It is the holy month of Ramzan. Wahidul Hussain, 43, steps out of the makeshift masjid after his daily namaz. Constructed close to a series of tarpaulin tents, sheltering 163 Muslim families, the mosque is a mirror of the life that Wahidul and others like him have been living in the past year. A year ago, on 19 July 2012, when four Bodo youths were lynched by some Bengali-Muslim men at Joypur in Kokrajhar, it triggered violence of an unprecedented scale that soon spread to neighbouring Chirang and Dhubri districts. Over 100 people were killed and about 4.5 lakh people rendered homeless in the riots that lasted over a month. On 23 July 2012, Wahidul’s village, Rampholbil, in Kokrajhar district, was attacked by suspected Bodo rebels armed with automatic rifles.
A year later, TEHELKA visited these riot-affected areas to try and assess the life the survivors of the riots lead. What we found was dismaying.
“We have been shuttling from one relief camp to another, from one tarpaulin sheet shed to another, without food, medicines and livelihood,” narrates Wahidul. “All we had back in the village is lost. For two years, Ramzan has been full of sorrow for us, we did not even have food to break roza (fasting).”
In the Gossaigaon sub-division alone, 68 km from Kokrajhar town, around 1,100 Muslims are still staying at the No.1 Joymaa Relief Camp. The state government has asked these people to go back to their villages, and has even offered compensation, but there are no takers. “Our village is remote and in an isolated pocket surrounded by Bodo villages,” says Wahidul. “There is still an undercurrent of hate, and if we go back, we feel we will be targeted again.”
The Assam government admits that more than 3,500 riot victims are yet to be rehabilitated, and although the relief camps are officially closed, thousands of people who went back to start their life afresh, have actually returned to Kokrajhar town due to lack of security and livelihood. In the heart of Kokrajhar town, TEHELKA came across 20 Bodo families in the Nursing Centre Relief Camp. These people had returned from different fringe villages on the Kokrajhar-Dhubri border. In government records, the relief camp is now closed. In reality, it still houses riot victims.
“We got Rs 50,000 as rehabilitation package, but that is too less,” says Dharmendra Brahma, 37, a Bodo farmer. “We lost our livestock and crops, our houses were razed. Since our paddy fields are close to Muslim villages, we cannot go back there now. For the past four months we are here in this camp, managing to somehow live on the compensation money, but for how long?” asks Dharmendra. His neighbour Geeta Brahma, 33, from Gungunikhata village in Dhubri district, who lost her husband in the riots, says she wants to go back to her village, but is afraid for her children’s safety. Geeta has since moved her daughter and son to a school in Kokrajhar, but being unskilled, she does not know what she can do for a living.
The way the riots have changed the equations between the two communities is clearly reflected in the various challenges to eking out a livelihood. “I am an electrician and most of my clients were Muslims from the neighbouring village,” says Bimal Brahma, 45, of Takimari, an hour’s drive from Kokrajhar town. “Before the clashes, there was no animosity between the communities, but now the situation has changed. My shop was burnt down and I cannot think of putting up another. I don’t own any land for cultivation, and don’t dare to go to the neighbouring Muslim villages for work. I have no option but to live on the 50,000 I got as compensation.” The same fate awaited 32 other Bodo families, who were sent back with compensation but could not start life afresh and came back to Takimari, where they have been staying for over six months in makeshift houses close to security pickets.
“We go to our fields only with CRPF patrols,” says Dipankar Brahma, 35. “Our village is only 500 metres away, yet we are afraid to go there. Forget building houses, whenever we go to the weekly market, we go in groups. We are isolated and the government has never come to see how we are surviving.” At the time of our visit, even the security picket had been lifted.
The sense of fear haunts both communities and has left them paralysed. Life has been miserable for the 82 Muslim families who returned to their villages in remote Dansiapara and Ballamguri in Chirang district. “We had very good relationship with the Bodos before the riots, but our village was attacked in front of the police,” recalls Abdul Hamid Munsi, 82, at Ballamguri. “Those memories are still fresh. Now, they call us Bangladeshis. We are genuine Indians and have proper land documents, but we are treated as foreigners.”
In the entire Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) area — the area most affected by the Bodo-Muslim clashes — many Muslim settlers used to work on the lands owned by Bodos. After last year’s riots, these people are left in the lurch. “I don’t own any land,” says Minazur Rahman, 40, of Dansiapara. “I used to work on the land owned by Bodos. My livelihood was assured, but now I can’t go to Bodo villages looking for work. I have no money and my family has been eating only one meal a day for the past four months.”