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Last Updated: Friday, 9 December 2005, 16:25 GMT
Assam's paths of violence

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Guwahati

"They are living in real misery," says Suhas Chakma, a human rights worker who has been inspecting camps for displaced people in the Indian state of Assam.

Karbi's internally displaced people
Militants used the camps to attack each other

More than 40,000 Karbi and Dimasa tribes people have been left homeless in Karbi Anglong, a hill district in Assam, since fighting broke out between militias of the two tribes in October.

Mr Chakma says they have "very little food and much less safe drinking water, warm clothes and blanket to tackle the winter, not enough medicines to combat the impending outbreak of gastro-enteric diseases"

Ironically, the trouble in Karbi Anglong erupted as the federal government was signing ceasefire agreements with the militias of both tribes.

'Damage done'

Under the terms of the agreement the guerrillas are supposed to be confined to designated camps and not move around with weapons.

"But they have used these camps to launch attacks against each other as the state government faltered in response for weeks," says Uddipana Goswami, an expert in Assam's ethnic conflicts.

Map showing Karbi Anglong district in Assam

"Now they are trying to get their act together but the damage has been done. Thousands have fled, adding to Assam's precarious internal displacement problem," she says.

But this is just the latest in a bewildering range of ethnic and religious disputes to have hit Assam.

Tens of thousands of Bengalis, Hindus and Muslims, were displaced all over Assam in violence unleashed during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly during six years of agitation led by students and youth groups upset by migration from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Thousands died in the riots during the agitation between 1979 and 1985 - almost 2,000 in the village of Nellie alone.

Delhi signed an accord with the All Assam Students Union in 1985 to bring the agitation to an end.

However, ethnic conflicts erupted elsewhere in the state - mostly in areas settled by indigenous tribes people like the Bodos.

'Peace has returned'

The Bodos resented Assamese domination and the loss of land to settlers ranging from Bengali Hindus and Muslims to Santhal and Oraon tribesmen who were brought from central India as cheap labour for Assam's tea estates in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Karbi registration centre
Tribal leaders say the administration is stopping rations

As armed Bodo groups pressed for a separate state, the settlers became targets of attacks.

Hundreds were killed by Bodo rebels and nearly a quarter million people fled into makeshift camps to save their lives.

"At the peak of the Bodo armed movement, Assam accounted for nearly more than half of India's population of internally displaced," says Sanjib Baruah of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi.

"The Hindu pandits from Kashmir perhaps made up nearly the other half. But while the displacement in Kashmir got national attention, and those displaced were looked after, the displaced in Assam were never even talked about and that's a shame."

'Uncertain future'

But when Delhi signed an autonomy agreement with the Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT) last year and opened dialogue with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) this year, the guns fell silent.

Karbi's internally displaced people
Many displaced people don't know what the future holds for them

With the creation of a Autonomous Territorial Council for the Bodos, the Assam government claims peace has returned to western Assam.

Assam officials say only about half of the quarter million displaced people were still left in makeshift relief camps.

Assam government records, now available with the BBC, indicates only 33362 displaced people were left in the camps Kokrajhar district and 74123 were left in the camps in Gosaigaon district.

But many tribal leaders allege that the administration was stopping rations to force these people out of the camps.

"We have been literally chased out of the camps by the officials. They said we have to go or else we will have to starve," says Joachim Baxla, a Santhal tribal leader at Nabinagar, where only 103 families were left in the camps.

Another tribesman, Kartick Hembrom, in nearby Matiajuri said: "We are uncertain about our future. We may not get back our cultivable lands from the Bodos who occupied it after we fled the violence in 1996."

'Accept this reality'

The condition of the Muslims of Bengali origin chased out by the Bodo rebels in 1994 was worse in some places.

We stick to this narrow stretch on the highway where scores of our children die when they are hit by trucks and buses while crossing roads
Sabebur Rehman

Near Bijni, on the national highway, nearly 8,000 such Muslims live in huts on both sides of the road.

"We cannot go and work in the fields because the Bodos threaten us, we cannot buy lands anywhere under the new autonomy arrangements, we cannot get back our lands," says Sabebur Rehman.

"And so we stick to this narrow stretch on the highway where scores of our children die when they are hit by trucks and buses while crossing roads," he says.

But even as the government hopes peace in the areas under the Bodoland Territorial Council will slowly give confidence to these displaced people to go back home - or find new homes - fresh violence in Karbi Anglong threatens to add to Assam's number of internally displaced people.

Not to speak of the displacement from Upper Assam districts, from where thousands of Muslims of Bengali origin were driven out earlier this year on grounds that they were illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

"Assam is a plural society with many tribes and nationalities living here. We have to accept this reality and learn to live with it," says Assam's minister Pradyut Bordoloi.

But until that happens, the state may continue to produce a large part of India's hapless lot of internally displaced people.

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