Australia Network Logo
Renewed ethnic fighting in India
Just three months after deadly ethnic clashes in northern India, fresh violence has erupted between the indigenous Bodo tribe and Muslims in Assam, as Karishma Vyas reports.


Ethnic tension has afflicted India for centuries, and is not fading away as the giant nation rushes to modernise.

In recent months, for example, violence has again erupted between the indigenous Bodo Tribe and Muslims in Assam.

The new attacks come just three months after close to 100 people were killed in ethnic clashes, which also displaced nearly 500,000 villagers.

Karishma Vyas reports from Assam.

And a warning to viewers, this story does contain some disturbing footage.
Transcript

(Images of people fleeing Assam in August are shown)

KARISHMA VYAS, REPORTER: These are the images from India last August that made global headlines: tens of thousands of people from the country's north-east cramming into trains, trying to flee urban centres.

They were running for their lives. Text messages warning of attacks by Muslims had caused mayhem amongst north-easterners.

But this was just the aftermath of a bigger and bloodier conflict, unfolding thousands of kilometres away.

I've travelled to the remote north eastern state of Assam to investigate the root cause of this national crisis, and to find out why hundreds of thousands of people here in abandoned their homes.

(Footage of relief camp plays)

At least some of the answers can be found here in a government-run relief camp.

There are currently more than 40,000 people living in such centres across Assam's Kokrajhar, Chirang and Dhubri districts. They have sought refuge here since July when clashes between the Bodo Tribe and Muslim villagers erupted after young men from both communities were killed.

Almost 100 people died in the ensuing violence and some 400,000 villagers fled their homes.

Umar Ali Sheikh has lived in this converted high school since July with his wife, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Both his sons were butchered with machetes when Bodo men came to their village looking for Muslims.

UMAR ALI SHEIKH, DISPLACED MUSLIM VILLAGER (translation): When we saw the bodies they were not shot, they were hacked to death with daggers. Their bodies had injuries on the throat, back of the legs - that's what we could see.

(Amateur video footage of the attacks plays)

KARISHMA VYAS: This amateur footage shows the true horror of the violence.

Mobs of Bodo and Muslim men attacking each other's villages, burning homes, and leaving a trail of bodies.

Paramilitary troops and the army were called in to restore order but news had already spread, infuriating Islamic communities across India. They felt Muslims were being targeted in communal violence.

North easterners faced reprisal attacks in major cities, sparking this mass exodus.

Three months on, tens of thousands of people continue to live in temporary shelters.

(Footage of Dotori Camp plays)

There are still more than 100 relief camps run by the government for villagers fleeing the Bodo Muslim violence in July.

This is Dotori Camp, and there are more than 700 people living here. Between them, they have 11 toilets and two showers. But they're too afraid to go back home, fearing more attacks if they return. They say government food rations are not enough and their children are constantly getting sick.

This mother is worried about a serious infection on her son's face. But she says doctors rarely come here and when they do, medicine is always in short supply.

Sanitation, food and health care are all gravely lacking. But Nilim Dutta is concerned about a more sinister problem. He heads a local think tank called the Strategic Research Analysis Organisation, and like some observers he believes the clashes are part of a systematic campaign by Bodo militants to ethnically cleanse this region of other minorities, especially Muslims.

NILIM DUTTA, STRATEGIC RESEARCH ANALYSIS ORGANISATION: The claim for a separate Bodo state is still there. Yet even in these districts, Bodos themselves may constitute the largest group, largest community but even they do not constitute a majority. So that comes as a big hurdle.

So this is almost legitimising ethnic cleansing that you drive out people who are non-Bodos.

(Footage of Bodo uprising plays)

KARISHMA VYAS: For decades, the Bodo Tribe has demanded its own state, staging a bloody insurgency that claimed thousands of lives.

In 2003, they were given an autonomous region as a compromise, but many believe the growth in the Muslim population here is threatening Bodo dominance.

There is evidence to suggest Muslims are being prevented from returning to their land.

(Footage of farmers harvesting crops plays)

These farmers from a nearby relief camp are forced to harvest their crops under armed guard. The charred remains of their homes stand close by, burnt and looted during the clashes.

Harvesting is essential for their survival, but without protection they say their Bodo neighbours would murder them.

LUTFUR REHMAN, MUSLIM FARMER (translation): We try to come back to our village just a week after the incident. But whenever we tried to take the boats to return, a large crowd of Bodos would gather on the northern bank of the Aye River (phonetic), preventing us from returning.

KARISHMA VYAS: These tensions between the Bodo's and the Muslims are not religious. What they're fighting over is far more valued here - land.

In this heavily agricultural region, everybody wants it but there's simply not enough.

Muslims are increasingly acquiring farms, much to the alarm of the indigenous Bodo Tribe. They want the government to Implement a 19th Century law giving them sole right over what they say is their ancestral land.

DERSIN DAIMARI, SECRETARY, ALL BODO STUDENTS: If the Government of Assam does not implement the act, surely the land will go to the non-tribals and the tribal people will be landless in their own land.

KARISHMA VYAS: Rational or not, this fear is endemic amongst ordinary Bodos. They believe that most Muslims here are illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, squatting on their lands.

NIKUNJA BASUMATHARY, BODO VILLAGER (translation): They're coming into our area every day. Every year 10 or 15 families settle in our area. After the 24 July incident, on October 3 or 4 when I went back to my home I saw a new Bangladeshi family building a house there.

KARISHMA VYAS: But the Government rejects these allegations. The border is poor, they admit, but India is guarding its territory.

GOPAL K. PILLAI, FORMER JOINT SECRETARY FOR THE NORTHEAST: We have looked at this and I don't see any evidence of any large scale illegal migration into, say, Kokrajhar and those districts. So we are actually not constructing a war but a fence, this is more or less, about 95 per cent of the fencing has been done.

KARISHMA VYAS: The July violence and these squalid relief camps are an embarrassment for the government. They've promised to empty these huts by the end of the year.

But what of the ethnic tensions that continue to simmer? Little has been done to address the deep suspicion between Bodos and Muslims or to resolve their dispute over land.

With sporadic attacks continuing on both communities, many here can only wait and watch for the next crisis.
Advertisement
Home and Away
Improve Your English
Advertisement
Explore Australia Network
About Us