River of blood

Print edition : May 30, 2014

Bodies of some of the victims killed in the attacks at Baksa district. Many bodies were fished out of the Beki river. Many villagers who jumped into the river to escape their attackers are still missing. Survivors said there were around 40 gunmen, most of them in battle fatigues with their faces covered with black cloth. Photo: REUTERS

Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi at a relief camp set up at Narayanguri village in Baksa district. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Activists of the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) protest in Guwahati on May 6. Photo: PTI

BPF leader Pramila Rani Brahma. A day before the attacks she claimed that the BPF candidate in Kokrajhar could lose because Muslims had not voted for him. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The massacre in the villages of the Bodoland Territorial Area is seen by the minority community as yet another attempt by the Bodoland People’s Front to create terror among non-Bodos in its pursuit of the demand for a separate State.

IT happened around 4-30 p.m. on May 2, when mostly women and children were present in the twin villages of Nanke-Khagrabari and Narayanguri on the fringes of the Manas National Park in Baksa district of Assam’s Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) area. Most of the male members had gone to the daily market at Bhangarpar across the Beki river that flows by the two villages. A few phone calls alerted some of them to return to their villages. When they did so, their houses were in flames even as the rattling sounds of Kalashnikovs pierced the silence of the afternoon.

“They came from the western side, torched the houses one after the other and fired indiscriminately and did not spare even little children. We ran helter-skelter. Some of us jumped into the river. But they did not stop shooting at us,” narrates Rezia Bewa, a widow who survived the gruesome attack that left 22 residents of the twin villages, most of them women and children, dead.

One has to cross the river and its channel on boat twice to reach the two villages. Several bodies were fished out of the river. At least 15 persons—12 women and three children—who jumped into the swirling waters of the Beki to escape the attack went missing. The attack on the Nanke-Khagrabari village was preceded by two such attacks the previous night—one in Narinsghbari village in Baksa district and another in Balapara village in the Gossaigaon sub-division of Kokrajhar district of the BTAD.

The three attacks in Kokrajhar and Baksa districts left 33 persons, most of them women and children, dead and several injured. The death toll is likely to rise as 15 others went missing in Baksa. All the victims belonged to the families of Muslims who were originally from the erstwhile East Bengal. They speak both Assamese and a Bengali dialect.

The survivors of Nanke-Khagrabari say that there were about 40 gunmen, most of them in battle fatigues with their faces covered with black cloth. Some were in khaki, whom the people could identify as “surrendered men” working as forest guards in the Manas National Park.

Most of the affected families in Nanke-Khagrabari and the nearby villages of Narayanguri, Bhangarpar and Gempara close to the national park faced similar attacks by militants when clashes between the Bodos and Muslims broke out in Barpeta district in 1994. (Baksa was carved out of Barpeta when the Bodoland Territorial Council, or BTC, was created.)

Police version and allegations

The Assam Police claimed that suspected militants of the insurgent National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit) were behind the attacks in the BTAD. The NDFB (Songbijit) is a breakaway faction of the NDFB (Ranjan Daimary), which is currently engaged in a dialogue with the Centre and the Assam government. The NDFB (Songbijit) is clamouring for a “Sovereign Bodoland”.

Assam Police officials claimed that the NDFB (Songbijit) militants had made Muslim families in Kokrajhar and Baksa districts “soft targets” to avenge the killings of three of their colleagues by a joint team of the Assam Police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CPRF) in Sonitpur district on April 30. The outfit, in a statement to a section of the media, denied its involvement.

In all, 14 persons, including six forest guards, were arrested in connection with the attack. The Assam government has moved the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to probe the May 1-2 massacre in Kokrajhar and Baksa districts. The State government has also announced a judicial probe into it.

As tensions ran high, the Army was called in and curfew was clamped in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Baksa districts. The Army was asked to be on standby in Udalguri district. Search teams of the National Disaster Response Force and the State Disaster Response Force were pressed into service to look for bodies of missing persons in the Beki.

The BTAD area comprising these four districts and the neighbouring districts of Dhubri, Barpeta and Bongaigaon witnessed clashes between the Bodos and Muslims in July and August 2012, which left 103 dead and led to the displacement of 4.85 lakh people belonging to both the communities. The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the main opposition party in the State, and various minorities groups, including the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU), the All Bodoland Minority Students Union (ABMSU) and the Sanmilita Janagosthiya Aikyamancha (SJA), a conglomerate of 23 organisations, alleged that surrendered militants of the erstwhile insurgent outfit the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) were behind the three terror attacks.

These organisations have sought to link the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) with the terror attacks and alleged that former BLT militants were still in possession of illegal weapons, which they had been using to create terror among non-Bodos. (The BPF, formed by former leaders of the BLT, controls the BTC, which administers the BTAD areas.) They have also been opposed to the demand raised by political and non-political groups of the Bodos for the creation of a separate State of Bodoland. Ever since Telangana spurred the revival of the statehood movement of the Bodos, non-Bodo groups in the BTAD have been resorting to various forms of agitation to oppose the statehood demand.

The election angle

They allege that a senior BPF legislator, Pramila Rani Brahma, had issued a statement on April 30, a day before the terror attacks, that her party candidate for the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha constituency, Chandan Brahma, might lose the election as a majority of the Muslims had not voted for the BPF candidate. They demanded the dissolution of the BTC and the arrest of BTC chief Hagrama Mahilary and Pramila Rani although Pramila Rani withdrew her statement later after the party distanced itself from it. The BPF is the coalition partner of the Congress-led government in Assam and Chandan Brahma is the Transport Minister in Tarun Gogoi’s Cabinet.

Chandan Brahma and Biswajit Daimary, another senior BPF leader and Rajya Sabha member, strongly refuted the allegation and said the statement issued and later withdrawn by Pramila Rani was coincidental and had nothing to do with the terror attacks. The BPF says that the Assam Police had gone on record suggesting the involvement of the NDFB (Songbijit) and that the killings had nothing to do with the election held on April 12 in the third phase of elections in Assam. Chandan Brahma and Daimary claimed that some surrendered persons who had earlier indulged in poaching in the Manas National Park had been appointed by the Forest Department of the BTC as forest guards and they were not surrendered BLT cadres, as alleged by various organisations.

Tension has gripped the BTAD areas, which form a major part of the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha constituency, a seat reserved for the Scheduled Tribes, since the election was announced and the SJA announced the candidature of the former “Commander” of the insurgent United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Naba Kumar Sarania (Hira), as an independent. The constituency has about 15 lakh voters, of which six lakh voters are Bodos followed by Muslims with about four lakh voters. Apart from Chandan Brahma, the other Bodo candidates are senior Bodo leader and former Rajya Sabha member Urkhao Gwra Brahma, former Meghalaya Governor Ranjit Sekhar Mooshahary and sitting Kokrajhar MP Sansuma Khunggur Bwiswamuthiary, while Naba Kumar Sarania and Sabda Ram Rabha are the two non-Bodo candidates.

Pressure on Gogoi

The massacre brought to the fore the issue of the proliferation of illegal weapons in the BTAD areas. While the demand for seizure of all illegal arms in circulation in BTAD grew, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the AIUDF and various student and youth bodies accused the Tarun Gogoi government of pushing the BTAD into a civil war by deciding to provide licensed firearms to Muslims after the State Environment and Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain went on record saying that people living in the BTAD can also apply for licensed arms.

Hussain made the statement when some affected people in Balapara in Kokrajhar demanded that the State government should give them licences to procure firearms for self-defence. Chief Minister Gogoi was quick to clarify that the State government had not decided to provide firearms to the affected people of the BTAD as reported in a section of the media. Hussain also clarified that he had only explained the standing procedure for procuring a licence for firearms and had not made any policy announcement on the issuing of arms licences to violence-affected people in the BTAD.

The immediate fallout of the BTAD massacre was that pressure mounted on Gogoi to sever ties with the BPF. A number of Congress leaders in the State had opposed continuing an alliance with the BPF and had pitched for an electoral tie-up with the AIUDF to check the erosion of the Congress’ support base among the Muslims. However, Gogoi managed to prevail upon the party high command to continue the alliance with the BPF, and the Congress left the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha seat to the BPF.

State Cooperation and Border Areas Minister Siddeque Ahmed, who was deputed by Gogoi to take stock of the situation in the violence-affected areas in the BTAD, also mounted pressure on the leadership to sever ties with the BPF, alleging that affected people had held the Congress’ ally responsible for the attacks. Gogoi, however, refused to cow down under pressure and reportedly took a resolute stand that it was unfair to point an accusing finger at the BPF on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations. He, however, made it clear that under no circumstances would the BPF continue to be an ally of the Congress in the State if it decided to join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Some BPF leaders had indicated that they might join the NDA if it came to power at the Centre.

The results to the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha constituency, the overall outcome of the elections in the State and at the Centre and the political developments relating to the recent massacre are likely to shape the future politics in the BTAD.

With elections to the BTC only a year away and the Assembly elections in Assam due in 2016, the outcome of the current elections is sure to keep the pot boiling in the BTAD for the next two years.