BONGAIGAON, Assam -- When I ask for directions to the refugee camp at the military checkpost, the man in uniform is bemused.
"Which camp?" he says. "There are so many." When I tell him it's in a high school, he shrugs. That does not narrow down the search much at all.
Amidst the sun-dappled bamboo groves and waterlogged paddy fields of southern Assam, in the districts like Bongaigaon, Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Chirang, many schools are now closed because they shelter the victims of July's violence that have left over 400,000 homeless and at least 60 dead according to official estimates. Long simmering tensions between the Bodo tribals (a diverse ethnic community who reportedly settled in Assam and Nepal) and their Muslim neighbors erupted into tit-for-tat violence. Entire villages were torched and thousands fled their homes in terror while the government seemed to be paralyzed. While the rest of the world was focused on India's power outage, the north east of the country was grappling with a different kind of darkness.
The rice is still on fire
The stories both sides have to tell are mirror images of each other.
Jizali Boro has just come back from her Bodo village of Bamungaon. Sitting in the Debargaon High School refugee camp she says there's nothing to go back to. "There is no house, no television, no cows, no fan, no cycle. The temple is destroyed. Even the latrine is broken. They have cut down the tamul trees. It is all ashes now." Deuki Narjari says even her pig is gone. "They don't eat pig, why did they take my pig?" she asks.
An hour's journey away, at the Nankargaon High School relief camp, Musa Ali says he cannot even think about going back home now. The villages exist cheek by jowl with Bodo villages. Some are encircled by Bodo homes. Some have a main road that passes through Bodo areas. Ali's younger brother Rahim Ali went back a couple of days ago to water the rice fields. "Even the taps had been ripped out and taken away," he says. "Dhaan ekhono jwolchhey (The unhusked rice is still on fire)," he says. Empty houses are still going up in flames – a warning to those who want to return home.
Now they all live in relief camps on government rations of 600 grams of rice, 100 grams of lentils, and 30 grams of salt and whatever else wellwishers donate. The families have to scrounge for firewood to cook on and beg and borrow pots to cook in.
The burning issue
But each side has a different take about the cause for the conflagration and therein lies a messy story of politics and immigration. The issue of migration has been burning in Assam since the 1970s. It led to a huge massacre in 1983 where almost 2,000 Muslims were killed.
This area has seen waves of violence before as the Bodos fought to carve out their own state of Bodoland in the nineties. Even now in cities like Kokrajhar walls are covered with graffiti that vow "No Bodoland, No Rest." In 2003 the Bodos settled for the creation of semi-autonomous region under the Bodo Territorial Council. But they fear that Muslims will overwhelm them by sheer numbers. Districts here have seen much higher decadal population growth compared to other parts of India. "We feel suffocated because of these illegal immigrants," says Pramod Boro, head of the All Bodo Students Union. "They burst crackers when Pakistan wins in cricket." The Bodos want to make sure only genuine Indian citizens are allowed to go back to their villages. They are already crying foul, saying Muslim leaders are inflating the number of refugees in the camps.
Many of the Muslims came over from Bangladesh after the 1971 war that created that country, though some have been here much longer. But many are much more recent arrivals. "I used to know all the Muslim families in the village. We would eat off the same plate," says one 76-year old Rajbongshi tribal. "Now I see many new faces." The ruling Congress party helped the Muslims get papers and they became a solid vote bank. Muslim leaders accuse the Bodos of ethnic cleansing and the government of standing by idly. "Our houses burned in front of (Assam police)," says Mohammad Amir Hussain from Nalbari village. "We called the police officers again and again. They said they were coming but no one came until it was all ashes." They claim they are the real victims and the Bodos camps are just for show. Muslim leaders want the whole autonomy agreement scrapped and they have tried to rally all non-Bodo minorities into an organization to do just that.
Fishing in troubled waters
There is also no shortage of outsiders who want to fish in these troubled waters. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad's leaders say Bangladeshis are trying to make Assam "a Muslim country" and all "Hindus should unite with Bodos to fight against this invasion." The All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat quotes a politician as saying "it is a sin to be born Muslim in Assam."
The reality, as always, is far more complicated and tangled. There are many groups here – Bodo, Rajbongshi, Munda Adivasi, Santhals, Muslims – each with its own underground militia. The area is awash in arms and an epidemic of extortion and kidnappings predates this current flare-up. India's tribal people complain they got a raw deal from the government, that outsiders muscle in and buy up their land. New Delhi has long treated the entire north-east as a step child who needed to just shut up and keep providing oil and tea for the rest of the country.
Assam's chief minister, caught flat-footed by the crisis, is trying to take charge. He has transferred top police officials from the worst hit districts. He wants the refugees to go home by August 15, India's independence day. But the refugee camps are not the problem. They are just festering reminders of the much more intractable problem – the fight over land and political power.
Five goats, two pigs and 12 cows
After the third refugee camp, the journalist in me feels already dulled by the litany of suffering, impatient at the sameness of the accounts, each laundry list of loss blurring into the next. Cows lost. Goats killed. Houses burned. Crops torched. Each camp seems to have spokesmen who had been schooled in well-rehearsed talking points whether it is about scrapping Bodo autonomy or sealing the border.
As I turn to leave one camp, a woman who has let the men do the talking until then, timidly touches my elbow. "Won't you write down my story, brother?" she says. "I am from Nithuriabari. You have not written about Nithuriabari."
Her story is really no different from the others. But she tells it with urgency and hope as if by scribbling it down I can right some great wrong. She tells me the story because it is all she has. And I write it down dutifully as if Fatima Bibi's five missing goats, Sanzeeta Basumathari's two missing pigs and Iman Ali's twelve lost cows can add up to something that will explain the scope of the tragedy that engulfs Assam.
How green was my village
On my last day I chance upon a gutted village. There is a burned twisted bicycle lying on its side, next to a blackened pump. The ground is charred and the banana trees are dying. Posts stick out of the ground, the tin roofs stolen by looters. All around the scorched skeleton of this little village the landscape is still idyllic – white storks land daintily on rolling green paddy fields, monsoon clouds gather in the distant horizon, a goat bleats and birds chirp.
But there is no sound of human life. Next to the village that has been razed, there's another village that is intact, its thatched houses unscathed. But it's a ghost village, empty and silent, its residents sheltering in a relief camp somewhere. A mongrel dog stands at the gate and looks at us, perhaps in warning or perhaps hoping for some food.
I try and guess which community this burned village belonged to based on the demographics of the area and the little experience I have garnered in a few days of reporting. But when I ask the army man sitting in lonely vigil down the road I find out I guessed wrong.
When you burn a village to the ground and ransack it down to the stumps, there's not much left to tell a Bodo village from a Muslim one.
This piece is adapted from a series of articles by Sandip Roy that first appeared on Firstpost.com