KOKRAJHAR, India — Takimari in western Assam is a smaller place than it was two months ago. The village has lost an entire community to ethnic violence and may never recover its multiracial character, with some of the farmers who have fled saying they are too nervous to return.
It was early one morning in late July that the indigenous Bodo inhabitants of Takimari were attacked by hundreds of Muslims who smashed, looted and set fire to their homes.
“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.
But the differences this time are twofold. First, the soaring population since independence in 1947 has put intense pressure on the land. India already has more than 1.2 billion inhabitants, and western Assam is the front line between northern tribes such as the Bodos and Bengali Muslims migrating from the south.
Second, Indian politicians have enthusiastically used the Assam conflict to press their national agendas.
L.K. Advani, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, argues that the root of the problem is illegal immigration of Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh, which has made the people of Assam “refugees in their own state.”
Bodo leaders, most of them Hindu, take the same line, although some say the high birthrate of resident Muslims is also to blame. “If there’s a problem in Assam, it’s a population problem,” said Urkhao Gwra Brahma, a former member of Parliament who argues that Bodos are being marginalized.
Muslim leaders insist that the problem is not illegal immigration of Muslims. “There’s no foreigners, I am telling you. They are all genuine Indian citizens of the BTC [Bodoland Territorial Council] area,” said Abdul Rahim Ahmed, president of the All Assam Minorities Students’ Union.
For the Muslims, and for some academic researchers, the crisis in western Assam originates in attempts by Bodo militants to drive Muslims out of “Bodoland,” an autonomous zone created a decade ago by agreement with the central government. Unfortunately for the Bodos, they make up only a third of the inhabitants of the zone they claim as theirs.
Twenty years ago, according to Nani G. Mahanta, associate politics professor at Gauhati University, Bodos were rebuffed in a previous attempt to carve out territory for themselves, on the grounds that they did not hold a “homogeneous, exclusive homeland.”
“So they started a process of ethnocide, of ethnic cleansing,” Mahanta said. “The Bodo militants have tried to drive out the non-Bodos, regardless of whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims.”
According to this argument, successive Indian governments are to blame for taking the path of least resistance and acceding too easily to militant demands for ethnic enclaves in the northeast of the country.
Yet Bodos, too, are critical of the government, demanding more autonomy and complaining, like the Muslims, about the lack of security in western Assam.
“The main problem is the government of India,” said Dersin Daimari, an official of the All Bodo Students’ Union. “In India, no problems are solved. They are not eager to solve it. They always leave it pending.”
Jyotsna Singh contributed to this report.