Drama Without Epilogue

In the continuing Assam riots, neither the media nor the government has raised the most potent post-conflict threats.

Mr Bora, the Chirang Deputy Commissioner, had no idea that his thin moustache was trimmed unevenly at both ends. He was screaming at the health director for data on how many doctors were available to him. It made for a ridiculous moment, but the time was too critical for making such an observation. His district had 1,26,200 displaced people in 64 so-called “relief camps”, but he lacked the ability to distribute the resources at hand.

The same morning, footage of a middle-aged woman lying in a pool of blood against a backdrop of a “relief camp” in flames enraged the Chief Minister of the state, who was trying to defend the government. I had chanced upon this footage the previous night from an eyewitness I obviously couldn’t reveal. To my utter surprise, the Director General of Police, the Inspector General of Police of that range and the army top brass operating there either feigned ignorance or actually had no idea that Dhuramari, one such “relief camp”, was on fire.

The day the Prime Minister who represents the state in the Rajya Sabha visited the dressed up “relief camps” to deliver his healing touch, news arrived from the same torched relief camp Dhuramari that more bodies had been recovered. Reporters scrambled to capture the dramatic visuals of army action inside the relief camp and dead bodies rolling over from piles. Nobody asked them what they had been doing for the last three days. It wasn’t the mandate of the army, but what about the police? When I read accounts by my fellow colleagues, I am perplexed by stories that “miscreants” would return to an already abandoned relief camp and set it on fire. According to MHA records, Dhuramari was destroyed on July 25, 2012. I was given the footage at midnight on July 26th by an eyewitness and I aired it on my news channel on the morning of July 27th. Is it acceptable that till the 28th no security agencies had visited these camps which are just 25 kms from Kokrajhar town?

I asked my moustached Deputy Commissioner – who by the way hadn’t heard of Dhuramari – about the security arrangements in his 64 camps? He was ambiguous. His explanation was that there aren’t adequate forces, and they have identified vulnerable camps and guarded them. Huddled like livestock, Purani Bijini relief camp appeared ideal for the enemy target. Two thousand seven hundred people in a primary school without security, drinking water, food or medicines.

By now the “anatomy of the riot” (a favourite expression of journalists) has been written, filmed and discussed. So I shall refrain from narrating the compelling stories of death and dispossession. However, I must admit that I am intrigued not by the intensity of the violence and hatred, but by the sudden interest by media to descend on the very plains bloodied by the same hatred since the Nineties. It is welcome, but still raises questions.

Bodoland (I dislike this geographical description but let me use it for the sake of convenience) is home to one of the longest instances of internally displaced people in India. It is also home to one of the longest-running insurgencies. In 2001, I had visited the Bodo, Adivasi and Muslim camps to report not about the conflict, but of life in relief camps. I revisited the camps each year and found the Bodos had returned home, the Adivasis were being sent back though they found their land was occupied and in many camps the Muslims kept languishing.

As a journalist I have felt uncomfortable each time I have labelled the inmates as “Bodos”, “Adivasis” and “Muslims”. For the first two it was the community, and for the third the nomenclature is by religion. This time I found a convenient exit route by calling and describing the violence as conflict between two communities. By the third day, I found I was too isolated in this description and adopted the expression of indigenous Bodo tribals versus the Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers. This is not remotely a correct means but I am still groping for a better way to describe the conflict. I would have loved to see more of my colleagues discuss this linguistic challenge in discussing and dissecting the conflict because the seeds of the dispute as well as resolution may be hidden in the answers to this peculiar problem.

In 2008, when the same two communities were killing each other in the north bank of the Brahmaputra I would travel there everyday and return to Guwahati to send my dispatches. No broadcast vans arrived to give live coverage, like they did this time. National weeklies or dailies didn’t send additional reinforcement to back up their local teams. Studios did not discuss it as a national issue, nor did the Prime Minister arrive to lament, “Yeh mulk ke maathe pe kalank hain” (This is a blemish on the face of our nation) – which he said this time at Kokrajhar. So, how was interest generated this time?

Let me return to the “relief camps”. The essential reportage was about how this conflict started and the deplorable condition in those camps. Shouldn’t we try to go beyond that?  I am pained to observe that neither the media nor the government has raised the most potent post-conflict threats. The almost inevitable threat in such a situation is of women and children trafficked from these relief camps. There are records of large-scale trafficking from camps in these districts. Now, with 4,00,000 (four lakh) displaced people, middlemen are already on the prowl. Currently Assam, with its wave of flood and then riots, has 28,00,000 (twenty-eight lakh) people affected, with a third displaced if not more. Where are the alarms, the alerts or the surveillance?

Move from trafficking to insurgency and use of weapons. Not just human beings, even cows were shot dead. Bullets come cheap here, but how? The Intelligence Bureau had scripted the entire Bodo deal so shouldn’t they be held accountable for the arms bazaar operating with such impunity? Men and women who blew up passenger trains, who abducted, killed and maimed their neighbours were handed over the responsibility to govern an area which is home to several other ethnicities. Here is the question which we may want to ask. Have ceasefires, peace talks and mechanisms to bring militants to the mainstream failed us miserably? The army has an entire division there and has been carrying out counter-insurgency operations for decades. Who grades their performance? How much expenditure has this operation cost the nation?

While the discussion on “identity” and debate on “migration” assume much interesting scope, the immediate pressure to save lives from violence, disease, starvation should be of emergency proportions. The threat of trafficking, exaggerated though it may sound, is real and alarming. The use of sophisticated arms in this violence is disturbing. But are we interested any longer in making a difference to this pattern which repeats itself again, or just making our presence felt against a house up in flames?

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