A Bodo Couple’s Struggle after Ethnic Conflict of 2014

*Mohan and *Rupsi are a couple belonging to the Bodo tribe married to each other for 4-5 years now. They had both been married earlier and from Rupsi’s first marriage, she had 3 children whereas Mohan had no children from his rather brief first marriage.

 The couple have had another 3 children together. Before the December 2014 Bodo-Adivasi violence broke out, they were living in a small Bodo village called Komola Mandir by the side of the main road to Shantipur. They fled when their village was attacked by Adivasis and have not been able to go back since then. Along with the rest of their displaced villagers, they now live in a place called North Simlaguri which is a forested area just next to the Bhutan border.

Life before 2014 conflict
Mohan was an orphan who spent his entire childhood working as a cowherd and has no relatives. After growing up, he kept migrating place to place working as a labourer for many years till he settled down in a little village called Komola Mondir near Shantipur. He hoped to get a bit of land and settle down but till then, he used to go to Bhutan for daily wage labour work and was earning between ₹1500- ₹1750 in a single week. He married Rupsi – a single mother with three children – and brought her and her children to live with him in Kombla Mandir village.

Rupsi was from a village called Ambari just near the India-Bhutan border gate. She was a young maidservant in someone’s house when a young man from Digoldong Relief Camp met, married her and brought her to live in the relief camp. She has some faint memories of the relief camp – of the floods “it (the flood waters) was more than 3 feet high and we were unable to prepare our meals for two days and remained hungry for 48 hours until the flood water subsided. We lost all the relief ration supplies to the flood water.” She also remembers people receiving tin roofs and compensation money of ₹10,000 after the conflict of 1996. Rupsi gave birth to her first daughter while they were living in the relief camp and then they moved out of the relief camp looking to settle in lands belonging to the Bengali Muslims who had fled their lands as a result of their conflict with the Bodos.

It was a very tough life and there was no work and also “no wells or hand pumps in that village. We drank water from the river.” When their second daughter was born, seeing their struggle, Rupsi’s brother and relatives invited the couple to settle in Ambari (Rupsi’s village). Her brothers allocated a small plot of land to them but two years later, while she was pregnant with her third child, her husband left her suddenly as “he could not adjust with his in-laws”. Rupsi’s son was born a few months after her husband left and she was left alone to look after the two daughters and a new born son. Her parents and brothers (being not well off themselves) could do little to help her out. By selling vegetables from her small plot, rearing silk worms, weaving some small items to sell and going for daily wage labour work whenever it was available, she struggled to keep going.

When Mohan approached and asked for her hand in marriage and agreed to take her and three children in, her parents agreed to the proposal and she married Mohan and went to live in Kombla Mandir village. They worked hard and earned enough through daily wage labour. “We did not face any difficulty with food and was lucky that we did not suffer from any major illnesses”. Rupsi gave birth to two sons just a year apart from each other. One of the villagers described the boys said “No one in the village has ever had such fair and healthy children as them.” Rupsi’s eldest daughter from her first husband was sent away to work as a maidservant in a rich man’s house while the second girl helped her in raising her step-brothers along with going to a nearby school.

They owned 2 ½ bighas of land (a little less than an acre) in which they cultivated tapioca. They also gave a small portion of the land as “aadi” (share-cropping) for cultivating black sesame with another farmer in return for half the produce. “though the land was not suited for paddy and even other vegetation, we had a lot of better option and opportunities for livelihoods.” They grew vegetables in their around their house. Rupsi remembers, “I used to sell lots of vegetables like pumpkin, water gourd, sour leaves etc. We had enough and I also shared the produce from the garden with the neighbours and they often complimented us on the fine produce from our kitchen garden”. During harvesting season, the couple would go and harvest other’s fields and earn extra income. Being near the main road to Bhutan, Mohan could also go and do daily wage labour work in Bhutan as and when they required some extra income.

Conflict of December 2014
The conflict of 2014 between the Bodos and the Adivasis disrupted the family. They fled along with the other villagers to a neighbouring Bodo village called Nijulaguri. “The Adivasis robbed the houses, burnt and demolished all the 16 houses of Kombla Mondir. All our livestock from the village went missing” and “misfortune came to the family since the day we fled from the conflict”. Of the conflict, Mohan narrated “It was 8.30 in the morning and I was working in the field as it was harvest time. The older boy ran toward me shouting “Saoutal Daourou” (i.e. the Santhals are attacking). But I was surprised at why the Santhals would be attacking us. There was a huge commotion in the village and went outside to see. My wife who had gone fishing in the morning had just returned and was boiling some simla aaloo (tapioca) for breakfast. I told her about the attack but she replied that it will not happen so fast and asked me to go and listen to some ABSU (All Bodo Students Union) men who had come to the village. I had hardly gone some distance when the commotion started and I was lucky to even reach back the house. Even before we could pack a few belongings from the house, we had to start running. The Adivasis had already reached and started to burn the houses. They started from the last house near the Shantipur side. They were trying to cut our connection with the other Bodo villages. We even did not have the time to get a gamsa (towel) from the house (to tie them on our backs) and so my wife carried the younger child and I carried the older one in my arms and we fled from the village.

As the couple was making their way through the paddy field, they were stopped by an Adivasi man armed with a bow and arrow. “He was prepared and pretended to shoot me but was lucky that he did not. Soon he started to hit me with the bow on my head, legs and shoulders trying to stop us from fleeing. All my legs and the other parts of my body were swollen because of the beating. Luckily the attacks did not hit on the child. All the Bodo men from the village had already fled otherwise we could have killed this man. We managed to escape from him and were saved once we reached a Bodo village called Langdangpara. That whole day till 4 or 5 o’clock (in the evening) the people from both the communities were chasing each other near the Nijla River. It was only after the ABSU, BLT (Bodo Liberation Tigers), VCDC (Village Council Development Committee) members and the army arrived, that the situation was controlled. Following this, the army went for patrolling in Nijla River and the Adivasis even tried to raid Nijlaguri right till Langdangpara village.”

Relief camp & Beyond
A relief camp was set up for in Nijlaguri primary school (around 5 kms from their village) and the family started living there. Rupsi remembers the first days in the camp in the cold winter of December “The nights were very cold in the relief camp. We did not have any blankets and we spent the first two nights without warm clothes. On the day we fled, we did not have food till late evening around 4 or 5 o’clock.” The family lived in the relief camp for more than six months. Fearful for their lives if they went back to Komla Mandir village, some leaders of the Bodo community pointed out barren land on the edge of the forest for this group to settle in. and many families moved there. But Mohan and his wife did not move immediately. They decided to occupy some community land in Nijulaguri village for a few months until they could afford to buy a bit of land of their own. The family continued to stay for another one month, until they finally came to North Simlaguri, pressed by the constant invitation from their villagers and also the increasing uncertainties of being able to earn enough to buy land.

Life in the new village
Though Mohan likes the new village, the main problem was lack of work and income opportunities. “Many of our villagers have migrated to different places for work but even over there, they face discrimination by the employers who often suspect them to be militants as they have no identity proof or other papers”. In this new place he has been allocated around 9 bighas (3 acres) of land, but he could not cultivate it since being jungle land, it has to first be cleaned and readied for cultivation using a tractor, something that he could not afford. So, though he gets only half the produce he had to give it away for share-cropping. Even building a small shelter was a problem “as the village is cut-off from other villages and not part of them (so no one comes to help). There are no work opportunities here. The Shantipur market is at a distance of more than 11 kms from this place. No four wheelers can come to this village and the only way for us to survive was to collect firewood and sell it in Shantipur market.” They survived selling firewood or catching fish, drying it and selling it in Shanipur market and also doing daily wage labour when available in agricultural seasons. Rupsi would later buy tapioca from the nearby villages and sell in Shantipur market, 11 kms away.
They were a few months in their new place and it was the harvest season i.e. November/ December of 2015. Rupsi used to take the boys who were now 3 ½ and 2 ½ years along with her to the harvest fields where she worked for someone. Though Mohan asked her not to go out for work because of the young children, she wanted to earn a little extra and help lessen his burden. Even in the previous village i.e. Komola Mandir, they had worked together in the harvest field and got paddy as payment. Here while she worked, the boys used to play around their mother. “Often they had to sleep in the open under the hot sun when they were tired or sleepy, else they would go and play in the nearby stream for long hours with the other children. Leaving the children at home was even more risky and dangerous and so I had to take them”.

Soon, the children fell sick. Mohan said “Earlier my children recovered from illness with the medicines I got from the state dispensary in Shantipur. Even while living in the relief camp, my son recovered quickly from the illness with medicines from the pharmacist”. This time too, the couple got medicines from the pharmacists and waited for the boys to recover but the younger one did not improve. Since he was not improving from ‘tablets’ they bought from the pharmacy, the couple took him to an ‘ojha’, a traditional healer in Simlabagan village, 2 km away. The ojha, an old lady had a good reputation for her practice and she diagnosed the child with jaundice. She boiled some leaves with which she bathed the child. “On our way back home, my son started talking and by the time we got home, he was already recovering and improving. Though he refused to drink his mother’s milk he ate a little rice when we forced him. Thinking he was better I went to cut yam stems to feed the pigs” says Mohan. While he was away, a man from his village came running and informed that his son had just died. Rupsi said “it was a Thursday on the day he died and I remember he was also born on a Thursday 2 ½ years ago”.

The elder son had recovered from his illness when the younger boy was seriously ill. But hardly had they buried the brother that the older one started to fall ill again and this time it was even more serious. Mohan borrowed two thousand rupees (which in six month he would repay with an interest of ₹1000) to take the older boy to the hospital. Paying ₹900 as fare, he took the boy to the Tukarjhar Baptist Mission hospital some 20 kms away. But the doctor was out and so the person in charge there asked him to take the son to boy to the government hospital in Bengtol, 5 kms away. Finding the boy in a serious condition, the doctor there asked him to rush the child to the Catholic Mission hospital in Bongaigaon town, another 25 kms away. Mohan recalled “When the doctors there in Bongaigaon heard that child had been in this condition for the past 4 days, they did not even bother checking him up.

By then, he realised that he only had only 1100 rupees in his pocket and he could not afford to take his son to another hospital. He knew that he would not be able to borrow any more money as getting the earlier 2000 rupees had been a struggle “we are new settlers to the area and money lenders do not trust we can pay their money back and so do not give us. But we begged that we were ready to sell the tin roof of our house, our two pigs, we could borrow money even at a higher rate of interest by mortgaging our land”. Not knowing what to do and seeing his son’s condition, “His skin had become so pale. His eyes were nearly closed and lips were drying up and he was breathing with great difficulty whispering so softly that I had to lower down my ears near to his lips to hear what he was saying.”

The final option left for them was to visit the ojha (traditional healer) on their way back home in a place called Bhurtinali, half-way home to their village. The ojha treated his son for 2 days but the boy kept asking to be taken back home and since they suspected the child to be suffering from typhoid, they took the child to another ojha in Runikatha who they heard specialized in this. The ojha applied a paste of herbal medicines on the child and while they were returning home from there, the elder boy breathed his last in his father’s arms. “We buried him next to his brother with the hope they can reunite”.

In search of answers to the death of the boys, Mohan feels that he had asked his wife not to cut the hair of the eldest boy but some relatives of hers cut his hair thinking the child was disturbed by the long hair he had. “This and other things might have displeased the Gods”, so concluded Mohan, Rupsi and also all the villagers. The couple sold the two pigs they owned to perform the last rites, ceremonies and also cleansing rituals. The wife is now again pregnant in her 8th month and looking at her Mohan says, “Because she did not listen to her husband’s words, she has to still hold that big burden yet again”.

Girls as Maid servants
Before she remarried, Rupsi had sent her eldest daughter away to work as a maidservant. The little money she got from there was helpful and it was one less mouth to feed. But the second daughter Sonima was a huge help in the house. After the birth of her stepbrothers, she helped her mother look after them while her mother went out for work and she also attended middle school in Shantipur, something she loved to do. But after the conflict there was no way for her to go to school. The family was in no state to send her to school now 11 kms away and she had to stop schooling.

Sonima is now 13 years old and the NGO working in their village promised they would help get her admitted into a government bridge where school drop-out girls like her could get free studies and stay. But Rupsi is worried as she has tried but has not been able to come up with the money required to buy her clothes and essentials needed to send her there, “I would be the sole person responsible for taking care of the expenditure of my daughter. Yesterday I had gone to a nearby village to borrow some money for her expenses but I failed to get any. I am now carrying another child and it is eight months. I foresee the problems that I would have to face if my daughter goes to school. Right now I am not in a position to take added responsibilities because I have only a few days before I give birth to another child.” Sonima pleaded that she wanted to go to school did not want to be a maid servant anymore but there was no choice.

Weeping and heart-broken, Sonima and her friend were taken away by a mahajan (rich owner) to work in his house. Sonima’s main job is to be a companion to the master’s daughter and drop and pick her up from school. She would be paid Rs.1300 a month for this. Her friend would be preparing meals for the Mahajan’s brother’s family living close by. She would be paid Rs.1500 a month. Both of them were consoled and promised that the two friends would get to meet each other often. Rupsi got an advance payment of Rs.1500 for her daughter. This money was a huge help 10 days later when the time came for delivering her baby. They had planned for a home birth – as they had no money to go to the government hospital. Before the conflict, both her sons had been born in the government hospital but this time, they just did not have the money to spend. But the labour went on for many hours and finally, unsure and coaxed on by others, they called the 108 ambulance and moved Rupsi to the Shantipur State Dispensary. After some hours, Rupsi gave birth to a girl. The ambulance charged Rs.300 one way and the hospital nurses and doctors took a lump sum amount of Rs.1000. They were thankful for the money got from the daughter’s mahajan some days ago.

(*all names have been changed to protect the identities of the individual respondents)

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