Rehana Bibi, 63, threw herself at the feet of India's ruling Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, weeping profusely for her son who was killed in the ethnic riots between Muslims and Bodo tribespeople that have rocked India's northeastern state of Assam since late July.
"We prefer to stay in these government-aided camps though we don't get enough to eat or space to sleep. But that is better than constantly living with the threat of death," Rehana told Gandhi at the makeshift Borkanda camp in western Assam, at a point that connects India's mainland to its seven remote northeastern states.
Soon, Rehana was joined by scores of Muslim women, from teenagers to the elderly, who pleaded with Gandhi not to be forced to go back to their native villages.
"Violence is still continuing in our area. We are getting to know of deaths and attacks. The government should please allow us to stay here until we feel it is safe to go back home," said Sultana, another Muslim woman. Within hours of Gandhi's visit to the displaced camps in western Assam, four Muslims were shot dead by armed Bodos, believed to be members of the outlawed National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).
Nearly 80 people, mostly Muslims of Bengali origin but some Bodos as well, have been killed in the rioting that escalated into a free-for-all in four districts of western Assam, forcing the state government to call out the army and issue shoot-at-sight orders to control the mayhem.
Many are still missing and nearly 400,000 people are in makeshift camps after being displaced by the July riots - some for the third or even a fourth time in the last 15 years.
Bodo separatist rebels have regularly attacked these Bengali Muslims, along with other non-Bodo minorities, since 1992 in a determined bid to create a Bodo majority in their perceived ethnic homeland. Hundreds have been killed. The worst violence was reported in 1996-97, when about a quarter of a million people were displaced.
Before that, other tribes and the ethnic Assamese have targeted Muslims of Bengali origin, asking they be deported from Assam on the grounds that they were illegal migrants.
More than 2,500 Muslims were killed in ethnic riots that erupted during a six-year long campaign by Assamese groups (1979-1985). The worst carnage took place at Nellie in February 1983, when 1,600 Muslims were killed in two days of bloodbaths unleashed by Lalung tribesmen.
The Muslim women at Borkanda complained to Gandhi that a lawmaker of the local tribal council had himself led mobs of Bodo people to attack the Muslim villages in the Moamari area of western Assam, where they hail from. In anger, Gandhi turned to her local party leaders and administrator, trying to find out whether the police have booked the lawmaker. She only got nods, but no clear answer.
Gandhi, who now heads the country's ruling Congress Party, is the widow of assassinated former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The Congress Party also runs the state government of Assam. Their allies, the Bodoland People's Front (BPF), control the Bodoland Tribal Autonomous Council in western Assam, since the council was set up eight years ago to fulfill the Bodo tribespeople's aspirations for autonomy and self-rule.
The lawmaker suspected of leading the marauding mobs belongs to the BPF party, whose politicians, like many other Bodos, blame the Muslims for their increasing numbers, for encroachment on tribal lands and forests, and for challenging their political domination in what was essentially a tribal-dominated area.
Parallels with Myanmar
It is a situation quite similar to Myanmar's Rakhine province, where Rohingya Muslims, locally called "Bengalis" in that country, have suffered heavily in recent riots with Buddhist Rakhines. Most of those killed have been Rohingyas, although some Rakhines are also among the dead. Tens of thousands of people from both communities have been displaced.
"And like in Myanmar, so in Assam, nativist passion runs high against these Muslims. They are demonised and held responsible for all the woes faced by the indigenous peoples," says Samir Das, an author who has written on Assam. "They are seen as encroachers on indigenous lands and resources."
There's a small difference, though. Rohingya say they are indigenous to Myanmar's Rakhine province (previously Arakans), but many Burmese, including President Thein Sein, believe they are settlers from what is now the Chittagong region of Bangladesh, and say they should be taken out.
In Assam, the Muslims of Bengali origin admit they originally hail from what was eastern Bengal and is now Bangladesh. They say their ancestors were brought by the British colonials from what was East Bengal (now Bangladesh) to tame the river islands and marshes of Assam and grow more food. Local Assamese and tribal groups, however, allege that illegal migration from Bangladesh continues unabated.
"People from what is now Bangladesh migrate to all over the world and they have been moving into Assam or other parts of northeast India since the days of the British. But what the locals are worried about are the growing numbers of the descendants of these Bengali Muslim settlers and their rising influence in the state's agrarian economy and politics," says Assam political analyst Nani Gopal Mahanta.
Muslims comprise more than 35 per cent of Assam's population of around 30 million, giving the state the second-highest concentration of Muslims in India, after Kashmir. Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), a Muslim-dominated party lead by charismatic cleric Badruddin Ajmal, emerged as the state's main opposition party with 16 seats in Assam's 126-member legislative assembly after state polls last year.
The Congress Party won the polls in a landslide, but other Assamese and Hindu parties like the BJP could not reach double figures.
"The violence against the Muslims in Assam has provoked reactions elsewhere in India, especially in states and cities with big Muslim populations."
That led some Muslim hardliners, including one AUDF leader, to demand a special administrative area in western Assam's six Muslim-dominated districts. But that upset the Bodos because some of these districts overlap with their autonomous council.
The violence is now threatening to spill over to other northeastern states. Taking a cue from the Bodos, groups representing the Naga tribespeople in Assam's neighbouring state of Nagaland were threatening to target the "Miyas"(Muslims), a term used in the region to denote Muslims of Bengali origin.
The Naga Council, which wants to protect the tribes' demographic majority, has said it will start identifying "Bangladeshi
infiltrators" and will push them out of Nagaland. The state government has warned action against the Naga Council for
"taking law into their own hands". But tensions are rising in Nagaland, as the Muslims fear a Naga backlash.
The violence against the Muslims in Assam has provoked reactions elsewhere in India, especially in states and cities with big Muslim populations.
Police had to open fire this weekend in Mumbai when Muslims gathered to protest against attacks on their co-religionists in Assam turned violent and resorted to large-scale arson. Two were killed in the firing and more than 50 injured, including many policemen.
Natives of northeastern states, easily identifiable elsewhere in India because of their East Asian looks, have been attacked or threatened by Muslims. Some were dragged down from a train near the southern city of Hyderabad. This has led to many Assamese and other northeastern tribals starting to return home for fear of being attacked.
A police report says at least 3,000 people from Assam, settled in and around cities like Hyderabad, have returned to the state in the last one week.
"Many of them have just come back to Assam in panic. They may go back to work in mainland India once the whole situation cools down," says Assam police official Khagen Sarmah.
That may be possible, but for the "whole situation to cool down", violence against Muslims in Assam, which is provoking Muslims elsewhere in India to target people from India's northeastern states, must stop.
Source: Al Jazeera