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Assam: Ethnic Clashes Threaten Prospect Of Peace

Just when the northeastern Indian state of Assam was hoping for peace after the largest rebel group, ULFA agreed for peace talks, the prospect of return to normalcy in the state suffered a huge setback with the outbreak of violence between two tribal communities who inhabit the district of Karbi Anglong. On first site, the violence appears to have ethnic color but a deeper probe indicates that there are other socio, political and economic issues involved. This also highlights the fact that a piecemeal approach to the northeast insurgency would not work and a solution to the various problems prevailing in the area would have to be found if a lasting peace has to be established.

Long History of bitter struggle

India’s northeast, comprising seven states, is home to more than 200 tribes and ethnic groups and is circled by China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The region has been racked by separatist and tribal insurgencies for more than 50 years. One of the important states of northeast, Assam is home to more than 30 major tribes and feuds between militias claiming to represent them over conflicting homeland demands are fairly common.

In the Karbi Anglong district, the majority Karbis and Dimasas have been engaged in a bitter turf war for many years and the situation has been turning violent in recent weeks with armed militants of both tribes attacking rival community members. The outlawed United Democratic People’s Solidarity (UPDS), a rag-tag rebel group fighting for a Karbi tribal homeland, and the Dima Halom Daoga (DHD), a militant group fighting for a Dimasa homeland, are suspected to be behind the recent attacks.

The two groups are operating ceasefires with New Delhi – the UPDS has been observing a truce since 2002 and the DHD entering into a ceasefire in 2003. Under the ceasefire agreements, cadres of the two rebel groups are allowed to retain their weapons although they are expected to stay within the periphery of designated camps allotted to them by the state authorities. DHD has an estimated 450 armed cadres and the UPDS some 300 rebel fighters.

Outbreak of Recent Violence

The ethnic violence in the district was triggered on September 26 when three Dimasa auto-rickshaw drivers were hacked to death by unidentified persons at Tissom village in the Diphu police station area. Diphu is the headquarters of Karbi Anglong, a district dominated by the Karbi tribe.

In retaliation, five members of a Karbi family were hacked to death at Hemari Terang village on October 2 followed by killing of another three Karbis at Upper Dikrong two days later under the same police station. On October 8 at Borsingbe village six Dimasas were killed in retaliation to which eight Karbis were killed the next day at Langsoliet village.

Then five more Dimasas were killed at Kheroni village the day after. On October 12 a Dimasa woman was hacked to death. Four bodies were recovered on October 16 from Karbi villages Hojaipur, Bokolia, Jamunapar and Sing Teron area where five people were also reported missing.

On October 17, 36 Karbi villagers were killed in three separate attacks. The victims included 22 bus passengers who were hacked to death by DHD rebels. The very next day, at least seven more Karbi tribals were massacred by militants. These attacks took place in Doyangmukh village of Karbi Anglong district. The rebels set ablaze at least 50 homes before leaving the village.

The toll in current spell of ethnic violence neared 90 when nine Karbi militants were killed on October 21 by the rival Dimasa tribe, in Tamulbari in Upper Assam. According to the police, a group of Karbi extremists after torching 12 houses at Kakubasti and seven at Kisiri Bongaon villages in interior areas of a reserve forest headed for Tamulbari. Dimasa guerillas ambushed them as they were about to enter Tamulbari and shot dead nine of them.

Failure of the State Administration to Comprehend the Situation

The state authorities were totally clueless in the first few weeks when trouble broke out. The law enforcement officials admit that such developments in far-flung districts often go unnoticed, but the situation in Karbi Anglong has long been highly volatile. Confusing it with the regular law and order problem resulted into large-scale violence.

Political Parties Indulge in Blame Game

The intensifying violence in Karbi Anglong district started a bitter blame game among the political parties of the state. They accused each other of being involved in the violence. Opposition parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the regional Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) accused the ruling Congress of failing to control the escalating violence. The AGP president Brindaban Goswami demanded the resignation of the state government. The BJP also accused the local Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) leaders like Jayanta Rongpi of instigating the clashes. It sent a team led by S S Ahluwalia to assess the situation. Criticizing the state government the CPI (M) also demanded Center’s intervention saying the state government had failed to comprehend the gravity of the situation.

Assam Government Accusing Opposition Parties for the Violence

Assam government accused the former MP and CPI-ML (Liberation) leader Jayanta Rongpi’s Red Army of involvement in the ethnic violence in Karbi Anglong district. According to the state government, it was the Red Army who triggered the whole crisis by indiscriminately attacking both Dimasa and Karbis. This infuriated the respective militants groups of Karbis and Dimasas, the UPDS and DHD, who then launched an all out attack against each other, leading to a series of violence.

However, the CPI (ML) leader Jayanta Rongpi alleged that the Congress was trying to escape responsibility of Karbi violence by creating a non-entity. Rongpi claimed that there was nothing called Red Army in Karbi Anglong. He also dared the state government to arrest him, if he was involved in the violence.

Late response of the Assam government

The large-scale violence raised concern prompting the Centre to ask the Assam Government to use the police and paramilitary forces and also take some political steps to bring the ethnic violence in Karbi Anglog district under control. Home Minister Shivraj Patil said, “We have told the Chief Minister, who is the Chairman of the Unified Command, to use these forces; not only use these forces but also take some political steps to see that it does not happen (again).” He also stated that the state government was well equipped to deal with this situation.

Army called in

The authorities decided to call in the army on October 18 as shoot-at-sight order and curfew failed to contain ethnic violence in Karbi Anglong district. The decision to deploy troops was taken at a high-level meeting in Guwahati of the Unified Command Structure administrative head and chief secretary, S Kabilan, operational commander and 4 Corps GoC Lt-Gen. HS Lidder and DGP PV Sumant, as part of a special strategy mooted by Assam chief minister Mr. Tarun Gogoi.

But due to late deployment of the army, casualties increased and the crisis was prolonged. In a confidential report to the President APJ Abdul Kalam, the Assam governor, Ajai Singh alleged that the state government should have acted faster to bring the ethnic clashes under control. The governor, Lt Gen Singh, says the state government did not crack down on the militants of the Dimasa and Karbi tribes when trouble began on 26 September.

The governor felt that the army should have been deployed in the trouble-torn Karbi Anglong district when the clashes began. A large number of lives were lost because of the late deployment. The governor also suggested that the militants of both tribes who have signed a ceasefire agreement with the Indian government should be kept within designated camps and should not be allowed to move around freely with weapons. He pointed out that both the groups were responsible for the mayhem with each using the opportunity provided by the loose ground rules of the ceasefire. They used the weapons they carried with them on a normal course to create violence against the other community. He also suggested that both these groups should be disarmed if necessary.

Violence leading to Miseries

In the month long violence, 91 persons’”80 Karbi tribals, eight Dimasas, one Bodo and one Nepali have died. The Karbis bore the brunt in the recent attacks as most of the people killed belong to that tribe. Over 45,000 tribals, both Karbis and Dimasas, have fled their villages and taken shelter in 53 relief camps as the situation in the district continues to be volatile. The violence has left most of the tribals in the region without homes. For the homeless villagers, relief camps set up by the administration could now mean home for years to come. Many villagers are too scared to return to their homes.

Focus on system glitches

An all party Assam Assembly team led by the Speaker Prithvi Majhi toured the strife torn district. This team has strongly recommended the restructuring of Karbi Anglong administrative system. Majhi suggested that Assam’s largest district should be broken into three administrative blocks ‘” with Diphu, Hamren and Bokajan as the headquarters ‘” to facilitate efficient monitoring. Decentralisation has become imperative, given the size of the district and the difficult terrain.

The Speaker made a case for more police outposts in the far-flung areas of the district, saying that inadequate security was one of the reasons for the situation in Karbi Anglong spiralling out of control. He said a single administrative unit could not be expected to do an efficient job of governing a district as large ‘” and with such undulating and inaccessible terrain ‘” as Karbi Anglong.

After the visit the assembly team felt that the arson and killing spree were the result of feuding between the two dominant militant outfits of the Karbi and the Dimasa tribes ‘” the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) and the Dima Halam Daoga (DHD). The Speaker supported the UPDS demand to shift the DHD’s designated camp in Dhansiri out of the district. He said the genesis of the feud between the two groups was the presence of the camp. ‘Both the UPDS and the Karbi people are of the view that the presence of a DHD camp within Karbi Anglong could legitimize the Dimasa community’s demand for the inclusion of Dhansiri and some other parts of Karbi Anglong in the proposed state of Dimaraji.’ However, Majhi denied the alleged involvement of a CPI (M-L) ‘red army’ in the ethnic clashes.

Authorities also say what first appeared to be ethnic strife is now clearly insurgent violence. Local police believes that It has arisen from a ego fight between two militant groups who are on ceasefire and have declared war on each other on certain issues, like establishment of a designated camp here of one of the groups.

The local administration believes that the strife is not just about ethnicity or militancy, but it’s also about control of land and jungles. On many occasions this struggle over resources is given ethnic color. The long-term solution to these problems lies in the management of forest and land of the district.

Though several militant groups are active in the country’s largest district, Karbi Anglong, the security presence across the district is very thin. The district has only six police stations with 500 policemen. Both the militant groups involved in current spell of violence have two factions ‘“ one pro-talks and the other anti-talks. And like the NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K) or the Bodo outfits even the pro-talks factions living in designated camps are violating the ceasefire ground rules.

The violence has also prompted the home ministry to take a decision in favor of disarming the two tribal rebel groups. The authorities in Assam were given orders to seize weapons from all militants belonging to the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) and the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD).

Conclusion

The month-long violence may have subsided in the hills of Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, but thousands of tribal people displaced in its wake would have to devote lot of time to rebuild their lives. Even if the situation stabilizes it will take months to instill confidence among the thousands of tribesmen staying in relief camps to return to their homes. Luckily for the state government, the feud has remained strictly between the Dimasa and the Karbi communities. The violence in Karby Anglong has highlighted the problems of administering the district. It has also pointed out the inherent lacuna in the whole concept of the ceasefire because of which both the militant groups DHD and the UPDS could cause such violence. The dynamics of ethnic clash and of militancy in the Northeast have always been treated piecemeal. Probably, now it’s time to treat the problems of the region in a holistic manner.

*The article was written by Anand Kumar

* The author can be reached at anandkrai@yahoo.com

* The article was originally published at www.saag.org

* The article has been published with due permission from South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG), a non-profit and non-commercial think tank.

* You may visit www.saag.org for further readings.

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