Assam sits on a powder keg

Assam sits on a powder keg

Assam sits on a powder keg
The Tarun Gogoi government in Assam, beset with dissidence, has repeatedly failed to anticipate and prevent violence in the state in the past few years, thanks to a combination of lackadaisical administration, volatile mix of population in parts of the state and ethnic tensions triggered by fears of being politically outnumbered.

The 2012 riots in lower Assam between Bodo tribals and Muslim settlers in the districts of Kokrajhar, Chrang, Dhubri and Baska, for instance, were a classic example of this potent mix.

For weeks, if not months, the warning signs were flashing. Tension between Bodos and non-Bodos, especially Muslims, was peaking. No one noticed the little signs of impending trouble.

First the killing of  two Muslims, followed by the lynching of four Bodos, one of them a former militant and the increasing belligerence displayed by a newly-formed minority protection body were all signals pointing to an explosive situation. Apparently, an Assam Pradesh Congress Committee delegation had reported to Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi that there was trouble brewing in Bodo areas, but no one took it seriously.

So when violence erupted from July 21 onwards, everyone pretended as if this came as a surprise. Gogoi and his close advisers were slow to react. No firm orders were passed to quell the violence. More than 75 people died. At one point, there were more than four-and-a-half- lakh refugees in camps.

Cut to December 2014, the Songbijit faction of the proscribed National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) launched simultaneous raids on vulnerable and defenceless Adivasi settlements in remote areas to massacre more than 80 innocent people, including women and children.

The attacks were apparently in retaliation against over 40 NDFB cadres and particularly two prominent ones in the previous three days by the security forces. Assam’s DGP later admitted that there were inputs of a possible retaliatory attack by the NDFB but by the time the alert was sounded, the outfit had already struck. This is being disingenuous.

In a state that witnesses frequent revenge killings, this is at best a lame excuse. The fact is: the Assam administration has got away lightly each time such killings have happened in recent years.

Admittedly, Assam is a complex state to police. Since 1979 when the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) was formed, the state has witnessed formation of dozens of armed groups. Each time governments—both the Centre and Assam administration—clinched a peace accord with one group, a breakaway faction emerged complicating the scenario. This pattern has repeated itself over the last two decades.

In 1993, for instance, the energetic if over-enthusiastic Rajesh Pilot forced an accord with the Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT) only to see it collapse after a breakaway faction rejected the agreement. A decade later, the then NDA government signed another accord, creating an autonomous council called BTAD.

If anyone thought peace would prevail in the area, she was mistaken. The lower Assam areas have, in fact, witnessed more riots, ethnic clashes and targeted killings in the past decade, thanks to an appeasement policy followed by the Tarun Gogoi government.

At last count, the state government is ‘talking peace’ with at least a dozen outfits. The most prominent among them is the Ranjan Daimary faction of the NDFB and the Arabinda Rajkhowa-led group of the Ulfa. The other groups are no more than rag-tag outfits.

Some of them are a mishmash of alphabets: Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA), United Kukigram Defence Army (UKDA), Hmar People's Convention (D) (HPC-D), Kuki Liberation Army (KLA), Adivasi Cobra Military of Assam (ACMA), Birsa Commando Force (BCF), Santhal Tiger Force (STF)!
Numerous accords, suspension of operations (SoOs) and cosy arrangements with non-State militias by the state government actively encouraged by the complicity of the then UPA government, gave a free run to the beasts who call themselves insurgents. The Gogoi government has chosen the path of least resistance and established a symbiotic relationship with the very perpetrators of violence, granting the rag-tag outfits the legitimacy they don't deserve.

Change policy

This policy must change. The Centre will have to take an active lead in doing so. Fortunately, Home Minister Rajnath Singh sent a clear signal in this respect when he declared during his Assam visit in the wake of the latest massacre: “The massacre by the NDFB(S) should not be underestimated as an ordinary incident of militancy.

It is an act of terror.” As a next step, the Centre and the State Government must completely disarm all groups that are observing ceasefire with the governments in the North-East. Otherwise, these militias continue to terrorise people in their area of influence and also indulge in rampant extortion even while talking peace with the government.

New Delhi has also initiated steps to cooperate with neighbouring countries like Bhutan and Myanmar where some of these groups take shelter and train their cadres. While coordinated operations have begun with Bhutan which shares a long boundary with Assam, acting against these groups based in Myanmar is more difficult since the Myanmarese army itself has very little presence in the areas where Indian Insurgents Groups base themselves.

The NDFB’s Songbijit faction has been sending maximum number of recruits for arms training to Taga in Sagiang Division of Myanmar. Run by the Naga insurgent group, the NSCN (K), these camps have a mix of cadres drawn from various armed outfits active across the North-East. What is interesting, however, is that at least twice in the past six months, Chinese intelligence operatives are reported to have visited these camps. Apart from meeting the leaders of these groups, they have addressed the gathering of the recruits too. Chinese-made arms are made available to these groups from the Yunnan province of south-west China.

Given the current situation, the Centre will have to device a fresh strategy in dealing with the violence in the region if it wants to seriously implement the ‘Act East’ policy adopted by the NDA government for only a peaceful North-East can become the bridge between rest of India and South East Asia.