The ethnic riots that killed 50 people in India’s northeast last week also left at least 400,000 homeless. Many of them have taken refuge in schoolhouses, where they live in cramped quarters with little relief. We spoke to the headmaster of a school that has taken in 2,000 refugees.
The source of the conflict between the indigenous Bodo people of Assam state and settlers from Bangladesh, most of whom are Muslim, is difficult to pinpoint, even for those involved. Each side harbours long-held grievances. Years of tensions over cultural and linguistic differences, as well as disputes over land ownership, have repeatedly come to a head. Just four years ago, 70 people died in clashes between Bodos and Muslims. This time, it seems the violence was set off after a Muslim youth group in the district of Kokrajhar called for a strike to protest the removal of a signboard at a local mosque. This was followed by a series of drive-by killings, before large-scale rioting broke out on July 19. Roving bands of armed men - reportedly from both sides of the conflict - torched hundreds of houses, leaving both Bodos and Muslims homeless.
The indigenous Bodos represent just 10 percent of the population of Assam state. Since the early 1970s, the state has seen a steady influx of immigrants from Bangladesh. The rising number of Muslim immigrants has been cause for worry among Bodos, who are afraid that this could thwart their hopes of establishing an independent state.
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who visited both a Bodo and a Muslim refugee camp in Assam state on Saturday, promised “a proper inquiry into the tragic incidents”, as well as a three billion rupee (44 million euro) relief package for the region.
This photo of refugees was taken by our Observer at the school he works at, which has now been turned into a relief camp.

“I asked the refugees if they were willing to go home. They said no way. They’re afraid of new attacks”

Monowar Hussain is the headmaster of Raniganj Higher Secondary School, on the outskirts of the town of Bilasipara in Assam state. About 2,000 Muslims displaced by the riots have taken refuge in his school.
Refugees started arriving on July 20, and new ones are still arriving every day, though in smaller numbers. There are men, women, old people and children – so many children. Most travelled about 10 kilometres to get here [from Kokrajhar, the district hardest-hit by the violence].
During the school year, there are about 1,000 students at this school, and there are 2,000 refugees now living here – so you can imagine how cramped it is. Normally, students would be coming back to school this week, but the local authorities have decided to extend their vacation for another week so that they can figure out what to do with all these people. We don’t know where they’re going to go – there are no suitable structures to house them around here.
The people here in my school are living in very difficult conditions. The hygienic conditions, in particular, are terrible. There aren’t enough toilets, so a lot of the children are doing their business outside, which makes it very foul-smelling. We have been able to provide them with some very basic medical care, but none of these people have had any thorough check-ups. Thankfully, though, no one here has been injured. The government gives them some food, but just the basics – rice, some oil, and salt. Some of the school’s neighbours have given them their old clothes. But this can’t go on for long.
“Some of them are quite disturbed – they won’t answer questions, and just stay silent”
This morning, I talked with the refugees, and asked if they were willing to go home now. They said no way. For many of them, their homes have been completely destroyed, so they don’t know where they would take shelter. And in any case, they fear that if they go back they might be attacked at any time. Some have confided that if the government could provide sufficient security, then they might go back. But at present it seems out of the question.
It’s quite difficult to talk to them. They’re in a state of panic. I don’t dare ask much about what they experienced. Some of them are quite disturbed – they won’t answer questions, and just stay silent.
No one can explain how the violence started. They tell me they usually have good relations with the Bodo people. Muslims have lived in Bodo areas for a very long time – some even speak Bodo. Though this is not the first time Muslims and Bodos have clashed, the violence still seems to have taken them by surprise.
Photo by our Observer.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure.