Bullets rained from all sides. Men armed with automatic weapons chased a crowd of terrified, fleeing women and children. Romila Khatoon, only nine years old, ran behind her mother, and leaped with her into the high currents of the Beki River, which ran along the village in Baksa district of Assam bordering Bhutan. As she dived into the river, her mother carried her four-month-old baby in one arm and her three-year-old child in the other. She tried desperately to swim with them to safety. But a bullet hit her and she drowned. Her baby was swept away by the currents. Romila’s three-year-old brother tried to swim, but was soon also pierced by a bullet. Romila swam underwater as far as she could. That was how she survived.
We met Romila with her stricken bereaved father a few days later at a camp, haunted by memories. I was part of a fact-finding team assembled by Seema Mustafa of the Centre for Policy Analysis, with journalists Anand Sahay and Satish Jacob and professor Anuradha Chenoy. We crossed the river on a leaking country boat, trekked through long stretches of low waters, and finally arrived at Narayanguri village, a settlement of Bengali Muslims bordering a thick forest that stretches into Bhutan. The village is now razed to the ground, all 72 hutments charred, and emptied fully of its terrified surviving residents.
Women and children we met at the camp, where they now live under thin plastic sheets, recounted the events of May 1. Most men of their village had crossed the river to shop at the village market, as was their practice. At around 3 pm, a group of armed men entered the village and began to shoot whoever they saw. Ten-year-old Mohammed Islam said that they shot dead his mother and seven-year-old sister in their home. As he ran, bullets flew from both sides. He still managed to flee to the forests and hid behind the trees. From there he watched as his loved ones and neighbours fell one by one — many were shot as they tried to swim away — and as the attackers set their homes on fire.
Then the attackers disappeared into the dark shadows of the forests, as suddenly as they appeared. Hours later, when darkness fell and security forces came in by boats, they announced on the loudspeaker in the mosque that all was safe, and survivors should emerge from where they were hiding.
The children mentioned the names of forest guards of their village among their attackers. The Bodo Territorial Council had appointed surrendered Bodo militants as foresters, and armed them with rifles. The surrendered militants never had been seriously disarmed by the state government. Many were known to hide in the forests between the village and Bhutan, and they joined the foresters with automatic weapons before the slaughter.
When the dead were counted, the numbers were 45, with another 10 missing. These included 19 children dead, and two children missing. Their only crimes were that they were Muslim and spoke Bengali.
This slaughter is the latest in a series of such killings which go back several decades. In many cycles of violence which have racked Assam since the late 1970s, no one has been punished, which is why the targeted attacks recur with impunity. People recalled that this same village had suffered a slaughter of the same scale almost exactly 20 years back, in 1994. Armed Bodo militants had at that time attacked Bengali Muslims, and the survivors had taken refuge in a village school. The school was set on fire and around 50 trapped people — many of them women and children again — were charred to death. Then, as now, people recognised many of the killers. But no one has been punished for these crimes against humanity.
Weeks before the killings, the then BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi in an election rally in Dhemaji, Assam, claimed that rhinos were being deliberately killed to settle illegal Bangladeshis. He also deplored ‘intrusions’ from people in Bangladesh, who he alleged were taking away jobs in India, and declared that it was time that these ‘intrusions’ stopped. Modi’s rhetoric clearly found many echoes in the deeply divided Assamese society, and the BJP won its highest tally to date of seven seats, half the seats in the state.
Shortly after their election, the BJP MPs met near Kaziranga — Assam’s rhino sanctuary, an emotively selected venue — and called for a house-to house campaign to forcefully evict illegal Bangladeshi ‘infiltrators’, creating widespread fear and panic.
There is no doubt that indigenous groups like the Bodos have entirely legitimate anxieties about the preservation of their land, forests and way of life, which have been neglected too long. But it is also an irrefutable fact of history that Bengalis have been lawfully migrating into the area from the 19th century, and independent scholars have established that not more than one in 10 Bengali Muslim residents in Assam could be illegal immigrants. But if in these parts you are Muslim and speak Bengali, it is assumed that you are an infiltrator, and must be expelled, if necessary by violence. These are millions of people who have nowhere to go: India is their country. But these legal citizens are once more in the throes of mortal fear of a renewed cycle of violence and killings.
Histories cannot be erased. Areas cannot be ‘cleansed’ of ethnic and religious populations by inflamed rhetoric and brutal massacres of the kind that Narayanguri witnessed. These diverse peoples cannot be barred under India’s constitutional guarantees from settling, farming, earning their living and indeed participating in governance in any part of the country. They cannot be reduced as they are today to dread and insecurity.
The silver lining was that Bodo student groups strongly condemned the Narayanguri massacre. Not just governments, but also people in every corner of India — in Delhi as much as the North-East — must defend the right of everyone to live and work, study and worship, dress and speak as they wish, without fear or discrimination, wherever they choose. We should never tolerate the creation of second-class citizenship in this land, which belongs equally to all who are born here and have made this country their own.
(Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies. The views expressed by the author are personal.)