Juren Wari knew that he just HAD to save the tractor! And he also knew that it was not going to be an easy task. He was already feeling terrible that he could not save the neighbouring Bengali Muslim village of Saurabari being burnt down by his own tribesmen of Bodos. God alone knows he much he tried to save that village. For Juren and for many Bodos around him, the Muslim village of Saurabari was like a second home. The only Muslim village in a Bodo dominated area, relationships between the two communities were however not limited to economic exchange but also to other.
Juren, despite being a Bodo tribal was so respected in the Muslim village that whenever there was an internal village dispute, he would be called in to help solve the case! His reputation grew after he joined the ant, an NGO active in the area. Along with being fair and non-partisan, he became known for standing up for the rights of the marginalised. As Juren himself says, “Even before I joined the ant, I could never stand injustice and found it difficult to keep quiet. So, I would step in a woman was getting beaten at home or if a rich brother was trying to grab the land of a poor brother. My family sometimes scolds me for being ‘interfering’!”
This time round, saving the tractor became one of the biggest tests Juren ever faced. Trouble started a couple of days ago when ethnic violence broke out between Bodos and Muslims in neighbouring Kokrajhar District. All watched horrified as villages there burnt and thousands fled from their homes. In two days time, this fire had spread to Juren’s home district of Chirang. Sensing the hate and anger all around him, Juren knew Saurabari – the only minority village in an all Bodo dominated area where he lived, was in danger. He pleaded for help from the police, calling up local politicians and leaders, asking them to protect the village. But the village could not be saved. Led by gunmen, every house in Saurabari was burnt and the village razed to the ground.
Juren was not even home at the time the Muslim village was burnt. He was stuck in the ant’s campus, some 10-12 miles away. Curfew was clamped by the government with shoot-at-sight orders. Being away, his sadness and helplessness was further compounded on hearing about the burning of Saurabari and the fleeing of the Muslim villagers. But there was not much he could do. Thus, when an urgent phone call came from Hari Brahma, a fellow villager asking what to do with a tractor belonging to a Muslim owner of Saurabari, Juren knew just what he had to do. Hari had driven this tractor for the past four years and the Muslim owner so trusted him that the tractor was always parked in his home and hired out for work from there. Everyone knew that this tractor belonged to a Muslim called Maqbool Hussain. From the relief camp across the river where he had fled, he called up the driver Hari and begged him to “please save the tractor as he had lost everything and this was the only thing he had had left”. Hari was in a huge dilemma.
Even as Saurabari village was still burning, he started receiving calls from all kinds of unknown numbers threatening him to “hand over the tractor belonging to the ‘Bangal’ (a derogatory term used for Bengali Muslims by the Bodos) or be ready to face severe consequences”. Hari was getting increasingly scared and wondered what to do. He immediately called up Juren as he felt he would have the answer.
And he did.
Through the phone, Juren managed to convince the top village leaders, women and some 15-18 youth of his village that they must protect Hari and also the tractor. He argued that “people can be enemies of people but what enmity did they have with the material things”. Hesitant at first, he made them see reason that if they did not save the tractor, the whole village would have to face police harassment later on. Juren says “Masked men came for the tractor not once, but three times. Night after night, they came with weapons and asked Hari to hand over the ‘Bangal’s tractor. But our villagers – youth and even women - stood firm. Even as they were resisting, I was advising them on the phone on how to argue with the masked attackers. Ultimately, because of the numbers on our side, the masked men had to leave. But the villagers were really tense as they were not sure when the attackers would come back with large numbers and overpower us”.
Finally, Juren managed to go home after three days. With protection from his colleagues of the ant who defied the curfew to reach out to people, he was escorted back to his village. The first thing Juren did was to call for a village meeting and discuss what to do with the tractor. “Though our village was willing to listen to me, trouble mongers from the neighboring village was instigating saying that it was stupidity to return Muslim property and the proper thing to do was to burn it”. Juren managed to get better sense to prevail and convince everyone that the faster the tractor was handed back to the owner, the lesser the danger.
But when it came to asking for volunteers to enlist for the task, everyone backed out. “It is not their fault”, says Juren, “every Bodo was convinced that there were thousands of Muslims waiting out on the roads to kill them”. So, Hari and Juren were entrusted the task of returning the tractor.
They contacted the tractor owner, Maqbool, who asked them to hand over the tractor to his son-in-law since he was living in a relief camp and there was no way cross the river. Juren remembers, “His son-in-law lived in a Muslim area some 15 miles away. Both of us were scared. I was on my motorbike (since we also had to return back) and Hari followed close behind with the tractor. As we passed Bodo villages, we could see men moving around with machetes, spears, stones and other weapons. They were on duty to ‘defend’ their village. When they saw us, they shouted ‘Bangal’s Tractor, Bangal’s tractor. Grab them”
Juren Wari with the tractor he protected
Juren and Hari managed to get pass them. Fearfully, they passed Bengali Muslim villages and market places with charred houses and shops and finally reached the spot where they handed over the tractor to Sattar Ali, the tractor owner’s son-in-law. Sattar Ali recalls “I cannot thank these people enough. They were so brave. I had fallen at the feet of the army and they sent 6 military personnel with guns to go with me to collect the tractor. And here these two Bodo men had come all the way unarmed and all alone, just to give us back our property. My tears could not stop flowing that day”. He says that his father-in-law now maintains his entire family only with income from the tractor returned to him. Or else, like many others in his community after the conflict, they too would have had to migrate to the city for work.
Juren feels that he perhaps he had it in him but he really got the courage to push this far because of the humanitarian values of the ant, the NGO he worked with. Standing up to his own people during that period of madness was not easy and his own relative even warned “if ever something happens to our village from the Muslims, you will be the first one we will kill”. He was inspired by the ant’s constant emphasis on pluralism, love and care beyond community and religion. Juren currently heads the “Peace and Justice Programme” of the NGO and leads a diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-faith team in building peace among communities in conflict. They work to create safe spaces for cross-community interactions and through close interactions, to work through their differences and solve conflicts non-violently.
He is especially proud of the Youth Peace Leaders Project supported by DKA, Austria. He recently led a drama team of Bodo and Muslim youth affected by the violence to Delhi. “We worked with this group for a full year and through many workshops and processes, helped them deal with their own stereotypes and biases. In Delhi, their passion in portraying non-violent ways of solving conflicts moved the audiences – largely young people - greatly”. Of the future, Juren says “if those from outside can risk their all and work for development and peace, this is but my own area and hence my responsibility to build and keep peace”.
“I realize that by pushing my boundaries and letting go of fear, I am inspired to do even more for peace”.