Assam: Some Wounds Do Not Heal Easily
By Rupam Sindhu Kalita
01 March, 2014
I grew up in the Assam of the 1990s before coming to Delhi in 2009 for higher studies. I belong to a generation that has been presented as the modern face of Assam: educated, enterprising and progressive who are willing to leave the horrors of violence and counter-violence behind and ‘move on.’ We often heard stories from our elders about young men from our neighborhood who had left home to join the underground movement. A common denominator of these stories was a bright young man hard pressed by poverty who dropped out of college and became an insurgent. The usual consensus would be the ‘loss’ of such a bright boy who could have gone far had he continued with his studies. Our generation was taught not to follow in the footsteps of these intelligent but ‘misguided’ youth.
In December 10 last year when the world was celebrating International Human Rights Day, we were shocked to learn that two young school boys had been killed and another seriously wounded in an ‘encounter’ with security forces. A joint team of the army and local police claimed that the boys were members of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). Boys! Yes. School going kids in their early teens. Three children born and brought up under the shadow of the gun in West Assam’s Chirang district, an area now infamous for the communal riots in 2012. Three fleet-footed, tender aged boys who like many other children of their age went to a school and played cricket and marbles in their spare time. Was it their fault that they were born in a place infested by militants and combed by security forces? That the school they went to was situated among stretches of paddy fields where lanes and roads were hard to maintain? They probably grew up with the consciousness that violence was a banality, a feature of everyday life from which there could be no escape. Their location in a culture of violence and counter-violence is the only difference between them and other children of their age brought up in cities and towns where ‘encounter’ deaths are relegated to newspaper columns that disappear as suddenly as they appeared. However they went to school and dreamt of a better life than the one they had seen their parents living. Perhaps they never thought that the brutality they had seen around them would one day claim their own lives. They were after all tender-aged kids chasing butterflies and dreaming for the sun. If bomb blasts, extortions and killings were enmeshed in their day today life, they thought that must be the sphere of grown up men who fought each other with rifles. Little did they understand that they too were citizens of a state that seeks to enforce its legitimacy by displaying trophies of dead bodies of men, women and children.
I am writing this as the Chief Minister of Assam has ordered a high-level inquiry into the incident. Student organizations and other groups are protesting, blocking roads and turning violent. The cycle of violence continues. There is no escape from this situation. Militants kill a village headman, the police and the army comb the village looking for the culprits and arrest or kill the militants one of whom turns out to be an ‘innocent’ villager, after which, people come out to the streets against the administration, burn tyres, call bandhs. Violence becomes naturalized. A certainty that recurs and is taken for granted. An everyday phenomenon that seeps into our lives in ways that we never imagine.
Insurgent violence in the state came down after the dramatic arrest of several leaders of the ULFA and NDFB in 2009. ULFA became a divided house. We heaved a sigh of relief. Incidents like bomb blasts, mass killings of Biharis working as brick kiln workers and extortions ebbed away. We thought we had finally left the specter of violence behind. The government said that the ULFA was now weak and crumbling. The sudden fall in violence was supposed to give a boost to the poor economic health of the state as the state government had coughed up substantial revenue as compensation money to the victims of violence. The number of students leaving the state for higher studies in cities like Delhi and Bangalore grew up. There are few jobs in the state and parents do not want their children to suffer the hardship that they had gone through. The mass exodus of students from the state shows that the new generation is willing to leave alone a violent past and seek new opportunities. Then suddenly you turn on the TV in your college common room and your ears strain and the eyes itch. Assam! It is always a pleasant feeling to hear about your home state when you are staying two thousand kilometers away. A news channel beams live footage of the mutilated bodies of two school-going kids fallen dead to army bullets. Their innocent eyes remind you of your own childhood. The same dream, the same hope. You feel your hair rising. A rush of blood to your head. And a hundred questions. Why this brutality? What has changed? What is the use of trying to bury a troubled past if my fellow people are still caught in the same troubles?
Aruni Kashyap’s recently published novel The House with a Thousand Stories dramatizes the conflict of people in the state caught in the crossfire between the ULFA militants and the government forces. Kashyap reminds us that for anyone brought up in Assam in the trouble-torn decade of the 1990s, military vehicles, the creaking of army boots or a knock at the door at midnight was a real threat that could poison families and break marriages. A reality that parents and elders in the family thought better to hide from their children so that their tender mind would stay undisturbed. Some of us started taking everything for granted- the sudden shutdowns in a bazaar after a SULFA member had been shot dead, army trucks that roll down into your village scattering boys playing cricket and the army jawan that stops and interrogates a fourteen year old who is on his way to school.
How can I accept this? Will a time come when my friends in Delhi shall stop asking me about the ‘situation’ in Assam? Every time TV channels flash images of disfigured bodies of militants killed by the security forces I feel like bolting the door of my hostel room to find some peace and answer a volley of questions that form in my mind. Whenever I see images of the burnt remains of a shop that was been torched because it had defied the dictates of any random organisation to observe a bandh to protest the killing of Bihari kiln-workers by the ULFA, I think of my Bihari friends who have embraced me as one of their own here in Delhi.
Yes we are the generation that wants to say no to violence from all sides-the militant groups, the government security forces and the supporters of shutdowns and bandhs. We can easily identify with the angst-ridden mental state of a rural youth whose young brother was shot dead by the army on the basis of ‘suspicion’ that he was linked to the ULFA. We understand the anguish of a man whose only son has been killed by militants because he did not pay the whooping sum of money that the militants demanded from him. We can be ‘educated,’ ‘enterprising,’ and ‘progressive’ if we refuse to internalize violence. We should question rather than ignore the social and political structures that perpetuate a violent cult. We do want to ‘move on’ but not by treading on and ignoring the blood of school going children. We want to revisit, resist and rewrite, not ignore our inheritance.
Rupam Sindhu Kalita finished his undergraduate studies in English from St.Stephen’s College, Delhi in 2012 and is currently pursuing a Masters degree from Delhi University in the same discipline. His areas of interest are conflict literature, mythology and Indic studies. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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