A Prayer for Bodoland

If you're in India and cast even a cursory glance at the news, you know that Assam — specifically, the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) in Assam — has witnessed a sudden explosion of violence, with some 40 death and over a lakh people displaced over the course of just a few days. There's a lot of back and forth about the exact cause for this outbreak, which is of course only the most recent outbreak in a protracted conflict spanning decades. A quick Google-news search for "Bodoland" will throw up lots of articles and opinion pieces: this article in this morning's paper moved me to tears and this piece, Violence in Assam Has Deep Roots, on the NY times blog seems to me like a good summary of what came before. I'm not going to say a more about causes and effects and possible solutions because, frankly, I don't know enough. I am trying to take the time to read and listen and learn, but until I know more, I'll stay clear of commenting on all that. And if you are reading this and do know more about the Bodo conflict and feel that this post is one-sided or misinformed, I apologize. I'm writing only from my brief firsthand experience of this part of the country and from the stories I heard there. This is not a journalistic account; it is a personal one.

More personally, though, the news has been breaking my heart, over and over. I spent a week in Bodoland three years ago, and while that isn't much, it was enough to gain this part of the world a very special place in my heart. I have believed for some time that we fall in love with certain places not for the place itself as much as for who we are in that place. Some of this has to do with the people one shares that place with, and some with what we learn there. In April 2009, my visit to Bodoland became the most memorable span of time I have spent in rural India. Weavers at Aagor, the women's cooperative supported by the ant

I was visiting the ant, a grassroots organization run by a wonderful couple who have been working in the area on issues of health, livelihoods, women's empowerment, and improving access to government schemes such as NREGA, the rural health mission, etc. I was there to plan for teenagers in the North East, which I was coordinating on behalf of my former workplace, in partnership with the ant and another organization in Assam. During the few days I spent there, I met with local schoolteachers, talked to young people leading peace initiatives, sat in on a training meeting of various organizations from all over NE India, chatted a little with women from the weaver's cooperative supported by the ant, spent a lot of time talking to Jenny (the half of aforementioned wonderful couple) and playing with her daughter, and visited outlying villages that have no access to electricity, piped water, or even roads during the rainy season. I remember those 4-5 days as being filled with fun and learning in equal parts.

In the span of this blog post, I can only briefly tell you about some of the things that have stayed with me from that trip, and I'll start with what had taken me there — the program for teenagers. In short, the program we were working on sought to recognize and celebrate young people (13-19) across the NE who were leading their own social change initiatives. Despite circulating the application form to many schools and organizations, we hadn't received a single application from the Bodo region, and we decided that the only way to find out why was to go talk to the schools. The teachers we spoke to began with what most teachers I have met (unfortunately!) begin with — telling us that their students don't engage with the world. Once we penetrated that layer of apathy, though, I was given a brief, quick, and all-important lesson in context.

In an outlying villageOne teacher told me that he strongly discouraged children from taking part in such activities or doing anything that would develop what we in the cities would call "leadership qualities." His reasoning was simple: if a child in this region is seen as a leader, he or she will immediately become the target of recruitment by the extremist groups in the region, and simultaneously the target of suspicion by the security forces. In their own best own interest, students are encouraged to keep a low profile.

It made perfect sense, and it shook me deeply. It brought the basic assumptions of the program I was organizing into question, pushed us to re-evaluate and rebuild from the ground up (not simply "contextualize" as a cosmetic measure). It was my first experience taking a program designed in one context into another, radically different one, and its lessons will stay with me always.

There were other new learnings, things I had never thought about. Like, for example, what years of protracted conflict do to a community's art and literature. At some point during the Bodo movement — I've forgotten the exact date, but let's say in the 80s — the Assamese script, in which the Bodo language was until then written, was ejected and replaced by the Devnagri (Hindi) script (and, apparently, the missionaries in the region often used the Roman script, which I saw some students writing in as well). It sounds like a small change, but think what that does to all Bodo literature (and there was a fair amount of it!). Suddenly, the children growing up in the region cannot access the stories or books written by the previous generation, and chunks of their culture become alien to them. There is very little reading material other than school textbooks, and again, you can imagine what that does to the already poor educational systems. As a writer, and as someone fascinated by oral history, this singular aspect of the Bodo crisis has stayed with me most deeply. At some point in my life, I want to go back there and do oral history work... in a region where a question as simple as "what games did you play in your childhood?" has become a political question, the recording of soon-unreadable stories will be crucial.

I also met a group of young people — mostly in their late 20s, although no one was sure of their ages — there who had just started playing traditional Bodo music. They told me about how their music had completely died during the decade of violence, about how none of them even knew how to make the traditional instruments any longer. They told me about finding one older person who did remember those instruments and was willing to teach the younger boys how to make and play them... about founding their own band and starting to play their community's music again. In that year's Bihu festival, there was going to be live music in the villages after more than a decade. The thought still gives me goosebumps.

There are other stories too — stories I'd rather not tell, or stories that I will not tell out of respect for the privacy and safety of the people who told them to me. Besides, those are the stories you're hearing in the news anyway... this blog post is only my small way of expanding the stories you hear and the picture you create of this beautiful, troubled part of the country. It is only an attempt to say, "look, and then there is this."

As the region lapses back into what hopefully will not become another protracted violent conflict, and as their society undergoes another major upheaval and refugee crisis, do spare a thought or a prayer for the wonderful, warm-hearted people behind the statistics the newspaper will throw at you.