NEW DELHI — Indian security forces shot and killed four rioters in northeastern Assam state Tuesday as authorities struggle to control ethnic fighting that has left 26 people dead and forced thousands to flee the area.
Police say the rioters were killed as they tried to commit acts of arson. Indian troops deployed to quell the unrest between Muslim settlers and Bodo tribes members have been under orders to shoot suspected rioters on sight, as the government tries to restore calm to the region.
Clashes between the ethnic Bodo community and Muslim settlers erupted Friday night after unidentified persons killed four young people in a Bodo dominated district. Reports say that Bodos suspected that Muslims were behind the killings and attacked them in retaliation.
Since then, rioting mobs have targeted hundreds of villages and burned many homes. The violence has prompted tens of thousands of people to flee and seek shelter in refugee camps set up in schools and government buildings. An indefinite curfew has been imposed in the worst-affected Kokrajhar district.
The director general of police in Assam, Jayanta Narayan Chowdhury, told reporters that they are trying to control the situation.
“The situation is still tense, and isolated incidents, individual incidents are taking place, some of the houses have been burned and there are some other reports of clashes … In these areas, one of the problems we have is weapons. There are people who have weapons, we are going after them,” said Narayan.
As security forces struggled to contain the violence, authorities in New Delhi said they were in touch with leaders of the Bodos and the Muslims to try to defuse the situation.
The chief minister of Assam state, Tarun Gogoi, appealed for restraint.
“It is a matter of great concern, no doubt about it. We are taking it very seriously,” said Gogoi.
Transportation was hit as protestors squatted on rail lines and mobs attacked trains with spears and rocks. Assam, sandwiched between Bangladesh and China, is connected to India by a 22-kilometer corridor.
The hostility between the Bodos and the Muslims settlers has been simmering for decades, rooted in long-running disputes over territory. In recent years, anti-Muslim sentiment has been growing among indigenous tribes.
Sanjoy Hazarika heads the Center for North East Studies and Policy Research in New Delhi.
“Largely conflicts over land rights - really, the question of who is located where, concerns about people being moved out of their homes and villages - this has been a problem over quite some time," said Sanjoy Hazarika, who heads the Center for North East Studies and Policy Research in New Delhi. "These are larger issues that need resolution not through mere government interventions but by senior people from the communities playing a role, reconciling people to living with each other, not just tolerating each other, and ultimately that in the north east is the key to any future solution.”
Hazarika says in the past, victims of such incidents of violence have languished in relief camps for many years. Clashes between the Bodos and Muslims also wracked the region in 2008.