Monday, May 27, 2024

In Bodoland, families of anti-Muslim massacre victims are split between voting for “lesser evil”

The Beki River flanks Azim Uddin’s house at Khagrabari, a quiet village on the fingers of the Manas National Park in Assam’s Baksa district.

On May 2 every year, Uddin stands on the edges of the Beki watching over the ripples it creates as the tributary river flows from the bordering Bhutan and into the Brahmaputra.

“I do it no matter if it rains or storms, tirelessly because my heart says the ripples carry a piece of my son,” the 65-year-old said. “Today is no different.” 

Ten years ago, on May 2, Uddin’s wife jumped into the Beki River with his five-year-old son Rashidul Islam to escape a killing spree at Khagrabari in the evening’s time. Armed militants of the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) carried out the killings aided by forest guards from the Manas National Park, according to reports.  

Since the 1980s, the NDFB from which the Songbijit faction splintered in 2009 had been mired in an armed struggle with the government of Assam and India for a sovereign territory for the ethnic Bodo tribe.

To appease the NDFB factions, New Delhi and the Assam government previously held multiple rounds of peace talks with the proscribed groups first in 1993, and the most recent being the 2020 Bodo accord. An autonomous council called the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) was also established due to the peace talks, encompassing areas from present-day Baksa, Udalguri, Kokrajhar, and Chirang districts.

Uddin’s son, however, was never to be found again after that eventful day. “I did everything, spent 18 days with the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) on search operations along the Beki river. I even scoured Beki myself like a helpless father, but to no avail,” he told Maktoob by phone, his voice sounding cold. 

In the three-hour-long massacre, 38 people were killed, most of them women and children. Bodies dotted the Beki and the militants also set houses ablaze. Additionally, two people, including Uddin’s son who were never found were presumed dead. 

Siraj Ali, 48 now, whose house was torched also remembers the day with details. “The Militants and the forest officials came firing at us from the west and the only escape route was the Beki River to the east,” Ali said.

He added, “So many jumped into the river to save themselves, but only a few made it to the other bank alive.”

His 28-year-old wife Monjuwara Khatun, and two daughters — Sarbanu Begum, aged 8,  and a toddler Sahida Khatun — were also among those massacred that day.

There were screams, calls to save them, and pleading for mercy. “But did it all matter?” Ali asked, trying too hard to hold back his tears. “It was a killing field.”

‘Because we voted’

Most like Uddin even years later say they are yet to understand why they were “targeted this gruesomely”. Others we spoke to were more direct to point out the political tussle which was the precursor to the massacre. 

“Because we voted for the Obodos, we paid the price,” said Jalal Uddin whose son Samsul Haque, who was seven then, was killed. 

The Obodos Suraksha Samiti (OSS) was a non-Bodo political party floated by Naba Hira Sarnaia, a former militant of the secessionist armed group, United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) which fought for a sovereign Assam. 

Sarnaia’s party and its parent organisation Sanmilita Janagoshtiya Aikya Mancha (SJA) were at the forefront of the anti-Bodoland movement.  

The party rallied behind the support of over 70% of the non-Bodo population, including Assamese Hindu groups, and a sizable Bengal-origin Muslim population to win Bodoland’s only parliamentary Seat, the Kokrajhar constituency, in the 2014 general election.

For the non-Bod0 communities, voting for the OSS was critical to safeguard their cultural and social interests from overriding Bodo diktats. But for Jalal and other Bengal-origin Muslims who are called Miyas, an ethno-racial slur used against them in the state, a win for Sarania meant hoping for protection in a region that saw a series of communal violence.

“Voting for the OSS meant some safety for our communities after a series of targeted killings against our community by Bodo extremist groups,” Jalal added.

However, Sarania won the Kokrajhar constituency in 2014 and again in the 2019 general election as an independent candidate. His candidature for the 2024 general election was, however, cancelled because the Schedule Tribe (ST) status against his name was struck off by the Gauhati High Court owing to his failure to prove his ST status. 

Of the 14 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state, the Kokrajhar seat is one of two Lok Sabha constituencies with Silchar, reserved for ST candidates, meaning only an ST candidate can contest the election from there.

Soon after Sarania won the Kokrajhar constituency in 2014 against his major opponent Chandan Brahma from the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), a Bodo nationalist party formed by former Bodo militants, alleged loose remarks were hurled against the community by BPF politicians. 

A BPF politician and minister in BPF’s then ally Congress government in Assam under Late Tarun Gogoi, Pramila Rani Brahma reportedly said Chandan Brahma could lose the polls because 80% of Muslims had voted for Sarania backed by 13 non-Bodo groups.

However, Brahma, the minister withdrew her statement after there were calls for her arrest and resignation both from some Congress leaders and the opposition. 

On being asked to comment on whether she should be held responsible for the massacre, Minister Brahma told Time Now, “As I have withdrawn all my statements, there shouldn’t be this argument (sic).”

Her statement after the initial flak was just hogwash, Jalal said.

“Children and women were slaughtered, and she [Pramila Rani Brahma] did not even visit the village after the killings.” 

Violence against non-tribals, especially Bengali-speaking Muslims and Adivasis has roiled the BTR region since the 1990s. Over 100 Bengali Muslims were killed by Bodo militants in a settlement camp in Bodoland’s Basbari in 1993.  In 1996, the NDFB massacred more than 250 Adivasis. In 10 years between 1992-2001, the NDFB (before the split) killed 1,804 people, according to a report. 

The region has also seen anti-Bodo sentiments festering leading to both ethnic and communal riots. In 2012, over 100 people, mostly Muslims and some Bodos were killed in Bodo-Muslim clashes, and more than 3.5 lakhs of Muslims were also displaced.

Bodo nationalism “is a co-opted version of Assamese Nationalism where the concepts of outsiders and who is indigenous are reimagined,” said Nazimuddin Siddique who teaches Sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. 

“To them, non-Bodo identities, especially marginalised groups such as the Bengali-speaking Muslims and Adivasis are a threat to their culture and land leading to deep-seated prejudice against these communities.”

‘Congress did nothing’

Soon after the massacre, 16 people were arrested in connection with the killings, including six forest guards. While a few were granted bail, the National Investigative Agency (NIA) also charge-sheeted four forest guards in the final charge sheet and six NDFB militants in a supplementary chargesheet in 2014. 

Some of the forest guards were former cadres of the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) who after their surrender following an accord with the centre in 2003 were employed as Forest guards in BTR, according to people familiar with the case. 

Two years later after the peace accord with the Late Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s central government, former BTLF chief Hagrama Mohilary forayed into politics and formed the BPF in 2005, and a year later allied with the Congress till split in their alliance in 2016. 

Analysts, observers, and politicians also believe that “the BPF used the former BLTF cadres appointed as Forest guards in the Manas National Park with the NDFB’s Songbijit-led faction to carry out the killings of the Miya Muslims because they voted for the non-Bodo party, OSS.”

We reached out to the BPF for comments. But, we did not receive any response at the time of publication.

Many also point out how Congress was soft on its then-ally to seek accountability after the massacre.

The same BPF was mollycoddled by the then Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government which did not act against them after the massacre, said Hafiz Ahmed, a literary critic from the Bengali Muslim society who extensively documented the Khagrabari massacre.  

Ahmed’s contention that Congress tacitly supported Mohilary’s party 

is shared by two current Congress legislators from the state that Maktoob spoke to. 

A Congress legislator from the state who spoke to Maktoob requesting anonymity said, “There were strong ties between Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and Mahilary then which was evident in the way the party took stock of the matter.”

After the massacre, the legislator said, he visited the violent hit areas with four other senior Congress leaders. “I saw how the police were not acting against those responsible for the massacres,” the legislator said, adding, “When I asked chief minister Tarun Gogoi, ‘Why are you not stepping in to stop the bloodshed of the Muslims?’ He was rather angry at me.”

Another Congress legislator from Baghbor Sherman Ali said the party did nothing to seek accountability from the BPF.

“When I visited Khagrabari soon after the massacre, I saw one of the main accused arrested in connection with the killings loitering freely in the local police station. He was getting special treatment,” he said.

“It was only after I brought up the matter with the Officer-In-charge of that station that he was handcuffed and put back in the lock-up,” the legislator added.  

Both of the Congress legislators also said that Rokibul Hussain, the Congress’s Member of Parliament (MP) candidate from Assam’s Dhubri in 2024 and then a Minister of Forest under Gogoi’s government was miffed at them for asking the state government to hold the BPF responsible for the massacre. 

We tried contacting Hussain for his comments. But our attempts did not elicit any response from him.

Voting for the ‘lesser evil’

Khagrabari is going to vote on May 7 to elect an MP for the Kokrajhar Constituency with close to 15 lakh voters as the election for the 3rd phase in India is underway. With the ouster of Sarania, the two major parties locked in the fray are the BPF and United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), a regional ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

As the BPF candidate Khampa Borgoyary’s campaign pinned on corruption by the UPPL, Promod Boro, UPPL’s candidate, and BJP are planking on the return of peace in Bodoland under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government in the centre. 

The two Bodo-nationalist parties are trying to tap into the larger non-Bodo voter bases left open with the ouster of Sarania. However, the Muslims of Kagrabari find themselves split between voting for them.

Many of the families of the Khagrabari massacre remain spiteful towards the Mohilary’s party for its history. 

“The BPF ruled us for over 13 years and more than 13oo Muslims died under his watch in Bodoland. How can I vote for them?” Jalal asked.

His faith that the party will bring good governance has dwindled over the years, he said. “Since UPPL formed the government in 2020 and with the signing of the Bodo accord, there is peace,” he added. 

However, Mehdi Hassan of All BTC Minority Student’s Union (ABMSU) says this peace plank to woo more than 3 lakh Muslim voters is falling flat. “Even though both the BPF and the UPPL are rooted in the same ideology of Bodo firsts,” Hassan said.  “UPPL did not even do one per cent of work in Muslim areas. They have only targeted the minority community.”

Maktoob spoke to other kin of Khagrabari massacre victims, and most of them said the party evictions under Promod Boro’s government keep them on edge at a time when the Beki is eating away their village. 

Maktoob has previously reported how families faced forced eviction in Baksa in 2023. 

Meanwhile, Siraj Ali said the BJP-UPPL’s campaigning plank on the “return of peace” means little to him as “how can there be peace without justice for his three family members?” he asked.

Activists also told us that campaigning solely around the return of peace in the BTR by the BJP and UPPL will not drum up Muslim support for the alliance government. 

“From 1993 to 2014, all the victims of ethnic and communal strifes must be rehabilitated, and compensated. No government has done it till now,” President of the Muslim Students Union of Assam, Ashik Rabbani said. 

For Azim Uddin, this election is about choosing the “lesser evil” between the BPF and UPPL.

“One was behind the killing of my son, and the other demonises my community,” he said. 

Arshad Ahmed is an independent journalist based in Assam, India.

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