The hungry among the dead

The refrain is similar among most domiciled Biharis in the state. In Guwahati alone their population would exceed a lakh. As an employee of the more bankrupt Public Health Engineering Department (PHE) at Chandmari on the busy RG Barooah Road, Yadav is part of Assam's oversized government workforce, that has for years now, got paid in installments, once in every three months, when they're lucky. Assam's government school teachers at one stage didn't get paid for years at a stretch. Even as the killings in the state, 54 in all till this evening, makes the headlines, with Assam once again in the news for all the wrong reasons, not many would perhaps have the time to count the living, not in the prevailing chaos.

"The employment exchanges in the state show a figure of 23 lakh youth waiting to get jobs," says Hiren Gohain, one of Assam's most respected intellectuals, and a former teacher of Gauhati University. "I don't believe that the people would go on the rampage for 2,500 jobs that the North East Frontier Railway (NEFR) had to offer this time. This is in all probability the result of a policy that the railways have followed for three or four years now, with candidates from Bihar getting most of the jobs, something that the railways will neither deny nor accept. I'm not saying that this justifies killings. Just in the way the atrocities in Bihar on north-eastern passengers wasn't justified, nor is this. The killings here are in no way representative of the feelings of the majority."

They aren't. The large number of peace committees that sprang up spontaneously soon after the violence began, the school children who hold up "We want peace" placards at rallies in Guwahati, are, as always, the silent majority. The government, boxed in by rioters on the one hand and the militant on the other, seem to be doing all they can as well: from sacking officials for negligence to calling in the army, to now gathering the Bihari community from vulnerable points and putting them in camps that can be guarded. All Assam Students' Union activists in Upper Assam have begun providing protection to the Bihari community in their areas. "What has happened is unfortunate," says Phool Hussain, a Bihari businessman who came to Assam in 1962. "We have lived here peacefully for so long."

Yet even as reports come in from various parts of the state of people rallying together to put an end to the madness, there are reports of the illegal Bangladeshi migrant moving into places that have been vacated by the fleeing Bihari. "These reports have been coming in for some time now," says Adip Phukan, editor of Asomiya Protidin the highest selling Assamese daily in the state. The competition between the Bangladeshi and the Bihari would have been quite direct: from the precious rickshawallah to the small time vegetable vendor, he comes here to keep alive his family, here, or back home in Bihar. As a Bihari passenger on a train that comes in to Assam says: "Kya karenge, Bihar mein to kuch nahin raha …(What do we do, there is nothing left in Bihar)." For the Bangladeshi, it is a turf war won quite by default, by people who come from an even more impoverished nation across the border.

In the midst of it all, it is the poorest of the poor who will, as always, suffer. The state, has since the riots, lost Rs 32 lakh revenue a day, after trucks refused to enter Assam following the killing of four drivers in lower Assam recently in the riots. To those who live, hand to mouth the city's many gullies, the main worry now is perhaps not the killings and the strife, but a rise in the food prices, a possibility that looms large on the horizon of a state torn apart by its people.

By Monalisa Gogoi (newsfiledelhi@rediffmail.com)