The Killing Forests of Bodoland
Counter insurgency operations in the forests
KOKRAJHAR, Assam: Dense forests, and lakhs of people living in deep insecurity that spirals into sheer terror every now and again when there is a militant attack. Life is cheap in this part of the world, with the poorest of the poor living on reserved forest area barely managing to eke out their today, and having no idea of their tomorrow.
Kokrajhar serves as the capital of the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) administered by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). This came into existence in 1993 with the Bodoland Territorial Council Agreement signed with the central government. The other three districts are Baksa, Chirang and Udalgiri.
The forests serve as cover and home for the militant outfits operating in the area. There is no national protest, let alone international coverage, for the vulnerable population of this region who are being killed in droves by militants with complete impunity. Last April Muslims were driven out from their homes in Baksa by armed Bodo militants with guns. Terrified women and children jumped into the swirling river waters with the militants shooting them dead in the waters. Those who survived the waters were swept away. A young child told this reporter at the time of how her mother holding on to her baby sister was shot dead, and the baby swept away by the waters. This young girl survived because she could swim underwater, with her brother being killed as he could not. Over 30 residents of the tiny border village, living in utter poverty, died.
On December 23 the Bodo militants attacked villagers in Kokrajhar and simultaneously in Sonitpur in Upper Assam killing over 60 Adivasis. The militants belonging to the National Democratic Front of Bodoland of the K.Songbijit faction entered the villages, set the little hutments on fire, and killed whoever they could find. Terrified villagers ran into the forests where they cowered in fear until the militants left. A young girl told this writer that her mother and elder brother were killed. And clearly not comprehending anything even now said she was on her own, there was no surviving family member except a cousin. A young man said that the militants dressed in black had their faces covered, were heavily armed, and ruthless. He said he ran into the forest until the firing stopped and he was sure they had left.
The forest hamlets live in another century. There is no development despite the creation of Bodoland with its own administrative Council. The people have small tracts of agricultural land, and supplement a clearly meagre income with manual labour as and when they can find it. There are no schools, no roads, no health centres, just utter, unrelieved penury where man has forsaken man and there is no sign of governance.
Dense forests connect this part of India to Bhutan and this writer travelled through to the other country without encountering anyone, except a couple of Indian pickets that were not really bothered about the vehicle and its passengers. The only reason we were asked where we were going----a redundant question as the path really led nowhere except deeper into the forests---was because Army and police operations were reportedly on in the area to flush out the militants. The jungles lead onto the Bhutan road to Thimphu and the contrast between fear, insecurity on the Assam side and the tranquility and relative prosperity is striking.
The Bodos in Bodoland are not more than 30 per cent of the population. The rest is divided between the Muslims and Adivasis, and a small percentage of other tribes. Recent years have seen alternating attacks by the Bodo militant groups---with new factions emerging every now and again---on Muslims and Adivasis. The reasons vary but have largely to do with land and political/election differences and preferences. Last year the Muslims were killed brutally just because they were not supporting a Bodo candidate. And speeches had been made by top BJP leaders stirring the communal cauldron as it were.
The reasons for the attack on the Adivasis are unclear, with the state administration attributing this to operations against the Songbijit militant faction. Locally the displaced villagers have no idea with all spoken to in the relief camps saying with a sense of bewilderment, “no we have had no problem, no confrontation, we don’t know why they just came and attacked us.” There were no threats, no warning although the local police chief said that they had intelligence information of the attack but not the precise location. Anyways with or without the information the administration was ill prepared for the attack, with no effort made to strengthen the security in the area at all.
Nearly three lakh people ran for their lives as the news of the attack swept through the remote villages. On December 24 some Adivasis grouped together to launch a counterattack on Bodo villages in the area. Thousands of Bodos fled as well and today Kokrajhar’s jungles are full of relief camps for both communities, the Adivasis of course being the worst hit. Of the three lakhs now about 90,000 villagers remain and are looking for concrete assurances that they will be secured in their homes before venturing back. The district authorities are making arrangements for police pickets in the affected and more sensitive villages, but even they know that this will not be a permanent arrangement.
The little silver lining here is coming from the students of both communities who have influential organisations and are working to bring peace between the two communities. There are efforts by the students who are working together to persuade the villagers to return and to convince them that this attack was by extremists and not supported by the Bodos. This is also because the Songbijit faction is a terror group that has started harassing the Bodos for money, and shelter which has made it rather unpopular amongst the community. Interestingly the current operations against the Bodo faction has the support of the Bodos in general, as unlike the other factions NDFB(S) does not match its violence with a larger ideological goal.
Meanwhile Bodoland that had been carved out by the political leadership in the mistaken notion that it will bring peace, is at best a zone of deep unrest and fissures where the population is highly insecure. Driven by poverty and despair the villagers are not even able to claim the land they live on as it is forest reserved land that remains with the state government.