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Blood and tears

While Republic Day in Mumbai is celebrated with great pomp, for people of Dhemaji in Assam, and in fact the entire North East, it is a muted affair thanks to militant diktats and memories of a bomb blast in 2004 


Unrest: Fire fighters extinguish burning motorbikes parked at the
A T Road area after a bomb blast in Guwahati, the capital of Assam on 16
March 2007. Six people were injured in the powerful explosion

As Mumbai gears up for Republic Day celebrations tomorrow, for a few families in one of the remotest corners of India, the Republic Day and the Independence Day bring back memories of loss, pain and devastation. A powerful bomb blast on August 15, 2004 in Dhemaji, Assam, left 17 dead and 40 injured. Those we died were mostly school children. Scouts and Guides from various schools had arrived for the flag hoisting ceremony. An array of cultural events were planned to mark the Day. At least 13 school children were killed during the attack at the Dhemaji College Ground. The 2004 bomb blast changed the face of Dhemaji. From then on, most families in the district prefer to stay at home during January 26 and August 15. Official celebrations too are subdued due to low turnout. Explained Muhi Borgohain, a social worker from Dhemaji, "Every time we see the guard of honour or witness any flag hoisting ceremony, even on television, it reminds us of the day when innocent kids were killed during the attack. There is fear of yet another bomb blast in the region. Hence, most people stay indoors during National holidays." Muhi, who was present at the venue where the bomb blast took place in 2004, recalls, "I was sitting just 10 metres away from the blast spot. It was around 8:45 am, when an Ambassador car stopped outside the gate and the VIP got down from the car. Amidst the sound of drums, we heard two loud bangs. At that moment, we didn't even realise that it could be a bomb blast. Then there was another explosion and this is when we realised that it was a bomb blast. The huge blast threw people into the air. There were bodies with limbs ripped off; others were roasted whereas the rest were beyond recognition." Muhi's son, who was then in Class IV was also at the venue. "Immediately after the blast, I started searching for my son. He was hiding under a table and was shivering. I managed to get him out of the venue. And then I came back to help the survivors," said Muhi.

Dr Budhindra Boruah, Principal of Dhemaji College, who was also present at the Dhemaji College Ground during the blast, remembers carrying a Class V student from the blast spot to a helicopter, which had arrived to carry victims to a nearby hospital. "My clothes were drenched with his blood. He was carried to Dibrugarh hospital, but he did not survive the attack." He added, "Post 2004 attack, celebrations are subdued. It is mostly government officials, who attend Republic or Independence Day celebrations now. Convincing parents to send their kids, even for National Cadet Corps (NCC) camps is itself a challenge. They just won't let their kids step out during these two days."


Patriotic fervour: School children wave miniature national tricolour
flags made of paper during a function to celebrate the country's Republic
Day in Mumbai on January 26, 2009. PICS/AFP


Grief
Padmeswar Borgohain, who lost his daughter during the 2004 bomb blast has since then not attended a single Republic Day or Independence Day program. Recalls Borgohain, "It was just before the flag hoisting ceremony that the bomb went off. My daughter Manokhi (15) , was at home, but one of her friends insisted that she should come for the function. The lure of winning a prize at a 100-metre race, which was to be held after the flag hoisting ceremony, made her attend the ceremony. She was good in athletics and she knew that she would win. But she lost the battle of life. I found her decapitated body and could recognise her from the clothes she was wearing. Her friend survived the attack, but she had to go through plastic surgery as her face was damaged." This year too Padmeswar, his wife and his two sons and daughters, will be shunning Republic day celebrations. "In future too, we won't step out on these days. I have two sons and two daughters. I make it a point that they too stay at home on January 26 and August 15. We don't want another tragedy. Memories of Manokhi's death haunt us on these days," said Borgohain. Many parents, who have lost their children during 2004, blame the police for the security lapse. Said Padmeswar, "Had the police done their work, the tragedy could have been averted." Another parent Damburu Gogoi, whose son Manojit died during the attack said, "My son, said that he would come back for lunch in 10 minutes. But he never came back. He was severely injured and one of his teachers took him to a nearby hospital. He died of bleeding. Manojit's mother was the first one to reach the spot. She went hysterical after seeing him in the hospital. I don't even remember the events of the day. I was too shocked. There were too many questions in my mind -- Why did it happen to my son? What should be our next step?" After 2004, the Gogois decided to leave Dhemaji and shift to a different place. "We thought, this could help us to deal with the loss. We went to Guwahati and then my daughter, who suffers from polio, got a job in a post office. Now we are back to Dhemaji," said Gogoi, who works as a carpenter.


Protest: Members of the All Assam Students' Union stage a protest
against the killing of at least six people in a blast the police suspects was
triggered by United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) militants, in Guwahati
in 2007


Disappointment
For Gogoi, it is a sense of disappointment and fear when it comes to actively taking part in Republic Day celebrations. "I feel sorry for those who cannot celebrate with the rest of the country. When we were young, the celebrations used to be grand. The entire town would flock to the Dhemaji College Ground to celebrate Republic Day," said Gogoi, who feels that Dhemaji being the citadel of the United Liberation Front of Assam, (ULFA), an insurgent outfit, was quite peaceful.

Antara Boruah from Dhemaji, who is currently pursuing her Masters at IIT Powai in Mumbai agrees, "I had lived in Dhemaji for 16 years and I was proud of the fact that the place, by and large, was peaceful compared to other areas of Assam. On the day of the blast I was in Dibrugarh. In fact, I was telling my friends, how safe Dhemaji is. That very day, I was shocked to hear of the blasts." She further added, "Post 2004, Republic and Independence day are just observed and not really celebrated. My father prefers to step out, during Republic Day, but till he returns home, the whole family stays tense." This year though, Antara will celebrate Republic Day in Mumbai along with her friends. "I will make the most of it," she added. To commemorate the victims of the terror attack, a, 'Children's Educational and Career Development Centre' (CECDC) was built in Dhemaji. A memorial too has been erected at the Dhemaji College Ground.

Anger
Almost every year, ULFA calls for an Assam bandh during Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations. "In spite of the bandh, people would accumulate at the College  ground and celebrate," said Boruah. This changed post 2004. Soon after the incident, people in Dhemaji allegedly damaged police vehicles to express their anger.

Police had to resort to lathi charge and fire tear gas to bring the situation in Dhemaji district under control.

ULFA claimed responsibility for the Dhemaji attacks. ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa said that Dhemaji was ULFA's biggest mistake. On December 13, 2009, Paresh Baruah, ULFA's commander-in-chief gave a public apology and sought forgiveness for the blast. "But the memories cannot be healed," said Mousumi Sharma, who managed to survive the blast. Agrees Muhi Borgohain, who claims that his brother-in-law was abducted and brutally killed by the ULFA earlier, "The damage done is irreparable," his voiced choked with emotion.

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