“Where will we go? I have never been to Bangladesh. Neither has my husband. They say we are Bangladeshis. Maybe there are Bangladeshis (here). But I do not know, I am from here.”
‘Where will we go?’ and ‘I am from here’ — the two lines spoken by the fictional Muslim woman protagonist of My Name Is Jahanara, one of the stories published in the graphic novel First Hand II, are thoughts that occupy the minds of many in Assam. In the story, told from the perspective of Jahanara, a survivor of the 2012 ethnic conflict between the Bodos and Bengali Muslims, the narrative might seem like a simplistic explanation of all that plagues the history of Assam, bloodied by frequent riots over territory and ethnicity. But it is far from that.
“The three stories are aimed at an audience from outside the Northeast, therefore, I kept the narratives as simple as possible,” says the writer Amrapali Basumatary, “However, if you look at it closely, the juxtaposition of the narratives is what is relevant. I wanted the stories to talk to each other.”
The stories are part of First Hand (Volume II), an anthology based on the India Exclusion Report 2015 by the Centre for Equity Studies (CES), published by Delhi-based Yoda Press. While the other stories from the novel focus on issues of healthcare, sanitation, working conditions, women safety in different parts of India, the three which have been clubbed under the title No Place Like Home, focus on the stories of the survivors of the ethnic conflict in Assam’s Bodoland.
Bodoland or the four districts (Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang) that constitute the Bodo Territorial Area District (BTAD) is home to several ethnic groups. The Bodo tribe, an old ethnic community who at one point of time controlled most of present day Assam, has had a long history of separatist demands, marked by armed struggle. Many times, it has resulted in the most violent riots of Assam’s contemporary history, the last one as recent as December 2014 where the tribal separatists killed more than 30 people in Kokrajhar and Sonitpur. In the 2012 Bodo-Muslim riots, hundreds were killed and 4,85,921 persons were displaced — arguably the largest displacement since the 1947 Partition.
No Place Like Home tells the lived histories of the people most affected by these riots. “The three stories have been told from the perspective of the three affected parties: the Bodo, the Bengali Muslim and the Santhali — the riots might have occurred at different points of time but at the crux of all lie economic factors which are played out as ‘identity’ and ‘culture’ issues,” says Basumatary.
The Lonely Courtyard, the first story, is about the women affected by the Bodo Santhali riots of the late 1990s. The second, My Name is Jahanara, is a fictionalised account of a Muslim woman who lost her home in the 2012 Bodo-Muslim conflict, and the third, Aap Ke Sewa Mein, focuses on the role of the government agencies in the said riots. Basumatary, an ethnic Bodo, who is from Gossaigaon in Kokrajhar, moved out of Assam almost two decades ago. “The mixture of population in Kokrajhar — ethnic, linguistic and religious — make the area highly potent for continuing conflicts and violence,” she says.
On every visit home, Basumatary, who now teaches literature at Kirori Mal College in Delhi, notices changes in Kokrajhar. For instance, when she came back home six months after the 2012 riots had happened, she noticed that practically all Bengali Muslim vendors had disappeared from the local vegetable market. “When you grow up in conflict, it becomes a part of you. You notice things others wouldn’t necessarily notice,” she says.
In 2006, she documented the oral histories of the occupants of the Santhali relief camps in Kokrajhar for an academic paper. The Lonely Courtyard is a fictional account of those histories. I kept it fictional to protect the real identities of speakers and the affected people,” she says, adding that subjectivity is something she is very careful about. “But it helps that I have been away for two decades — it gives me perspective and stops me from playing into the emotions of the people,” she says. My Name is Jahanara is based on accidental research of sorts — from the many conversations Basumatary had with her friends, family and local population of Kokrajhar when she visited post riots.
Vidyun Sabhaney, who conceptualised, edited and even wrote parts of First Hand II, says that she approached Basumatary because “she has been doing field work in the areas for a while now.”
“We needed stories from the ground,” says the Delhi-based writer and illustrator. The first volume of First Hand consisted of reportage, commentaries, anthropological works about similar topics. “With the first volume, we wanted to encourage non-fiction in a graphic novel medium,” Sabhaney says. The second volume is a mix of fiction and non-fiction both but based on themes from the India Exclusion Report 2015 — a report compiled by the CES that explores lives of communities in terms of “exclusion from public goods.” “The report itself is quite lengthy and detailed, so in addition to the comics we have created cartoons, graphs and charts for the data,” she says, adding “Comics are a good entry point in disseminating information. But equally important is that the drawn medium can offer a different way of seeing.”
For the illustrations for No Place Like Home, Delhi-based artist Vipin Yadav was commissioned. “He has never been to Kokrajhar but together with my inputs (about how people look or dressed) as well as photos, he visualised the whole story in an interesting way,” says Basumatary, who took about a week to write the stories.
Appended at the end of the comic is an explanatory section about the history and context of the Bodo conflict. When it comes to the conflict in the Northeast — or in any part of India for that matter —context and history are very important but often tend to get lost in the immediate aftermath of a violent event.
“The very little the ‘mainland’ knows about the Bodo tribe is also very skewed,” says Basumatary. The popular perception is that all Bodos are armed violent separatists. “That’s the danger of one-sided narratives,” she says adding, “For people who visit, the Northeast paints a different picture. Go to a local market, and everything seems so peaceful. And it’s hard to imagine that the same people end up killing each other. Unless you come here to specifically study and observe, many things go unnoticed.”