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Saron (NC Hills), April 16, 2009: When the Saron Lower Primary School in Saron village, Assam, was burnt down by militants during an ethnic clash in 2003, Bimala Hmar, an assistant teacher there, took it upon herself to ensure that the education of the children would not suffer. She let the school be run from her home, one of the few buildings in the village that was inadvertently spared from the arson.

Saron, which is in Mahur, a small hill station in North Cachar Hills district, was attacked by suspected militants of the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD), an extremist group of the Dimasas - a major tribe in the region - during ethnic clashes between the Hmar and Dimasa tribes. The violence resulted in the widespread displacement of people from both the tribal communities with many innocents being killed in the process.

Nearly two-thirds of the houses in the village were completely burnt down. The fire also consumed two lower primary schools and one high school. Everyone had to take shelter in makeshift relief camps located close to the Mahur police station and an Army camp, about one kilometre away from the village. The shelters at the camps were makeshift and made of tarpaulin sheets and bamboo. "Militants and miscreants attacked our village twice in 2003. The first attack was on April 9 when 48 houses were burnt down. In June, they came with sophisticated arms and ammunition and attacked Jeheron, one of the Hmar villages. When the police and security forces rushed to the spot, another group of miscreants entered our village and set fire to our homes and educational institutions. The attack was so sudden and planned that we could not save anything," recalls Bimala, who is the vice president of the Mahur unit of the Hmar Women's Association (HWA).

Fortunately, Bimala's house, located in the third block of the village, escaped the devastating fire. So, while others were worried about rebuilding their homes, Bimala concentrated on finding a way to ensure that the children's studies were not halted. When she made up her mind to run the school from her house, she discussed the idea with her husband, J. Malsawn, who is a demonstrator at the local Department of Sericulture. He readily agreed.

But it was an uphill task. Not only was the house too small to accommodate all the displaced schoolchildren, furniture was almost non-existent. So, Bimala decided to use her front yard and even converted a portion of the kitchen into a classroom for the pre-primary kids. "Text books and other study material too had got burnt. But we were determined to conduct classes and even hold examinations regularly. As it turned out, although the children had to face displacement and hunger, they did not lose their academic year," informs Bimala.

Soon the villagers realised that Bimala had not just restored education amidst violence, she had initiated a process of rebuilding life amidst great devastation. Thanzual Khojol, a resident of Saron, recalls, "Life was most hostile in the relief camps. We had to spend days in acute hunger and penury and were afraid to return to our homes for fear of being attacked again. We were extremely worried about the future of our children, their education and health, but noticed that they would come back from Bimala Hmar's school with smiles on their faces. We then realised that we should not waste any more time fearing about the future but concentrate on trying to restore normalcy and peace by assisting Bimala and replicating her work."

Significantly, this is the only example of school education having been restored immediately after a conflict situation in Assam, where people had to face forced displacement because of innumerable ethnic clashes. What is even more noteworthy is that this was achieved at the initiative of a tribal woman. In some of the severely conflict-hit areas in the state, including Kokrajhar and Karbi Anglong, millions have been displaced and children have lost many years of schooling. In Kokrajhar district, for instance, some 314,000 people were displaced and had to survive in relief camps for decades during the series of clashes between the Bodos and Adivasis in 1993, 1996 and 1998. Schooling in these relief camps began only in 1999 and that too at the government's initiative.

In sharp contrast, the success of Bimala's makeshift school encouraged every Saron villager to leave the relief camp and return home. They also collectively approached the administration and the Department of Education for rehabilitation as well as release of a grant for constructing the school building. This community initiative worked well. Although the government did not provide them with relief and rehabilitation as per norms - all the families whose houses were gutted are entitled to a house under the Indira Awas Yojna (IAY) scheme - they secured a financial grant of Rs 1,79,000 (US$1 = Rs 51.5) for the school in 2006.

"The pain and agony of being displaced and losing our near and dear ones will haunt us forever. But by rebuilding our life and by giving priority to education, we can prove many things," says Bimala, who had to send her two children to Guwahati and Silchar so that they could continue with their higher studies during that difficult period.

Not surprisingly, the voices of her students echo her fortitude. "We are proud of her. She taught us how to survive in a difficult situation and concentrate on studies, keeping alive our dreams. Had she not guided us properly when we were in relief camps, we would not have been able to continue our studies. I am in Class VII now and I want to be a doctor in the future," says Zonunthari Lungtau, who was in Class III at that time. Today, she is a student of Presbyterian High School, the lone high school in the village, which was also completely gutted after the attack.
The Justice (retired) P.C. Phukan Commission of Inquiry into the ethnic violence between the Hmars and the Dimasas has stated in its report that the root causes behind the violence were "many and varied-economic". The report went on to note "There had been a fight between the Dimasas and the rest of the tribes including the Hmars to control the N.C. Hills Autonomous Council. The DHD and the Hmar Peoples Convention, Democratic backed their respective communities." The DHD, which has been waging an armed struggle since 1994 for a separate autonomous Dimaraji state, entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Government of India in January 2003.

The HPC (D) has been waging armed struggle to press for a separate administrative unit for the Hmars.

Being a tribal woman of a minor hill tribe, Bimala wants an end to this hostility and has been making every effort to send a clear and loud message to the extremists that what both the communities need is education and development, not conflict. Says she, "Being one of four children of a village widow, I had a tough life as a child. Even to buy books I had to work hard. After my matriculation I could not go in for higher studies despite my desire and managed to get the job of an assistant teacher. During the riots, I was a mute witness to the burning of the school. That time I could not do anything. But I was determined to keep alive dreams of my students."

Source: The New Nation

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