Rising tensions between Bengali Muslims and Bodo tribespeople in India’s northeastern Assam province erupted in July, turning the already impoverished ethnic groups into refugees when both simply want to be recognized and supported by the government.
Two Muslim boys were shot by members of the Bodo tribe, local police said, and the Bengali Muslims retaliated by killing four Bodos. That triggered widespread rioting, and since then, at least 80 people have died and more than 400,000 have been displaced.
Photographer Vivek Singh, who freelances for various publications in India, visited the razed villages and refugee camps of both groups in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District in Assam this August.
Northeastern India, which is isolated from the rest of the country geographically and culturally, could be a different place if it had more media attention, Singh said, and he wanted to bring attention the poor conditions there.
“I wanted the sheer number of people who have been displaced brought to light,” he said. “People are very scared.”
India's northeast is home to more than 200 ethnic and tribal groups.
The Bodos, who are mainly Hindu, migrated to India decades ago. They were not supported by the Assam government and appealed to the federal government for support.
When nothing changed, militant Bodo groups formed in the 1990s and terrorized the area until 2003, when the largest insurgent group signed a peace agreement with the federal government granting them a self-governing region within the state of Assam.
They hope to create their own autonomous state and fear other ethnic groups, such as the Bengalis, entering the area will decrease their chances.
The Bengalis more recently crossed the border illegally from Bangladesh. The largest influx was in 1971, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh after a war between West Pakistan and Bengali rebels supported by India. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim and Hindu Bengalis fled to India, and the Muslims settled mostly in the area that’s now the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District.
Since July’s fighting, Bengalis and Bodos who had left Assam to work in bigger cities in India are going back to their families.
“When you’re scared, you run home,” Singh said.
In mid-August, migrant Bodo students and workers said they received text messages threatening retribution for the ethnic violence in their homeland. More than 7,000 Bodo migrant workers fled cities, including Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad and Bangalore, India's technology hub.
In response, India blocked mass texts and websites that were fueling the fear. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told parliament that he did not want to assign blame but that the rumors were an attack on India's unity and integrity.
Singh worries that what was originally a tribal problem will be a migrant worker problem because there is no work for the returning people.
“Now those scared will run back home, have nothing to do for six months and be recruited for militant groups,” he said.
He hopes more photojournalists and writers will report on the area and the attention will push the Indian government to take action.
“I want as many people as possible to get out there,” Singh said. “Maybe another reporter looks at it differently. It’s not my story, but as long as it gets told.”
- Lauren Russell, CNN