“Our houses were burned down and we had to run away,” says Sindu Raj Brahmo, a 60-year-old retired schoolteacher who now lives as a refugee in a requisitioned school building here, in the Bodo heartland.
“This is a temporary camp, and I know I can’t live here for ever,” he said. “I’m hoping for a solution which would mean I could relocate here to this area. Let there be a swap, an exchange [between Bodos and Muslims]. Many generations of our ancestors lived [in Takimari], but the situation today is so bad that we cannot think of living in that place as a minority.”
The July 24 attack was only one of a series of raids conducted by both Bodos and Muslims against each other. The violence, which continues in isolated incidents, has left more than 80 people dead and forced 400,000 to flee their homes. In mid-August, threats circulated by social media and cellphone text messages prompted thousands of panicked northeasterners to flee their homes and jobs hundreds of miles away in southern India for fear of Muslim revenge attacks.
In Takimari itself, 12 miles south of Kokrajhar in an area where the population is predominantly Muslim, the blackened remnants of Bodo houses bear witness to the attack described by Brahmo. His neighbors, members of the Nathbanshi tribe who work as laborers for Muslim farmers, corroborate his account and say they fear they may be the next victims of the raiders.
In one burnt-out Bodo house, two charred books lie on the floor amid the ashes. One is titled “Indian India,” by Mahatma Gandhi, the national hero who campaigned for independence and for mutual tolerance among Indians; the other is titled “Cultural Identity of Tribes of North-East India.”
Why did the attack happen, and why now? Brahmo is surprisingly philosophical, seeing it as one of a string of tit-for-tat incidents between Bodos and Muslims in a long struggle over land and power. “Bodos burned down the houses of Muslims, so Muslims burned down our houses,” he said.
Muslims, indeed, tell tales of woe almost identical to those of the Bodos. Three-quarters of the refugees and most of the dead since the start of July are Muslims.
“Suddenly all these people descended on us and started firing, and burning down our houses,” said Azad Ali, a 26-year-old teacher who fled his village on July 23 after a Bodo attack, joining thousands of other Muslims from the Kokrajhar area now housed in classrooms in the town of Bilasipara. “They can’t tolerate Muslims. They wanted us to vacate the area.”
Since the days of British colonial rule, northeastern India has been a patchwork of dozens of tribal zones , and the peace has been disturbed by insurgent armies and protection rackets.