Q&A - India's worst communal clashes in a decade

Thu Aug 23, 2012 10:11pm IST

A woman from northeastern states ties the hair of her child while sitting inside the train bound for the Assam state at a railway station in Kolkata August 19, 2012. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

A woman from northeastern states ties the hair of her child while sitting inside the train bound for the Assam state at a railway station in Kolkata August 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - More than 85 people have died and around 400,000 have been forced to flee their homes to displacement camps after clashes between Bodo tribes and Muslim villagers in Assam.

Hundreds of villages have been razed to the ground in the violence, possessions have been looted or destroyed, and scores of people gunned down or hacked to death with machetes.

The clashes in this remote corner of India have also carried unprecedented shockwaves across the country, where the issue has become politicised and divided on religious lines between Hindus and Muslims. Bodos are however not only Hindus, but also Christians and animists.

Here are some key questions and answers about the violence and its fallout.

WHAT ARE THE CLASHES ABOUT?

Violence between Bodo tribespeople and Muslim communities broke out on July 20 in lower Assam's Kokrajhar district, after unidentified men killed four Bodo youths. In retaliation, armed Bodos attacked Muslims, suspecting them of being behind the deaths.

In the weeks that have ensued, clashes between the two groups have spread to other districts: Chirang, Dhubri, Baksa and Kamrup, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

This is not the first time the two groups have clashed. Tensions over land rights and political power between the Bengali-speaking Muslims and the Bodos have long existed and have often erupted into blood-letting, the worst of which was in 1983 when nearly 3,000 people were massacred.

These are the worst communal clashes India has witnessed since February 2002 when Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat, claimed almost 2,500 - mostly Muslim - lives.

WHAT LIES BEHIND THE CONFLICT?

The Bodos fought for a separate homeland, and after a 16-year armed struggle, they signed a 2003 peace accord with New Delhi, giving them autonomy over four districts in Assam.

They say the Muslims are illegal settlers from neighbouring Bangladesh who for decades have been encroaching on their protected tribal land and reducing them to a minority.

The Bodos point to a surge in the Muslim population, which is now better organised politically. Analysts say the Bodos fear losing their exclusive automony over the area, as Muslims and other non-Bodos begin to outnumber them.

The Muslims say they are not illegal immigrants and that they are being marginalised by Bodos, who are economically and politically stronger and are discriminating against them in services such as health and education.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE HUMANITARIAN IMPACT?

Some 400,000 Muslims and Bodos initially fled to about 300 displacement camps. The government says that around half have now returned back to their homes, but many in the camps are refusing to return, fearing for their safety.

Conditions in many of the camps are poor, and desperately need to be improved if people are going to stay there for an indefinite period, aid workers say.

Most are overcrowded, and lack toilets and clean drinking water. Tens of thousands of the displaced have illnesses such as diarrhoea and dysentery.

Clothing, bedding, mosquito nets, tarpaulin sheets, baby food and more nutritional food are needed - especially for new mothers, the elderly and children - aid workers say.

WHAT HAVE THE INDIAN AUTHORITIES DONE?

Criticised for being slow to react in the first five days of the riots, Indian authorities have since deployed thousands of police and paramilitary forces to the area.

Convoys of military trucks are patrolling main roads and a night curfew is in place.

Officials in Assam say the situation has returned to normality and security restored, urging villagers whose homes have not been destroyed in the violence to return to their settlements. But many remain fearful.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the affected areas on July 28 and announced 300 crore rupees for the relief and rehabilitation of survivors.

How the funds are to be disbursed has yet to be decided.

WHAT ARE THE ISSUES FACING THE DISPLACED?

Aid workers and analysts say that, given the tensions between the two groups and the fact that many of the villages were attacked by people they know, many of the displaced - particularly Muslims - will never be able to return.

Bodo authorities say those who wish to return must provide official documents to show their legitimate claim to land, but Muslim villagers say they do not have such records as they were burnt in the riots with the rest of their possessions.

Many people will have to leave the schools, which have been closed for the last three weeks, and may need to be rehoused in temporary shelters until trust between the two communities is restored and confidence-building measures - such as talking to senior community and political leaders - pay off.

But it is likely that tens of thousands of people will not be able to return home and their future remains unclear. Resettlement in another area needs to be an option, say aid workers.

Analysts add that a long-term solution to the problem is required, warning that such communal violence will continue to erupt every so often, costing more lives.

WHAT IMPACT HAS THE ASSAM VIOLENCE HAD ON THE REST OF THE COUNTRY?

The violence - which has been politicised by right-wing groups and religious organisations as a Hindu-Muslim issue - has had a domino effect in the rest of the country.

More than 30,000 migrants from the northeast have left their jobs in major cities across India to return home, triggered by rumours that Muslims - a big minority in predominantly Hindu India - were seeking revenge for the Assam violence.

In India's financial capital, Mumbai, massive protests by Muslims against events in Assam turned violent earlier this month, killing two people and wounding dozens.

The government says text messages and distorted website images of Muslim deaths in Assam are behind the panic and originated in Pakistan, an Islamic state and India's arch-rival. Islamabad has rejected the allegations and asked for evidence.

(AlertNet is a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation.)

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