A woman and her child at a relief camp in Uriamghat. Picture by UB Photos See Metro
Uriamghat, Aug. 14: The smell is familiar — that of burning thatch, bamboo and grain. And so are the sights — those of smouldering haystacks and granaries, burnt homes, perpetrators looting victims’ homes.…Be it in a village in Kokrajhar in lower Assam’s troubled Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts (BTAD) or No. 1 Chetia Gaon in the disputed areas belt on the Assam-Nagaland border in Golaghat, the mode of ethnic cleansing is the same — a methodical slash-and-burn so to speak — where men are shot, houses burnt and rival communities chased away to distant relief camps. These are places where Assam’s frontier wars are fought, man-made disasters bound by one common string of tragedy: that of the government, in this case, the one that seats itself at Dispur, abandoning its own people.
Late this afternoon, Giridhar Bora, the officer-in-charge of Uriamghat police station, some 70km from district headquarters Golaghat, is out to fetch two more bodies from the disputed areas belt (DAB), one of which was found yesterday and the other today. Should he manage to retrieve them from villages now allegedly held by the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) militants, the toll in this cleansing would rise to four. Two Adivasi students believed to have been kidnapped on July 26 are still missing, just about written off as killed. In Adivasi villages that bore the brunt of the NSCN (I-M) attacks that began on August 12, perpetrators openly mill around victims’ homes in the villages they have emptied, walking away with livestock, nonchalantly, as if they were their own.
The relief camp at Daffodil English School at Uriamghat, meanwhile, is filling up. “We have 311 inmates, comprising 56 families in all,” says a volunteer. “Victims are still coming in.”
About 370km from Guwahati, through Golaghat, the bleeding, festering 45-year-old sore of the disputed areas belt is divided into six sectors — A, B, C, D, E and F — and comprises the grey area between the two warring states. People don’t have land records (patta) here and hence these aren’t revenue villages. “This is forest land, it means if you want a place here and want to build a home, it is the forest authorities that give you permission, not the local administration. It means there is no specific measurement for plots,” says an official. “This is one kingdom with two kings,” jokes Phuleshe Yepthomi, the sub-divisional officer (civil) of Ralan, part of the Nagaland dispensation, in Sector B of the disputed areas belt. The cost has been deadly.
At the Daffodil School camp, the Lama couple is vague when asked about the land they own. “We have about three pura (12 bigha) of land,” says Padam Bahadur Lama, 60, of No. 1 Chetia Gaon. It makes them a part of the landed gentry here. “We don’t have to buy rice from the market through the year,” he admits.
The economics of it make the land worth fighting for. Killings and cleansing have been rampant in disputed areas belt: just two cleansing — at Sungajan in 1975 and at Merapani in June 1985 — left well over 150 dead. Smaller skirmishes recur just about all the time.
Nagaland seems to have won hands down so far in the dispute. As opposed to its counterpart, the government of Assam, the Nagaland dispensation has been vociferous in its demand that the disputed areas belt belongs to their state. The NSCN (I-M), believed to have turned No. 1 Chetia Gaon desolate and dead, is said to be using the issue to gain ground among its own populace. The NSCM (I-M), in a ceasefire for 17 years, is facing widespread flak from the Naga community for its “tax” collection.
Assam has chosen to blame the Centre for the lack of a solution. While chief minister Tarun Gogoi today put the onus for restoring normalcy in the area on New Delhi, Atul Bora, AGP president-in-charge keeps it to “we need a mutual solution to this”.
Desperate to get a toehold in Assam, his party had during the last Lok Sabha elections got the then Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio to canvass for the AGP.
The result of the Assam administration’s apathy has been devastating. While Assam police officials deny it, there seems to be absolutely no presence of its forces in the disputed areas belt, as the Nagaland Armed Police seem oblivious to the looting (the police of neither state is meant to be present in the area but while Nagaland police is all over the place, Assam police isn’t). The CRPF that is deployed in the area maintain they are a “neutral force” and can act only when shot at. As the disputed areas belt burned one more time yesterday, Assam’s MLAs chose to discuss a salary bill for legislators — and not perhaps as seriously the toll at No. 1 Chetia Gaon and its vicinity.
In the meantime, the toll climbs to four, and, according to Ankur Bharali, circle officer of Sarupathar revenue circle who is supervising relief work in the area, 10,000 people have been displaced.