The alleged failure of migrant Muslims to vote for a tribal party candidate in Kokrajhar Lok Sabha constituency has claimed 23 lives in western Assam's Baska and Kokrajhar districts since Thursday evening. The death toll is expected to go up with many reported missing.
Kokrajhar is the headquarters of the ethnically volatile areas under Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), which is ruled by the Bodoland People's Front (BPF), a constituent of the Congress-led government in Assam.
Officials in the affected districts said the attacks, presumably by Bodo tribal militants, has made Muslims and other minority groups flee their villages to safer locations. The administration in adjoining Dhubri district has opened up two relief camps, fearing a rerun of the 2012 communal clashes that took the lives of 108 people.
An umbrella group of 21 non-Bodo organisations has attributed the violence to BPF legislator Pramila Rani Brahma's view on April 30 that her party candidate (for Kokrajhar seat) and Assam minister Chandan Brahma could find it hard to win because Muslims did not vote for him. Violence had preceded polling in Kokrajhar on April 24.
Muslims are a major constituent of this group that fielded Naba Kumar alias Hira Sarania, a former United Liberation Front of Asom rebel, as an independent candidate in Kokrajhar. Non-Bodos including other tribes have never won this seat despite constituting two-thirds of the population.
"BPF chief Hagrama Mohilary is responsible for instigating his cadres to attack non-Bodo villagers, particularly Muslims, because his party has realised it could lose the Kokrajhar seat," Sarania said.
Mohilary refuted Sarania's claim, saying BPF was not responsible for the killings. "We urge the religious minorities not to flee their villages. We will provide them protection," he said.
Congress leader Abdul Khaleque has sought Pramila Rani's arrest for her 'incendiary' comment while All Assam Minority Students' Union Abdur Rahim said the BTC administration had planned the mayhem after the votes were cast.
The Assam police suspect the Sangbijit National Democratic Front of Boroland behind the attacks that left 23 dead in four villages. "The assailants used automatic weapons and set several villages on fire," said AP Rout, ADG (law and order).
Confirming the toll, state home commissioner GD Tripathi said: "Indefinite curfew has been clamped in Baska and Kokrajhar districts. Ten army columns have been deployed in the sensitive areas."
Chief minister Tarun Gogoi, who cancelled his trip to Germany following the violence, appealed for peace. "We will provide Rs 3 lakh as ex-gratia for the next of kin of each victim while the centre will pitch in with another Rs 3 lakh," he said.
Meanwhile, the centre has sought strong action against NDFB(S) for bloodshed and instigating people to indulge in riots. "We have rushed 10 additional companies of paramilitary forces to Assam and the army has been requested to remain on standby," said Shambhu Singh, joint secretary (Northeast) in the Union home ministry.
(With Rajesh Ahuja in New Delhi)