Rakesh dropped in at my office in Delhi and put forth an interesting proposal. He was going on behalf of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, henceforth the NCPCR to Kokrajhar, one of India’s nine most disturbed districts and asked me whether I would like to go along with him. Rakesh is my brother who is presently leading a carefree bachelor’s life with his wife and sons away for a holiday with his wife’s parents. I, on the other hand am stuffed with schedules of meetings and deadlines for submissions. While my head reasons with me not to distract myself with too many interests, my heart tells me that I will never get another chance to visit India’s politically disturbed areas like this. So after a bout of inner agony and ecstasy I submitted to my instincts and packed a small bag for a four day trip into lower Assam, or what today is known as the Bodo Tribal Council Area. I will call this place as Bodoland.
The NCPCR’s position is that children must be given education in the districts that are torn asunder by civil unrest so as to catch them early and mainstream them so that they do not grow up to handle arms. Only a body as far removed from the reality as the NCPCR could think like this. Those who handle arms especially in the north east are more often than not students, produced and frustrated by the very education that the Commission was trying to entrench and deepen. Also, I do not believe in the exploitation and oppression theory behind violence; I feel that it is a desire to dominate over the rest of the society by groups in situations where no one group has any clear domination over the others. Anyway, eager to jump into the field, I called the cab and swished into the swank T3 airport to catch a Jet flight to Guwahati.
Aboard the full flight from Delhi to Guwahati I sat beside a mother and child duo. The child, a boy of about eight years sat by the window, the mother in the middle and I, by choice sat at the aisle. The boy agitated by his entrapment into the cramped bucket seat thumped and stomped irritably. I was getting very angry as I tried to catch some sleep and read Dave Prager’s book on Delhi at the same time. The mother was indisciplined too and after several berated warnings by the steward to stow away her front table, she continued to keep her bag resting there. Soon my ears buzzed and I knew that the plane was dropping altitude in preparation for landing when suddenly the boy child nudged sharply at his mother and said dehho, Brahmaputra !! (Look, the Brahmaputra). I pretended to rise to go to the toilet and peeped over the boys head at the proud, robust swathe of water that stretched timelessly into the earth. So confident, and so overpowering. Indeed, majestic! The boy kept looking at the Brahmaputra, singing to the river, saying rhymes in its ode and he calmed down without another noise. I was amazed how the Brahmaputra calmed the boy.
When I was planning my trip, I asked my Assamese boss which would be the best way to travel to lower Assam. Well, he said, and fished out a blank sheet of paper and drew an inverted L on it. This is the Brahmaputra, he said in his Assamese accent and here is Kachar, called the lower Assam which was to go to Manipur and lies now within Assam. He had no idea of how to get there because no Assamese would ever like to go into that land infested with wild tribes of the Santhals and Bengali Muslims who look like the Chinese. I marked that he never mentioned the Bodos and yet this was what was for all practical purpose the Bodo land. I think that for the Assamese, Assam is the valley of the Brahmaputra. Where there is no river, there is no Assam; it is the river that marks their homeland, keeps them close to the soil of Assam and lends meaning to their everyday existence. Bhupen Hazarika, the Tagore of Assam lived and sang by this river. He saw his entire world in the waves that loll at the heart of the river, carrying the waters of the mountains to feed and nourish the lower rivers of the Bengal delta. Assam is the Brahmaputra and vice versa. Lower Assam is not Brahmaputra’s land and hence it is not Assam.
Rakesh and I reached Guwahati by noon and headed straight to the railway station of Kamakhya. I thought of dropping by at the temple but I was put off by the goat sacrifices and decided not to venture into unpleasant sights. So we bought tickets for the inter city express which could be boarded only after four hours. We used this long waiting time to treat ourselves to a sumptuous lunch of boiled eggs, local buns, soft and sweet, thick sweet milky tea, a piece of cake, some packed salty snacks and fresh stick of sweet and watery cucumber with stingy hot concoction of common salt and red chilly powder. Then we used the morning newspapers to squat on the platform doing our own reading of the NCPCR progress reports. Trains arrived and then proceeded for the onward destinations every now and then and the platforms filled with people speaking Bengali, Hindi, Bhojpuri, and Assamese. A man asked us for a train to Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, someone was to go to Coochbehar; a boy made preparations to go towards Jaipur while some were headed towards Chennai. The scene that emerged slowly over the minutes and then hours was one of undivided Bengal Presidency, Muslims speaking in East Bengali dialect, Biharis speaking in musical Bhojpuri and Maithili, Oriyas, Nepalese and even people speaking the Santhali language loitered along the railway platforms, chewing paan, drinking tea, nibbling biscuits and simply looking for a place to sit and sink into. The serenity of Kamakhya, the wet green of the land, the damp cool breeze and the occasional rain transported me to the yester era of the Bengal Presidency from where time in this railway station has not seemed to move. What was lodged in my mind as being just a corner of the country now appeared to me to be its very centre. West Bengal, in comparison to Assam looked provincial and vernacular.
We reached Kokrajhar well past the evening. We could see the Brahmaputra for quite a while as we chugged over bridges and trailed over culverts. As long as the Brahmaputra was visible, not a single passenger in the compartment spoke. All eyes were fixated on this mighty flow of water. Again I saw the power of the Brahmaputra to mesmerize the Assamese.
The NCPCR resource persons and the teachers from Kokrajhar Government College came to receive us at the station. They drove us to the Circuit House where we heard that the All Assam Koch Rajbanshi Students Union, AAKRASU had called a strike which included a rail rook. The teachers told us that a bandh in Assam means a bandh when life becomes literally stand still. The resource persons had made a meticulous schedule by the half hour for us to visit various places in the field area and they were disappointed that such plans went haywire. Bandh is the disturbance of Assam; bandh is the very reason why the area is disturbed. It appears that a AKRASU bandh turned violent and the police instead of using force on the students for fear of retaliation arrested the leader. The bandh was in demand for release of the leader.
Assam politics is student politics; the politics is wholly controlled by the students, irrespective of whether that politics is violent, terrorist, extortionist or mainstream, participative and democratic. Hence the thesis of the NCPCR that the students will stay out of terrorism if they are educated flies in the face of the ground evidence that politics in Assam is education. The AKRASU’s demanded Kamatapur, an independent state which was to be carved out of Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Goalpara in Assam and Coochbehar in West Bengal and stretched as far as Patna in Bihar and included Sikkim and Bhutan. Kamatapur has been an ancient princely state out of which the Bengal Presidency and later Assam was carved out. The Koch Rajbanshis who ruled Kamatapur are now claiming their lost kingdom back. If there is Kamatapur then there will be no Bodoland and possibly no Assam. Kamatapur is impossibility but AKRASU uses this plank to consolidate its demand for a ST status, very much in the same lines along the Bodos. At the heart of Kamatapur is reservation for seats in colleges and jobs in the government. In absence of a robust economy, government remains the largest employer and everyone imagines herself in the role of a government servant. Hence the politics of Assam is largely the competitive democratic politics of reservations.
The following morning there was nothing to do. The resource persons were determined that we should not waste our day and with some effort fixed up an array of government officials we could meet. We met the officers from the Bodo Tribal Council, an autonomous self governing area consisting of the four districts of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Chirang and Udalgiri. The demand for Bodoland however stretches up to much larger tracts of Assam stopping short of just those lands from which the Brahmaputra comes into view.
The District Commissioner, a Bodo received as many as ten phone calls from Delhi and the Assam state government asking him to clear the railway tracks on which the Koch Rajbanshi students sat and to use brute force if needed. The District Commissioner diplomatically handled these instructions and without stepping on to any toes steadfastly refused to use violence. I could see in his face a determination not to use force. We asked the officer what the nature of disturbance in the BTC area was, he said that there was too much of violence, too many strikes, too much extortion, and kidnapping. The picture which the Commissioner presented was dismal; I imagined that there was no peace in Bodoland, no one could do any business peacefully, and all buildings were unfinished due to extortion. The resource persons too corroborated the Commissioner’s version of things in Bodoland.
One by one the officers irrespective of whether they were from the Bodo community or from the Santhals, or Assamese or Bengalis told us unsavoury things about the Bodos; they were wild, uncultured, uneducated, could not produce teachers, ate away the midday meals, stole cement and steel from buildings, absconded duties, ran side businesses, and captured all posts of primary teachers, anganwadi workers and Asha workers. When the news reached us late in the evening that the strike has been called off and we could travel into the villages, I had already made notes on the Bodos using their political autonomy for genocide against the Santhals to exterminate their population.