Blood on the windshield

I was sitting in the middle of the road, atop my brand new leaf-green VIP suitcase, just outside the gates of the Indian Airlines office in Tezpur, where the airlines bus had deposited me just a few minutes ago, and not knowing where to go from there when I spotted a few men carrying daos and some old-fashioned bows and arrows making their way towards me.

It was almost like a scene out of a film but the situation was too grave to think they were just some actors playing with toys. I was sure they would soon be shooting some of those poisoned (I thought) arrows into me and kill me right then and right there, so far away from home and hearth, family and friends. I continued to sit in the same position as they approached – it was as though my behind had got stuck to my baggage; I was rooted to the spot out of fear.

But when they got within hearing distance, one of them asked, “Reporter?”

I nodded.

“From Delhi or from Bombay?”

“Bombay,” I croaked. Then curiosity got the better of me as the cat released my tongue. “How did you know?” I asked.

“You are dressed like a big-city girl. And only a reporter from either Delhi or Bombay would be foolish enough not to know the dangers and to risk sitting alone in the middle of the road in such troubled territory,” he said.

They turned out to be Bodo tribals and they made me completely at home, thereafter. Of course, they blindfolded me as they took me to a hideout on the borders of Arunachal Pradesh and then had me driven all the way back to Gauhati, after camping out overnight, in a jeep that had its windshield stained with a thick streak of fresh blood. I pretended not to notice, kept my fingers crossed and prayed all the way back.

Assam was the first big story of my career – and I was just a rookie when I found myself in the middle of the Nellie massacres, on the banks of the Brahmaputra and in the middle of the jungles, with bloated purple bodies, spears stuck in them, floating down the stream.

I do not know how I got through the entire exercise – though I remember I was greatly helped by a lot of senior journalists who took me under their wing and guided me though the routine of reporting on disasters. But being picked up by fierce Bodo tribals on the warpath and the lookout for their mainland enemies was a unique experience I have never forgotten.

Some of the names of those people at the Arunachal borders who briefed me about their issues – the Bodo movement was yet to begin in right earnest at the time – later made the national headlines. And I marveled that I had not even known at the time what an honour they had been doing me by giving me among the best stories of the time – a fact much appreciated by my then editor in Bombay.

But ever since the 1980s, I have known that the Assam fires have never been about religion or communal divides. They were always about land and ethnicity. At the time the ire was more against Bengali settlers, both from Bangladesh and from West Bengal, Hindu as well as Muslim. I was told not to dress in a ‘Bengali sari’ while I was stationed in Assam. “Continue with your skirts and jeans. Those are what will save your life. Otherwise, you will be mistaken for a Bengali.” I spoke the language, hence understood some Assamese.  “You can pass off for a Bengali, too. So make yourself look as Bombay-ish as possible.”

That advise was from government officers who were surprised that one so young and unfamiliar with the territory should be attempting to understand the complexities of the Assamese issue. I still remember how local Assamese Muslims complained to me then about Atal Behari Vajpayee. “He came here and deliberately tried to turn this into a Hindu-Muslim issue when it is actually a Bengali-Assamese one. He said, “If they kill one of you, you kill ten of them.’ That provoked so many others and that’s how we got massacred. Otherwise, we would have eventually sorted out our land issues without too much violence.’”

I was too young to understand communal and secular ideologies at the time but speaking to the young students holed up in the hostel of the Gauhati Medical College (one of them later ended up as Assam’s and the country’s youngest chief minister to date), it was clear how they were all irritated by the BJP’s attempt to communalise the issue even then. They all thought giving it just a Hindu-Muslim colour was an attempt to deny the local Assamese their rights as sons of the soil. And the ones more annoyed by that were the Bodo tribals – for they already had an issue with non-tribal local Assamese, both Hindu and Muslim, equally, and believed the communalisation would divert the attention from their own homeland issue.

Strangely, nearly 30 years later, nothing seems to have changed in either Assam or with the BJP – except for the fact that those leaders have now got a little older and more ambitious. So I should really not have been surprised at Mr L K Advani’s attempts to interfere in Assam this time round. I am glad that he was reminded by chief minister Tarun Gogoi about Gujarat 2002 which, on Advani’s watch, went on for far longer and far too violently than Kokrajhar did last month.

But I also felt a little sad for the grand old man of the Bharatiya Janata Party. It must be really frustrating to find yourself at the same spot in life thirty years on, using the same issues in almost the same context (or, more correctly, out of it) to propel yourself and your party to power. No wonder then that he thought UPA-2 was not a legitimate government. Though the words he used were by no means unparliamentary, they were a dead giveaway of how Advani must now feel. Looking upon the UPA as a usurper of his own `legitimate’ (sic!) right to be Prime Minister, in addition to the fact that no amount of communalisation of the polity in Assam has divided its people on simply just Hindu-Muslim lines, must feel so vexatious as to lash out at the thwarters of his ambitions in any direction and any which way possible.

But Advani should know by now that no amount of communal poison ever will succeed in indoctrinating Assam, as is well evident from the poor results that the BJP has been posting in the state every election. Of course, there was always a serious issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh and for this the Congress is to blame – they have been content to allow it to happen in the interest of their own vote bank. But telling a Bangladesh Muslim apart from a Bihari or a Bengali or even an Assamese one is very difficult as Bal Thackeray in his very own `aamchi Mumbai’ well knows: he attempted to deport all Bengali-speaking, lungi-wearing, Bengali-style sari-clad and fish-eating Muslims when his government was in power in Maharashtra in the mid-Nineties. Then West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu packed them right back by return mail – for they were all Indian citizens and Bangladesh would not have even one of them.

Working on that story at the time, I discovered that those people without identification papers were almost always Indian – they belonged and so they did not think it necessary to own ration cards or passports to prove their identities. The illegal immigrant, on the other hand, made straight for the touts as soon as he landed in India – and within weeks had secured not just a `legitimate’ ration card but also an Indian passport and so could never be `deported’ back to his own homeland. He watched gleefully from the sidelines as cops rounded up their own countrymen and then moved in on the property of those Indians as soon as the cops were out of sight. The returning `deportees’ – Indians – then had to work from scratch to set up their establishments again.

There must surely be other ways of identifying aliens and keeping them from entering the country through our highly porous borders. I am surprised that the so-called `Iron Man’ of the BJP, through his stint as India’s deputy prime minister and home minister did nothing to find the means to stop the illegal immigration not just to Assam or West Bengal but also to Bombay and New Delhi. Perhaps he ran into the same roadblock that Thackeray did – and it is now wickedly monstrous to twist the Assam issue out of proportion over the dead bodies of both tribals and Muslims in Kokrajhar. For, unlike Gujarat 2002, these killings have by no means been one-sided.

Clearly, Assam is not about just a mandir or a masjid. It is about mother earth and a homeland. And both are already much too bloodstained to turn any redder.

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