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Everyone knew riots were coming, except for Gogoi

The genesis of the ongoing violence in Assam, which has resulted in over 40 deaths, is the deep distrust and animosity between Bodos and the rest.

Mrinal Talukdar  Guwahati | 29th Jul 2012

Both Muslims and Bodos (below) have been affected by the riots. Photographs: Anupam Nath

amaluddin Ali is one of Guwahati's hundred odd plumbers. Working hard, he was rising steadily and could flaunt a Chinese mobile phone and a second-hand two wheeler while working in the city. Back home at his village near Kokrajhar, he had added two more rooms in his modest house to give some space for his growing family of six. But a shriek over his mobile from his sister on the night of 20 July saw his worst nightmare come true. The Bodos of a neighbouring village had not only attacked his village but burnt all his belongings. When he eventually found his family in a school relief camp, two of its members were traceless.

Cut across to Chirang, the newly created district following the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) Accord, to find a similar scene, but involving the Bodos.

Pramod Boro is a proud farmer. By using mechanised farming, he has emerged as one of the icons of the Bengtol area, with both his children pursuing higher studies in Guwahati.

Pramod and his wife were alone in his vast house when the attack by Muslim settlers began. Jumping on to a passing vehicle, he and his wife could save themselves but not the house.

Both Pramod and Kamaluddin are now seeking revenge as Bodoland starts burning again, completing a full circle of violence and politics. 22 years ago, Bodos fought with the mainstream Assamese for their rights and were persecuted by the latter.

"After two decades, the wheel has turned full circle and the Bodos are now fighting with non Bodos. They want all non Bodos out of BTC," said Jogeswar Kalita, general secretary of the Non-Bodo Protection Forum.

Kalita's comment, however, was vehemently opposed by Anjali Daimary, president of the Bodo Women Justice Forum and one of the main faces of the radical elements among the Bodos. "It is the mentality of the non Bodo people, who cannot see and accept the leadership of the Bodos and hence they are fomenting trouble," she said.

Truth is the biggest casualty in this ongoing mayhem. No one is sure which side is losing in this mindless battle. By the time this article is printed, the death toll will stop climbing, violence will abate and the government will restore normalcy, but not before proving that the trust deficit between the Bodos and the non Bodos is too large to be gulfed.

"This was a well designed game. The Bodos systematically targeted the Muslim settlers and started the ethnic cleansing. The Bodos did that with the Santhals, now with the Muslims and after that they will go after the mainstream Assamese," said Kalita. Privately, radical Bodo elements say that the battle is between the indigenous and the non indigenous population, asserting that the Assamese are not the target.

The genesis of the violence is the deep distrust and animosity between the Bodos and the rest. The Bodos are the original inhabitants of the area and it is a truth that since Independence successive governments have not paid any attention to their development.

By the 1960s, the Bodos had started realising that mainstream political parties and the system would never give them their dues. Hence, they got united under the Plains Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA) and demanded a separate Union Territory in 1967.

"But after two decades of a lacklustre Bodo movement, the radical Bodo forces, mainly the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) and their mercurial leader Upendra Nath Brahma, took over in 1987. It was the brilliant leadership of Brahma that united the Bodos. They started asserting for a separate Bodoland state," said Dr Noni Gopal Mahanta, political analyst and an associate professor at the Gauhati University.

A house is set on fire during Bodo-Muslim clashes in Assam. Photograph: Manoj Deka

Upen Brahma could not see the success of his movement as he died at a very early age because of cancer. But by 1993, the ABSU clinched the Bodo Accord and got something of a separate homeland, but with very little actual power. This saw two Bodo groups, led by Prem Singh Brahma and S.K. Bwisumutiary, drifting apart and eventually the radical Bodo forces once again got the upper hand, forcing the government to agree to a Bodoland Autonomous Council (BTC) ten years later. This was under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, having real power.

That should have been the end of the story for those demanding a Bodo state, but that was not the case. The birth of Bodo nationalism saw the subsequent birth of anti-Bodo feelings as the non-Bodos almost equalled the Bodos in number even in many parts of the BTC.

"Muslim immigrants started coming to the vast waste lands in the Bodo areas from 1945, and this continued till the mid 1980s, making the Bodos minority in their homeland," said Prabin Bodo, spokesman of the Bodo Peoples Progressive Front (BPPF).

This triggered the Bodos' forceful domination over non-Bodos in the BTC. Pent up anger among both sides took the shape of the ongoing violence. But the sad part is that everybody but the government knew that this was coming. So when four Bodo youth were murdered on 9 July, the whole of Assam knew what was coming, except for Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.

"As the non-Bodo forces started getting stronger, it was a matter of time before something like this would happen. Precautionary measures should have been taken," said former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta.

As violence spread to five districts of Lower Assam, 24,000 train passengers got stuck between New Jalpaiguri and Bongaigaon. The Northeast remained cut off for three days since mobs from both sides went after the trains. A conservative estimate suggests that more than 210, 000 people have been left homeless.

"The sad part is that we were not prepared and we did not have enough forces", said Bodo MLA Prameela Rani Brahma.

The last word however belongs to Sambhu Singh, Joint Secretary (NE) with the Ministry of Home Affairs: "The problem is land."

He is right. The problem stems from land, on who will dominate the land. Bodos want complete domination and are worried about the fast growth of the Muslim population, and hence the ethnic cleansing. The Muslims, confident because of their political clout, have struck back.

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