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When Regret Is Meaningless

WHEN rebels who have wreaked havoc, killed in cold blood and held the state to ransom begin to indulge in soul-searching, it can only mean two things. They either do not have the stomach to battle it out in the wild because they have crossed the threshold of youth; or the ransom they have extracted from the state is too attractive to resist. My view is that it is the latter. Recently, Hagrama Mohilary, the Bodo militant-turned-politico who led the vicious Bodo Liberation Tigers for over a decade, confessed to a newspaper that there was no place for a separate state demand in Bodo society today. Mohilary said the Bodo people no longer had the stamina to sustain another struggle.

Earlier, surrendered ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa told the media that armed struggle was futile as it would not yield “any solution”. These admissions come rather late in the day. Thirty-two years ago, these same rebels took up arms with great promises. People supported them because everyone was looking for utopia. Now the bubble has burst. Youth of today are no longer sold on dreams of idealism. They are on the lookout for livelihood opportunities and a decent standard of living. And this they are entitled to and would have had access to have the ULFA, BLT and other armed rebel groups not pulverized the economy.

Embedded in the delayed remorse of the militants are other factors unknown to the ordinary citizen but which will require a more in-depth study. The Bodoland Territorial Council, formed after the accord with the Hagrama-led BLT in 2003, is one of the most inequitable arrangements one can think of. As a template it defies the very essence of democracy as it allows a population of less than 25 per cent Bodos to arrogate all powers to themselves even while the majority of non-Bodos living in what is romantically termed “Bodoland” have no stake in the BTC. Of the 46 seats in the council, 30 are for Scheduled Tribes (essentially Bodos), five for non-tribals, five are general seats and six members are nominated by the government from amongst the unrepresented sections.  It is obvious that the 16 members are a minority and cannot substantially affect any major policy shift within the council.

The Sixth Schedule was tinkered with by a short-sighted Centre looking for quick pre-electoral gains. It was the BJP-led NDA government under AB Vajpayee that signed the BTC Accord with Mohilary. Assam at the time was under Congress rule. However, it is difficult to blame the Vajpayee government since much of the preliminaries to the talks and the final signing of the BTC Accord are essentially the work of Union home ministry bureaucrats. One often wonder whether a joint secretary (North-east) in the home ministry is able to understand the different layers of ethno-nationalist/sub-nationalist angst and whether the person takes advice from the right quarters before preparing a report for the political executives to sign on. In the case of the BTC Accord, many from the region will testify to its flawed paradigm. But the Centre has neither the vision nor the sensitivity to understand the snowballing effect that its hasty, politically motivated decisions will have on the larger polity.

What is galling is that the errors are repeated. Take the case of Dima Hasao or the former North Cachar Hills. Here, too, the Dimasas are only 35 per cent of the total, with non-Dimasas making up the rest. The majority, however, are ethnically divided and therefore their demands have no teeth. But those who have read the history of all conflicts will tell us that this is the basis of a latent conflict which, if not handled correctly, has the propensity to boil over. But the Centre is too arrogant to learn from the past. Without institutional memory and history and without a strategic analyses of the politics of the region, how can a federal power take far reaching decisions, the repercussions of which are felt by those who are at the receiving end of these decisions – the ordinary unarmed citizen?

Today the BTC is nothing less than a state. Its annual budget is touching Rs 890 crores and Mohilary has said that each of the 46 members will receive RS 10 lakh for the construction of village roads, water supply and grants-in-aid to Below Poverty Level families. How much of this money will really flow to the people is the question. Except for Kokrajhar, BTC headquarters, those areas bordering Bhutan do not even receive electricity. The Bodos living around those areas find employment in Bhutan. Reports say that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and other projects are just as badly administered as in other non-BTC areas of Assam. So what really is happening to the funds coming to the BTC? Perhaps the only thing that money has done is to soften the stance of the once strident and unrelenting voice of Bodoland.

It’s hard to believe Mohilary is the same rebel who proposed a violent method to attain his goal. His confession that there are no more takers amongst the Bodos for a separate state is puzzling. And this after hundreds of people have lost their lives to the BLT revolution! Does Mohilary also speak on behalf of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (Ranjan Daimary), no matter its diminishing stature?

Another interesting comment came from ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa who, after having bled Assam for over three decades, now admits the futility of armed rebellion.

He says that armed rebellion will not yield any solution and that it has not been able to “liberate even a small village” in three decades. This statement is significant. I refuse to believe that it comes from a conscience stricken ULFA. There is something else that has provoked this belated remorse. Coming as it does from a group that had killed several hundreds of people, including 13 schoolchildren who succumbed injuries from a bomb blast at Dhemaji, it sounds like empty rhetoric. Those children with a bright future ahead of them were simply blown to smithereens owing to the capricious and totally selfish decision of a group that had at the time been holding the entire government at gunpoint. The parents of those children who died untimely deaths would have to be extremely magnanimous to forget the Dhemaji incident. So, too, the family members of Sanjoy Ghose, who came to Assam with the idealism of a reformer but paid for it with his life!

But while we remember these incidents very clearly because of the impact they had on our collective psyche, we forget those hundreds of other people such as the laborers from Bihar and elsewhere who were brutally murdered as a sort of warning to others of their ilk not to come to Assam for a job.

Some believed that this ethnic cleansing by ULFA was mainly to create a vacuum to be filled in by other laborers from Bangladesh. We will not know what the rationale behind the senseless spraying of bullets and bombs on defenseless persons is.

Nor are we sure that each of these killings had the sanction of the entire ULFA establishment. All we know is that there are within the outfit a trigger-happy lot and some who believe that littering the streets with bodies by exploding powerful bombs is their idea of a show of strength.

Apart from the loss of innocent lives, Assam’s economic growth has been severely retarded and set back by nearly three decades. The tea gardens and other industries were choked by the extreme pressure of extortion. Now, after all the sacrifices that the people of Assam were called to make – the ultimate sacrifice of bearing with the loss of their loved ones, the sacrifice of paying for their safety, the sacrifice of giving up their democratic rights to freedom of expression because dissent was seen as disrespectful of the ULFA and threatening its politics — we have a much mellowed Rajkhowa saying that all those sacrifices were worth nothing! Now he says the time has come for the people of Assam to choose between armed struggle and political negotiations and stick to one. When were the people of Assam ever given this choice? Did ULFA take a public referendum before launching an armed struggle?

Why is the ball thrown in the people’s court today when ULFA is on the back foot?

After the heat and dust of elections, the people of Assam need to reflect on these issues with a clear head. The cacophony of confessions from rebels-turned-pacifists needs to be dissected. Tomorrow, if another gun-toting group with the promise of a “Swadhin Asom” comes up again (and there’s no gainsaying that we will not have similar groups in the future), what will be the response of the people of Assam?

We have seen for ourselves that a peaceful public movement led by Akhil Gogoi is what could possibly change the face of governance in the state, provided more people join him. People have an inherent abhorrence for violence and bloodshed.

They baulk at anything that takes away their freedom of choice. There is today a call for a new reformist movement post the Anna Hazare-Jantar Mantar tsunami that has put the entire UPA government on notice. This is a good lesson for the troubled North-east, which has wasted so many years in what is a self-confessed “futile revolution”.

The next question is what will the ULFA bigwigs do while they are talking with the Centre? Who pays for their upkeep? Sources say New Delhi is paying a huge ransom to keep the former rebels happy and singing in their camps. They do not have to eke out a living like common folks do. What a life of leisure indeed! And at what cost to the public exchequer!

*The article is written by Patricia Mukhim.

*The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com

(Courtesy: The Statesman, India)

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