Muslims of BTAD are exiled in their own land post 2012 riots

By Nilim Dutta,

N 26˚ 30’ 10.4”
E 90˚ 01’ 24.9”

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If one types in the above location coordinates into the ‘search’ in Google Earth, it immediately takes one to the image of an empty field somewhere in Gossaigaon Revenue Circle of Kokrajhar District, one of the four Districts in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) of Assam, in the satellite topographic imagery dated 3 May 2010.

When I arrived in that paddy field just off the National Highway 31C on 2 March 2014, nearly four years after that satellite image was taken, the field was no longer empty. More than a hundred ramshackle shelters built with bamboo and covered with multicoloured tarpaulin sheets now dotted the patch of land. For many suffering the paranoia of a relentless ‘silent’ Bangladeshi invasion of Assam, these could even be passed off for new encroachment of Bangladeshi settlers who have sneaked into Assam in recent years.

A visitor would, however, find that most of them speak fluent Assamese, using beautiful literary vocabulary of the written language, even though with a distinct accent. He or she would find many of the younger women to be assertive and articulate, a clear hint of being educated, and speaking in Assamese with the fluency of someone who have been speaking the language all their lives. This alone should dispel any notion of their identity, but they have further proof of where they come from, receipts of land revenue their forefathers had paid as early as 1935 to the Government of Assam under the British in a village about 20 Kilometers north east of their present settlement called Ramfalbil in the neighbouring Dotma Revenue Circle of the same Kokrajhar District.

Joymaguri settlement of the displaced Muslims from Ramfalbil. A Google Earth image.

How have they ended up in this squalid settlement in Joymaguri village in the Gossaigaon Revenue Circle of Kokrajhar District?

When the violence against the Muslim villagers broke out in Kokrajhar and Chirang districts in July 2012, these Muslim villagers from Ramfalbil were compelled to flee with their lives to relief camps in Bilasipara in the neighbouring Dhubri District of Assam. Unlike most other villagers from their community who are overwhelmingly cultivators or agricultural labourers, a majority of them were petty businessmen, traders and shopkeepers, and perhaps comparatively more upwardly mobile. When government relief camps for the Muslim victims of the 2012 violence began to be forcibly closed down, even before any compensation were paid, or even before they were enabled to return to the destroyed homes they had fled from, 163 families, mostly from Ramfalbil, finally found their way into this patch of land in Joymaguri.

The land the displaced Muslim villagers now live on, however, is not government land that any accusation of encroachment can even arise but ‘myadi land’ belonging to two generous elderly Muslim gentlemen of Joymaguri village, Karim Ali and Qader Ali. Karim Ali, on whose land the greater part of the present settlement of the displaced Muslim villagers from Ramfalbil is situated, was among those whom I had the wonderful opportunity to meet that afternoon. For someone who has lost all earning from that land, and who can actually ill-afford that loss, it is indeed a generous gesture. It is gestures like these that reaffirm our faith on humanity.

A displaced Muslim family in front of their squalid dwelling in the Joymaguri settlement.
Photo: Smita Dutta, Copyright: SRAO 2014

It has been now been almost 20 months since they were left dispossessed, but not a single family out of the 163 that came to settle in this patch of land has been compensated by the government. None has received even a penny towards their rehabilitation. Of the 163 families who had come, 60 have left in search of livelihood, leaving their belongings with their neighbours in the camp. 103 families, however, continue to live there. There are enormous obstacles and discriminations they have to face almost daily. Their children have to go to a school more than 3 Kilometers away and they have to walk all the way on a busy four-lane National Highway and cross over to the other side to reach the school, called the Bhadiaguri Middle English School. In school, their classmates often ridicule them for being shabbily dressed and without uniforms. And, sometime in the last month, their teachers have told them that if they can’t afford uniforms, don’t shall not be allowed to attend classes after 20 March. Some of the young girl students have alleged that bicycles and school bags that were meant for them under some scheme were not given to them. If being dispossessed and rendered destitute was not enough, now even the difficult struggle of these children to rebuild a future is being sought to be subverted.

One of the repeated claims that is still made to explain the violence against the Muslims in Kokrajhar and Chirnag between July and November 2012 is that Bangladeshi Muslims, or at least Muslims from outside the BTAD districts had rapaciously infiltrated into even the ‘tribal belts & blocks’ in these districts which triggered the conflict. Nothing can be further from the truth. The fact that many of the families possess land revenue receipts which go back as far as 1935 is testimony to when they had settled there, even before a East Pakistan came into existence, let alone Bangladesh. Census data shatters a few more myths.

Karim Ali who has shown enormous generosity in allowing 163 displaced Muslim families to build shelters and live on his land. Photo: Smita Dutta, Copyright: SRAO 2014

As per Census of India 1991, total number of households in Ramfalbil was 349 and population was 2071 persons.

A decade later, as per Census of India 2001, even though the number of households in Ramfalbil rose by a slight 5.73 percent to 369, actual number of persons declined by -3.81 percent to 2005 persons.

Also, Census of India 2001 reveals that out of a total of 2005 persons who were residents of Ramfalbil, only 887 belonged to the Scheduled Tribe category or were Bodos. It is evident that only 44.24 percent of the population in Ramfalbil belonged to the Scheduled Tribe category or were Bodos.

Thirteen years later, and after the violence of 2012, an overwhelming percentage of the resident population of Ramfalbil is likely to be exclusively Bodo. It would also be pertinent to note that it is here in Ramfalbil, right on the National Highway 31C, on the night of 17 January 2014, five Hindi speaking bus passengers were taken off buses coming from Siliguri in West Bengal and brutally shot dead at point blank range by the militants of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Sangbijit). This incident further influenced the decision of the displaced Muslims living in the settlement in Joymaguri not to even try to return the homes they had left behind in Ramfalbil.

These smiles of the children hide the enormous struggles they carry on in their lives beneath tattered tarpaulin sheets. Photo: Smita Dutta, Copyright: SRAO 2014

In another month, Monsoons in Assam will begin. There will be many evenings when heavy rains will deluge their tiny little huts and extinguish the fires in the hearths, leaving the families to go hungry. Rain seeping in through the tattered tarpaulins will leave their beds, clothes and meager belongings soaked.

On such nights, many of them will lie awake in their rain soaked beds, silent in their grief, thinking, “How much longer will we have to suffer these indignities to be embraced as Assamese?”

(Nilim Dutta is Executive Director, Research & Operations, Strategic Research & Analysis Oraganisation (SRAO), India and tweets at @NilimDutta)