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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 January 2007, 13:05 GMT
Fear and anger in Assam's village of dead
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Tinsukia, Assam

Some of the young settlers are angry

The dance of death around this town in the northern Indian state of Assam seems to have abated at least for the moment.

But the panic amongst the Hindi-speaking settlers here is all-pervading, despite huge deployment of troops and policemen.

"I don't know why they are killing us. We are poor labourers, we cause no harm to the local Assamese. We only come here to make a living to stay alive," says Shiv Kumar, who comes from Chhapra district in the impoverished northern state of Bihar.

Kumar has worked in a brick factory in the village of Tingri near here for the last 12 years.

"I lost my brother in front of my eyes. His body was riddled with bullets on Friday night," says Shiv Kumar.

"We will all die here, the police can't protect us," adds Kumar's neighbour Prem Nath.

Nath's brother died on Friday, too, when more than 10 suspected members of the United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa), clad in olive green fatigues, stormed into the labourer's colony at Tingri and opened fire with assault rifles. They killed five men.

"You Bihari dogs - get out of Assam," shouted the rebel commander as the gunmen kept firing.

"They were in no mood to spare any of us," remembers Prem Nath.

'Give us weapons'

On Monday, the Hindi-speaking settlers of Tingri cried and complained to visiting Indian Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, who himself is from Bihar.

But the younger settlers were angry.

"Give us weapons, we can protect ourselves, we don't need the police, they are useless," said Abhay Kumar as Mr Yadav went about trying to console the angry crowd.

Angry Hindi-speaking settlers refused to cremate their dead for three days in the village of Longsual, which is near Tingri.

Assurances have failed to calm jittery nerves

They lined up 12 bodies on the highway that goes past the village, and shouted slogans against Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, and the Ulfa rebel leader, Paresh Barua.

The funeral pyres were lit only after Mr Yadav assured them that "strong military action" would be taken.

Laloo Yadav asked the Hindi-speaking settlers not to leave Assam at any cost.

"Just stay put and you will be protected. This will not happen again, this place is as much yours as Bihar is," he said.

But such brave talk has failed to convince most settlers here.

Ever since the rebel attacks started on Friday, thousands of migrants have flocked to railway stations, desperate to catch the first train out of Assam.

"It is true that the trains going out of Assam towards northern India are loaded with these people. Many are not even waiting to buy tickets," an official of the north-eastern frontier railway said.

'Symbol of India'

Tinsukia, with its hosiery and brick factories, has the thickest concentration of Hindi-speaking settlers anywhere in Assam.

The villages around this town have borne the brunt of the rebel attacks since Friday, in which more than 70 people, almost all Hindi-speaking settlers, have died so far.

Bihari migrants
Angry settlers refused to cremate the dead for three days (Photo: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee)

Authorities blame the attacks on Ulfa rebels, who began their fight for Assam's independence in 1979.

"Ulfa sees the Hindi-speaking migrants as a symbol of the Indian control over Assam. They want to play on Assamese sentiments by attacking them. Perhaps they also want to put pressure on Delhi to resume negotiations," says political analyst Noni Gopal Mahanta.

Ulfa negotiated with the Indian government through a group of mediators for a year until talks collapsed in September.

Since then, the rebels have carried out many bombings and grenade attacks on Hindi-speaking settlements.

And the massacres which began on Friday have been the worst in a decade.

Other idea

But the latest attacks have not gone down well with many Assamese, including some regional groups opposed to migrants.

"Illegal migration from Bangladesh is a more serious problem for us. The Hindi-speaking settlers are a very small part of our population and they do not threaten our identity as the Bangladeshis do," says Sommujjal Bhattacharya, chief adviser of the All Assam Student's Union (Aasu).

Aasu led a powerful six-year-long campaign against migrants in the 1980s.

"The vacuum that will now be created by the exodus of Hindi-speaking labourers may be filled up by illegal Bangladeshi migrants," says Mr Bhattacharya.

But Ulfa, it appears, has other ideas.

Before the latest round of attacks started on Friday, "quit notices" were issued against the Hindi-speaking migrants in many parts of Assam.

"The Ulfa leadership is based in Bangladesh, and that explains their action. The Hindi-speaking migrants are easy whipping boys in Assam," says the state's police intelligence chief, Khagen Sarmah.

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