Five lakhs refugees in Assam, India’s biggest internal exodus?

published on August 20, 2012

No hue and cry from so called secularists and human right activists!

There are just three people in Salam Choudhury’s house. He, his wife of eight years and a little daughter who he says drives him to despair with her tantrums. “But,” he adds, forcing a smile on a face that puts him at perhaps 30-35 years, “We can’t think of a single day without her.” In the third week of July, though, he sent her away for two weeks to a relative’s place for safety. “That killed me,” he adds, suddenly frowning, as a few others at a refugee camp in Kokrajhar crowd around him to find out if his story is worse than theirs. Then, looking at the men sitting on their haunches nearby, he says knowingly in Bengali, “Kismote chhilo (It was destined).”

What Choudhury doesn’t understand, however, is how so many people materialized almost overnight in refugee protection centres that have popped up all across Assam’s three districts hit recently by communal violence-Kokrajhar, Chirang and Dhubri.

A little east from there and 10km further ahead, Raju Daimary, also sitting on his haunches, a preferred way of resting in these parts, says the numbers boggled his mind, too. “It seemed people, like rats, were pouring out of holes. So many of us,” he sighs.

The unprecedented magnitude of displacement-4,85,921, to be precise, by the government’s own reckoning-has not only taken people aback, but triggered a host of dark, insidious conspiracy theories. After all, even the post-Godhra riots accounted for only 2,50,000 refugees. The Kandhmahal attacks of 2008 threw 25,000 out of their homes and the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 saw 50,000 on the roads. Though 2,000 people were killed in the infamous Nellie massacre of 1983, again in Assam, there are no displacement figures. If the estimate of 5 lakh is indeed correct, we must be staring at one of modern India’s biggest refugee situations.

“The large number of inmates in relief camps has been mainly due to panic fleeing by villagers,” says Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi. “The past clashes were even bigger in terms of death toll but this time we are seeing, relatively, a greater number of people taking shelter in relief camps. This is because there was a strong sense of insecurity following rumours that triggered the panic. People felt too afraid to stay back at their homes.” They must be. A staggering 2,86,000 are still in the camps, and it’s been a month they are there now.

Superintendent of police in Kokrajhar, Sunil Kumar, seems to agree. “It’s possible the numbers are not incorrect,” he says. “These are three populous districts we are talking about. Why would anyone want to exaggerate the figures? Even those who were not really hit by the violence directly have piled on in the relief camps – relatives, friends. Maybe they don’t want to stay alone.”

Shyamal Dey, a local resident who accompanied a TOI team around on Sunday to the refugee camps, has a theory. “It’s the cellphones,” he says, pleased at his own conclusion. “As the first batch of people fled their homes they called up others even as they themselves were running. Soon, everybody was running. Those who wouldn’t have been touched by the turmoil left their homes, too, and landed up in the camps.”

But 5 lakh people leaving their dwellings and gathering at the camps is a staggering bit of statistic in itself, something that almost defies logic. That’s where the conspiracy theories kick in. “It’s not surprising at all,” says a local Bodo leader, convinced by what he is about to say but unwilling to be quoted. “Many more Muslims from Bangladesh who were living here illegally without any papers have made their way to the camps, swelling their numbers. Now they can all say their documents got burnt in the arson. It suits them.”

Many, of course, say that the fear is genuine. “There hasn’t been any alarming rise in illegal influx from Bangladesh in BTAD (Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts) because if we look at the 2011 census figures, there’s isn’t any substantial increase in population in these areas,” says Dr Monirul Hussain, professor of political science and sociology at Gauhati University. “So, the real reason of conflict is not just influx but other factors like complete Bodo domination in BTAD. Extortion by former militants is a huge problem in these areas and they still haven’t surrendered their arms. The Centre, too, is at fault; it never rehabilitated these militants as promised and rather left them to fend for themselves. They have arms but no means to earn, so they start extorting money.”

Whatever the reasons, what everyone agrees on is that the government, both New Delhi and in Guwahati, has to act now, and act quickly. With sporadic attacks being recorded across the country, the fight for land, which is at the heart of the Bodo-Muslim strife, may just turn into a larger struggle for identity and faith. And that’s something which scares Salam. “I don’t want another day without my daughter,” he says.

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