As the magnitude of the human tragedy in Assam unfolds, where is our healing touch? Where are the appeals for funds that newspapers routinely issue? Where are the big humanitarian aid agencies? This is possibly the single largest conflict-induced human displacement to take place in India over such a short period of time since partition — over 4,00,000 Bodos and Muslims uprooted, terrified, and running for their lives in under 10 days. In this hyper-connected age, news travels fast, graphically, and into our drawing rooms, yet we appear unmoved.
When the Gujarat carnage took place in 2002, scattering over 2,00,000 people to the winds, hardly anyone came forward, not even the State. This was in sharp, painful contrast to the generous corporate support, and eager aid agencies that rushed to help victims of the terrible Gujarat earthquake the previous year. Assam, too, is reeling under a natural disaster — the worst flooding in a decade — and myriad organisations are there to help. Will they turn their backs on the camps for the riot-affected in Kokrajhar, Dhubri, Chirang and Bongaigaon? And crucially, will the government block access to these camps as it sometimes does in conflict-induced displacement? Well, in so doing they will only deepen divides. Hunger in the belly of a displaced child in a relief camp will turn to hatred in the mother’s heart; wounds inflicted by vicious attackers need to be healed with care, not filled with the creeping gangrene born of neglect; fear should not be allowed to turn to fury. Why is it that natural disasters soften our hearts, and loosens our purse strings, but we recoil, turn wary, inhuman, and politically “cautious” when disasters are human-made or conflict induced? Perhaps we blame the victims for bringing this upon themselves. Or worse, perhaps we take sides.
Ironically, conflict-induced internal displacement in India has been a great equaliser, affecting all communities, of all religions, and tribal groups in tragically similar ways. In the absence of any Central government monitoring agency or data, human rights groups (like ACHR and Amnesty International) and organisations like the IDMC (International Displacement Monitoring Centre) conservatively estimate 6,00,000-plus conflict-induced internally-displaced people in India . Estimates of Kashmiri Pandits displaced since 1990 range from 2.5 to 4 lakh. In the North-East alone, 47,000 people displaced by Bodo-Muslim and Bodo-Santhal violence in 1993, 1996 and 1998 have been in camps in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts of Assam (of those displaced in 1996 and 1998, 44,000 were estimated to be children); 125,000 people displaced by Bodo-Muslim violence in 2008 have been in camps in Darrang and Udalguri districts of Assam; 4,000 people were displaced by violence between Khasis and Nepali-speakers in 2010 in the Assam-Meghalaya border region; 31,703 Brus were displaced from Mizoram to Tripura in 1997 and 2009. In Chhattisgarh more than one lakh people have been displaced since June 2009. Thousands continue to be displaced in Gujarat (since 2002) and in Orissa after violence in 2007 and 2008. These numbers are generally of those living or registered in camps, not those dispersed elsewhere, still without a durable solution or resettlement. Add them, and the figures swell.
In 1998 the United Nations accepted 30 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Distilled from existing international human rights and humanitarian law, these are the international standards protecting the rights of the tens of millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs) globally, and these need to be the standards protecting India’s IDPs. Since 2006 Gujarat’s displaced Muslims have organised themselves to demand recognition as IDPs in every possible government forum — the National Minority Commission, NHRC, and more.
Yet, India has not moved an inch towards recognising the nature of targeted violence in law; recognising those displaced by each episode of targeted violence not as mere “migrants” but as IDPs with certain inviolable rights; or creating national standards for comprehensive remedy and reparation, including relief, rehabilitation and compensation. When displacement takes place due to targeted mass violence, with loss of life, property, family and loved ones, and the destruction of the very fabric of a socio-economic and cultural community, rehabilitation calls for a new understanding. When displacement takes place under fear and constant direct threat of violation of Article 21 of the Constitution, the trauma with which survivors face the future is considerably worsened, and protection of constitutional rights must be sought through a clear non-negotiable framework of entitlements.
Today, without any framework, without statutory, uniform, nationally recognised justiciable norms even for immediate relief and compensation, we once again face the spectre of lakhs of desperate, scared human beings languishing in hundreds of makeshift relief camps with no standards of medical care, food, or water — let alone special provisions for women, children, the aged and the infirm. We have no single-window protocols in place for getting them back their documents, their homes, their land, their lost livestock, their livelihoods, and their dignity. There is no policy or law that recognises the grave gendered implications of violent displacement — separation of family members, alteration of gender roles when families are separated, break down of family structures, loss of community support, desperate pressures of child care, increased domestic violence, sexual exploitation in exchange for relief handouts, and the long-term psychosocial trauma that accompanies all this. We have nothing but arbitrary and selective amounts of compensation being doled out, guided by a sense of charity rather than by a rights standard. And all of this, with no possibility of reparative justice — of apology by States for failing to protect, of guarantees for the future — no participation of survivors in planning the terms of their resettlement, no promise of justice.
The tragic failure of policy is compounded by the fact that much of this was recognised and addressed in the Draft Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill, 2011, which has been languishing with the government for the past year. That some of its provisions were opposed should not have prevented a caring government from stepping forward, addressing all concerns, acknowledging the legal and policy vacuum that the Bill tried to fill, and putting in place a comprehensive framework for justice and reparation for targeted violence. That it has failed to do so has been at grave cost to the victims of Assam — Bodos and Muslims alike. How late is too late? How many episodes of violence will this nation have to witness before we say — yes, it is time to be human.