By Delhi Solidarity Group,
On December 23, the Bodoland autonomous region of Assam and some adjoining areas suffered an eruption of ethnic violence, particularly in the two districts of Kokrajhar and Sonitpur. These outbreaks of violence have been a disturbingly recurrent feature of the quarter-century long campaign for autonomy in the districts north of the Brahmaputra. Between January 10 and 12, a fact finding team constituted by the Delhi Solidarity Group comprising senior journalists Seema Mustafa and Sukumar Muralidharan, and human rights worker Harsh Mander, visited the villages ravaged by the killings as well as relief camps where terrified residents had fled. The team was assisted by Shefali from the Delhi Solidarity Group and Mangla Verma from the Centre for Equity Studies. In Guwahati, Kokrajhar and Sonitpur, the team was rendered invaluable support, assistance and guidance by Raju Narzary of North East Research & Social Work Networking (NERSWN) and Abdul Kalam Azad from Aman Biradari.
As the sun was setting over the low forested hills and farmlands of the northern districts of Assam on December 23, armed militants in military fatigues, their faces masked, walked into small and remote adivasi hamlets to carry out a chilling series of coordinated attacks. Residents in these hamlets, at five locations in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Sonitpur districts were mowed down by indiscriminate firing from what were reportedly automatic weapons. More than 70 people, including at least 18 children and 21 women, were killed in a matter of minutes.
The armed intruders burned down and ransacked several of the mud hutments in these hamlets before retreating into the jungles. In retaliatory attacks the following day, at least 5 Bodos were murdered and several homes gutted. In Sonitpur district, a protest demonstration taken out by adivasi political groups in Dhekiajuli was fired on by the police with three deaths and several injuries. In Udalguri, a protest demonstration taken out by adivasi youth was set upon, resulting in injuries on both sides and an atmosphere of tension.
Initial reports about the number of the displaced were wildly contradictory. Kokrajhar was clearly the district worst affected in this respect. News reports datelined December 25 and attributed to the Deputy Commissioner, Kokrajhar, put the number of the displaced at 25,000 in that district alone. On December 28, the figure was scaled up to 100,000 in all four Bodoland districts, Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang. The following day a very precise figure of 176,440 was put out as the total number of the displaced, of which 101,272 were identified as adivasi and 61,000 as Bodo. The greatest incidence of displacement was in Kokrajhar, where an estimated 100,000 had fled their homes. On January 1, the number was revised upwards yet again to 236,349 in all four districts, of which again the largest part by far was in Kokrajhar, where 197,189 persons were sheltering in 81 camps for the displaced.
It seems finally from the inquiries of this team, that roughly 300,000 left their homes in the aftermath of the first attacks and the retaliation. A large number may have gone back soon afterwards, but as the harsh winter days and nights passed, the district administration did have to reckon with human displacement on a major scale. At the time that this fact-finding team met the Kokrajhar Deputy Commissioner on January 10, the numbers had begun to shrink. Of the initial displacement of close to 200,000 he said, fewer than 71,000 remained in camps within his jurisdiction.
This team visited camps for the displaced in Kokrajhar district and villages that had been targeted in Sonitpur. We found the inmates deeply traumatised and profoundly insecure. Desperately impoverished and defenceless to begin with, the targeted and displaced adivasi communities in particular stand in dire need of security assurances they can rely on.
The fact finding team was distressed to encounter a community living in intense social and economic distress, with grave development deficits, highly insecure and demoralised after the recent organised attacks. Our recommendations proceed from immediate steps required to longer term interventions.
Relief: For around 70,000 persons still in camps, the state government needs to urgently improve services in the camps, particularly in light of the winter cold. The quality of tents and blankets, and food, health and sanitation services need urgent and significant upgrading. Some camps that we visited are very overcrowded, such as the one we visited in Saralpara where 9000 people from close to 51 villages were living on the day of our visit.
The fact finding team also observed with some dismay that the quality of services were very different for different affected communities. We recommend that given the repeated acts of violence in Assam, the state should lay down statutory standards of relief and rehabilitation, and these must apply in all cases without exception.
Security: The affected communities are extremely insecure after the attacks, especially because of the remoteness of their locations. Whereas a permanent presence of military personnel is not socially desirable, the security forces should not be withdrawn until affected communities feel completely secure.
The sense of security would also be heightened with a dedicated and systematic campaign for the genuine disarmament of all non-state groups in the region, beginning with the surrendered militants.
Investigation: We have observed that one of the major reasons for the recurrence of violent ethnic clashes is a long history of impunity for the attackers. In other words, beginning from the fatalities in the Assam agitation and the Nellie massacre of 1983, guilty persons have not been punished till now. As a result, conditions have not been created for ensuring that such killings do not recur. We recommend that all the criminal cases connected with the attacks be handed over to the newly created central body, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the state government render its full support for independent investigation.
Following a fact-finding exercise on the last serious outbreak of communal violence in the region in May 2014, a fact finding team that some of us were members of, recommended that victim-survivor statements should be recorded by a magistrate camping in the affected villages under Section 164 of the CrPC. We commend the steps taken by the state government along these lines, and urge that the same practice be adopted for the December 2014 attacks as well.
Rehabilitation: The state government has taken early steps to pay death compensation as well as compensation for destroyed houses. It should be ensured that residents are not prevented from rebuilding destroyed houses in old locations. The assistance of reputed social workers may be taken to assist the families which receive large quantities of cash compensation to use their grants wisely, making longer term investments such as in property or bank fixed deposits.
Likewise the state government should take the assistance of professionals and students from social work and medical institutions to extend community based psycho-social care to the affected households, especially to children, women and the aged.
The state government should also undertake large-scale works under the MGNREGA in all the affected villages to help the affected people get back to a normal life, and to also assist them with basic subsistence in this difficult time.
Development Deficits and Entitlements: The fact finding team found the communities living in extreme poverty, with obvious signs of malnutrition, and many narratives of distress migration and trafficking of young adolescents for domestic work. Matters are aggravated by the failure of almost any government programme to reach them. We found that most did not have ration-cards, and ration shops were located too far from the village. RTE was not implemented as the nearest primary schools to some of the settlements were as far as 7 kilometres. There were no ICDS centres in the adivasi villages. Most old people did not access pensions, and the majority of deliveries were still unprotected at home, with no ante- and post-natal check-ups, immunisation or maternity benefit payments. In the absence of land or other local livelihoods, and virtual non-functioning of MG NREGA, they were more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitative migration.
The Fact-Finding Team recommends that a detailed mapping is undertaken of adivasi settlements, and these basic food and social protection entitlements, mandated both by the Supreme Court and the NFSA are ensured to them in a time-bound fashion. A more detailed and in-depth study of the development deficits and denials of entitlements of the adivasi settlements across the state should also be undertaken, so that a medium and long-term special plan is prepared to ensure that their situation is improved sustainably over time.
In fact there are many communities who are living across Assam in camps, many unrecognised by the state government, sometimes for many years. These include adivasis, Bengali Muslims, Bodos and persons of other communities. A full mapping of all such internally displaced persons in camps is imperative, to ensure to start with that their basic food and social protection entitlements, mandated both by the Supreme Court and the NFSA are ensured to them in a time-bound fashion.
Long-term Measures: A major source of the conflicts as well as the pauperisation of the adivasi communities in Assam relate to their fragile economic conditions born from exploitative conditions within tea-gardens and failures to secure land-titles of lands occupied by them in reserve forest areas outside. The adivasi people are denied ST status, and the benefits of the Forest Rights Act. These are issues which need to be carefully studied, and solutions found. The longer they fester without resolution, the longer the vulnerability to marginalisation and violence will persist.
There also needs to be better protection of the labour and food security rights of workers within tea-gardens, who are mainly from the adivasi community.
The state government should also play a proactive role in facilitating peace initiatives, and also supporting those which are being undertaken by the locals and the student unions.
Full report can be accessed here.