For a healing touch

Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

BODO REFUGEES AT a camp in Kokrajhar on July 28.-ANUPAM NATH/AP

BODO REFUGEES AT a camp in Kokrajhar on July 28.-ANUPAM NATH/AP

A fact-finding team of the NCM and the Planning Commission calls for a political dialogue to resolve the Assam conflict.

THE recommendations and observations made in a report submitted by a three-member National Commission for Minorities-Planning Commission team, which visited the violence-torn Kokrajhar and Dhubri districts and some relief camps in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) of Assam on July 11-12, have drawn criticism from some quarters.

The fact-finding team from Delhi, comprising Syeda Hameed and G.B. Panda, Planning Commission Member and Adviser respectively, and Keki Daruwalla, Member, National Commission for Minorities, reached Guwahati and then proceeded to Kokrajhar by road. It was joined by the coordinator of the North-East Network, a broad coalition of non-governmental organisations working in the region. Accompanied by State government officials, the team visited the most affected areas in Kokrajhar and Dhubri districts. It had made clear at the very outset that its intention was to study the situation in the relief camps, observe the quality of relief provided to the inmates and assess the plight of nearly four lakh refugees, of whom some three lakh were Muslims and the rest Bodos. Its mandate also included an examination of the causes of the flare-up.

The report came under criticism from the Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), which has accused the team of being partisan in its assessment. The team members have denied such inferences and have sought to clarify that the last thing on their minds was to have a bias towards Bodos or Muslims. Interestingly, sections of both the communities affected by the violence have criticised some of the inferences that the team has drawn.

The report is not voluminous but its recommendations, especially the one that that pushes for a political dialogue, is significant. It looks briefly at the history of sectarian violence in the region and states candidly that Assam as a whole and the BTAD in particular have a history of ethnic strife involving armed groups and terrorist outfits, and often aided by foreign powers.

It emphasises that the Bodoland Accord was signed in 2003 with the aim of ending insurgency in the region, giving autonomy to the Bodos and the region, and providing constitutional protection under the Sixth Schedule to people belonging to the four contiguous districts (Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri) marked out as the BTAD. But it does not go deeper than that to look at the rights of the settled populations.

The report is divided into two parts camps and law and order. For good reason, perhaps, it does not delve deep into the history of the strife, and instead chooses to focus on the state of the camps and the feeling of insecurity among all the affected communities. The report is sensitive in dealing with the situation and has sensibly focussed on the challenges at hand, rather than taking part in a blame game as some groups, claiming to be rights groups, have done.

It appreciates the administrations role in taking on the challenge of organising relief under extreme weather conditions. In fact, one of the allegations against the team was that its visit to the camps was disproportionate, favouring a certain section of the affected. It is unfortunate that the team had to face a minority, communal tag owing to the composition of the team and the involvement of the NCM in the mission.

The first camp the team visited was the Kokrajhar Vidyapeeth High School, which sheltered 768 Bodo refugees. The camp was found to be relatively neat compared with those it visited subsequently. There were mosquito nets, women had been provided garments, and the women inmates were running a community kitchen rather efficiently. Clothes and utensils were distributed to the refugees there. A team of doctors from the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) was also present to provide medical help to the inmates. The report drew no inferences from this observation but merely stated the facts as seen. The team also found that the Bodo inmates were reluctant to return to their villages fearing attacks.

In contrast, the team found the camps that sheltered Muslims to be overcrowded and in a pathetic condition. It attributed this to the fact that Muslim refugees were much larger in number. One particular camp at Gossaigaon had 4,304 persons. In the entire Gossaigaon area, nearly one lakh Muslims were lodged in relief camps. Every camp the team visited had inadequate supply of electricity and very few toilets. The children did not have clothes. There were 10 toilets for 4,300 people in one camp.

At the Srirampura camp in Kokrajhar, the inmates told the team that they were being terrorised by two policemen of the Sabkata police post. When the matter was raised with Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, the team was told that the duo had been issued transfer orders, which meant that the government had investigated the complaint made by the inmates and had initiated action. The inmates informed the team that the Assam Police were mute spectators when the villagers were fired upon.

At another camp, located at Grahampur High School in Gossaigaon, there were only 25 latrines for 6,569 people. Some 30 women were pregnant, some of them in advanced stages of pregnancy. The team described the conditions here as horrendous. Here, too, the inmates accused the police of being silent spectators as their homes were set afire. At Dhubri, the team found children suffering from skin infections. Camp inmates complained of meagre rations. One camp there had just three latrines for 3,500 inmates.

On the law and order component of the report, the team particularly notes the role of the BTAD Chief Executive Hagrama Mahilary, and recommends that the government tackle the BTAD issue at the earliest. The report also says that the current conflict in the region was not between Bangladeshi immigrants and Bodos but between Bodos and Muslims residing in the BTAD.

Taking a balanced view of the matter, the report notes: Of course, some infiltration is taking place in all pickets of Assam all the time, but there has been no sudden influx from Bangladesh to trigger such a major conflict.

Equally balanced is its observation that both Bodo and Muslim homes were looted and gutted, indicating a conspiracy. The conflict itself was unequally balanced, it says, as the Bodos had left-over arms from the surrendered BLT (Bodo Liberation Tigers) cadres whereas the Muslims were poorly armed. One of its observations that there can be grave danger in future in case militant jehadi outfits from the rest of the country start supplying lethal weapons in the area is criticised by some groups. The team, on its part, has articulated a concern that is not unfounded.

In their meeting with the Chief Minister, the team members emphasised the need for political dialogue, especially with Bodo representatives and the BTAD leadership. Bodos, they said, needed to be told firmly that they could not engineer, under any circumstance, a mass exodus of non-Bodos and that they could not get statehood by adopting such means. It was clear that the conflict had to do something with political aspirations for statehood and was not just an ethnic strife arising out of troubled economic relations, they said. Their report has castigated the police, saying that had they taken timely action in preventing the killings of both Bodos and Muslims, which began on July 6, much of the subsequent violence could have been avoided. Remedial action, it says, is necessary to check conflicts involving Bodos, which have been there for the past 15 years.


The report calls for a serious dialogue between the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, the BTAD and the State government. This is absolutely essential, it said. Its other recommendations include filing of separate and individual first information reports rather than omnibus ones as has happened. It has suggested the setting up of a Special Investigation Team to probe such incidents in order to restore confidence in the justice delivery system. This is particularly important in places where the role of the police has become suspect. The team also has suggested the setting up of long-term rehabilitation plans, including counselling for women and children, issuance of identity cards to get entitlements and, above all, a parity of approach while dealing with both the sides.

The ACHR has accused the team and its report of communalising the riots. The organisation is upset by the NCMs unwillingness to categorise Bodos as minorities even though 15 per cent of them are Christians and 50 per cent animists, which brings the community under the definition of minorities under the NCM Act. One of the complaints is that the NCM Act does not include ethnic minorities. The ACHR complaint, which was sent to the Prime Minister, says that the NCM fails to identify ethnic minorities and that it must be noted that in the BTAD, every community has the feeling of being a minority.

ACHR director Suhas Chakma has maintained that the NCMs report is biased and inflammatory and has the potential to radicalise some sections of misguided Muslims. The letter cites the exodus of people belonging to the north-eastern States from Bangalore on August 15, the same day the NCM released its report. It is also a fact that the Bangalore exodus was caused by rumours of possible attacks. But barring a few stray incidents of violence, nothing major happened.

The NCM, through Daruwalla, sent a reply to the ACHR on August 22, in which it clarified that the team did not visit Assam on behalf of any single minority, ethnic or religious. It was further clarified that the Planning Commission had a stake in the welfare of the camps, in order to bring relief to the victims.

I can assure you that we are as concerned over the plight of Bodos as of Muslims.... I fully support your plea that the NCST [National Council for Scheduled Tribes] and the NHRC [National Human Rights Commission] should visit the camps in the BTC [Bodo Territorial Council]. The need of the hour is applying balm to wounds and to see that there is no further violence from either side, wrote Daruwalla.

Assam continues to simmer even as attempts to heal the wounds are under way. Whether the present agitation has anything to do with the demand for statehood is not clear; what is apparent is that the bogey of outsider versus insider, local versus alien, has now come to characterise identity politics of various kinds, deeply blurring class contradictions in the process.

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