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Ethnic Clashes In North-East Redefine A Border Blurred By Years Of Friendship

Garo refugees in Meghalaya. Image Credit: Indian Express.

Halesh Rabha, 56, of Noksarpara in East Garo Hills district of Meghalaya does not want to go back to his ancestral village, which he left a week ago. Neither does Hajan Singh Sangma of Puthimari in Assam.

One is a Rabha tribal from Meghalaya, the other a Garo from Assam. And both have been rendered homeless in the ethnic violence that has gripped both sides of the border.

Over 34,000 people, both Garo and Rabha tribals, have left their homes and taken shelter in relief camps where living conditions are pathetic, especially in winter. A number of these people have no houses to go back to, while those who do have homes have fled for fear of being attacked.

‘They burnt our houses in front of our eyes. The granary, the cattle-shed, all has perished. My children’s books have been destroyed,’ said Dhiren Rabha of Noksarpara in Meghalaya. Dhiren is now taking shelter in a relief camp at Jira Primary School, six kilometers from the inter-state border.

‘I have been reduced to a beggar. I lost all my belongings, including the new house that I had constructed just two years ago,’ wept Marcos Marak. Marcos’s home at Bardiki village in Assam was among 50-odd houses of Garo tribals reduced to ashes five days earlier.

‘People had a feeling something was going to happen. The administration was prepared, but for not this scale (of violence),’ said Shambhu Singh, joint secretary (Northeast) in the Union Home Ministry, who visited the area on Tuesday for a spot assessment.

Tension had grown between the two communities over several issues, the most important being the demand for an autonomous council by the Rabhas in Assam.

Garos are a majority in Meghalaya but a minority in Assam; Rabhas are a majority in Assam and a minority in Meghalaya.

On Christmas Day, a bandh called by the Rabhas saw the first incident. A vehicle from the other side was stoned as it passed through a Rabha area. The next incident followed five days later, when a few Rabha youths went to join their Garo friends in New Year’s Day celebrations.

The government, however, smells a rat. ‘What triggered such a big violence is yet to be probed. But there is always a likelihood of a design. We don’t know what that design is. Given the long-standing problems, it could be from both sides,’ said the joint secretary.

Security presence was high on the Meghalaya side but not as much on the other side of the border in Assam’s Goalpara district.

‘It takes time to mobilize forces. But four companies of para-military forces have already moved in and four more are on the way,’ said Singh, who visited about half-a-dozen camps in the two strife-torn districts.

And, meanwhile, houses continue to burn. On Monday morning, at least 24 houses were set on fire at Belpara, a village in Assam.

Fresh clashes broke out in Mendipathar on Tuesday morning. The East Garo Hills administration had relaxed curfew in the area but revoked the decision after the clashes.

*The report is written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap.

(Courtesy: Indian Express)

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