Ten days after the attacks on adivasi villages in Assam killed 81 people last month, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi announced that normalcy had returned. The reality does not match the claim. Many of those who fled home after the attacks and took refuge in relief camps are too afraid to return home. Yet, they are being coerced by the local administration in Kokrajhar to vacate the relief camps.

In 1996, when violent clashes broke out between Bodo and adivasi communities in parts of Assam, it heralded a new chapter for the two communities. Their long-standing support and trust was in one stroke replaced by fear. Those memories flooded back on the morning of December 23, when several adivasi villages were attacked, allegedly by the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. Nearly 2.5 lakh people fled their homes fearing more strikes.

As of January 1, around 2.4 lakh people were living in 118 relief camps across the districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Sonitpur and Udalguri. Eighty one of these camps were in Kokrajhar alone. Since then, people have slowly begun to leave for home. But what is driving them back are the regular visits by the local police.

The people living in the Jogendrapur Soraibil camp – which became a shelter for 14 villages – claimed they were threatened twice by the police from the nearby outpost. “The sub-divisional officer and the superintendent of police told us they would give us ration only if we went home,” said Kristodas Soren, who fled from the Nasrailbil village. “That prompted a few villages to leave, but most of us did not. Then, the other day, the police came in three vehicles and threatened to beat and arrest us if we did not go away.”

Soren said they tried to reason with the police, only be told in response that the camp was set up in the compound of the privately-run UN Academy School and would therefore affect its students’ education. “But the schools are anyway shut till after Bihu,” he added. “While students’ education is important, shouldn’t the administration be concerned about our safety too?”

When this reporter visited the police outpost, there were no officers. A lone constable said the people were lying because there is just one vehicle in that compound, so three vehicles full of police personnel could not have visited them.

Fear looms at night

Lokhiram Murmu from Katribari village, also living in the Jogendrapur Soraibil camp, explained the persisting fear: “We have been attacked at least thrice in the last two decades. We still remember it – 49 people went missing from our village in one attack. They were never found. Only five bodies were discovered later. Our village is the adda of NDFB cadres, and our village is surrounded by Bodo villages. We want to go home, but not until there is paramilitary personnel sent with us.”

Several camps look deserted at day, when people tend to their cattle or visit farms for the harvest before Bihu. At night, fear resurges and people flock back to the camps.

Sonatoni Karmakar’s husband and brother were shot in 1996. Today, she is trying to survive with her two children in the Jogendrapur Soraibil camp. “I had four cows, one pig, two goats and 10 chickens,” she said. “All of them are missing since we are living here. I had called up the Bodo Village Council Development Committee chairman, who was sympathetic earlier. But now even he refuses to answer my calls. I need to return home to ensure that the harvest is safe, but I am too scared to go back.”

'We can't give everyone security'

Many adivasis abandoned their villages for the camp in Balagaon when they saw nearby Bodo villages were packing away their women and children to safety in large numbers. And then they saw armed cadres walking in large numbers. Only after arriving near the church in Balagaon did they learn about the carnage in other villages.

“When we go to the marketplace now, youths bring back messages that certain people who are vocal in the villages should run for their lives,” said Deven Mardi, who has taken charge of the Balagaon camp. “With such threats, how are we to return home?”

In another camp, people alleged that the local police comprises mostly Bodos since Kokrajhar falls under the Bodoland Territorial Council and is therefore a Bodoland Territorial Authority District. “The policemen take leave from work and get involved with the militant cadres around their villages,” said one man too scared to give his name. “We recognise them since our villages are so close to theirs.”

Ankur Jain, the sub-divisional police officer of Gossaigaon in Kokrajhar, where most camps are set up, accused people living in camps of spreading rumours of possible attacks. “People are demanding permanent pockets of paramilitary force and this is just not possible for every village,” Jain said. “People want to stay in the camps because they are greedy for the relief material. We have provided whatever security we can.” He refuted the fact several villages were burnt in the December violence, and tried to present a situation of calm, though the reality was far it.

Same anxieties in Bodo camps

In a Bodo camp in Jolaisuri, which houses the residents of 18 villages, the anxieties are not dissimilar. Some of their houses were burnt down by adivasi youth after the carnage on December 23. Though they have not faced any threats from the administration, they too fear going home. “Our village is surrounded by adivasi villages, like Lanka,” said Nobin Narzary. “So imagine how we fear for our lives. Two women lost their newborns here. They have since returned home because it is cold here.”

Some other camps arose out of people settling down in empty spaces after fleeing home. These are mostly in the compounds of schools and churches. Now, they are having a tough battle convincing the administration that their camps are legitimate and relief material should also be provided there too. Since the administration is yet to agree, they have been putting together sarees, old tarpaulin sheets and sheets woven of bamboo to build tents.

Their trauma worsens when it rains at night. “We ran into the school and sat up there all night,” said Ramu Hasda of Gongia village, where a camp has been set up. “It was very cold and we could not sleep, but it was better than being out in the tents and sleeping on the muddy floor.”

According to Wilson Hansda, a social worker from Gossaigaon – who was 10 years old in 1996 when a neighbour rescued him from the violence – there are more Bodo camps than adivasi camps in Kokrajhar. But the Bodo camps have smaller populations, while the adivasi camps are cramped.

He felt the camps may become permanent settlements, turning into a larger political issue and a matter of embarrassment for the local administration. That is why, he said, people are being forced to leave. “Even though the chief secretary ordered for disbursal of ration for three months, the supply is yet to come,” said Hansda. “However, with much pressure on ministers and Opposition parties, the local administration is now backing off from ordering people to return home.”

Katribari’s Lokhiram Murmu had harsh words for the government: “Who would want to live in a camp in the cold when we have our homes to return to? We are not here for a picnic.”