Guwahati, India – Authorities in India believe attacks by rebels against Muslims in Assam in which about 40 people died may have been “politically orchestrated” to distort voting patterns ahead of polls in an autonomous ethnic council.
Investigators are probing political and other motives for the violence in northeastern India’s most populous state by gunmen belonging to the Bodo tribe that targeted Bengali-speaking Muslims in the area bordering Bhutan.
Assam’s state government has called on national authorities to help investigate the causes of the bloodshed, which evoked memories of ethnic rioting two years ago in which about 100 people, mostly Muslims, were killed and more than 400,000 displaced.
I see the attacks on Muslims as an attempt to re-engineer the voting behaviour of the community in the area ahead of the Bodo council polls next year
“I see the attacks on Muslims as an attempt to re-engineer the voting behaviour of the community in the area ahead of the Bodo council polls next year,” said Dr Akhil Ranjan Dutta, a political analyst, based in the state capital, Guwahati.
“If the common candidate put up by non-Bodo groups comes to win the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha seat this time, it will be seen as a verdict against the demand for a separate Bodoland state by Bodo groups,” Dutta said. The results of India’s elections will be out on May 16.
It was a sultry pre-monsoon night in Balipara, a village with tin and thatched-roof houses adjoining vast paddy fields in Kokrajhar district, when the first attack occurred just before midnight on May 1.
Mohammed Sayat Ali, 28, was dozing on his bed as his mother Sayatun Bewa, 45, wife Sonabhan Bibi, 22, and two-year-old daughter Suhana Khatun slept at his father’s house in the same courtyard.
Without warning 20 gunmen suddenly burst into Ali’s house and turned the life of the sawmill worker upside down. Sayat, like others who work outside their villages, had come home to cast his vote in India’s national elections.
“I was woken up by a commotion, I heard gunshots in neighbour Bacchu Ali’s house. Looking out, I saw a group of black-hooded gunmen breaking open doors in other nearby houses. I ran to the jungle,” Sayat said, breaking down as he related the incident.
“I heard the sound of gunshots and called my wife on her cellphone. My mother picked up and said, ‘Son, I’m dying, give me some water’. I realised my family had been shot.”
Sayat found his daughter already dead and his mother and wife still breathing, blood splattered on the bed. “I gave both of them water, but they died in my arms. I could do nothing.”
Four others from the same village died in the attack.
Earlier that night in Narsingbari, a Muslim village of 60 families in nearby Baksa district, Sona Miya, 45, a day labourer, was sitting in his courtyard with his wife Ramisa Khatun, 30, daughter Rashida, 12, neighbour Shampa Bewa, 50, and her three-year-old granddaughter Taslima.
Four gunmen appeared on bicycles and opened fire with automatic weapons, killing Sona Miya, Ramisa and Shampa. The girls suffered bullet wounds and are now in hospital.
Authorities believe the attackers were from the Bodo tribe and were targeting Muslims who have lived in the area for decades alongside them and other tribes as well as Assamese and Bengali Hindus.
The following day Muslim residents loaded their belongings into carts and began to flee to safety, recalling the bloodshed caused by ethnic rioting in the area in 2012.
“The authorities were unwilling to set up relief camps for fear it might attract thousands of people like in 2012,” said Lafiqul Islam Ahmed, a leader of the All Bodoland Muslim Students’ Union (AABMSU).
“But panic-stricken people who fled their homes have set up camps of their own with tarpaulin roofs.”
Nonetheless, the authorities were quick to attribute the violence to the breakaway Songbijit faction of the separatist National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) which, unlike two other factions of the front, are not engaged in peace talks with the Indian authorities.
“We believe rebels of the NDFB-S are behind the attacks,” AP Raut, Assam’s additional director general of police, told Al Jazeera.
However, the Songbijit faction (NDFB-S) denied the charge in an audio clip sent to local television stations.
Later that evening, gunmen descended on Narayanguri, another Muslim village in Baksa district close to Manas National Park World Heritage Site, and set fire to more than 40 houses before opening fire on villagers, killing several men, women and children.
The last rites of the dead were delayed after locals squatted on a highway with the bodies of their kin, wrapped in black polythene, calling on the state’s chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, to visit the area and guarantee their security.
Gogoi did not visit the region, but sent a minister – and security forces. Officers from the elite Cobra unit of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were later deployed to patrol the area.
Although investigations are at a preliminary stage, Assam’s authorities believe the attacks could be politically motivated and have asked the National Investigative Agency (NIA) to step in, a request accepted by New Delhi.
“No one will be spared, we want to fix responsibility,” Gogoi told Al Jazeera. He said a judicial enquiry by a retired judge will also be launched.
Non-Bodo leaders say the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) – which controls the autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council that administers the areas gripped by violence – was trying to force Muslims “to vote in a certain manner” ahead of next year’s council polls.
“The arrest of a forest ranger and seven forest guards, at least two of whom were former cadres of the rebel Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), on the basis of specific police complaints by the victims, has proved the attacks were political in nature,” Ahmed of the ABMSU said.
Abdur Rahim Khan, a state legislator from the pro-Muslim All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), blamed a “loaded statement” by Pramila Rani Brahma, a legislator belonging to the BPF, which is allied to the ruling Congress party, for the violence.
“Her statement that Muslims did not vote for her party candidate in the Kokrajhar seat in the national elections that have just concluded had incited certain Bodo forces,” he said.
Brahma insists her statement was misinterpreted and wants a federal investigation to ascertain the truth.
The AIUDF, Assam’s key opposition party, is headed by global perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, who is also seeking a federal investigation into the attacks and has called on the Congress party to break its ties with the BPF.
The Bodoland Territorial Council was created by an agreement signed in 2003 between India’s government and Bodo groups agitating for a separate state, but statistics suggest Bodos are not in a majority.
Of the 3.2 million people in the four districts under the council’s control, Bodos comprise just 28 percent, Muslims 19.5 percent, and other groups the remainder.
Mohammed Sayat Ali explains that his family has lived in the region for decades. “My grandfather died in 2008 aged 65. He was born here at Balapara,” he said.
Although there are strong charges that Assam’s population has been swelled by illegal migrants from Bangladesh, claims by leaders of some parties like the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that Muslims in the Bodo Council area are “Bangladeshi immigrants” are misleading.
“No one will buy the politics on the issue but the political message is clear – the Muslims in the volatile Bodo heartland have united with other non-Bodo groups, a bonding that is threatening to alter the voting dynamics for all future electoral politics,” said Dr Noni Gopal Mahanta of the Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at Guwahati University.
“This is what is resented by certain forces who want to keep their hegemony intact, resulting in the Muslims being targeted by passing them off as people with doubtful citizenship, or painting all of them bluntly as Bangladeshi immigrants.”
Political analysts say the latest attacks on Muslims are a clear attempt at ethnic cleansing.
“There have been periodic attacks on Muslims and Adivasis belonging to the tea plucking community in the Bodo Council area. This is part of a systematic plan to try and cleanse the area of non-Bodos,” said Dr Monirul Hussain, a political scientist at Guwahati University.