Devolution of Power to a Minority of Ethnic Cleansers
Killings and Internal Displacement in Bodoland
by Vaskar Nandy
and the Union governments have agreed to grant autonomy under the Sixth Schedule of the constitution to a Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) comprising of whole or parts of six Assam Lower Assam districts. There is now a negotiated Accord to that effect with the biggest Bodo terrorist group, the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), which remains heavily armed and continues to intimidate, displace, rig polls, extort money and murder ordinary people under the guise of a ceasefire that has entitled them to the protection of the state and central paramilitaries. All that remains to be done is the passing of a Bill in parliament.
The Bill is now at the committee stage and it will pass almost unopposed on account of the support the Accord has received from the NDA, the Congress and the parliamentary Left. Reflecting this wide party political consensus, the press and the other media have more or less followed suit, especially since
has always been the Unknown Continent and continues to remain so as far as the so called Indian mainstream is concerned. Assam
The opposition to this proposal is feeble, although it comes from the majority of the people living in the mooted BTC. The voice of this majority does not reach the glare of publicity on account of that majority’s poverty, illiteracy and a general lack of access to the political skills that are required to deal with the state machinery and the media. Having been abandoned by the established political parties, this majority’s views have been aired through a series of non-violent movements sponsored by a coordination of more than a dozen ethnic and class organisations, the Sanmilita Jati Goshti Sangram Samiti (SJGSS). The case put forward by the SJGSS is very strong and it requires serious and sympathetic consideration.
The major points raised by the SJGSS are: 1) That the Bodos in the area constitute less than 20 per cent of the population, but have been deemed fit to command an unassailable, absolute majority in the proposed Council. Over 65 per cent of the seats in the Council are to be reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs), whereas the total ST population, including the Bodos, is around 30 per cent. The Accord states that the objective in setting up the BTC is to “fulfil economic, educational and linguistic aspirations and the preservation of land rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos…” There is no concern here about the STs other than the Bodos. It is Bodoland for the Bodos even when the territory has only an absolute minority of Bodos. This is a gross violation of equality and democratic rights; 2) That, given the savage violence with which ethnic cleansing by the armed Bodos has taken place in the area for decades, handing over considerable powers to the perpetrators of that protracted violence will mean the end of all guarantees of safety, livelihood and democratic rights for the non-Bodo majority, much in the manner of the plight of the Palestinians in Sharon-led Israel, beholden to the mastermind behind the massacres at Sabra and Shatila; 3) That the two governments failed to consult any non-Bodo organisation, or indeed any organisation other than the BLT, in spite of repeated demands for it and it would appear to be their intention to buy peace by bribing a violent minority with an undemocratic, illegitimate and dangerous Accord; and finally, 4) that the Sixth Schedule was intended by the framers of the Constitution for the “Hill Tribes” of Assam as it then was. It was explicitly not intended for the “Plains Tribes” of
. The framers of the Constitution explicated their intention to treat the plains tribes of Assam as “minorities”, without territorial autonomy. The granting of Sixth Schedule status to such plains tribes through a simple majority in Parliament would violate the constitution. Assam
The Demographic Tangle
For Indians and others not familiar with the demography and history of
, the SJGSS views could easily seem to be too complicated, remote and unintelligible for opinion formation. It is therefore best to consider the issues mooted by them as factually as possible. This caveat about the possible is quite necessary. Government hides behind so called official secrets when it comes to disclosing crucial facts. Pertinent to the present issue, the census has clear data on the number of Bodos in the region and in each village demarcated for the BTC. But the Home ministry under which the census functions refuses to publish the linguistic data from which this number could be ascertained. That leaves researchers and activists to arrive first at total STs and then making “guesstimates” about the population of non-Bodo STs. Why should opposition to a serious political move require guesses? The Union Home ministry could have easily published the village-level data on populations of Bodos and non-Bodos, but they have consistently refused to do so. They should have been publishing them suo motu, as would be expected of any decent, democratic practice. It seems that a bureaucratic manoeuvre to hand over almost exclusive governing powers to a violent minority requires much to be hidden away in government vaults. After an earlier amendment to the Schedule that was tailored to the requirements of the existing Autonomous Districts Councils, these powers are immense and extend to almost all spheres of governance except Home. Assam
The question of numbers has created much confusion. Even a journal with well-researched views such as the EPW (
October 12, 2002) managed to contradict itself within the span of a short comment on BTC developments. At one point, the comment states that the Bodos “comprise 40 per cent of the population” in the proposed BTC area. That comment coexists with another that states that the “non-tribals [make] up nearly two-thirds of the population”. If the Bodos are 40 per cent, then the number of tribals will be much more, by some 10 per cent perhaps, given the substantial presence of non-Bodo tribes such as the large and small groups of Saranias, Rabhas, Madahis, Garos and Hajongs living in the area. That doesn’t make the non-tribals “nearly two-thirds of the population”. More like half would be the case. Also, with the Bodos alone at 40 per cent, it’s a rather stiff ask to make the non-tribals two-thirds. One doesn’t of course blame the commentator too much, as government spokespersons, both politicians and bureaucrats, have been in the habit of giving out all sorts of figures to confuse and obfuscate what should have been a reasoned discussion.
We tried to get at the ST population by consulting the
gazette notification for the now defunct Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC). The villages allotted to the BAC have all been included in the proposed BTC. The latter has some additional villages (AVs) of which a list was procured. The BAC villages and the AVs were then traced to the 1991 census which yielded the figure of 36 per cent STs in the total population of the BTC area. This does make the non-tribals nearly two-thirds of the population, as the EPW comment stated. And if we assume the “guesstimate” of 10 per cent non-Bodo STs, then the Bodo population comes down to about a quarter of the population. This is higher than the figure publicised by the SJGSS by around 5 per cent. But that does not contradict the organisation’s main contention about the imposition of minority rule over the majority. A quarter of the population has been rewarded with the powers of a majority. The overwhelming majority is to be stripped effectively of its democratic rights of local self-government. Government’s attitude towards that majority is clear when we see that the AVs that are proposed contain only 7.2 per cent of scheduled tribals, and even less of Bodos. Seventy-five per cent of the AVs have less than four per cent STs and one third have either no STs or have less than one per cent of them. Assam
The Accord proposes that the 46-member Council will have the following composition: 30 seats will be reserved for the STs, 5 are open to all communities, 5 for non-ST communities and 6 seats will be nominated by government, presumably the state government, to give representation to women, non-represented communities, etc. This allotment of seats was the subject of a revealing contention between the negotiators of the Accord. Government had proposed 10 seats for the non-STs (a typically generous first move to give 22 per cent of seats to two-thirds of the population) but the terrorists wanted those seats to be open to all communities so that, as the terrorists knew and the government knew that the terrorists knew, given the prevailing culture of terrorism, all those 10 seats would go to the Bodo terrorists in the sort of elections that can be and are held under massive terrorist threats. That was precisely why Government had proposed a new reservation category of non-STs. But the government caved in soon enough and of the 10 seats in contestation, 5 were reserved for non-STs and 5 were thrown open to all communities. Imagining a best-case scenario for the non-STs, suppose that, 1) Government nominates only non-STs, and, 2) that all five seats open to all communities are won by non-STs, then the total number of seats that they could possibly win would be 16. That comes to 35 per cent of the seats. It means that two-thirds of the population can only aspire to getting, at best, only about a third of the seats. That’s democracy, Home Ministry fashion, with perfumes and adjuncts from the NDA, the parliamentary Left, and the Congress.
It has been an interesting experience to see the political parties and the media gliding over this issue of democratic rights of the majority. It just may be, given the elasticity of political opportunism, that there is some desire somewhere to satisfy the aspiration for self-rule and identity fulfilment among the Bodos. But that need not have taken the path of depriving the majority’s aspirations for the same things, especially when alternatives were not far to seek. In fact a commission set up by Government in the early nineties to look into this question mooted a realistic and fair alternative.
This commission is known in
as the Three-man Commission. It consisted of the Chairman, Bhupinder Singh, a long-time handler of tribal affairs for the Union Home Ministry; Kumar Suresh Singh who needs no introduction as an anthropologist and administrator; and, a member secretary supplied from the Home Ministry’s ranks. This commission was to look at both the Bodo and the Mising questions on the north bank of the Assam Brahmaputra. We would like to summarise very briefly its recommendations so far as they pertain to the Bodo question.
The commission had access to the linguistic tables of the 1991 census. From their study of it, they concluded that the Bodos had majorities at the village and village cluster levels only. This was a crucial finding. Keeping in mind the aspirations of the Bodos, the commission proposed two things, one for the state level and another for the regional level. At the regional level, it proposed a three-tier structure of self-government, two of them territorial, at the village and village cluster levels, and a coordinating body above the two. All three bodies were to have demarcated but interpenetrating powers. At the state level, the commission proposed a second chamber for the legislature, a sort of house of ethnicities, with definite powers, including the veto over the lower chamber in certain matters, to ensure self-rule and the cultural and social autonomy of the various ethnicities. The question of the Sixth Schedule could not possibly occur in such a proposal. That or any large-scale territorial autonomy had become untenable on account of the demographic findings.
Having gone through various memoranda submitted to it, the commission felt that its view came close to an “important intellectual” stream within
, although it had some differences with it in the detail, largely on the composition and powers of the second chamber. The report prepared by the commission was however buried by the Union government, and the state government looked the other way. No informed public debate could thus take place. Why? Because the Bodo terrorists rejected it on the now familiar ground of not being satisfied with anything less than territorial autonomy or statehood, even if that required the suppression of the democratic rights of the majority. Of course, these terrorists would admit to no such suppressive desire towards the majority. They had conducted, they said, a census on their own, no less, of the whole of the north bank of the Assam Brahmaputra and discovered that the Bodos were a majority in the whole of that area! The cheek displayed by such claims was simply a way of saying that they were not interested in majorities and minorities, they would take as much territory and as much powers as their guns would bring them. Now that we have some idea about what the guns have brought, it is time to see what the guns have wrought.
Two Decades of Internal Displacement and Ethnic Cleansing
Government has consummated its Accord with the larger of the two Bodo terrorist groups. It is therefore important to know about the terrorist activities in the area to understand the fear and trepidation with which that Accord is viewed by the majority of the people living in the area, not just non-Bodo people but also by the democratic sections of the Bodos.
Throughout the long night of Bodo terrorism (from 1986 to the present) national and international attention on its nature and extent has been scant and sporadic. This is quite strange in view of the scale of the killings and the internal displacements that have taken place over these years. Beginning in 1986, Bodo terrorist killings have accounted for thousands upon thousands of men, women and children gunned down in their villages and in crowded contexts such as bazaars and the relief camps sheltering those who escaped being killed during savage terrorist raids on their habitations. Many were blown to smithereens in buses and trains. The latest tally of people who remain internally displaced, as we hope to show presently, is between 300,000 to 400,000 people. The condition of these displaced people has been and remains one of starvation, disease and frequent terrorist raids. The death count from malnutrition and disease in the relief camps alone could not be far less than those from the actual terrorist killings.1
The apathy in the media; among the great and the good in national and international politics; among the multilateral institutions with their incessant cant about crimes against humanity; among our activist judges; among human and women’s rights activists who should have been alert to the death and displacement of so many innocent people, especially women and children who are usually the first and the most numerous among the dead; and, most shockingly, among even those who are fighting for the democratic rights of ordinary people and against displacement elsewhere in India is, to put it mildly, quite breathtaking. After all, the number of displaced here in
may fall short of the numbers in Assam , Rwanda or Afghanistan , but they are of the same order. The most generous gloss that one may put on this all-round apathy is that there has not been enough information available for people to act. Perhaps. Let us assume that we are not dealing with a failure of heart and sensibility that the market morality that has descended on the world demands of us and that the information gap needs another effort at breaching. The Bodo terrorist story then becomes one worth the telling. Palestine
One major aspect of that story is of course the killings. When the first AGP government was installed (1985) in
, the Rajiv Gandhi government in Assam decided to destabilize it. Following the example of the mother in the case of Bhindranwale, the son bankrolled, armed and trained the Bodo terrorists through the facilities of the Special Security Bureau at, among other places, the Manas Game Sanctuary, next door to the scenes of some of the massive killings in Barpeta, Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar districts that we will have occasion to discuss later. Terrorist sentiments were already present in sections of the Bodo community on account of the brutal suppression of that community’s identity assertion since the late sixties by all the factions of Assamese nationalism that were till recently convinced of the status of the upper caste Assamese in Assam as the herrenvolk. But these terrorist sentiments were shared only by a small, privileged section of the community, mostly youths hailing from landlord, rich peasant, Government servant and thikedar families. The Bodos are one of the tribal groups that have been sharply class-divided since at least the end of the nineteenth century. In the second half of the last century, newly educated sections of the Bodo exploiting classes had kneaded an extremist chauvinism out of the traditional Bodo-Harsa (all non-Bodos) dichotomy. Infusion of money, Ak-47s and the indulgence of the Union security apparatus strengthened this section immensely. The leaders of the Congress party within the community followed their central leadership to lend covert and overt support to them. The first victims of this terrorism were the democratic forces within the Bodo community, including those that had been leading the struggle for Bodo identity rights. Leaders and activists of the Plains Tribal Council, the leading political party of the community till the rise of terrorism, were gunned down or coerced into silence by increasing numbers of brutal killings. Even a popular and prominent tribal leader of the stature of Samar Brahma Chowdhury was not spared. Delhi
Once the democratic forces within the community were silenced by the guns, the next phase of killings began through a mass lumpenisation process that was well coordinated. Students belonging to the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) and youths were mobilised into becoming extortionists with rifles and bombs. At most times, the weapons were unnecessary, but the recalcitrant few were eliminated with brutal force. No one with any resource, from well-to-do businessmen and the salaried to the corner pan seller and the poor peasant who returns from the market after selling his few maunds of jute, were or are spared. The victims were both Bodo and non-Bodo. The killings during this phase ran into the hundreds.
Both factions of the terrorists, ABSU and what came later to be named the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), a largely Christian-led faction that is more organized in its violence than the parent, ABSU, faction, account for a fairly large number of the dead through mutual slaughter in their bids for the total control over the largely peaceful Bodo community. In one instance, the venue of a marriage among supporters of a rival faction was attacked with automatic fire, killing the bride, groom and most of those present, including children and infants. These killings continue. But the really large-scale killings began when the terrorists started the dangerous game of ethnic cleansing. Starting in early 1989 came the mass killings of non-Bodos as such, accompanied by arson, rapine and the large-scale displacement of the latter. The so-called census by the terrorists was beginning to be realised as fact.
One particularly gruesome aspect of this campaign of ethnic cleansing has been and continues to be the raids and wanton killings in the relief camps where the displaced are “accommodated” by the government. On
July 24, 1994, for one particularly horrible example among many others, the Bodo terrorists attacked a relief camp, Banhbari in Barpeta district, where many Muslim families had been placed after a bout of Bodo terrorist killings, arson and loot in which at least 1000 persons were slaughtered. The toll at the camp itself, according to the administration, was 71 men, women and children dead and over 100 persons seriously injured. Unofficial estimates for both the dead and the injured in the camp were much higher.
In 1996, just after the elections, this ethnic cleansing reached its highest level in neighbouring Kokrajhar district, leaving around one thousand dead2, if one accepts the government figures, or thousands, if the locals are to be believed. Hundreds of thousands of people were burnt and looted out of their homes. This time, the displaced were mostly Santhals, but there was also a smattering of some other Jharkhandi “tribals”. (Why these tribals have become tribals within quotes is a story that we will have to touch upon presently.) This particularly loathsome incident, spread over days without any state intervention, came to a close only when some desperate Santhals gathered in Srirampur, Kokrajhar district and burnt down a few Bodo villages in an afternoon’s work that was remarkable for its lack of any killings.
This ethnic cleansing of non-Bodos continues, but its purpose today is largely to keep up the terrorisation so that the displaced remain confined to the makeshift camps where they, especially children, women and the old, have died and are dying in their thousands from hunger, malnutrition and epidemics as a great tribute to Government’s hospitality. For nearly a decade now, the great and caring Indian state has been doing the ethnic cleansing for the Bodo terrorists quite efficiently in those camps. This does not mean that smaller scale terrorist killings and displacements are not taking place. They are.
Two important attempts have been made to assess the extent of displacement in the region. Both Hiram Ruiz3 of the US Committee on Refugees and Monirul Hussein4 of
have reached similar conclusions. Guwahati University
In both of his assessments, Ruiz concentrates on the scale of displacement of Santhals after the traumatic May 1996 killings in Kokrajhar. In one of them he states the number as “the more than 200,000 people who became displaced”. But we do not have to wait long to see how much that “more than” actually means. In the other piece, Ruiz states the number to be “as many as 250,000 people”. Not a few, these 50,000 additional displaced people, far too many to be covered by that “more than” of folklore. Strangely, both pieces appeared on the same date,
July 18, 1998. Ruiz then moves on to stranger territory. He writes that “more than 30,000 of those [i.e., presumably the 250,000 people] remain displaced in .” This would convey the impression that the bulk of the displaced must have returned to their old homesteads or found new homesteads to go to. Yet, the two sets of villagers that Ruiz reports on in the two articles were facing precisely the problem of not being able to leave the government camps and settle back in their villages due to continuous terror. Moreover, Ruiz himself provides the evidence that the movement of displaced people into the camps was not confined to a just one-shot affair of 1996. The 158 displaced families living in a camp that Ruiz met had been displaced in February 1998. Assam
We shall soon look into the question of how many are still in the camps and how many remain otherwise displaced. But before we leave the Ruiz account, it should be stated clearly that he deserves the praise and gratitude of all victims of Bodo terrorism and their sympathisers (this author admits to be one of them) for publicising the Kokrajhar displacements internationally in spite of the central and state governments’ restrictions on foreign scrutiny and a general predilection to part with nothing but half-truths and lies. The internally displaced in
do not have any access to UNHCR or other UN bodies concerned with the relief of the displaced because the Government of India is not a signatory to the protocols and instruments required for it. Our government can jeopardize our sovereignty by joyously accepting almost every fatwa from the White House, the IMF-WB and the WTO, but it turns fiercely independent when it comes to the survival of the internally displaced and cannot accept UN relief for them. Its attitude to them can be seen when it fails repeatedly to release its own massive stores of grain when there are persistent reports of large-scale starvation deaths among the inmates of the India camps. The majority of the internally displaced of this region are literally starving to death; the highly irregular, fortnightly government ration consists solely of three and two kilos of rice with some salt for adults and children respectively. The lack of international access has, in part, allowed the Indian authorities to mask the whole tragic story of internal displacement in Assam Lower Assam. The contradictions and lacunae in the Ruiz account can be explained largely by the actions of our administration.
On the Kokrajhar displacements of 1996, Hussein has the same “more than 200,000” account of Ruiz. He goes on to add a post-1996 scenario: “As if the 1996 massacre was not enough, the Bodo militants again in May 1998 attacked and displaced 25,000 people, mostly Santhals, and a few thousand Nepalis living in
for generations. Further, more than 7,000 mostly Santhals were displaced in Assam ’s western most district Dhubri in June 1999. Besides, many Hindu Bengalis too became displaced in the wake of Bodo militants (sic) ethnic cleansing process. Simply speaking, fear of being killed and injured has become an existential reality in post-colonial Assam for the marginalized groups.” Hussein’s account goes into instances of post-1990 ethnic cleansing and displacement in the region, corroborating and adding to what we have stated above. “In July 1994, the northern parts of the Barpeta district in lower Assam witnessed the massacre of Na-Asamiya Muslim [immigrant Muslim] peasants by a group of [Bodo] militants. It has been estimated that about 1000 persons mostly women and children, were killed and thousand injured and about 60 villages burnt down to ashes. A few months prior to the Barpeta massacre, the Bodo militants organised a very systematic massacre of Muslim peasants in the Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts.” Assam
“Each successive massacre,” Hussein continues, “increased the number of victims. The massacre of Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon district failed to alert adequately the state and the civil society. We have observed elsewhere: ‘both these massacres remained inconspicuous. However, the Barpeta massacre became very conspicuous because the militants not only killed the innocents in their homes, fields, forests and villages, they did not spare even those who took shelter at the Banhbari relief camps run by the state… they were gunned down while they were asleep by the militants at midnight with sophisticated arms and ammunition…. The Banhbari camp was added to very rare (sic) record of relief camps wherein the unarmed inmates were killed mercilessly. A third name Banhbari was added to (sic) Sabra and Shatila list.’ Besides the Na-Asamiya Muslims, the Bodo militants killed many Hindu Bengalis, Nepalis, government and police personnel. The Bodo militants over the years besides looting, extortions and destruction, organised innumerable killings.”
What about Hussein’s estimate of the total number of displaced at the time of his publication, December 2000? “It has been reported that there are more than 200 thousand displaced persons are (sic) currently living in 78 relief camps located in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts…. Most of the displaced persons of the Barpeta massacre in 1994 returned to their villagers (sic) a few weeks after the massacre. However, there are more than 20,000 Muslim inmates in 18 relief camps located in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts since 1993.” Hussein’s 7,000 displaced in Dhubri district are, we have discovered, living in two miserable relief camps near Golakganj. But Hussein does not assign any figures to the displacement of the Hindu Bengalis that he mentions. We will deal with the plight of these Hindu Bengalis below. It would appear that Hussein’s account of displacement in the three districts of Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Bongaigaon would amount to around 230,000 camp dwellers plus an unknown number of Bengali Hindus. This misses the mark by miles.
The last authoritative statement by the Government of Assam on the displaced in
Lower Assam came in the state assembly on May 5, 1999, before Hussein published his piece. The Assam Tribune (May 6, 1999) front-paged the news: “More than 2.59 lakh [One lakh = 100,000] riot-affected people are still living in the relief camps in Kokrajhar district and the government has so far rehabilitated 28,802 persons. This was disclosed … in reply to a question … in the state Assembly today.” Apart from this statement, one gets to hear from local journalists and government spokespersons who cite various figures at different times, but almost always with the “more than” as the escape clause, as in this mid-1999 assembly statement itself.
Since we are attempting an estimate of the number of terrorism-induced displaced in the eight districts as a whole, let us begin with the 1999 government statement. The very first point that requires to be noted about this statement is that it refers to only one of the eight affected districts, albeit the one most horribly scarred. Secondly, the “more than 2.59 lakh” figure it cites – we will definitely ignore the Government claim about rehabilitation, because most of those “rehabilitated” returned to the camps or were otherwise displaced again due to terrorist pressure - refers to only those who are in the government-run relief camps. Let us then take care of the “more than” by rounding the figure to 260,000 people in the government-run relief camps in Kokrajhar. Thirdly, we add to it those relief camp dwellers referred to by Hussein for Bongaigaon and Dhubri districts: 21,0005 and 7,000 respectively. That brings up the total of camp dwellers for three of the eight districts to 288,000. But Bongaigaon has official camps other than those for which Hussein provides specific numbers. For example, there is the Vidyapur camp right next door to Bongaigaon, the district town. In the early nineties, there were more than 3,000 inmates in that camp, mostly indigenous Koch-Rajbangshis. Over the years, the government’s hospitality has driven a lot of people out into a scatter, but as of a few months ago, there were still about 2,000 people in that camp, although they had ceased to get any government help by then. Taking a cue from the “more than” of government and non-government accounts, I should think it safe enough to say that there are now, in these three
Lower Assam districts, i.e., Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Dhubri, a population of close to 290,000 official relief camp dwellers.
But are the relief camp dwellers the only displaced people in this region? What happened to the non-Bodos who fled the ethnic cleansing in the other five districts? There are no relief camps there. So, what happened to them? Moreover, even in the three districts mentioned above, were or are all displaced in the relief camps?
We could begin to answer these questions with Hussein’s account of a significant section of these people, viz., the survivors of the Barpeta massacres and the subsequent killings in the Banhbari relief camp. Hussein says that “most of the displaced persons of the Barpeta massacre in 1994 returned to their villagers (sic) a few weeks after the massacres.” Is this accurate? One of my informants, a fairly well-known lawyer and political activist of Barpeta, when questioned about Hussein’s account disagreed strongly. He says that he has participated in several post-1994 election campaigns covering, among other places, precisely the areas of the massacres. He has relatives and friends among the affected with whom he is in continuous touch. He says that there are no camp dwellers in the area because no one would dare to go through another Sabra-Shatila experience. Secondly, most of the victims were never in camps simply because no camps had been provided for them by the government. Thirdly, while a comparatively few have, over the years, returned to their old homesteads and fields because of the desperate conditions created by displacement and have thus become targets of repeated attacks and threats, the overwhelming majority have been scattered far and wide, plunged into the life of below-subsistence labourers living among sympathetic villagers or in cities and towns in Assam and the rest of India.
A Reuters report (27.7.1994) circulated soon after the Banhbari massacre would appear to confirm my informant’s account of a general scattering of the displaced. Professor Shin-wha Lee’s summary6 of the report states that “the massacre at the Bansbari [another transliteration of Banhbari] relief camp on July 24 has prompted more than 54,000 people, mostly Muslims, to flee their villages and head towards cities such as Guwahati and Barpeta.” My informant would place the number of such displaced today at around 50,000. His account would appear to be realistic simply because of the fact that the whole purpose of the original attack on these victims was to displace them and all subsequent terrorist activities in that area, of which there has been no dearth, have been with the purpose of not allowing the displaced to regain their homesteads and fields.
This type of scattering of the displaced has been a constant feature in the region. Lee documents a case of March 19897: “The Bodo-dominated areas of Kokrajhar and Udalguri [in Darrang district] had been in turmoil for the past two weeks, leaving some 32 dead and 40 injured. As ABSU-led young armed Bodo extremists [later to sign the Accord as the BLT] engaged in arson and banditry, attacked security guards, and looted arms, Assamese non-tribals in the Bodo-dominated areas fled to neighbouring towns.” Fearing what was happening in neighbouring Udalguri and Tangla and spurred on by Bodo hooligan threats, many Hindu Bengalis, who were the majority of those killed and displaced in these particular incidents, began to flee from the north of the Goreshwar area of Kamrup district and scattered, like their ethnic kins in the directly affected areas, all over Assam and West Bengal.
The displaced among the Santhals, who are in such large numbers in the relief camps of Kokrajhar and Dhubri, also tally up significantly among the scattered population. I have observed that in the Sreerampur Santhal Colony, there are about 5,000 displaced Santhals who lead a miserable life that is largely dependent on charity from relatives, lineages and informal ties to the community structures of the various Christian parishes. This story repeats itself wherever the Santhals are in large numbers and have invested their political energies in the defence of their lives. The area west of Runikhata and around Nayekgaon and Salekathi are good examples where, as in Sreerampur, large numbers of displaced people are sheltering themselves. Many of these displaced Santhals are to be found in the adjoining districts of
West Bengal and some are said to have found shelter in Jharkhand.
The Hindu Bengali displaced have scattered very largely all over
, Assam West Bengal and, to a certain extent, further afield. In the villages around Tangla (Darrang district), Goreshwar (Kamrup district), Mazbat (on the borders of Darrang and Sonitpur districts), Bijni (Bongaigaon district), Nikasi and Subankhata (Nalbari district) and in many other places large and small, the total displacement of Hindu Bengalis has been of the order of tens of thousands of people. In a large number of places in the other parts of the region, the displaced have been in the hundreds, but they also add up to considerable numbers in their totality. With very bitter memories of relief camps when they came into as refugees from India East Pakistan, most of these people have not sought any relief in government camps and they were not offered it anyway.
Among the Muslim displaced, it is not only the victims of the Barpeta massacres that are not to be found in government relief camps. Many more such victims from the whole region have taken to scattered lives all over
and some other states of the North East. But some have been enterprising in an interesting way. They have formed “private camps”, as they themselves call them. If one travels to Hapasara (Bongaigaon district), Simlaitari (Dhubri district) and Bangaldoba (Dhubri district), one finds these private camps. These are nothing but places where thousands of displaced Muslims from mainly Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts have found sympathetic areas where to camp down on private and government-owned waste land. There are tens of such places where smaller clusters of displaced people have sheltered themselves. At the main big, private camps, the total population will exceed 10,000. Assam
What do all these figures add up to? First, we have the more or less firm figure of nearly 290,000 displaced persons in government camps in the three districts of Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Bongaigaon. Second, we have around 50,000 Muslims scattered from the Barpeta district where Banhbari is. Third, we have at least 10,000 Muslims of Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts who are living in “private camps”. Fourth, we have about 10,000 Santhals and other Jharkhandi “tribals” who are scattered among their ethnic connexions in relatively secure areas. Fifth, although it is difficult to put a figure to the Hindu Bengali displacement, my tours and investigations in Bijni, Subankhata, Nikashi and Tamulpur leads me to an estimate of almost 20,000 such displaced in those particular areas. Given the fact that Hindu Bengali displacement in the Tangla, Udalguri and Majbat belt was the most massive of all such displacements, I depend on hearsay to put forward the tentative figure of about 10,000 for that belt.
All these figures add up to a staggering, nearly 400,000 internally displaced people in the eight
Lower Assam districts. Even if we discount the whole of my Barpeta informant’s estimate (50,000) and my estimates for the Santhal and Hindu Bengali scatter, we still have the firmest figure of more than 300,000 displaced in the government and private camps of which more than a quarter of a million are said by the Government of Assam itself to be in its camps. We can therefore conclude our numerical survey of the internally displaced by stating that there are between 300,000 to 400,000 internally displaced people in Lower Assam.
These are staggering figures that are comparable to the numbers of the displaced in many internationally publicised problem areas. And yet this massive human rights disaster attracts very little attention in
or elsewhere, while the heinous Bodo terrorist killers and their political spokespersons are feted and dined by Dispur and India in “negotiations” that progressively concede more and more undemocratic rights and privileges to them. New Delhi
For many years, the SJGSS and some of its affiliates have demanded serious negotiations between Government and all ethnic groups and interests in the region through the convening of what they call a Round Table Conference. The idea is to negotiate a fair settlement of the ethnic strife in the region by involving all its inhabitants. Unlike Government’s eagerness to hold innumerable secret talks with the ethnic cleansers, there have been no signs from it regarding the constitution of any round table discussions that included a broad spectrum of opinion. In fact Government has not held any formal talks with any of the region’s diversity of groups, interests and organisations, including the SJGSS. This is a dangerous policy. If all doors for the entry of democratic, negotiated settlements are shut, legitimate grievances will find illegitimate ways such as terrorism. Already, there are certain non-Bodo terrorist organisations operating in the area, mostly as contemptible as their Bodo counterparts. Luckily, the great mass of the non-Bodo peoples are still rejecting them and keeping faith with peaceful and democratic methods.
Some well-intentioned people who are sympathetic towards tribals view the BTC question as simply a granting of some privileges to a backward group. What these people forget is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the victims of terrorism are in fact tribals who have been wrongfully excluded from the schedule. We speak, first of all, about the Santhals, Oraons, Mundas and other Jharkhandi tribals. These Jharkhandis, living in Assam for 150 years or so as tea labourers and as people relocated into a Santhal Agency in the aftermath of the Santhal Rebellion, are the quintessential autochthons of India and they are recognised as scheduled tribals in all the states they make their homes in except Assam where they were descheduled by the Presidential order of 1950. The reason for this is part of the sordid history of Assamese chauvinism and came out clearly when Indira Gandhi, under some pressure from her own tea garden vote bank, refused to reschedule them because she said that it would change the political picture in
. She was right about the picture, because these Jharkhandis in Assam constitute about a quarter of the population, another “guesstimate” of course. At present, the two major parties in Assam, the Congress and the AGP, are both on record as being in favour of their scheduling as tribes, but one suspects this to be the result of a rising sentiment for scheduling among these voters that cannot be ignored and is not to be taken seriously until that sentiment is strongly reflected in militant movement. The language of militancy and barbarism seems to be the only language understood by the Indian ruling classes. Assam
The Koch-Rajbangshis are listed as OBCs in
and as scheduled castes in Assam Bengal. In as a whole, this group presents a wide diversity of social development, but in the larger Goalpara and Kamrup region where most of the proposed BTC area falls, the Koch-Rajbangshis remain basically tribal in spite of burgeoning class differentiation. This fact has also been dimly recognised by the two big parties in Assam . The Koch-Rajbangshis were in fact scheduled as tribals in the nineties by a central ordinance for six months before that ordinance lapsed for the lack of any legislation in parliament. The Koch-Rajbangshis and the Jharkhandi tribals together constitute, another “guesstimate”, around thirty-five per cent of the BTC population. That is about ten per cent more than the Bodo population. Added to their numbers, the equally harassed and intimidated non-Bodo STs would swell the population of non-Boro tribals in the BTC to a formidable forty-five per cent. It is therefore clear that those whose democratic rights are being snatched away are in the main tribals. Those who are concerned about the plight of tribals should reflect on this. Assam
The Sixth Schedule
The Bodo Accord proposes the formation of the BTC under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution. Can this be done without violating the letter, spirit and intention of that document itself?
The constituent assembly formed a committee to look into the provisions for the tribes of
and make recommendations to the Drafting Committee. This committee created a sub-committee under the chairmanship of Gopinath Bordoloi, then Premier of Assam, to give special consideration to the tribal question in the hills of India as it then was. Its main focus, as required by the Cabinet Mission Statement of Assam May 16, 1946, was what were known since the Government of India Act of 1935 as “excluded” and “tribal” areas of , i.e., areas that were “partially administered” or “un-administered” respectively. These areas were in the hills and of these, only the North Cachar Hills district and the Karbi Anglong district survive within present-day Assam . As we shall see, the sub-committee looked also at the plains tribes of Assam in its report. This term “plains tribe” is a unique constitutional provision for Assam wherein the scheduled tribes are divided into two groups depending on the location of homeland, whether in the hills or in the plains. This follows the sharp distinction that the constitution makes between the hill areas of Assam and the plains areas on account of the unique requirements of the former. Assam
The Gopinath Bordoloi sub-committee’s report became a part of the larger committee’s report that was accepted in its totality by the Drafting Committee. During the Assembly debate on the question, Ambedkar, on behalf of the Drafting Committee, proposed the acceptance of the report, with some minor amendments such as on the discretionary powers of the Governor, the appellate powers of the courts, etc. which do not concern us here. The report, with the minor amendments, took the shape of the Sixth Schedule of the constitution.
The joint report of the two sub-committees was clear in its mind about why the provision for a special schedule for the hill tribes of Assam was required: “The distinguishing feature of the Assam Hills and frontier tracts is the fact that they are divided into fairly large districts inhabited by single tribes or fairly homogeneous groups of tribes with highly democratic and mutually exclusive tribal organisation and very little of the plains leaven which is so common a feature of the corresponding areas, particularly the partially excluded areas of other Provinces. The
hill districts contain as a rule upwards of 90% of tribal population whereas unless we isolate small areas this is generally not the case in the other Provinces. The tribal population in the other Provinces has moreover assimilated to a considerable extent the life and ways of the plains people and tribal organisations have in many places completely disintegrated… Having been excluded totally from ministerial jurisdiction and secluded also from the rest of the Province by the Inner Line system, a parallel to which is not to be found in any other part of Assam , the excluded areas have been mostly anthropological specimens… It is in these conditions that proposals have been made for the establishment of special local councils which in their separate hill domains will carry on the administration of tribal law and control the utilisation of the village land and forest.” (Select Documents III, 7(iv), pp.771-2) India
The contrast here in this passage is between the hill tribes of
and the tribes in the other provinces. But the report makes sure that the contrast extends to the plains tribes of Assam also. B.Shiva Rao, the authoritative constitutional expert and historian, says: “The sub-committee on the Assam tribal and excluded areas [the Bordoloi sub-committee] also made a reference in its report to the tribal population of Assam living in the plains. According to the sub-committee there were nearly twice as many tribals living outside the excluded and tribal areas as there were within those areas. The sub-committee did not make any specific recommendations about these people except to remark that they were being gradually assimilated to the population of the plains; that measures for the protection of their lands would be necessary; and that the question of their representation and protection should be considered by the Minorities Sub-Committee.” (Select Documents III, 7 (iii), p.734) Assam
The constituent assembly was thus aware of the situation of the plains tribals of
and its recommendation was to consider them as Minorities with special problems regarding land, representation and protection. The mind of the makers of the constitution had drawn a strong line separating those among the tribals of Assam for whom the Sixth Schedule was necessary and those for whom it was not, i.e., the plains tribals. One should be reminded here that the Three Man Committee’s recommendations for Bodo local self-government could easily take care of the problem of land alienation, representation and protection. It should be remembered, however, that Bodo representation in the Assam assembly has always hovered around their percentage in the total population of Assam and their representation in parliament has been continuous on account of their monopoly over the Kokrajhar ST reserved seat in the plains. Parliamentary representation has therefore been way above what their proportion in the population would indicate. As to protection, the reader should judge as to who needs it. Assam
It is customary for disputes arising out of interpretations of constitutional provisions to be adjudicated very largely on the intentions of the makers of the constitution. Some people have tried to interpret a particular provision of the Sixth Schedule without any reference to the intentions of the makers of the constitution.
Writing in Frontline (
March 14, 2003), M.S.Prabhakar states, with regard to the formation of the BTC, that Sixth Schedule “ Para 1 (2/c) empowers the Governor to create a new Autonomous District….” Clearly, Prabhakar has in mind Para 1(3/c) rather than 1 (2/c). Para 1(3/c) does empower the Governor to “create a new autonomous district”. But where can he create such a district? If the intentions of the constitution writers are taken into account, such districts can be created only where the tribes live in large compact areas; constitute an overwhelming majority of the area; are isolated from the rest of the population; with little assimilation with non-tribals and have retained their traditional tribal organisations more or less intact. That was the essence of what the Bordoloi sub-committee had to say, in the passage quoted above, about the tribes that should come under the purview of what became the Sixth Schedule. As far as , at that time consisting of all of the present North East except Tripura, was concerned, that meant only the hill tribes. Instead of complaining, as Prabhakar does, that this power to create autonomous regions has been used only in the case of “so-called Hill Tribes”, he should ponder whether that was precisely what the framers of the constitution had intended. He has every right to think, as he does, that the Sixth Schedule should be extended to the plains tribals, but instead of invoking colonial ghosts, he should get down to the business of telling us how that can be done where populations are mixed and the plains tribes do not command majority status except at the village and the village cluster levels. If that demographic imperative is forgotten, then the choices are very stark: ethnic cleansing to create a majority status or make arrangements to violate the rights of the majority. The Bodo terrorists have tried the first and Government has bought peace with them by doing the other. Assam
1 In EPW,
December 16,2000, Professor Monirul Hussein writes: “The condition of the relief camps are pathetic and inmates do not get adequate food. The displaced children are deprived of education for years together. There is no privacy for the inmates.[That’s our cute Indian way of saying that there are no latrines.] There is no safe drinking water at all. Most of the displaced persons cannot go out of the camps because of safety reasons. Very few could leave the camps at their own risk. There are no provisions for medical aid and no immunisation to protect the displaced persons and their children from epidemics. Many died because of starvation and malnutrition. Many parents have sold off their children out of poverty and helplessness. Many girls from the displaced families have been forced to accept prostitution along the national highway.”
2 Hussein, ibid.
4 Monirul Hussein, ibid.
5 Hussein says 20,000, but produces documentation for a number a little less than 21,000.