning bitter, Bhadreshwar is worried about who will tend to his paddy crop.
Trouble in Kokrajhar had been brewing for the last few weeks after minority student unions and non-Bodo tribes began pressing their demand for greater representation in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). On July 6, two Muslim youths were shot at. Suspicion fell on the Bodos. Nearly a fortnight later, on July 20, more violence followed. Pradip Bodo, a former cadre of the Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT), and three of his friends were killed, which triggered full-scale rioting.
The riots have brought onto the surface simmering tensions between the two communities. Ever since the clashes between Bodos and migrant Muslim groups in 2008, Kokrajhar, the seat of administration of the BTC, has held an uneasy peace. The area under the BTC’s jurisdiction has seen undercurrents of tension even after the Bodo Accord of 2003.
Rashmi Kant Basumatary, a Bodo leader who is overseeing the Gambaribil relief camp, says the rioting may have ceased but it’s “certainly not the end of it.” “The Muslims have been trying to assert themselves more and more in recent times. Several student bodies of the minorities are spearheading this campaign,” says Rashmi.
At the root of the problem is a “crisis of land”, he says. “They (Muslims) need land to expand as their population is growing.”
Meanwhile, Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, an MP of the All India United Democratic Front from Dhubri, says Muslims have been uprooted in a planned manner with the help of the
There are a number of reasons underlying the tension between the Muslims and Bodos in Kokrajhar. Discrimination is one of them. Minorities and non-Bodo tribes feel only the Bodos have benefited from the setting up of the BTC.
The BTC, says Sarath Narzary, former principal of the Kokrajhar Government College, has not been able to fulfill the aspirations of the people. “It has been constrained with limited powers and limited resources and has proved beneficial for a handful of people. Non-Bodo communities feel that the creation of the BTC has opened up vast opportunities for the Bodo people, which, in fact, is not true. This feeling that ‘they are enjoying the fruits of power while we are deprived’ could be one of the prime causes of the worsening relations between the Bodos and the non-Bodos,” says Narzary.
The issues of discontent are many. Population pressures, land rights, self determination, illegal migration and occupation all led to a tipping point. Khampa Borgoyri, deputy chief of the BTC, says it’s time the council undertakes a survey of the land holding status within the BTC area. “We are sure that over 35 per cent of government vacant khas land has been encroached upon by illegal settlers,” he says.
The region has seen much violence in the last few years. U G Brahma, former president of the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) and a former Rajya Sabha member, says at least 200 Bodos have been killed in the last couple of years in
isolated attacks from unidentified assailants.
The last few years have also seen mounting pressure from Muslim groups to dissolve the BTC and also to exclude those areas from the BTC where the Bodos are not in a majority. Bodos, says Ajmal, constitute only 27 per cent of the population of the BTC.
The growing clamour against Bodo influence has culminated in the formation of a Non-Bodo Suraksha Samity, which, according to political sources, wants to bring various non-Bodo communities under one umbrella. At the helm of its activity are surrendered ULFA members, extreme Left outfits and various Muslim student bodies.
Moinuddin, president of the All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union, alleges that the Bodos want to increase their numbers in the BTC and push for a separate state. “The recent flare-up coincides with the raising of demands for a separate statehood of Bodoland,” he says.
As the accusations and counter-accusations continue, in the relief camps across Kokrajhar, villagers dream of the day they will return home.