A ‘revisit’ to India’s violence-wracked Assam

Al Jazeera cameraman visits one of major tea-growing states where riots has left scores of people of dead.

The planning desk called it a ‘revisit’. More than three weeks after the initial riots broke out between the mostly Hindu Bodo tribe and Muslims in the Indian eastern state of Assam, I found myself with a freelance producer on a flight to the Guwahati, the capital of one of the major tea- producing state of Assam.

The thought of leaving behind a four-year-old daughter, a sick correspondent and an experienced regular producer [on a much deserved break] didn’t comfort me at all. The turbulence in the aircraft due to monsoon clouds made the journey scarier and I hid myself behind the new book ‘The House of the Mosque’,  which I bought at the airport.

As is the norm, the first person we met on the ground was our local fixer (experienced local journalist who helps us in the field with invaluable information, phone numbers, logistics). He took us to the railway station to film and witness the exodus of the North eastern people, living and working in other parts of India.

Cameraman’s delight

The threats were issued verbally and via sms, allegedly from the Muslim community in retaliation to the atrocities against Muslims in the north eastern states. The exodus was mainly from the cities of Pune, Banglore and Hyderabad, the IT backbones of India.

I asked what the people from North east of India (comprising the seven sister states of Manipur, Meghalya, Tripura, Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram and Sikkim were doing there. Our fixer, a very experienced journalist in these parts and an author, answered my question without asking “We never knew 10,000 people from Assam worked as security guards in IT hubs of India.”

The comment confirmed my doubts these people were probably from smaller towns and villages, trying to make a living in the upcoming power hubs of India.

The four-hour drive from the capital Guwahati to Bongaigaon is a cameraman’s delight. Freshly sown paddy fields in different shades of green with hills in the background greet the eye.

Driving along you notice the large straw hat-wearing workers hard at work.

“Assam is beautiful,” I tell our local fixer in Bongaigaon.

 “Too bad the years of conflict have kept the tourist away, otherwise if a desert like Rajasthan can attract so many tourist, why can’t we?” he replies.

He, of course, does not seem to enjoy the barren sand ridden western state of Rajasthan unlike me, but his question about the lack of tourists in Assam seems fair.

According to the  2009 figures put out by the Market research division of India’s ministry of tourism, Rajasthan welcomed more than 25 million domestic and 10 million plus foreign tourists compared to Assam’s 3.8 million domestic and shamefully low 14,000 foreign tourists.

Eid Mubarak

India celebrated Eid on Sunday, the first day of our shoot in Bogaigaon. Our work took us to a relief camp in Bijni, a small Muslim dominated town. The local Muslim leader Rafeeq took us to the the camp at 8am after much insistence and haggling from our side.

Having covered a few of these riots and many natural disasters in India, I’ve learnt that if I want activity shots in these camps, early mornings are the time to go.

Land up anytime after 10 and all you’ll get is a few people braving the sun for important tasks and nicotine intake, the rest are inside trying to get some much-needed sleep.

The “relief camp” was set up just outside the main square of the town in a government primary school. Some “lucky” families were indoors, camping in the classrooms. The rest were in makeshift blue/yellow/black plastic sheets outside.

All I could see in the grounds of the school was smoke coming out of the makeshift mud stoves with women surrounded by their kids, laboriously stirring the pots on wood fire.

I moved closer for a tight shot and as the women opened the lid to give it another stir, the delicious smell of ‘saveyain’ [thin semolina vermicelli cooked in milk and sugar] filled my nostrils.

Second Assam visit

Just before 9 the men in the camp gathered and started their walk towards the town square for the special Eid prayers.

“The Imam has been invited from Uttar Pradesh,” said Rafeeq as I walked with him towards the front of the ground to try to get shots of faces before the prayers started.

Soon the ground filled up with more than a 1,000 Muslim men – the locals in their new festive clothes and the refugees conspicuous in their old ones.

In my 12 years as a video journalist this is my second visit to Assam in as many months. The first one was in July this year to cover the floods and now to cover the riot refugees.

Hope the next time I can come here for a holiday with my daughter Meera and take her to the two of the most famous National Parks – Kaziranga and Manas – and show her the one horned Rhinoceros and the majestic Tiger. And do my bit to increase those tiny tourist numbers!

But first things first.  Let’s get the stories done and ask the bosses for a much-needed weekend after two straight weeks of news! 

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