NEW DELHI: Violence, ethnic conflict and destruction is nothing new to Assam, particularly the Bodoland autonomous region of Assam. Only recently on December 23, another devastating ethnic violence broke out 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 activist Harsh Mander, visited the villages ravaged by the killings as well as the relief camps, where the terrified residents had taken refuge .

So whilst the team came up with numerous findings, this article focusses on the testimonies of the victims and the survivors of the violence in the region. There have been various articles and reports on the violence and destruction from various perspectives and how the government is not helping much, however, not many have actually spoke to the people on the ground and have instead based their essays on the information available through other sources. Here is an excerpt from the report:

Sonitpur district: The armed attackers chose hamlets of adivasi settlers which were deep in the forests and close to the borders of Bhutan and Arunachal, where they hid after the attacks. Team members visited both the hamlets in Sonitpur district in which six and thirty villagers had been slaughtered respectively, Dhekiajuli and Biswanath Chariali. To reach the hamlet in Biswanath Chariali, in which the largest number of killings occurred, we had to walk around five kilometres further into the forests after the motorable road reached its end. We found residents camping there under thin plastic sheets just in front of a camp of paramilitary soldiers who had been rushed to extend them protection.

The villages we visited, we were told, were settled some 15 to 20 years earlier. Elders among the villagers had laboured hard to fashion paddy fields after clearing the thick forest cover. Some settlers came because there was no work for them in the tea gardens of the area, others reported fleeing earlier settlements in Kokrajhar because they were fed up with the extortion by armed militants. Sonitpur district falls outside the boundaries of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), which is why the adivasi communities expected to find relative safety there. But many Bodo families also settled in the same forests around the same time. The adivasi and Bodo settlers maintained mutually cordial ties prior to the attack, and invited each other for weddings and funerals.However in recent years, some local militants had begun to extort informal “taxes” from them, even for every head load or bicycle-load of firewood gathered from the forests.There was no violence though: the December 23 attacks were the first time they suffered physical violence, which is why they have been left more shaken and frightened.

In both villages, the accounts of the raids were similar. Armed young men, their faces covered and with only eyes showing, arrived at their homes and first asked for water to drink. After they were served, suddenly and without any warning they opened fire with their automatic weapons, killing whoever they saw – children, women and men. They chased villagers down as they fled in terror. The survivors hid behind trees, and watched as many of their homes were set on fire and their meagre belongings vandalised. Eye-witnesses reported that the intruders danced in celebration as they left after the slaughter, unhurried and unafraid that the police would catch up before their escape.

Leaders of the adivasi student unions came in after nightfall, and it was they who offered solace, called in the police, helped with the last rites, and took the traumatised survivors to the safety of the roadside. Here the local administration later established makeshift camps, as thousands of adivasi settlers, and often their Bodo neighbours,fled separately in panic to the security of camps. At the peak, there were 200,000 people in makeshift camps in the affected districts, battling trauma, fear and the winter cold. They felt safe only when trucks with large deployments of paramilitary soldiers drove into these forest interiors. In some places, the student leaders and volunteers marched with the villagers to local police outposts, shouting anguished slogans and parading the corpses of the dead. Police personnel in some of these outposts panicked and fired at the peacefully protesting crowds. It is officially learnt that three adivasi protesters were killed during police firings.

A few houses in Dhekiajuli under Sonitpur district were burned down in retaliatory attacks. Agitators also vandalised the local office of the All Bodo Students' Union(ABSU) in Dhekiajuli.

The prospect of violence spiralling out of control was defused. In Sonitpur, the student leaders and village elders took care to reassure their Bodo neighbours that they had nothing to fear from them. Despite similar precautions by adivasi student leaders and elders, at least three Bodos in Kokrajhar district were killed in revenge for the Adivasi slaughter. Bodo student leaders joined the protests against the firing, and tried to assistwith relief for the affected adivasi people.

In our discussions with the adivasi villagers, we encountered extreme fear about their security once the forces deployed to guard them were withdrawn. Though the state administration is committed to a deployment of the men in uniform for as long as they are required, the targeted communities are not quite reassured.

There was virtually no outreach of the development state in these villages. Even the nearest primary school was more than seven kilometres distant, through the jungles;not surprisingly most children never went to school. There were no ICDS centres for young children, no health worker, and no MG-NREGA public works. Almost none of the households had ration cards, and the PDS shop was again seven kilometres distant.We spoke to the local development officers, and it was clear that the first time most had visited the village was after the slaughter.

We met in these villages an extremely impoverished people. They owned almost nothing, and had no titles to the small paddy plots which they had cleared and cultivated. Among the families we spoke to, we met a young teenage girl who had been sent to Gurgaon near Delhi to work as a domestic help. We met many male migrants who worked brief stints in factories and construction sites as distant as Gujarat and Chennai.

Kokrajhar: The team visited a camp for the displaced people in Saralpara in the UltaPani reserve forest area. There were an estimated 9,011 inmates there, all of them from local adivasi villages. In all 51 villages from the far and near environs had evacuated into this camp, which was set up in the immediate vicinity of a Sashastra Seema Bal(SSB) base on the Bhutan border. We met with inhabitants of the Shantipur village, some ten kilometres from the Saralpara camp, which had suffered a lethal attack in which an estimated twelve were killed. Most of the 32 houses in the village were gutted and large parts of the 15 bighas of agricultural land, freshly sown with sesame, mustard and ginger, were laid waste. A number of inmates of the Saralpara camp had also sought refuge from Pipargaon village, located again at a distance of about ten kilometres. This village had also been attacked at the same time, though without loss of life.

Terrified villagers ran into the forests where they cowered in fear until the militants left. A young girl Munni Hembram, told us how her mother and elder brother were killed.

Clearly not comprehending the magnitude of what has happened, she said she was onher own, with no surviving 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 belong in a different age. Very little is perceptible in terms of what could be called the markers of “development” despite the creation of Bodoland with its own administrative council. The people have small tracts of agricultural land, and supplement meagre incomes 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. Recent years have seen alternating attacks by the 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 differences which typically become fierce in electoral contexts. Muslims were brutally targeted last year soon after polling in the Lok Sabha elections just because they were believed to be wavering in their support for a Bodo candidate. And speeches had been made by top BJP leaders stirring the communal cauldron as it were.

Locally the displaced villagers have no idea of why they were targeted. Everybody that this team spoke to in the relief camps confessed to 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 or prior warnings although the local police chief said that they had intelligence information of a possible attack without specific knowledge of the precise location. With or without the information the administration was ill prepared forthe attack, with no effort made to strengthen security in the area at all.

Nearly 300,000 people ran for their lives as news of the attack swept through the remote villages. On December 24 some adivasis grouped together to launch a counter attack 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 worse hit. Of the 300,000 now about 90,000 villagers remain and are looking for concrete assurances that they will be secure in their homes before venturing back. The district authorities are making arrangements for police pickets in the more sensitive villages, but even they know that these cannot be permanent arrangements. Neither is there the faintest pretence that they will be able to provide security in all parts of the area, where villagers are widely spaced and dispersed.

The camp for displaced adivasi people that this team visited was a dismal place. Most hutments were built on short bamboo poles no more than three feet high. They had typically single sheets of plastic or tarpaulin as roofs. Supplies were not reliably available. A young man that this group met had a modest sized bundle of potatoes,onions and spinach with him, for which he had paid a hundred rupees. Medical units were not in evidence. Despite the environment of fear, inmates were keen to return home given reliable security assurances. The squalor of the camp they were in was undoubtedly a powerful push factor.

Much of the relief material has been provided by local civil society organisations and unions. The district administration has been involved in mobilising and distributing relief material, but not to the extent required, according to most of the inmates of the camps for the displaced.

We observed a decided difference in the camp for the Bodos we visited, some ten kilometres off the main highway between Guwahati and Kokrajhar. Most dwelling units here had two layers of plastic or tarpaulin for their roofs, were closed on at least three sides and were built sufficiently high for an adult to enter standing up. A butcher seemed to have set up shop in the camp. A medical van fully equipped under the National Rural Health Mission arrived while this team was at the site. The adivasis seemingly had to seek safety in the vicinity of an SSB base to ensure that they would be secure. But the Bodo camp had a full contingent of the Assam Police under a sub-inspector rank officer and some fifteen personnel, assigned to guard it.

The inmates of the Bodo camp that this team spoke to said that they were not over-anxious about returning to their villages. Kokrajhar Deputy Commissioner Thaneswar Malakar told us that except for those whose huts had been burnt, all others were in the process of returning to their villages.