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Adivasi views on the Ethnic Conflict of 1996

Jennifer Liang

These field notes are from the research team of the ant, a partner in the study on Tribal Health Inequity as part of the Closing the gap: Health equity research initiative in India. The qualitative study done by the ant is in the style of a short ethnography using mainly in-depth interviews; observations; key informant interviews and group interviews to piece together the life-histories of different ethnic communities who have been affected by conflict and through all this to look at how the health and well-being of people has been affected by a long period of political conflict and repeated bouts of ethnic conflict. The study also looks at how the State Health Care system and its services has been affected by violent conflicts. 

Horen Hasda*  in Koraibari Village: 3/7/2016

(* names have been changed to protect the identity of the respondents)

Researcher’s note – I was staying in the house of Horen Hasda– whose son-in-law is one of the 5 village headmen looking after 15 households in Koraibari – and so I interviewed him in two or three sittings in the course of two days. Since he understood and also spoke Assamese fairly well, I could have fairly long conversations with him exploring various aspects of the conflict. But in one such sitting, we were joined by Gautam Soren* (my Santhali colleague from the ant who was helping me interpret. Even Gautam is an IDP from the same village and related to Horen Hasda, so he helped jog the old man’s memory and filled in some details, especially about the attack on the Deosri camp in 1998 and how the conditions in the camp).   

At 79, he is the oldest man in the village and also one of the first settlers of Koraibari village in the early 1980’s.  His father had a lot of land and also cattle in Bengtol but some illness struck their village. Both his siblings died and then his parents also died after a brief while.  He left school in Class 3 and has not studied after that. Along with others in the area, he lost his land to river erosion.  “The government gave us rations for a month and then we were left to ourselves”.  His Muslim neighbours who had also lost their land asked him to go along with them to Dhaligaon (near Bongaogaon Town) but he refused as he had 35 cows and 15 buffaloes and where would he keep them in the town. He moved to Bishenpur (near Bhurpar) and stayed there for 2 years. But that place was already crowded and “there was no land for paddy cultivation”. So, he went searching here and there and then landed up in Koraibari.


It was thick jungle and they had to spend many years clearing the land. Around 10 families – most of them related to each other came together and they started settling in the forest. “Even the Bodos in villages around Koraibari i.e. Laukriguri, Phulbari etc. also came at around the same time and settled there in forest land. Once we cleared a bit of land and built our houses and started living there, we started growing maize, mustard, demchi (a kind of millet) as we could not grow paddy till we had made “dongs”  (irrigation canal to divert river water)”.  In 1996 after more than 10 years, there were some 46 families living in Koraibari and they had built the canals and were ready to plant paddy for the first time that the conflict broke out with the Bodos and they had to flee, “we fled with nothing …. just with our lives and went to live in Deosri”.  He remained there till 2007 when they returned to their homes in Koraibari.


Life in Deosri Camp : Duma Murmu 4/7/2016

Horen Hasda was around 60 years old when he went to live in Deosri Camp in 1996. He remembers it being nothing like he was ever used to. “All of us are village people and we had never lived so packed together with no space. We could not breathe.  We could not eat because of the smell. Where would so many people go? Day time you can go and shit in the open but what about children in the night? Same place we live, cook, shit. The smell was so terrible”.  He then said that with rains, the dirt would get mixed with the water and that is when people would fall sick and die. “So many people died. Children, men, women…. 4-5 Dead bodies were buried every single day but unlike now where we know (how) to do things, no records were kept at that time”.  He estimates at least 1500 people would have died. But not all died of dysentery. “Some people died of having no food”.


He said the first rations came from the government only after 3 months. But before that they had to eat. “People survived by digging for wild potatoes from the jungle near Mohanpur or by collecting and boiling yam leaves.  But there wasn’t enough for everyone and many did not have the heart to go hunting for food. Then, we were also scared of the NDFB as they had attacked some of our people when they went cutting firewood or food searching in the jungle”.  Since they were not allowed to go out of the camp, there was no work they could do.


Gautam at this point added a small bit of detail. He said that their family was luckier than others as they already had a bit of a pre-warning  by some close Bodo friends who warned that “some trouble is going to break out. You people had better be prepared”.  And so, they had just managed to sell off most of their buffaloes, “at throwaway prices”, said Horen Hasda, “sold a buffalo costing 8-10 thousand for 3000 rupees”. But with that money, they managed to buy food the first few months and were better off than others. Similarly, some of their family members were a bit smart and “knew a bit about the ways of the world” and so, they chose to live right at the edge of the relief camp next to the river. They got some breeze and so, they escaped the stench and the terrible crowding and did not fall sick as much as the others, “only two of our people died of the dysentery but from those living in the midst of the camp, many more died”.  They also said that “No one kept records during that time. We did not know how. But nowadays we have leaders and they know how (to keep records)”.


Ram – Hanuman Religion

After they moved to the camp, they became followers / “bhakts” of the “Hanuman dharm”. It is a sect of Hinduism started by some guru who came to preach in their area. There are two distinct groups – the followers of the “Ram” cult put a white “tika” / mark on their forehead and they are supposed to be vegetarians etc. The “Hanuman” cult people put a red “tika” / mark on their foreheads and follow a strict and religious living. The family has to do “puja” i.e. prayers every morning and evening; they have to abstain totally for alcohol and any addictive substance and also, they are vegetarians 2-3 times a week and during feast and special days. Because of the strict restrictions on drinking and diet and insistence on doing daily puja, even today there are just a handful of converts to this sect.



Researcher’s Observations:

  • Horen Hasda even at 80 years is a hard-working man and was constantly doing some work or the other around the house. He has cataract in one eye. Some months ago, one of the staff of the ant had taken him to Kajalgaon Civil hospital around 50 kms away to see if it could be operated. But the doctor was not available and he has not gone back since then. 
  • Considering how much has happened in his life, I observed that there does not seem to be evident bitterness about the man – he is concerned about the future but also seems accepting of his lot. He continues keeping busy and going on with the business of life and I wonder if PTSD is a luxury few poor can afford?



Researcher’s Inferences: 

  • Searching for land for cultivation seems to be the motivating factor for landless Adivasis and Bodos to clear forests and settle down in the 1980s.


  • The government seemed to have either overwhelmed by the conflict and the outpouring of IDPs in the camps as they seemed to have been absent or played a minimal role to save or help people in the camps. People were left to their own device to survive  – no food and rations; no education, no health so much so that overcrowding and unhygienic conditions killed many and even after people died, there were no records


  • The new IDPs in the camps were also completely overwhelmed – they were largely village and forest dwellers and never stayed in such crowded places and the situation completely overtook them. Initially, they seemed to lack leadership


  • Close relationships seemed to have existed among Bodos and Santhals as the Murmu family got warned before the conflict broke out and they had time to sell some of their assets before fleeing



Attack on Deosri Camp in 1998:

(as informed by Duma Murmu & Rabindra Murmu on 4/07/2016)

The NDFB (Bodo Militants) attacked the Deosri Camp some day in November 1998. It was around 3 a.m. and “they first opened fire on the BSF camp posted outside our Deosri gate for our protection “.  Since the BSF were then immobilised, they then surrounded the camp and opened fire from three sides with sophisticated weapons. “Loads and loads of people would have died had we not been prepared and discussing such an attack by ourselves. Also, the BSF had told what to do in case of such an attack”, says Gautam. The camp inmates had been briefed by the “fauji” (BSF guys) that if they attacked, they should not get up and run here and there but instated they should jump into the dug up pits if they are close to it or just lie flat and not raise their heads.  Gautam says that “the Hindi movie Border is nothing compared to shooting we had that night. I was lying flat on my back and since it was dark, I could see the shots from the machine gun so clearly”.


Gautam also reported that the Commandant of the BSF camp has allegedly ordered his men not to get out of their bunkers, citing orders to protect themselves first. But they defied his order and came out to save the people. Opening fire on the NDFB attackers, they managed to chase them away. “Later on, this commandant was removed from duty and each of the “faujis” lined up to physically deal three blows each on the commandant as punishment for having ‘sold out’ to NDFB militants”.  Next morning, the army camp from Runikhata (some 20 kms away) sent many empty trucks to collect the dead bodies as they had heard about the NDFB attack on the Deosri camp. “They were most surprised when they saw that not a single person had died but that only one rat and one dog got killed in the attack”. This became newspaper headlines and the “NDFB were so angry that they launched a powerful bomb from a distance to hit the Deosri camp. Luckily for us the bomb fell was just short of the camp and fell into the river and exploded. There was a huge crater.  Had it hit the camp, all of us would have died”.


To thank the Gods for sparing their lives, from that day on, the Deosri camp inmates started celebrating Durga Puja in a big way, a practice which continues till date.


Researcher Observations 

  • The incident was narrated with horror (on recalling details of the vicious attack and them having survive it) and also excitement (about the Deosri camp inmates having foiled the NDFB plans)

Researcher Inferences

– this viciousness of the attack by armed militants on unarmed people in relief camps suggests a high level of hatred among the Bodo militants for Adivasis during that time; also the immobility and vulnerability of the Adivasis in the camps at that time; seemed to be “sitting ducks”for attacks by Bodos   



4th July 2016, Lakhi Murmu* (Koraibari)

Around 30 years of age, Lakhi Murmu is from the Amteka area and they fled from their village in 1998. Her father was the village headman (“goan bura”) and they lived amongst Bodos and Nepalis. They did not flee in 1996 but after the 1996 violence, the militants used to keep coming and threatening her father and other villagers to flee or else they would “cut them all up into pieces”.  Finally when trouble started in 1998, they sold everything and left. Lakhi’s father was quite rich as they even had a “batham ghar” or a house made completely of wood.  They had a lot of trees, cows and buffaloes which they sold at a “lump sum price” and left.  They first went to Naigaon in Kokrajhar where her father had already bought 8 bighas of land but it was a dangerous place with lots of thefts and dacoits. Her father being the gaon bura was constantly being tortured and questioned by the police  for information about the dacoits. “They would even keep his face under the water so that he would give them information”. Unable to take it anymore, the father fled with his family from there and they came all the way to Deosri camp.


Deosri was a huge shock for us. So dirty, so crowded. But what to do, we had to stay”.  Now her father has bought some land and settled around Deosri but she and her husband have moved here to Koraibari for getting their hands on cultivable land. They also have around 15 heads of cattle which they took with them to the relief camp in 2014. She has 3 children – 2 elder daughters and a young son of around 4 years old.  They have sent their daughters “outside” to study. Some group came to the camp in 2014 and they took some children from the camps to study in a school in U.P. Lakhi and her husband too sent their 11 year old daughter to study there. They paid Rs.5500 for the schooling and she will come home only after 4 years. Till then, they get to talk to her on the phone once a month. The younger daughter is also studying out in a school in Dhubri. They don’t like it “but we are in the middle of the jungle and there is no proper school here. Deosri is so far. How will the girls go there every day?”


 Researcher Observations

  • Living conditions are difficult in Koraibari but availability of cultivable land has drawn many to settle there and struggle it out
  • Access to even primary schooling is a major issue here for children and parents who can afford it are willing to risk it and send their children out for studies, even with strangers and unknown people  

Researcher Inferences

  • There were Adivasi families in Amteka who were well-off with a fair share of property and other immovable assets; they lost a lot of it  in 1998