Forgotten by their governments and their people, tens of thousands of people who were uprooted from their homes and villages by waves of ethnic violence are living hopeless lives in makeshift camps in Assam for more than a decade. In a region that has near-fatally imploded with the politics of competing persecutions, as oppressed groups arm and organise themselves to drive away other wretched and deprived people, in pursuit of dangerous, impossible (and unconstitutional) aspirations of ethnically cleansed homelands. Their plight is aggravated by bankrupt and opportunistic politics and state policy, and equivocal rationalisations by civilian observers. In the past, strife in the region was manifested in clashes between armed groups and security forces of the state. Since the 1980s, dispossessed people have increasingly turned against each other. In battles between indigenous inhabitants and settlers, many of the region’s poorest people are living out their lives in fear, confined to camps, people who no one wants and who have nowhere to go.
The camps in the Bodo heartland of Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon are of people of East Bengali Muslim and Jharkhandi tribal origin. They were driven out of the villages, which they shared with indigenous Bodo people in surrounding hills and forests, in a series of attacks and slaughters in the 1990s. Today, an estimated 50,000 people, of whom a third are children, still live in camps, surviving on erratic supplies of rice rations for registered camp dwellers for ten days a month. They are unable to return to their lands and homes, boycotted from seeking work and attacked if they stray back to indigenous habitations.
At a Bengali Muslim camp in Salabila, for instance, we found people barely surviving in flimsy thatch hovels that are flooded with water when it rains; what passes for a school is a thatched roof held up by wooden stumps with only one untrained teacher paid a thousand rupees monthly. There are no markers of even elementary citizenship: no mid-day meals, no pre-school feeding centres, no ration shops, no health centres and no pensions for the aged. The mosque where a few devout men were offering prayers is the humblest I have seen anywhere, just straw walls and an uncovered earth floor. A silence shrouds the sombre reality of many girls and women trafficked to other parts of the country, as the only option of shameful survival. A young man who grew up in the camps mourned, “We have lost 14 years of our lives. It is like living in a jail. We too have dreams for our futures, but how can we ever fulfil them?” An elder testifies: “The government assures us that they will do something for us every few years, then nothing happens.” He adds sadly but truthfully, “People do not want us anywhere.”
Conditions at the Deosri Santhal camp of descendants of 19th century tea garden workers from central India in the foothills of Bhutan are no better. The ethnic central Indian tribal people (locally called adivasis, to contrast them from the indigenous tribal people) were driven out by in 1996 from villages they had peacefully shared for generations with Bodo, Bengali Muslim and Nepali residents. They were attacked one night with guns and knives by their Bodo neighbours, and their homes and houses burnt down. Like the Muslim settlers, few had legal titles to the lands they cultivated, since land records in the region are perfunctorily maintained. The lands they cultivated are now occupied by indigenous tribal people. They too survive only on occasional rice doles (only for duly registered camp residents) and on dwindling hope. Even today, years later, they are fearful to stray too far from the camp, and young men take turns to stand vigil every night to protect their settlements from attacks. They have long lost all contact with their original villages in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Assam is the only home they have ever known. Yet, it is not accepted to be their ‘homeland’: militants want only to see them gone, and the state government, in a political alliance with the leadership of the Bodo Autonomous Council, looks the other way.
Assam through its history has been welcoming to migrants from South-East Asia and other parts of India. But after its annexation to British colonial authority in the 19th century, migration increased manifold as an integral part of colonial economic interests. Adivasi families from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh migrated in tens of thousands to power the tea gardens, and with the railways, East Bengali landless and poor peasants driven by land hunger penetrated the forested interiors of inner Assam. They were far more experienced agriculturists than the indigenous Bodos, who still relied on slash-and-burn cultivation. In post-colonial India, Assam became the increasingly less welcoming home for large numbers of East Bengali political and economic refugees. Today, as pointed out by scholar Monirul Hussain, Assam has gradually morphed from a major host of displaced people to a major generator of displacement fuelled by conflict. Large numbers subsist in state-sponsored relief camps for long years, deprived of basic life supports and public amenities, and with little hope or real support to return.
Although the largest majority of East Bengali Muslims migrated to Assam in pre-colonial times, the continued migration due to poverty after Independence has been misused to fuel chauvinistic hatred against the whole community. Thousands were killed at the peak of the ‘anti-foreigners’ agitation from 1979 to 1985 in organised slaughters. in one of the most brutal forgotten communal massacres in India, in Nellie in 1983, more than two thousand lives were taken. Its survivors are still haunted by the savagery of the attack a quarter century later.
But the militant Bodo agitation from 1987 was originally not targeted against the East Bengali Muslims: it saw them as allies in a fight against the dominant Hindu Asamiya people. The situation changed in 1993 when the government brokered the Bodo accord, which watered down the demand for Bodo self-determination, but laid down that only settlements with populations of more than 50 per cent Bodo people would be included in Bodoland. The die was thus cast by state policy itself for violent ethnic cleansing.
The local militants organised themselves to drive out the settlers. In 1993 itself, the Muslims were killed and their homes looted and burnt. The terrified survivors went to camps that were to be their homes for years. Attacks were launched against the adivasis in 1996, and at its peak around three lakh people were displaced by the violence. In 1997, some returned, but returned after fresh clashes in 1997. In 2000, the Muslims were forced to vacate their camps, but were subject to attacks and set up their own camps, on the side of the National Highway, or on private land. That is where they continue until today.
The Assam government says it can do nothing for the people in camps, who must return to their homes from where they were expelled. The displaced people plead that to return is to live daily in the shadow of fear of the assured next attack, by a people determined to reclaim their ‘homeland’ from the settlers, spurred by the Bodo accord which recklessly incentivised such ‘cleansing’.
These are just some of India’s ‘nowhere people’. Unwanted, they live without hope or rights only because of their ethnicity or faith. The country needs urgently to redeem to them its pledge of a secular democratic constitution.
Harsh Mander is Convenor, Aman Biradari