The real story of the many nationalities and cultures of Northeast
[Book extract] Two out-of-work journalists decide to travel across the region where Hindi-speaking people were massacred in Assam, ahead of the Assembly elections in 2000.
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One day, as we waited mid-river for a Bihari family who had gone to the Umananda Mandir for one last darshan before returning to their des, Begusarai, Duloo-da said to himself in Assamese, in a lost voice, "How are the ULFA brave? They are killing the poor."
According to Duloo-da, the SULFA, after taking money from the government, would soon target houses belonging to ULFA leaders. ULFA commander Paresh Baruah’s house had been attacked only a few days earlier when his mother Miliki Baruah had been home alone. She had pleaded with the bombers to talk some sense into her son.
After the attack on ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa’s house, his father, who had been a freedom fighter, had grieved that the service he had offered the country had gone in vain. At the time of the attack, Rajkhowa’s sister had appeared for an examination for the post of police inspector. Duloo-da was unwilling to believe at any cost that the ULFA would drive the Biharis out from Assam merely in exchange for money and arms from the ISI. He shouted over the roar of the engine, "There will be elections in the coming year. There’s politics in these murders. Everything has to do with the elections, Bhaiti. That party which supports the kicking out of the Biharis will have the support of all the Muslims, whether citizens or outsiders. There are forty constituencies where Muslims are present in decisive numbers." One among them was Nagaon, chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta’s constituency, where the Nellie massacre had taken place during Indira Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister.
At that time, a team of four MPs sent to Assam by Bangaru Laxman, national president of the ruling party, BJP - the same Bangaru of the Tehelka sting operation fame - was travelling in the state. These MPs had reported that both the Congress and the Asom Gana Parishad counted Muslims as their votebank and were therefore helping the ULFA. Both these parties wanted the BJP’s Hindi-language-speaking voter base to flee the state before the upcoming elections. Since the AGP supporting Vajpayee’s ruling alliance at the Centre, it was being given a long leash. This was being done by announcing that the BJP and the AGP were jointly asking for the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983, to be revisited but the Congress was unwilling to consider it. The Bangladeshis are traditionally supporters of the Congress. In fact, by raising violence against Biharis to a fever pitch, the Congress wanted to have President’s Rule imposed in the state so that it could use its old and loyal bureaucratic machinery to come back to power.
Is That Even a Country, Sir! by Anil Yadav, translated from the Hindi by Anurag Basnet; Speaking Tiger Books; Rs 350
Duloo-da’s finger on the pulse of Assam was as sure as his hand was on the bamboo stick with which he pressed the engine nozzle to control the speed of his boat.
It was then that the real political drama began at the chief minister’s residence after the killings in Sadiya. On December 7, militants had stopped a truck full of Bihari labourers in the Kukurmara jungle between Tinsukia and Arunachal Pradesh, stood them in a line, asked them for their names and addresses and shot them all down. Thirty men died. Their corpses lay rotting for two days. So great was the terror that no journalist could visit the spot. The first journalist to reach was a Naga girl, Bano Haralu, who went with the health minister of Assam in his cavalcade on the third day.
Chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta had invited reporters to his residence and was playing them a video cassette. An old man who seemed mentally disturbed was on screen, claiming he was once a party-worker for the Congress. The man then raised his hands and wailed to god that these murders were being carried out by the Congress through the ULFA so that Bangladeshi immigrants would find a place in Assam and the Congress could secure the immigrant vote. These massacres have broken my heart, the old man would say, and I am resigning from my post. Switching off the television, Mahanta would declare: "So that is the truth. The Congress wants to dismiss my government and impose President’s Rule."
On the contrary, Mahanta wasn’t at all worried about President’s Rule being imposed. He was very close to the governor, lieutenant general SK Sinha, and Sinha would frequently address the chief minister as "Prafulla Kumar, my son", even on public forums.
The state Congress president and chief-minister-in-waiting, Tarun Gogoi, was playing a video cassette of his own. He would tell the journalists gathered to mooch dinner at his house that the old man in the video was an AGP man. In return for calling himself a party worker for the Congress, the government had built him a pukka house. That’s the magic of our party, he would say, you take our name and a pukka house will stand in the place of a hovel.
Far more farsighted than these parties and leaders, smearing blame for the massacres on each others’ foreheads and trying to draw voters into their respective camps, was a bedraggled drunk I would frequently see around midnight on the streets near Cotton College, jerking and weaving along as if he were a bird controlled by invisible strings. With an unlikely balance and clear-sightedness, achieved between exuberance, fear and plain drunkenness, he had foreseen events which would occur many years later. That night, he was weeping like a child. He had a rusted, handleless razor in hand which he would brandish now and then with quick movements. Who could tell how many necks he had slit by the time I met him. His dust-covered beard gleamed with tears as he screamed in a cracking voice: "Who says Assamese originally from here? They migrated from Burma. When we kick them out of Patna Medical College, what will happen?"
His prediction shook me. I offered him my cigarette and, to start a conversation, asked, "Who is kicking whom out, Bhaiya?"
He slapped the cigarette out of my hand and shouted, "No one can kick out anyone. All will cut each other dead. Asomiya says first Bengali oppressed and now Bihari oppress. Bodo says Asomiya oppress. Same way Rabha speaks against Bodo, Miri against Rabha, Tiwa against Miri, and Dimasa speaks against Tiwa. Everyone ready to fight each other. Who can kick anyone out like this?"
Many months later, I understood that this was a true picture of the struggles between the many nationalities and tribal cultures of the Northeast. Every prominent tribal community has its own militant organisation fighting for a separate land and a literary organisation working to develop its own script.
(Reprinted with publisher's permission.)