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“Since I was 8 years old I have dreamed of joining the police force”, says Sharifa Khatoon. “I see the uniform as an opportunity to make a difference, especially help women”, adds this 13-year-old.
We are sitting inside her cramped, tidy hamlet in the village of Bhawanipur in Assam’s Chirang district. Located in the northeast, Assam has dominated the headlines for a year now, mostly for all the wrong reasons. In July 2012, parts of the state were witness to a series of bloody riots between the tribal Bodo community and Muslim settlers. No one is certain what triggered it off; both sides blame each other. The conflict has displaced several thousand people from both the communities. Even today many people live in makeshift camps, their homes destroyed and means of livelihood disrupted.
Now there is fresh tension, this time over the Bodos renewing their longstanding demand for a separate state, Bodoland. Last week many vehicles were burned down and rail traffic to this region disrupted for over 12 hours after protests by different Bodo outfits. There is no sign of an immediate end with the Bodos refusing to back down unless the government meets their demands.
I was interviewing Sharifa for a documentary on how children, especially girls, have been impacted. Sharifa and her family returned to their village a few months ago. But life, as she knew it, is over. There is little hope of her ever donning that police uniform. Later this month, she is all set to marry a 17-year-old from a neighbouring village.
“Everything we had burned down, including her books and uniform”, says her mother Rukhsana. “There was no school in the relief camp either so she missed an entire school year”. I ask her why she could not resume school after their return. “We lost our fields. There was no income so how could we pay the fees or for books”, asks Rukhsana. “Right now we can afford to send only one child to school and we chose Sharifa’s brother”.
Money is just one aspect. The other, more abiding reason is insecurity. Given how isolated parts of this region are, families are reluctant to send their children, particularly daughters out of the immediate neighbourhood.
Given just isolated many villages are, the reluctance is not hard to understand. We travelled to Boraisera village in Chirang district, home to both Bodos and Muslims. There is no road connecting to the village, which is surrounded by four rivers. It took a boat ride and then a bike journey down some treacherous tracks to get there.
Boraisera is home to both communities but after the riots they have moved to different corners of the village, with boundaries distinctly drawn. Since the riots occurred, not a single health worker has visited Boraisera and 12 other villages in this area. “It is not like that they visited frequently earlier”, says a villager. “But now they have an excuse. They tell us they are too scared to visit these riot scarred areas”. The bitterness is all too evident in his voice. Given the huge distances and the hardship involved in travel, villagers go to health centres in the city only if there is an emergency. The impact of that neglect is all too evident in the children here most of whom are severely malnourished. Not a single child born in the past year has been vaccinated. Nor have pregnant women been given basic check-ups.
There is just one primary school for a village of 3000 residents; its doors have been firmly shut after the riots. “It took a lot of intervention on our part to make the community aware of the importance of educating their children, especially girls”, says Hasina Khatoon, an activist with the Action Northeast Trust (ANT) which has been working in the region for nearly 10 years. “Over the last 4-5 years, enrolment in schools was rising. The riots have set that process back”, she says, “and worst affected are girls. Over the last year, girls as young as 12 and 13 have been married off”.
Across the divide, we encounter the same sense of displacement and uncertainty. At a Bodo relief camp in Kokrajhar town, I found that a number of young girls had chosen to stay back so they could pursue their education in a safe environment, even if that meant staying away from their parents. Devruti Brahmo’s family has returned to their village. “I have lost a school year as it is. I don’t want to risk that happening again. I would rather stay on, finish schooling and hopefully get into college.”
It was not an easy decision to make. Devruti is just 16 and apart from a distant relative living two doors away, there is no one looking out for her. She draws support from her best friend Deepa Brahmo, 14, who lives here with her teenage brother. Their lives, however, are tenuous. They can be asked to move out at any time, because the government has begun the process of closing down these camps.
“There is no doubt that both communities have suffered tremendously”, says Jennifer Liang, co-founder, ANT. “The Bodos may have fared a little better because they are better organized as a community but there is no doubt that this has been a huge setback and will take decades to mend. At this point, I am really not sure when that process will even begin.”