In the topography of global terror, Kokrajhar is the name of a town – and a district – with a bloody history. It has been the epicentre of violent armed movements fighting for self-determination, separatism and ethnic cleansing since the mid-1980s.
A little over an hour’s drive to the north from the town is the Bhutan border, a few kilometres to its west is Srirampur, the West Bengal border, from where Nepal is not far. Both unguarded international borders offer save haven for the armed groups. In 2003, Operation All Clear had flushed out 48 such camps in Bhutan but complacency by Indian security agencies has allowed at least one group to slowly find its way back. In 2014, the government launched Operation All Out against Bodo militancy. There is photographic evidence in 2016 of the group recruiting minor girls from the area. It was obvious that the group was planning an offensive.
Friday’s killing of 14 people (including one of the shooters) by suspected cadres of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit) in Kokrajhar may have surprised the newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party government in Assam – but violence in Kokrajhar should hardly surprise.
In December 2014, this group had gunned down 69 Adivasis in Kokrajhar, Sonitpur, and Chirang districts, the total toll of of those killed by the group during the year being 147 people. In 10 years between 1992 to 2001 the NDFB (before the split) killed 1,804 people. Their rival Bodo militia Bodo Liberation Tigers (now a political party in power) was responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths blowing up trains and bridges.
A history of killings
The 1990s were the worst years of Bodo militancy – in 1993, more than 20,000 Muslims were displaced in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts. In 1994, more than 400 were killed in attacks on 60 villages.
In 1996, NDFB massacred over 250 Adivasis mostly in Kokrajhar district and burnt down villages. In response, the Adivasis formed the Adivasi Cobra Force and Adivasi Birsa Force but none of them could stand the onslaught. Over two lakh were displaced. Bodos were displaced too but while they went back, the other ethnic groups languished in refugee camps. Within a few years this area became home to the country’s largest group of Internally Displaced Persons.
In 1998, more than 50 were killed, over 500 houses burnt down and 70,000 displaced as Bodos and Adivasis clashed in Gossaigaon sub-division of Kokrajhar district.
The next wave of violence was in 2008 between the Bodos and Muslims that left more than 100 dead and a lakh and a half out of their homes. On October 30, 2008, the NDFB struck at five places across the state in what would turn out to be Assam’s bloodiest day – 100 killed and over 500 injured. They coordinated the attack and carried them out from ceasefire camps in Lower Assam where the government was talking “peace” with them. It was after that massacre that Songbijit faction or the “anti-talk faction” was created. The other faction is still talking “peace”.
In 2012, another 100 were killed and four lakh became homeless. The riots spread and social media rumours created a communal situation across the country. In May 2014, the group killed over 30 non-Bodos, mostly Muslims.
Therefore it is not at all surprising that the same group would open fire again. As long as arms and ammunition are in circulation and the groups are active, killings will continue.
Ironically, the Bodoland Territorial Council, an autonomous body under the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution that administers the Bodo areas in the state is headed by Hagrama Mohilary, an elected representative, who was chief of the Bodo Liberation Tigers that unleashed mass violence in the 1990s. He and his cadres, now part of the government (they were part of the previous Congress government too), pretty much live like they did when underground – with impunity.
The only Member of Lok Sabha from Kokrajhar is Naba Sarania, a non-Bodo who was commander of ULFA and ran his empire of extortion, intimidation and killings in Lower Assam under the name Hira Sarania. Perhaps it was just a quirk of fate that after Friday’s attack the media happened to ask Sarania for his comments.
In the badlands of Brahmaputra’s North Bank, it is a bullet for a bullet, an eye for an eye. The method of violence has always been brutal. In 2014, the NDFB dragged out a teenage girl and shot her in front of the family. The people have suffered unmitigated misery at the hands of the militants and have often been caught in the cross fire between them and the government forces.
“Peace processes” in India are considered “low-cost” investment as far as human lives are concerned. In monetary terms, it is a huge investment where the only strategy is to buy “peace” and that in turn creates a vicious cycle of money and violence. Bodoland is yet another example of the same. The process of engaging “disaffected” groups in the region is as old as India. External factors, with the groups operating from neighbouring countries, did not allow this violence to be treated as regular law and order situation. There was no alternate strategy except for sending in battalions of army that only proved counter productive.
The first peace experiment in Bodoland failed and accentuated the differences flaring into a full-fledged fire. Even as PC Haldar, the former Intelligence Bureau Chief and the government’s current interlocutor, started the negotiations three years ago, he said, “This will repeat itself again and again because nothing on the ground has changed.”
In 2016 it is still the same ground he was talking about.
The peculiar fact about “peace processes” in India is that there was never a roadmap. It was a desperate fire-fighting device. “When the peace agreement is signed we celebrate and come back,” Haldar would say, “but we don’t know what to do till it is time to renew the agreement.”
Though the “peace processes” have not solved militancy they have helped change the demands from sovereignty and independence to various grades of autonomy. While this may keep the government happy, what it spawned is a parallel structure in which the state and “non-state” have found common ground to collaborate and legitimise the lucre of illegal economy from forest produce to arms, drugs, human trafficking, land and development funds.
Palpable tension has always been part of Kokrajhar’s daily life. It is unlikely to change anytime soon. Force may help contain the fire but the insidious network of corruption and violence runs too deep along the tortured plains of Bodoland.
Kishalay Bhattacharjee is a senior journalist and author. His most recent book is Blood on my Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters (Harper Collins, 2015).