Sarkar Murmu was not at his home in the Adivasi village of Kabrijuli on the evening of December 23, 2014. He had gone to Saralpara, the farthest village in the Ultapani reserved forest along the India-Bhutan border in lower Assam’s Kokrajhar district, to mill paddy harvested from his fields. When he heard that there was trouble in his village, he rushed back, only to run for his life into the nearby jungle. He said: “As I reached my village I heard rattling sounds of firing and ran into the jungle and hid there. I came out around 8 p.m. when the Army personnel arrived. When I reached my house, I found my sons Cornel and Antony lying dead. Some villagers told me that militants, dressed in black, came just as the sun had set and fired indiscriminately. Twelve persons, including my two sons, were killed in the attack.” Sarkar Murmu could not find time to mourn the death of his sons as he and other survivors of the militant attack were moved to a relief camp at Saralpara the next morning.
The massacre of 68 Adivasis by militants of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (Songbijit), or NDFB (Songbijit), in serial attacks on several villages and the subsequent retaliatory violence on some Bodo villages by Adivasi miscreants have triggered a serious humanitarian crisis in the State. Besides northern Assam’s Sonitpur district, the violence affected Kokrajhar, Chirang and Udalguri, three districts of the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD), exposing the fault lines in the Bodo heartland.
The militant attacks and the retaliatory violence have claimed 80 lives, most of them women and children. The attack was brutal and barbaric: for instance, an automatic rifle was thrust into the mouth of an infant. More then two lakh people belonging to both the communities have been displaced in the four districts and forced to take shelter in 135 relief camps.
In Kokrajhar district, whose total population is 8,86,999 according to Census 2011, 2,22,802 people have taken shelter in 91 relief camps, the highest number of internal refugees. In Chirang, 33,846 people have been sent to 25 camps; in Sonitpur, 9,862 people have been accommodated in 10 camps; and in Udalguri, 3,860 are in nine camps. A large number of camp inmates have suffered displacement for the third time since 1996. In 1996, violent clashes between Bodos and Adivasis claimed 198 lives and led to the displacement of 2,02,684 people belonging to both the communities in Kokrajhar and the undivided Bongaigaon districts. In 1998, clashes between the two communities claimed 186 lives and displaced about 94,000 people.
Adivasis and Bodos displaced in the current round of clashes say that they had no inkling of the militants’ attack and the subsequent violence. They are bewildered because the two communities had been maintaining peace and no fresh clashes had occurred in the past 16 years.
“Bodos and Adivasis here share the waters of the same irrigation canal for cultivation. We go to the same markets. We have been taking part in each other’s festivals. We have not been able to understand what went wrong,” says Enosh Tudu, 38, of Pakhriguri village under Serfanguri police station in Kokrajhar district. He is housed in an Adivasi relief camp at Pakhriguri Lower Primary School in which 1,032 families from 17 villages have taken shelter.
Enosh spent 12 years in subhuman conditions in makeshift relief camps after his family was displaced twice earlier in the aftermath of the 1996 and 1998 clashes. Militants of the NDFB (Songbijit) shot and killed five Adivasis and wounded four in Pakhriguri village on December 23.
The New Basbari relief camp, situated about 40 kilometres from Pakhriguri, shelters 4,177 Bodos from 18 villages. The inmates of the camp fear the return of the days of 1996 and 1998. The NDFB (Songbijit) is a breakaway faction of the NDFB (Ranjan Daimary), which is currently engaged in dialogue with the Centre and the Assam government. The NDFB (Songbijit) is clamouring for a “sovereign Boroland”. Formed on November 20, 2012, the faction has about 220 cadres. It is led by I.K. Songbijit, who was the chief of the armed wing of the NDFB (Ranjan Daimary). The NDFB (Ranjan Daimary) signed a tripartite suspension of operation (SoO) agreement with the Centre and the Assam government on November 29, 2013, to open dialogue but is yet to submit a charter of demands. A third faction of the organisation, the NDFB (Progressive), which has been demanding the creation of a separate State of Bodoland, is engaged in peace talks with the Centre.
On the other hand, the Adivasi Cobra Military of Assam (ACMA), the Adivasi People’s Army (APA), the Santhali Tiger Force (STF), the Birsa Commando Force (BCF) and the All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA), five insurgent outfits fighting for Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) status for Adivasis and claiming to be fighting for the cause of the community, signed an SoO with the Centre and the Assam government and surrendered their arms on January 24, 2012, to join the peace process.
Bodos are the largest plains tribe of Assam. Adivasis are demanding S.T. status. Koch-Rajbangshis, Morans, Mataks, Tai-Ahoms and Chutias are the other five communities that have been agitating for inclusion on the State’s S.T. list.
The violence that occurred in the last week of December and the consequent displacement of village residents brought two pertinent issues to the fore—the recognition of Adivasis, including the tea-tribe and ex-tea-tribe communities in Assam as S.Ts and granting land rights under the S.T. and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act to Adivasi and Bodo forest dwellers in denuded forest areas.
Recognising Adivasis as a Scheduled Tribe will have wider political ramifications in the BTAD than anywhere else in the State. The Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), which runs the administration in the four BTAD districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri, was constituted under the amended provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, and, as such, political rights such as reservation of the council seats are enjoyed exclusively by the S.Ts
Bodo leaders are concerned that granting S.T. status to Adivasis and Koch-Rajbangshis will offset the political equilibrium in the BTC and take away the political rights Bodos have enjoyed following the creation of the autonomous territorial tribal council in lieu of a separate State.
Thirty-four of the 40 seats in the BTC are reserved for S.Ts and five seats for non-S.Ts, and one seat is unreserved. In addition to the elected members, the State government nominates six members. In the BTAD, Bodos form the largest S.T. group and, therefore, have been ruling the tribal council since its inception in 2003. With elections to the BTC due in April 2015, and elections to the State Assembly scheduled for 2016, these issues are likely to dominate politics in the BTAD areas.
The Kokrajhar (Reserved) Lok Sabha constituency, comprising areas under the BTAD and some adjoining areas, elected a non-Bodo candidate for the first time in the 2014 elections. A former “commander” of the insurgent United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Naba Kumar Sarania (Hira), contested as an independent candidate and was backed by the Sanmilita Janagosthiya Aikyamancha (SJA), a conglomerate of 23 non-Bodo organisations, including organisations representing linguistic and religious minorities. Sarania, who belongs to the Sarania Kachari tribe, has promised to fight for S.T. status to Adivasis and Koch-Rajbangshis.
“Permanent peace in the BTAD areas will remain elusive if Adivasis are not given S.T. status and land rights under the S.T. and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act. In the absence of these rights, Adivasis have remained the soft targets of the armed groups in the BTAD. Adivasis and Bodos do not have any enmity towards each other. It is the armed groups that are making Adivasis their soft targets in order to create bad blood between the two communities. If permanent peace has to prevail in the BTAD and in areas outside it that have been affected, no compromise must be reached with the militants,” Raphael Kujur, president of the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA), averred.
The terror attacks and the subsequent violence triggered the displacement of about 8,000 Adivasis from 26 villages and 1,200 Bodos from nine villages, all of them forest dwellers in the Ultapani reserved forest under the Haltugaon Forest division in Kokrajhar district, within an eight-kilometre radius from Saralpara.
During a visit to the Adivasi camp at Saralpara near the Sasashtra Seema Bal (SSB) camp at Naharani and while travelling along the border as displaced Bodo forest dwellers were being shifted from the SSB camp to a new camp about 2 km away six days after the terror attacks, one could notice that this stretch of the India-Bhutan border was completely porous. Militants of the NDFB (Songbijit) are suspected to frequent the Ultapani reserved forest and flee to their transit bases inside the Bhutanese jungles taking advantage of the porosity.
As most of the remote settlements of Adivasis, Bodos and other communities inside the reserved forest areas are treated as “illegal encroachments” by the State Forest Department, these communities have remained downtrodden even after 11 years of autonomous rule by the BTC. Except in a few recognised forest villages, there are no government schools and health care institutions. Bodo and Adivasi forest dwellers were evicted thrice from these settlements by the Forest Department. However, some families possess ration cards. The Bismuri police outpost is located about 35 km from Saralpara. Tosheswar Muktiar, the Additional Deputy Commissioner of Kokrajhar district who led a “goodwill mission” along with leaders of the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), the AASAA and the Santhal Students’ Union to the affected areas and the camps, said that applications submitted by the forest dwellers seeking rights under the S.T. and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act were being processed. Pramode Boro, ABSU president, said the Bodo student body had no objection to granting S.T. status to six communities, including Adivasis, provided the rights and privileges enjoyed by the existing S,T, communities in the State were not affected. He criticised the State government and the BTC authorities for failing to implement the Act. Boro and Kujur led a joint delegation of the ABSU and the AASAA to various relief camps as part of a confidence-building exercise initiated by the two influential student bodies.
Security forces have launched an all-out operation against the NDFB (Songbijit) after the governments at the Centre and the State announced that the policy of “zero tolerance” would be pursued against terror attacks. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who visited Kokrajhar and Sonitpur districts, ruled out any dialogue with the militant outfit. He said the Centre wanted a time-bound action and promised all help to the State government. The National Investigation Agency has begun an inquiry into the attacks. The Centre has rushed 50 additional companies of the Central armed police forces to the State. The Army chief, General Dalbir Singh, made an aerial survey of the violence-hit areas and interacted with various commanders in the field to obtain a first-hand perspective of the area-domination operations on ground. He also reviewed the deployment of 66 Army columns in the disturbed areas. While no arrests were made for eight days since the terror attack, security forces busted a hideout of the NDFB (Songbijit) and recovered eight motorbikes and a small car suspected to be used by its cadres.
Most of the camp inmates demand permanent security measures to prevent the recurrence of militants’ attacks and avoid frequent displacement. They feel deployment of Central forces in the affected villages as a stopgap was no solution. “When the forces withdraw from the villages, we will become vulnerable to militants attacks and intimidation once again,” said Habil Kindo, an inmate of an Adivasi relief camp at Saralpara. The displaced people felt violence returned to the BTAD areas because of the absence of permanent security measures.
Violent clashes between Bodos and Muslims in July and August 2012 left 103 people dead and led to the displacement of 4.85 lakh people belonging to both communities in BTAD areas and the neighbouring districts of Dhubri, Barpeta and Bongaigaon.
Urkhao Gwra Brahma, the senior Bodo leader who is a former Rajya Sabha member and a Sahitya Akademi Award winner, pointed out the need for adequate security measures in the affected villages in order to enable the displaced to return home without fear. “Ensuring security at the village level and at the same time intensifying operations against the militants is critical to the return of peace and normalcy in the affected areas,” Brahma said. In this unsettling hour, the inmates of a Bodo relief camp at Champaboti market and an Adivasi camp at the Champaboti mini Public Health Centre in Chirang district have set an example of conflict resolution by taking the initiative of forming a joint relief committee to share relief materials. They have decided to remain united to maintain peace, making the task of confidence-building by the administration and various organisations that much easier.