Assam violence suggests that women suffer the most due to conflict-induced internal displacement

assamBy Johanna Lokhande*

There is still no legal recognition yet in India of those who suffer from internal displacement due to the eruption of violence. Women suffer the most during such conflicts, and are often left to fend for themselves, as suggested during an interaction with the internally displaced persons of Lower Assam.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) says, “IDPs are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.”

Being uprooted from one’s own place of dwelling, forcibly due to conflicts, which often leads into a situation where the citizenship rights of a person are jeopardized, this sort of a state of affairs is prevalent in many parts of India. States like Kashmir, Gujarat, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and the North-Eastern region have been facing this problem for years. The situation of conflict is varied and in different time spans, but the effect it has on innocent people is almost the same. People displaced in Kashmir have also faced the same conditions that people in Gujarat have faced, but every region still has its specificity.

For the IDPs, the right to life, property, security, food, education and employment are under threat. IDPs face violation of not just human rights but their fundamental constitutional rights. India, unfortunately, does not have a concrete provision for conflict-induced IDPs. The National Relief and Rehabilitation Policy 2007 talks about rehabilitating people displaced due to developmental projects, but it does not talk about conflict-induced displacement. Hence the need to refer to the UN Guiding Principles on IDPs as the basis for providing justice to IDPs who are displaced due to different types of conflicts.

The North-Eastern region in India has a very distinct civilization, geographical, socio-economic, cultural and political entity in India. As a result of distorted environmental, socioeconomic and political transformation, the entire region has experienced massive internal displacement of its population. Perhaps this region has generated the highest number of IDPs in India. The citizen-IDP ratio in north-east India is very high. It is, of course, very difficult to ascertain the exact number of IDPs in the region. But we can find all three categories of IDPs – those who have been displaced due to an environmental disaster, those have had to suffer because of a development project, and conflict-induced IDPs.  People of all the seven states of the North-East have suffered immensely from degraded environment, brutality of state-sponsored development and fear of violence caused by political conflicts for space and identity.

Exact figures of number of displaced in the North-Eastern region are difficult to arrive at, but a report of the Internally Displaced Monitoring Committee said in 2012 that “more than 76,000 people remain displaced due to inter-ethnic violence in India’s north-eastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, and Mizoram/Tripura.” Over 46,000 among them are adivasis, Bodos and Muslims of Bengali descent who live in camps or in temporary shelters in western Assam. They had to flee their homes due to episodes of inter-ethnic violence between 1993 and 2008.

In late 2010 and early 2011, about 50,000 people were displaced by violence between Rabha and Garo people along the Assam-Meghalaya state border. The official camps hosting them were closed in February and March 2011, yet it is unknown how many have been able to rebuild their lives or are now enjoying their rights to the same the extent as the non-displaced people. In Tripura, over 30,000 Bru people from Mizoram, displaced by Mizo-Bru violence in 1997 and 2009, remain in camps. A return process has been under way since May 2010, but it has been slow and stalled several times.

The recent bout of violence in the two districts of Assam, Kokrajhar and Chirang, displaced nearly 4 lakh people from Muslim and Bodo communities. Majority of them were Muslims. In all, 285 camps, small and big, spread across Chirang, Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Bongaigaon districts, starting with August 2012 and till mid-February 2013, were set up in school buildings. Later, the displaced were shifted to the outskirts of villages. The situation in the camps was deplorable due to lack of facilities like water, proper clothing, health facilities, food and security. Most of the people living in the camps lost everything they had and had no way to return.

Since the number was huge and there was no planning, the government wanted to reduce the number of camps as soon as possible. There was no strategic rehabilitation plan that would ensure their safe return. Over and above that, the conflict took a violent turn when it became an issue of outsider versus indigenous people. This made their return even more difficult.

Women have found particularly themselves in a vulnerable position in such situations. During the initial few months of Assam violence, the administration provided some nutritious supplies to pregnant women. But this reduced as days passed. Private organizations took up relief work in full swing and concentrated on providing basic amenities for women and young girls. Sanitation issues were addressed by Oxfam. Special attention was given to maintaining hygiene so as to fight epidemics. In the past, during the riots between the Santhals and the Bodos, in 1998, cholera epidemic had killed several children.

The UN Guiding Principles on IDPs insists that “special attention should be paid to the health needs of women, including access to female health care providers and services, such as reproductive health care, as well as appropriate counseling for victims of sexual and other abuses.” There is a clear recognition at the UN level that in a situation of violence all are victims, men, women, children and the old, but the impact of violence differs from person to person, and women suffer the most. They become victims of shock for losing their belongings and beloved ones. It is the duty of the state to provide counselors and take proper care of women and adolescent girls.

In most of the camps, many women were pregnant. Yet, they were provided with rice and dal most of the times and no other nutritional supplement. A mother in Gumurgaon in Chirang gave birth to a premature baby. In the absence of any medical care, she was malnourished and the child who born was just bones and flesh.

Women’s security in such situations also becomes very important. There is a constant threat of being attacked from someone within the community or outside. Security personnel should be appointed outside the camps. But in most camps there was no such security. This often created immense fear among the parents of young girls. The experience of Gujarat during the 2002 riots led to a situation where many under-aged girls were married off so that the family could get rid of their burden would be shared by someone else. A similar situation was found among the victims of Assam violence.

The UN Guiding Principles for IDPs requires that equal rights be given to women and men to obtain such necessary documents. Further, they want women’s names should be entered in all legal documents. But no such provisions were made in Assam. The National Legal Service Authorities in its scheme on disaster management has clearly mentioned that documents should be provided to all those who have lost their important documents, but this too never happened.

The Centre for Social Justice made special representations for the enhancement of financial assistance to the IDPs. Special mention was made in these representations that women should not discriminated against in awarding compensation.These representations were made to the chief minister and the chief secretary of Assam and the National Human Rights Commission. But all this was of no avail. There is so far no response. Assam violence has been forgotten like another episode. It is more than seven months now, and the displaced persons, especially women, have fought odds like the rains, biting winters and now even the summers. The authorities have still to decide as to how many people will return. They have made public statement that everyone could return. However, nobody knows how people could return to their homes and lands.

Copies of representation were sent to the director, Prime Minister’s Office, apart from the principal secretary, revenue, Government of Assam, and local officials at Kokrajhar, Chirang, Dhubri and Bongaigaon districts and at the sub-divisional level in Gossaigaon, Bijni, Parbatjhora and Bilasipara. The demands included financial assistance to enhance the compensation to the grievously injured from Rs. 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh, apart from compensation of up to Rs. 1.25 lakh towards relief and rehabilitation, as mentioned in the directions given to the Gujarat government for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat communal riots.  As for the financial assistance for families whose houses have been burnt or damaged, as against the cumulative provision of Rs 52,700,  the demand ten times of what was sanctioned, as provided to the victims of the 1984 Sikh riots.

An analysis of the Central government’s responsibility,  as a party to relevant international treaties, shows that  it must take steps to prevent forced evictions, and to  provide adequate compensation in cases where forced  evictions have occurred.  Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and  Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a party, underlines that everyone has the right to the protection  of the law against arbitrary or unlawful interference  with his or her privacy, family and home.

India is also party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and so is bound to recognize (and take steps to ensure the realization of) the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including  adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in its General Comment 7 Article 11 defines “forced eviction” as “ the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes  and/or land which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection The prohibition on forced evictions does not, however, apply to evictions carried out by force in accordance with the law and in conformity with the provisions of the International Covenants on Human Rights ”

In addition, “States parties shall ensure, prior to carrying out any evictions, (…) that all feasible alternatives are explored in consultation with the affected persons, with a view to avoiding, or at least minimizing, the need to use force Legal remedies or procedures should be provided to those who are affected by eviction orders.”

General Comment 7 highlights: “All the individuals concerned have a right to adequate compensation for any property, both personal and real, which is affected ” Furthermore, “Evictions should not result in individuals being rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights Where those affected are unable to provide for themselves, the State party must take all appropriate measures, to the maximum of its available resources, to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land, as the case may be, is available ”

In 2008, the CESCR recommended that India “ take immediate measures to effectively enforce laws and regulations prohibiting displacement and forced evictions, and ensure that persons evicted from their homes and lands be provided with adequate compensation and/or offered alternative accommodation”, in accordance with General Comment.

All these provisions apply regardless of sex or whether the evictees held legal title to their housing or land, or were “encroachers”. The Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement, drawn up by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, state: “All those evicted, irrespective of whether they hold title to their property, should be entitled to compensation for the loss, salvage and transport of their properties affected, including the original dwelling and land lost or damaged in the process ”

In all these situations, one can underline, women should be the first to be taken care of. In fact, they are doubly affected. They affected not just by violence like men, but are pushed back into homes, for fear of loss of dignity and honour, or are often left to fend for themselves. Women’s psychological condition also gets neglected, if is not taken care of. Women who suffer sexual violence need special assistance in order to help them to recoup. But the question that looms large is: Is the state responding to these special needs of women, or has it just stuck to providing basic amenities, and blanketed the needs of the victims as the same needs of the whole lot?

*The report has been written  for Rehnuma, a joint initiative of the Centre for Social Justice and National Foundation of India

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