Is it possible for an entire population to go spontaneously berserk?
That is what seemed to happen in Assam, where a sudden outbreak of riots between the Bodo people, a tribal group, and Bengali Muslims has led to 42 deaths and the displacement of an estimated 150,000 people in a period of less than a week. On Thursday, the federal government sent more troops to the region, adding to the 6,000 army and paramilitary forces already on the ground. - ---------------------------------
August 2, 2012, 7:23 am In Assam, Grim Aftermath to July Riots
By BETWA SHARMA
KOKRAJHAR/CHIRANG, Assam -- Almost two weeks after their village was burned by rioters, a group of Bodo men sneaked back to see the charred remains of their houses. All their livestock, except the pigs, were gone. "Right now, standing here, I am petrified," said Kalidas Brahmo, a farmer, walking through the rubble of his home.
Bangaldoba village Part I in Kokrajhar district was attacked on the afternoon of July 23 by Muslims, villagers said. "They came with sickles, swords, sticks, spears, and all us of took off together," said Mr. Brahmo, 32. "The women and children ran in front, and the men were behind them."
"As we looked back, we saw our houses burning," he continued.
At least 53 people have been killed in riots between the Bodo tribals and Muslims, which started on July 19. Many of the latter are Bengali migrants from Bangladesh or their kin crossed the border generations ago. The clashes occurred in the Muslim-majority Dhubri district, as well as the districts of Kokrajhar and Chirang, administered by the autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council.
The Bodos fear losing power as the growing population of Muslims changes the demographics, and they contend that most of the Muslims are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. "Encroachment by Muslims is going on in almost all the government and common land, which include protected forests as well as water bodies," said Derhasat Basumatary, executive member of the council.
Muslim women at a refugee camp in Chirang, who had fled Bodo attacks on their village, responded angrily to the accusations of that they are Bangladeshi encroachers. "My grandfather came here, and I was born here, so Assam is my homeland," said Zobeeda Begum, 42. "Where do they want me to go?"
Even before the violence erupted, the women said, their village of Chatipur was regularly attacked by Bodos with stones. "Every night, our men went to guard the village and now this place," said Ms. Zobeeda.
People on both sides said that this latest collision was avoidable.
They faulted the government for not beefing up security this summer after the killing of two Muslim boys and four Bodo men. Even the army arrived late to quell the riots. The state and central government, both led by the Congress Party, have blamed each other.
L.K. Advani, a Bhartiya Janata Party leader, said Tuesday that Bangladeshi immigrants were responsible for the land grabs, the ethnic tensions and the changing population profile of Assam. "The Congress deserves to be punished for its collusion in the massive influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh," he said.
On Tuesday, Tarun Gogoi, Assam's chief minister, responded that the opposition party did not act to stop the illegal immigration when it was in power and that illegal immigrants were not responsible for the riots.
Tens of thousands of Bodos and Muslims are now crammed into unprotected temporary camps, with only one toilet for around 3,000 inhabitants staying in a madrassa of Chirang. "It is dirty, but we have nowhere else to go," said Hazra Khatu, a 50-year-old widow.
Mr. Brahmo is living in a school about 10 kilometers (6 miles) away from his village. The farmer, who returned on Tuesday to assess the damage for the first time, stared at the destruction in disbelief. "Hindus and Muslims have always lived together here," he said. "Even when violence started, we agreed that we would not fight here."
These Bodo villagers refuse to be labeled as Muslim haters. They employed 2,000 Muslim agricultural laborers to plough their fields in exchange for half the produce. "I had eight Muslims work in my field," said Laisang Brahmo, a 38-year-old farmer, whose house was burned down. "That relationship is over."
The Muslim labor came from the bordering Bangaldoba village Part II. Mohammed Moinul Haq, a farmhand on a Bodo field, is saddened by the plight of his neighbors. "Yes, we agreed to no fighting," Mr. Haq, 68, declared. "We have eaten from the same plate, and there was no bad blood."
Several villagers from Bangaldoba said that Muslims from Part II were not their attackers. "I did not recognize them," said Laisang Brahmo, who is not related to Kalidas Brahmo. "After the attack, we even called some of our Muslim friends to go see if it was safe for us to visit, and they expressed sympathy."
The Muslim villagers insist that the attackers came from outside, but some Bodos suspect that Muslims from Part II did show the attackers their houses, as not all of them work in the Bodo fields.
Mr. Haq said the flight of the Bodos has snatched away the livelihood of Muslims who don't have their own land. "We haven't thought of a new way to earn yet," he said. "We don't know if they will be back, and even if they do, we are too scared to work for them now."
On July 30, Mr. Gogoi announced that refugees will be sent back in 15 days. The villagers of Bangaldoba Part I, which hardly has a house standing, wondered if the minister was joking. No official, they say, has asked them about the requirements to restore their village.
Abject fear supersedes their monetary losses. Anita Basumatari, a 27-year-old Bodo farmer at the camp, is worried about missing this year's rice sowing time, which lasts until September. Her family also employed Muslim labor. "We don't hate them, but we cannot go back without proper security," she said. "Even here, there is no police or army protecting us."
Mrs. Basumatari lost her mother-in-law in the violence. Plagued by paralysis, she could not run along with the villagers who recalled that the attackers came from three sides. They ran north through the flood waters. "She had become too fat," said Mrs. Basumatari. "We could not carry her with us." The elderly woman, alone in the village on July 24, was stabbed with a knife in the back and neck.
Bodoland continues to be under curfew from late evening to early morning. Army patrols and a stream of noisy police cars, flanking officials, now dot the lush green landscape of colorfully dressed women working in tea and rubber plantations surrounded by rolling hills.
Even the non-Bodo Assamese crave normalcy. Locals say that prices of vegetables, grown mostly by Muslims, have doubled since the Muslims fled their villages.
Prabin Brahmo, a 44-year-old schoolmaster from Bangaldoba Part 1, pointed out that it would be difficult but essential for Bodos and Muslims to trust each other again. "It's an old bond," he said, tearing up. 'We need their vegetables, and when they want a cow, they come to us."