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Assam violence: Death toll in Bodo militant attack rises to 64

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As many as 64 people have died in Tuesday’s attacks by Bodo tribal militants on mostly Christian adivasis along Assam’s border with Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, officials said.

Police said the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit) faction carried out the attacks in Kokrajhar and Sonitpur districts lasting about three hours Tuesday evening. As many as 37 people were gunned down in Sonitpur and 27 in Kokrajhar. Unconfirmed reports say more than 75 people had died.

More than 80 people were injured and 250 are missing. Of the dead, at least 18 were children and 23 women.

“The death toll is likely to go up with more bodies being recovered,” said Assam police spokesperson Rajib Saikia on Wednesday.

Assam police chief Khagen Sarma said the attacks could be in retaliation to counter-insurgency operations leading to the “neutralisation” of several hardcore members of NDFB (S). The rebels, who had issued eviction notices to the villagers besides extorting them for months now, are believed to operate from the jungles straddling Assam’s border with Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.

Adivasis, who along with Bengali-speaking Muslims have been targets of ethnic cleansing in Bodo-inhabited areas along with–live in or near tea estates along the border.

Bodo conflict experts say the issue of “separate homeland” could also be behind the killings. The Bodoland Autonomous Territorial Districts was created in 2003, but a section of Bodos backed by militants wants more areas under their control.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the attacks on Tuesday, tweeting that he had spoken to Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi and home minister Rajnath Singh, who is scheduled to arrive here Wednesday evening.

Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi, who has asked six of his ministers to visit the militant-hit villages, termed the attacks cowardly. “The operations against them will continue,” he said about the militants.

Government officials said the random strikes in remote areas made it difficult to assess the casualties. “There are bodies littered everywhere,” said an army officer from Sonitpur district.

At least five people were injured after police fired blanks to disperse a mob which was armed with bows and arrows and attacked a police station in Sonitpur to protest against the killings.

Adivasi organisations such as All Tea Tribe Students’ Association have called for shutdowns on Friday to protest the killings. The All Bodo Students’ Union and other Bodo organisations too have condemned the killings and organised protest rallies in Kokrajhar.

Adivasis, often referred to as ‘tea tribe’, have been seeking scheduled tribe status in Assam. Belonging to 87 communities including Santhal, Kol, Bhil, Munda and Oraon, they were brought by the British from central India to work in tea plantations more than 150 years ago.

The British too had brought most of the Bengali Muslims from present-day Bangladesh more than a century ago under a programme to ‘grow more rice’. Over the years, indigenous communities, the adivasis and Muslims were made to settle on tribal blocks and belts as part of a ‘conspiracy to wipe locals out’.

Earlier this year, about 10,000 people fled their homes when violent clashes over a border dispute left more than 45 people dead. In 2012, ethnic clashes in the same area in Assam claimed about 100 lives and displaced more than 400,000 people.

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