Group Clashes Shock Northeast India

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India, October 19 – Group clashes that erupted in middle Assam, Northeast India, during the first week of this month shocked the entire populace of the country. Violence broke out in Udalguri district of the State on October 3 and elongated for almost a week to snatch away the lives of over 50. Moreover, the hostility between the Bodo tribespeople and immigrant Bangladeshis in four districts of Assam(Udalguri, Darrang, Baksa and Chirang) left hundreds wounded and thousands of families with women and minor children in the relief camps.

The incident was surprising because nobody outside the localities under the Bodo territorial council knew about it. Not to speak of common people, the police and intelligence department also failed to understand and predict the growing intolerance between the two communities since August. The Bangladeshi settlers were angry with local Bodos in some areas of Udalguri and Darrang, as they opposed an agitational program, sponsored by the Muslims, during the middle of August.

The violence this time erupted with a small incident of stealing of cattle by the Bangladeshi settlers from a Bodo village. The flame of communal violence rapidly engulfed the adjacent areas and finally it spread widely in four districts of the Bodoland Territorial (Autonomous District) Council.

nituparna cartoon
Cartoon by Nituparna Rajbongshi

The BTC was formed after the Bodoland Tiger Force made a peace agreement with New Delhi in 2003. The leaders and members of BLT later gave birth to Bodo People’s Front to join the electoral process. Now the BPF is an ally of the Congress government led by Tarun Gogoi.

The government tried hard to get the situation under control. Thousands of police, army and paramilitary troops were deployed in the strife torn areas. The army and paramilitary forces continued to stage flag marches in the affected areas over many days. Army choppers were also engaged for air surveillance. Even a curfew was enforced for more than a week, though it was relaxed during day time as the situation started improving.

The Assam Tribune, the oldest English daily in the Northeast, commented in an editorial that ‘the ethnic riots in Udalguri and Darrang districts expose the failure of the State government to maintain law and order and provide security to the people living in sensitive areas’. It also added, “It is unfortunate that the State government led by Tarun Gogoi, miserably failed to anticipate the situation and allowed the mayhem to continue for several days. It also made the situation more complicated by issuing off the cuff remarks by the Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and the government spokesperson, Minister Himanta Biswa Sarmah.”

The State chief minister Gogoi was quick to blame the National Democratic Front of Bodoland militants for the violence. He found a supporting voice in his loyalist minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s comment. The State Health and Family Welfare minister Sarma visited some affected areas and later addressing the local media at Mangaldai, he termed the act as a systematic ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the NDFB militants. He even warned the militant outfit, which is under ceasefire agreement with New Delhi, to review the truce.

The BTADC chief Hagrama Mohilary also accused the NDFB as being involved in the killing. But the NDFB general secretary Govinda Basumatary refuted the allegation promptly. Amazingly the State police chief RN Mathur also revealed that there was no evidence of NDFB’s involvement in the violence of Udalguri and Darrang districts.

The minister’s comment about ‘ethnic cleansing’ was not digested by many. The Bodo Women Justice Forum president Anjali Daimary also condemned the minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for his irresponsible comments. Addressing the media persons at Guwahati Press club, Ms Daimary even held the minister responsible for the recent carnage in Udalguri and Darrang districts. She also asked the young minister ‘not to meddle in the internal affairs of the Bodo people’ any more.

The main opposition party of Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad asked Gogoi to resign as he failed miserably in both ways, as the head of the government and also the Home minister of the State. After visiting the riot affected areas, the party’s newly elected president, Chandra Mohan Patowary also demanded an impartial inquiry to find out whether Pakistani flags were hoisted in the violence affected areas. Patowary, also the leader of the opposition in the State Assembly asked the Gogoi government not to take the issue lightly.

Gogoi earlier tried to clarify that the flag, which was seen by many people including some journalists at Mohanpur under Udalguri district, was associated with the festival of Eid and did not symbolize Pakistan. The Assam government spokesman Sarma also rubbished the report that there were Pakistani flags in the conflict ridden areas. Of course, the local television channels telecast the visuals of Pakistani flags flying at Sonaripara and Mohanpur village. Many Guwahati based newspapers also published photographs of the Pak flag on the front page.

The All Assam Students’ Union and the All Bodo Students’ Union representatives expressed their annoyances that ‘the indigenous people of Assam were forced to leave their residences to take refuge in the relief camps’. After visiting the affected localities, the AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya alleged that Gogoi had compromised national security by protecting those involved in the incident.

Worried New Delhi asked the State government to take all possible means to restore normalcy in the violence hit localities and rehabilitate the victims. The central government also suggested Gogoi to maintain adequate security and food at the relief camps. Soon after paying a visit to the affected areas, E. Ahmed, the Union minister of state for External Affairs met Gogoi and informed him about New Delhi’s thoughts on the matter.

Even the Asom Sahitya Sabha president Kanaksen Deka blamed Gogoi for his inefficiency in handling the situation. Earlier the Bodo Sahitya Sabha criticized Gogoi for not ‘visiting the violence-hit areas (even though less than 200 km away from Dispur) to assess the situation’. The BSS president Dr Kameswar Brahma blamed Gogoi as he failed to take prompt actions to save the lives and property of the victims even though he holds the Home portfolio.

Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission (of India) has accepted the incidence of group clashes seriously. Taking suo moto cognizance of the media reports regarding the violence, the commission has already issued notices to the state government to submit a report in the matter. The NHRC also decided to send a team to assess the situation in the affected areas.

Earlier facing the increasing heat of criticism, Gogoi visited the affected areas on seventh day of the violence. He initiated a judicial probe into the incidences of violence after his visit to the location on October 9. Lately Gogoi opted for a CBI probe into the incidence of hoisting of Pakistan flags with an aim to punish those involved.