People are scared to mention the Barh Samaila village.
So what is the curse of Barh Samaila village in Darbhanga, north Bihar? Well, it’s the latest “terror village” in India. As happened with Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, Bhatkal in Karnataka and Malwa in Madhya Pradesh, the terror tag has come to drag down the name of the village and its residents.
Barh Samaila has acquired the label as five Muslim men have been arrested from here over the past year on charges of being involved in terror plots.
Kafeel Akhtar, 26, was arrested by the Karnataka-Andhra police on May 6, 2011; Qateel Siddiqui, 27, on November 19, 2011 (he died in custody in Pune’s Yerwada jail on June 8); Gauhar Aziz Khomaini, 31, picked up by the Delhi police on November 23, 2011; Fasih Mehmood, 29, arrested in Saudi Arabia by Saudi and Indian sleuths on May 13 last; and Abu Muskat Akhfal, 23, who was detained on June 2 by the Mumbai ATS. The most famous “Darbhanga terrorist” is of course Fasih, on the verge of being delivered to Indian agencies by the Saudis. Union home minister P. Chidambaram has already declared so, and presumably he’s been fully briefed about this new terror zone in the nation.
In Barh Samaila, though, there is only fear and anger.
None of the five men had criminal records in the local thana, so one can’t blame the residents if they believe that their boys are innocent and that their village is just the latest hunting ground for our anti-terror agencies.
They might have a case. For these men from a tiny village in Darbhanga are being linked to even minor blasts from 2010 in places as far away as Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium and Delhi’s Jama Masjid. If the police narrative is to be believed, this nondescript village is where a number of sinister plots were hatched. A four-hour drive from Patna and 15 km from town, Barh Samaila is now a preferred destination of police, ATS and intelligence agencies from across the country. The fear is such that today the village barely has any young men left. They have all mostly fled fearing for their lives. The only people left are the children, women and the old. The streets of the Muslim quarters are empty and there are no jokes to be cracked at the chai shops. Every outsider is looked at with suspicion, questioned about their visit and motives. The few young men remaining refuse to divulge their names or talk openly.
“Welcome to the home of the Indian Mujahideen”—that’s how Zafeer Siddiqui, the dead Qateel’s father greets us, pointing to the inside of his house with its unplastered brick walls, mud floors and windows without grills. “My son was our family’s only hope out of poverty. After seven months of continuous torture, they got nothing, So they killed him,” he says.
Qateel was arrested on suspicions of being an IM member and of involvement in the Chinnaswamy stadium and Jama Masjid attacks in 2010. He died in custody, even before his case came up in court. Strangely, on June 6, father Zafeer had got a call that his son would be released in 2-3 days. Two days later, the family got to know through TV that their son had died in custody. No one from the administration, the ATS, the local police, or the Maharashtra and Bihar governments cared to inform them. His mother Gulshan Ara, half-hidden and weeping behind the door, asks, “Can you bring back my son? Please bring him back.” Father Zafeer can’t hold back his anger, “Look at our starving family, the girls waiting to be married, Qateel’s pregnant wife. Do we look like terrorists? It’s as if we are lepers now, condemned to live in fear.”
Of the 2,000-odd families in Barh Samaila, around 600 are Muslim. Farming is the mainstay here and the village is well-known for its mango orchards. But many of the young have begun migrating outside for jobs, contributing to the village’s modest prosperity in pockets. In fact, before the terror taint, the village was known for its share of engineers and government officials. There is an interesting similarity here with Sanjarpur, the village in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh district that was also labelled a “terror village” after the Batla House encounter in 2008 (the boys killed in the Delhi encounter were from there). Both in Sanjarpur and Barh Samaila, the level of education among the Muslims is high.
Firoz Ahmad, Fasih Mehmood’s father, is a doctor. He has a heart problem and has been pacing the floors since he heard about his son’s arrest in Saudi Arabia. “My father was a freedom fighter and a member of the Congress party but we are being treated like orphans now. Not one political party is willing to take on the tyranny of the anti-terror squads (ATS). They want to make Darbhanga into another Azamgarh and the media too is helping them along. Please stop it,” he pleads. Fasih’s wife Nikhat Parween, currently in Patna busy fighting a long-drawn battle for his release, adds, “I always believed the media stories earlier of terrorists…but after my husband’s case, I have been studying many past ones. In most of them, the case was found baseless, the accused acquitted.”
Not far from Fasih’s place is Kafeel Akhtar’s house. He was arrested on May 6 last year by a joint operation by the Karnataka and Andhra police and is currently lodged in Bangalore Central Jail. Abdussalaam, Kafeel’s father, says, “After picking him up, they allowed us to speak to him on phone often. My son asked us not to protest or demonstrate against the arrest because he was going to be released soon as they had not found anything against him. Even a police official told me that he was going to be released soon but we are still waiting.”
The few youth in the village admit that police from different states had questioned them. One of them, on condition of anonymity, says, “There are many more like us who have been questioned but we are scared to admit it publicly. Akhfal’s case is only the latest to come out in the open.” Abu Muskat Akhfal was taken in for questioning by the Maharashtra ATS and then tortured to force a ‘confession’. He was finally released when he refused to give in. His father, Abul Warqaat, a 68-year-old retired teacher, can’t hold back his tears: “During the interrogation, he was given electric shocks in his private parts and forehead. He didn’t want to tell us but we saw the torture marks on his body.”
So what are the interrogators looking for?
Some admit they are asked questions about neighbours, about those who have been arrested, about Yasin Bhatkal whom the agencies describe as the Indian Mujahideen mastermind and some “faltu” questions. Some of the boys still can’t get over the humiliation. One of the youngsters even blamed the media for their fate: “The media has made our condition worse and the ATS does not leave us in peace. They have spoiled our lives, our careers. We are isolated in our own society.” Mohammed Bariq, an old man from the village, asks, “Who will marry our girls now? What have you done to our reputation and tradition? This land once belonged to the writer Mazhar Imam, Sahitya Academy award winner from Darbhanga, and the progressive poet Baba Nagarjuna.”
Munidhar Jha, a retired government official from nearby village Vijay is a bit more circumspect. He says one can’t rule out terror group activities in the otherwise peaceful region of Mithilanchal because it is a border region and could have been used as a hideout. But as he puts it, “The victimisation of an entire area or community is wrong and unfair. Terrorist yahaan paida nahi ho rahe hein, ho sakta hai ki panaah le rahe hon (Terrorists are not born here, though some may have sought refuge in this region)”. The stereotyping has even impacted Muslim youngsters in Darbhanga town. One of them who has never even been to Barh Samaila says, “If we go to Bangalore or Delhi today for studies or jobs, we are going to be left out. Darbhanga has become a curse for us.”
The recent arrests in Darbhanga may also have wider repercussions in Bihar politics as Muslims begin questioning the ‘secular’ credentials of CM Nitish Kumar. The problem has become acute with recent incidents in Araria district in northern Bihar. Two Muslim women were raped in Batraha there by Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) personnel in November 2010. When locals went to complain at the local SSB office, they were fired upon and two men died. In another incident, four people were killed when the local police fired upon protesters of an industrial unit that had blocked the main entry into their village in Forbesganj in Araria.
Patna-based political analyst Arshad Ajmal says, “Not only is the Bihar police targeting their own people, they are unable to stop or intervene when the ATS or police of other states come to pick up people here.” Nitish has written a letter to the Karnataka government expressing his “displeasure” that their state police made arrests in Bihar without informing them. But Nikhat Parween, a burqa-clad woman who is putting up a spirited fight for her husband, says these are mere crocodile tears. “The first time the CM said he was unhappy, the next time he was sad. Now it seems we are soon going to see some tears in his eyes.”
Assam is going through one of those phases of history so bereft of light where one is capable of believing the worst about fellow humans—or to wonder what it is to be human. A visit to some of the 300-odd camps, which have sprung up during the last fortnight, gave us a taste of the language of hate and horror that has clouded the Bodo Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) and its adjoining districts in lower Assam. Listen to Jayashree Mushahamyan, a twentysomething Bodo woman at the Commerce College relief camp in Kokrajhar: “Muslims are so cruel and greedy. I heard one of them slit the throat of his pregnant wife so that he could claim compensation from the government for those who died in the violence last week.” It’s pointless to ask if this is real, or merely an apocryphal tale spun to make sense of a local universe gone toxic. We are driving through Chirang, Dhubri and Kokrajhar a week after one of the worst Bodo-Muslim clashes have ripped people apart. It’s like travelling through a war zone. Charred houses surround us, and every few kilometres we come across public buildings converted into refugee camps. They are crammed with people, spilling out on to the road.
It has been a week since the clashes, and fatigue has set in. The inmates are no longer filled with talk about the terror unleashed on them between July 20 and 26, when mobs attacked them, set their houses on fire, and forced them to flee. The refrain across camps now is: “How long do we have to live like this?” It is now more about “getting the hell out of here and going back home,” explains one of the men.
No wonder, for the stench of unwashed bodies hits you even before 12-year-old Majeda Begum can begin complaining. “None of us has had a shower for over a week.” Forget water for bathing, most of these public buildings do not even have enough water for drinking. “We don’t have clothes to change into. We left everything back in our village when we fled,” cuts in Majeda’s friend Nazrina Begum. Her comment evokes a rare display of black humour from fellow inmate Masuma Begum: “It’s good in a sense that we don’t have clothes; if we did, we would have to change in front of the men.”
The various kinds of reasoning and coping mechanisms people resort to—amplifying it, or the opposite—can’t hide basic facts. The violence killed 61 at last count. That may seem modest to a nation inured to catastrophes. But it also displaced over four lakh. Never before in independent India have we had to deal with such a large number displaced because of violence. Prime minister Manmohan Singh, during his visit to the region on July 28, described the crisis as “a blot on our nation”. It was an understatement. This is India’s gravest humanitarian crisis.
The scale of the crisis is accentuated by the estimated 180,000 people who have already been living in camps in Assam, displaced by the recurring bouts of terror since 1993 and fearful that any attempted return to what was once their home would unleash renewed wrath of “the other”. It’s equally unlikely that those who have just arrived at the camps will return home any time soon, notwithstanding the August 15 deadline set by the state government.
The ethnic-communal divide is evident in how the relief camps are situated. There are an estimated 178 of them in the Muslim-populated Dhubri district, where most of the Muslims from the neighbouring Bodo-dominated Kokrajhar have fled. The 108 camps in Kokrajhar, on the other hand, is where the Bodos have come for refuge.
One such camp in Kokrajhar—at the Commerce College—houses over 1,500 people. Others host 3,000 refugees or more. While Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi has promised rehabilitation in a month (see interview), All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) president Pramod Bodo says, “It is not enough to promise rehabilitation. We must rebuild confidence in the minds of the people. Police protection has to be provided in sensitive areas so that people can go back and resume normal lives.”
This is not the first time the two groups have clashed (see timeline). A lot of the animosity between Bodos, the original inhabitants, and Muslims, is traced to the former’s real and perceived loss of land. Primarily agriculturists, Bodos leased out portions of their land to Muslim farm labour, but there have been reports of late of illegal, forceful occupation of land. It doesn’t help either that there are no land ownership records.
“The Bodos are already squeezed between Bhutan and Bangladesh and the state has done little to guarantee their rights,” says Namrata Goswami, an expert on conflict resolution at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. While the Bodos once rallied against the Assamese, much of their anger is now directed at Bengali Muslim settlers.
The settlers, on the other hand, have repeatedly felt their rights given a short shrift under a Bodo administration. Tensions flare at protests by either side, whether it’s the Bodos pressing for a full-fledged state or the non-Bodos wanting villages where they are in a majority to be excluded from the administrative control of the Bodos. Over the last few years, the Muslims have organised themselves into several groups to aggressively press for their rights—something that has angered the Bodos. Even the latest round of violence, according to varying accounts, can be traced to localised altercations over land or those that took place during bandhs in May this year.
“But,” the director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights in New Delhi, says, “these incidents of violence have been occurring with such consistency now that one would have expected the state to identify riot-prone areas by now.” And though ABSU president Pramod Bodo maintains that “the Muslim retaliation was greater as you will not find a single Bodo person left in Dhubri District,” it’s equally difficult, if not impossible, to find a Muslim in Kokrajhar.
While public buildings and spaces—schools, colleges, parks and fields—are bursting at the seams with people who’ve fled their homes, the villages in these districts are completely deserted. Household goods, school textbooks, cassette recorders are strewn around, along with rotting carcasses of animals shot dead—haunting reminders of villages once humming with life.
The Muslims, angry at being routinely described as illegal migrants, are also apprehensive. “With our houses gutted and documents burnt, they will now claim that we are all foreigners and harass us to prove our citizenship,” they tell anyone who cares to listen. They also point to refugee camps which have existed for decades and wonder if they’ll ever be able to rebuild their lives.
The Bongaigaon District Muslim Refugee Committee’s camp, for instance, has existed since 1993. “It happened exactly the same way 20 years ago. One night, when we were asleep, we were awakened by the sound of gunshots. I remember I was 25 then. I came out and saw huts on fire and, in the light of the flames, I could see people striking each other with daggers and others running in all directions. I too ran like hell and hid in a jungle,” recalls Abdul Jamal, the committee’s secretary. “Many of us lost members of our family at that time. Some were lucky to at least know their kin had perished. Others never found out where they went; whether they are dead or alive.”
With every year, hopes of returning to their homes have receded. “Even I hoped that one day I would go back home to my village in Kokrajhar,” says 60-year-old Munira Begum. “But now I am resigned to my fate. I went through the humiliation of having my daughter married off from this relief camp. I had my own house with a garden and our own land but the Bodos want everything. So they grabbed it.”
The Bodos, on the other hand, blame the recent spate of violence on infiltration from across the border. “We lived side by side with Muslims harmoniously,” says Mushahamyan at the Commerce College camp. “Some of them were my friends. But when their relatives come from across the border with guns and bombs, they wouldn’t stand up to them. In fact, sometimes, they warned us in advance and tell us to leave. The people from across the border are dangerous. They’re smugglers and want to grab our land.”
Lack of any reliable data on migration from Bangladesh has only helped stoke fears of an “invasion”. “What needs to be done is to have a dataset on migration so we have an idea of how many people are coming in. But the state has made no effort to produce any data,” says IDSA’s Goswami. She argues migration cannot be stopped entirely, but can at least be regulated via a system of work permits. “After all, people are coming not to create trouble but to work for a living.”
The failure of the Indian state is apparent on other counts. Although 3,000 people were killed in the infamous Nellie massacre way back in 1983, not a single perpetrator has so far been identified or punished. Similarly, when the Union government signed a fresh Bodoland accord in 2003, it did not insist that Bodo militants surrender their arms. These are the same groups who erode the authority of the Bodoland Territorial Council. Going by historical logic, it allowed the integration of areas even where Bodos were in a minority into regions administered by the Bodo Territorial Council. And while it provided that land could no longer be bought or sold by non-Bodos in the area, it also allowed Muslim settlers to retain their “existing rights”, effectively negating the ban on land alienation.
All these years of churning had an effect at other levels. The state’s DGP, J.N. Choudhury, confesses that he no longer recognises his state. Having stayed away on postings outside the state, Choudhury returned as DGP barely six months ago and is shocked at the changes. Attitudes have hardened and people are more concerned about their own identity. Even before the present crisis, he concedes, the surface calm was deceptive and the state was sitting on a tinderbox.
A moderate Bodo leader, U.G. Brahma, who is at the forefront of a separate Bodoland movement, suspects a political conspiracy to derail the “democratic movement for a separate state”. He told Outlook that while there are terrorist groups in the state opposed to the government, there are also terrorist groups that are patronised by the government. There cannot be peace without disarming these groups among both Muslims and Bodos, he says.
While illegal migration has been blamed for the crisis, both by the Bodos and the BJP, the Border Security Force denies such allegations. To prove its point, the BSF’s eastern command took Outlook to the riverine borders between India and Bangladesh divided by the channels of the Brahmaputra and Damodar rivers. At a river border outpost, a BSF commander demonstrates the state-of-the-art equipment at their disposal, be it night-vision binoculars or searchlights. P.K. Wahal, the BSF IG, eastern command, told Outlook, “Infiltration isn’t the source of the problem. It has come down substantially over the years. Most of the migration took place pre-1971.”
However, strict border patrolling alone is not going to bring in peace. Akhil Ranjan Dutta, an associate professor of political science at the Gauhati University, says that, to begin with, law and order has to be enforced “adequately and comprehensively”. Land security of the Bodos and Muslims has to be addressed too, along with the entitlement of the non-Bodos, including the Muslim peasants. “It also has to be stressed that peace is beneficial both for the Bodos and non-Bodos and that there are non-violent means to resolve their conflict.” What it requires is an honest effort.
“Ninety Per Cent Of Those Killed Are Muslims”
Badruddin Ajmal is Assam’s Muslim leader. S.N.M. Abdi talks to the Dhubri MP and president of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the state’s principal opposition party, about casualties and the efficacy of relief operations.
There are hundreds of corpses rotting in remote areas where well-planned cleansing drives were executed with the blessings of the administration. A proper headcount of the dead or missing will take a very long time.
Any idea of the Bodo/Muslim break-up of casualties?
Ninety per cent of those killed are Muslims. If I even attempt an estimate of the factual toll, I’ll be accused of making provocative statements and obstructing the return of normalcy. So I don’t want to go public with the information collected by my party. But I’ll open my mouth after the government comes up with its final death toll.
Your party has accused the state of turning a blind eye to the massacre of Muslims. It’s a very serious charge.
CM Tarun Gogoi has betrayed those he is constitutionally bound to protect. He is not only the CM but also the home minister. So he has no excuses. It’s now as clear as daylight that the CM had advance information of preparations to kill Muslims. But he did not act. Now he is transferring DCs, SPs, SDOs, SDPOs and officers-in-charge. FIRs should be immediately filed against the guilty officials and they must be tried. If the CM has a conscience, he should resign. He’s solely responsible.
Why demand a CBI inquiry?
Because Muslims have no faith in the state government. The PM is an MP from Assam. He must order an impartial, independent investigation instead of being misguided and misinformed by the CM who has much to hide.
Are you satisfied with the pace of relief and rehabilitation measures?
The whole exercise is a farce. Even the victims of the 1993 violence are yet to be rehabilitated. India has no idea of what’s going on in Assam.
There are reports that infiltrating Bangladeshis instigated the current flare-up.
These are cock-and-bull stories spun by the BJP. R.K. Singh, the union home secretary, shot down these conspiracy theories no sooner than they were aired. Anyone propagating that Bangladeshis infiltrated India and ignited trouble is insulting our armed forces guarding the country’s international border. These are patently anti-national theories to shield the guilty; they have nothing to do with reality.
October 1993 Bodos and Muslims clash in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon; 18,000 displaced
May 1996 Violence between Bodos, adivasis in Bongaigaon, displacing 2,62,682 persons
September 1998 Ethnic conflict between Bodos, adivasis in Bongaigaon displaces 3,14,342
September-November 2005 43,819 persons displaced in clashes in Karbi Anglong between Karbi, Dimasa tribals
August 2008 Conflict between Bodos and Muslims in Darrang and Udalguri; 2,00,000 displaced
March-May 2009 Dimasas, Nagas clash in North Cachar hills, displacing 11,737
January 2011 Rabha-Garo conflict displaces over 50,000
July 2012 Bodo-Muslim clashes displace 3,92,000 persons. Before this round, 1,80,000 internally displaced people living in camps: 33,600 in Kokrajhar, 13,722 in Bongaigaon, 1,20,545 in Darrang, 11,737 in North Cachar Hills.
2,50,000 Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley since 1990
Naxalite conflict in Central India: at least 1,48,000 displaced
Communal violence in Gujarat in 2002 and the riots in Orissa: 29,000 people