Nearly two years after deadly ethnic riots led to more than 100 deaths and displaced over 4.5 lakh people in Kokrajhar region of Assam, fear and tension prevails. Communities – especially, the Bodos and Bengali-speaking immigrant Muslims – living in close proximity across the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District appear to be completely polarised.
In the small village of Joyma a few kilometres from Gosaigaon, around 150 Bengali-speaking Muslim families still live in the camps set up after the 2012 riots. They are scared to go back to their villages which fall in Bodo majority areas. "The administration wants us to go back to our villages to vote, but we'd rather die here than go back and get killed at their [Bodos] hands," says Mohd Awwal Sheikh, a frail old man who claims he has been voting since 1951.
In southern Kokrajhar, the fear is mirrored in the Bodo community. Lakhiraj Narzary and his family, who live in a village on the Dhubri-Kokrajhar district border surrounded by Muslim population, work their fields during the day, but move to a temporary shelter a few kilometres away after dusk.
"Unlike other constituencies, the election in this part of the country is not that free or fair. The issues on which the elections are fought here are not of development or governance. Insecurity, intimidation and fear rules the voting pattern," says Dr Nani Gopal Mahanta, a political science professor at Gauhati University who has done extensive research on the Bodo conflict.
Of the six candidates in the fray for elections on April 24, the ruling Congress's coalition partner Bodoland People's Front (BPF representative Chandan Brahma, rebel and sitting MP Sansuma Bwismuthiary and independent candidate UG Brahma are strong contenders, all vying for Bodo votes.
Many in the community believe that an NDA government at the Centre can mean a separate state. "It was the NDA government that gave autonomous council to the Bodos. We have extended our support to the BJP and hope to get our demands fulfilled," says UG Brahma, who is backed by the All Bodo Students Union.
An ULFA leader, Naba Kumar Sarania alias Hira – who has cases of kidnapping, ransom, criminal conspiracy pending against him and till recently was involved in peace talks – seems to be a favourite among non-Bodos (Bengali-speaking Muslims, Bengali Hindus, Rajbonshis, Adivasis, Rabhas etc). Hira, the dark horse in the race might upset all equations in Kokrajhar constituency. Others in the fray are former Meghalaya governor Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary, fighting on a Trinamool Congress ticket and another independent candidate Sabda Ram Rabha, who will fragment votes on both sides.
The imposed peace is fragile, a card castle which can fall any moment. On March 29, a 17-year-old girl was allegedly raped before being murdered in Chirang district. Within hours, a Bengali-speaking Muslim boy was killed in retaliation. Curfew was instated to avert a relapse into violence.
Reflecting the ground reality, the election campaigns have revolved around ethnic identities, with candidates promising security and protection to non-Bodos and separate statehood for Bodos.