After The Rage

Survivors of ethnic violence in Assam last year slowly piece their lives back together

In the village of Aminkhata, in north-western Assam, the charred walls of a house lie bare, the windows broken by rioters who raided the homes with burning torches, leaving nothing behind. MARK CAREY
01 September, 2013

LAL MOHAN BRAHMA COULD HEAR cries of terror rising from the fields surrounding his village. Only a short time before, after warnings from local leaders that trouble was brewing, his wife, daughter-in-law and infant grandson had fled from their four-room bungalow in Aminkhata, a village in the Kokrajhar district of north-western Assam. Brahma and his son, Mrityarj, had stayed behind to try to protect their house. Now, they could hear people shouting out threats to kill those trying to escape. Fearing for the rest of the family, as well as for their own safety, they decided to chance a flight through the forests.

About an hour later, Brahma and Mrityarj eventually reached the Gambaribil School relief camp for Bodos in Gosaingaon, about nine kilometres from Aminkhata. There, they were finally reunited with the rest of their family, who had escaped the violence unharmed. The government-run camp of almost 2,500 people, set up inside the school halls, became their home over the days and weeks that followed.

Almost two months later, Brahma and his son nervously returned home, uncertain of the devastation to which they would return. All that remained of their home was the charred framework. Brahma had worked as a tax inspector, and soon after his retirement he had invested most of his savings in a rice mill that would be a continuing source of income to feed his family. During the weeks they had spent at the relief camp, the mill had been stolen, along with everything else they owned. Then the house was set ablaze, and the life they knew literally went up in flames. Now, the surrounding village reeked of decomposing soil, and the smell of smoke was locked into their rooms by a sheet of government-supplied tarpaulin they were using to keep out the rain. It would take another two months before Brahma felt things were safe enough to return permanently, with his wife and family, to the wreckage of his village, and begin rebuilding.

Aminkhata, nestled in the forests of Assam’s Kokrajhar district, was one of many hundreds of villages destroyed in July last year, when riots broke out between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims across the north-western part of the state. The village, a Bodo enclave of approximately 2,000 people, was in the middle of a larger Muslim area. All of its 250 homes were burnt to the ground.

The violence that consumed Aminkhata had started earlier that summer, when, on 29 May, a local Muslim youth group, the All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union, began agitating for a district-wide bandh to close down all offices, schools and shops in Kokrajhar, a Bodo-dominated region. The call was made after the alleged removal of a signpost from a mosque not far from Kokrajhar village, which serves as the capital of the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts and is administered by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). The bandh brought the students’ union into conflict with the BTC, which believed that the mosque was an illegal edifice invading Bodo lands.

During one student-union-led demonstration aimed at closing down local businesses, two workers from the Bodoland secretariat under BTC, eight police-officers, four protestors and a journalist were injured. Tensions between the Muslim and Bodo communities grew, and, on 6 July, a Muslim man was shot dead and four other people were injured during an attack by a group of unidentified men riding motorcycles. The shooting was followed by protests that resulted in further violence, leading up to the night of 19 July, when two Muslim men were killed, allegedly by rebels from a militant group called the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT). The following day, four former members of the BLT were shot and killed. This set off a series of retaliations and counter-retaliations across the region.

The ensuing conflict between the Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims led to some of the worst bloodshed Assam had seen in decades. News reports across the country claimed that 77 people were killed, several more were injured or missing, and more than 485,000 people were displaced from their homes. Many of these internal refugees eventually found shelter in one of 340 government-funded relief camps like the one to which Brahma and his family escaped.

This was only the most recent in a series of violent clashes in north-western Assam that have arisen over land and identity disputes between local communities—disputes which arguably have their origins in the first half of the 19th century, when British colonialists discovered Assam tea and began establishing plantations in the forests of the province. To develop and maintain this trade, they required significant numbers of labourers, which they largely imported from Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Gradually, the men who worked on the plantations settled where they toiled, and brought their families into Assam. Over the subsequent 175 years, a steady stream of Bengali-speaking Muslims migrated to the region. To this day, many Bodos maintain that these people and their descendants are illegal immigrants, and a desire to preserve Bodo identity and protect Bodo lands has crystallised in anti-Muslim sentiments that seem to have grown deeper over time.

Today, the merging of the Indian Muslim community in Assam and Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh makes it difficult to distinguish one from the other. Many Muslims in this region take offence to being tagged as Bangladeshis, insisting firmly on their Indian origins.

Earlier this year, almost six months after the riots, photographer Mark Carey travelled to Kokrajhar district to document the aftermath of the recent violence. Carey practices “late” photography, a term coined by the writer and artist David Campany to describe a form of reportage developed by photojournalists who concentrate on the aftermath—“the trace of the trace”, Campany calls it—of important events. As a result, “late” photographs often represent literal and figurative absences, such as empty streets and ruins. The approach provides a striking counterpoint to the brisk reporting and broadcasting of breaking news that is dominated by sound and the moving image. In “Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’”, Campany wrote that “the still cameras are loaded as the video cameras are packed away. The photographs taken come not just in the aftermath of the event, but in the aftermath of video.”

Instead of trying to capture the kinetic quality of the 2012 Assam riots as they erupted—instead of documenting burning homes, smoke-filled skies and despairing refugees—Carey’s series conveys a sense of stillness and muteness that contrasts with both video and typical photojournalistic snapshots. Perhaps because of these qualities, Carey’s photographs seem to echo something of Kokrajhar’s political history, in which the quiet work of rebuilding seems to follow spasms of communal violence in a rhythm, like the pedals on a bicycle.

Four months after Brahma’s family and their neighbours returned to the destroyed village of Aminkhata, the BTC gave each riot-affected household a rehabilitation grant of Rs 22,700, building material to reconstruct their own homes, and a month’s ration. For Brahma and his family, the money won’t last long; he needs to fund his son’s boarding school fees of Rs 2,000 every month. And, even more critical than rebuilding their home is the need to replace the stolen mill with a new source of income. When Carey visited earlier this year, near their still unreconstructed house, some carpenters were whittling away at what looked like a windowsill. It turned out to be part of an attempt to fashion a loom for Mrityarj’s wife, using the building materials given out by the BTC, so she could start making clothes for the family and hopefully sell some cloth. Brahma had to make do with cheap alternatives to temporarily rebuild their home—using bamboo and old bedsheets to fill gaps and cover up what couldn’t really be fixed.