Violence in the Hills

Violence in the hills
(Frontline/Volume 22 – Issue 23, Nov. 05 – 18, 2005)

SUSHANTA TALUKDAR
in Guwahati

THE macabre killing of 23 bus passengers belonging to the Karbi tribe by masked and camouflaged militants in central Assam’s Karbi Anglong hills on October 17, and a series of similar such gruesome killings of innocent villagers and arson attacks are the manifestation of an internecine war that has been going on for the past month between militant outfits of the Karbi and Dimasa tribes.

The violence was sparked off by the abduction and murder of three youths belonging to the Dimasa tribe in a Karbi village on September 26. Less than a month on, violence has claimed at least 87 lives and rendered nearly 50,000 people homeless. Barring nine militants, those who were killed or who lost their homes and belongings were unarmed civilians, who had nothing to do with the rivalry between the two warring militant outfits, United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) of Karbi Anglong and the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) of neighbouring North Cachar Hills claiming to fight for the rights of Karbis and Dimasas respectively. What followed next was a blame game; the two militant outfits accused each other of wrongdoing, political parties blamed one another and the State government, as it is wont to do, conveniently ordered a judicial probe and asked for a further probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

This is the third of a series of major clashes that have broken out in the twin hill districts in the past three years. In 2003, a violent clash broke out between the Hmar and Dimasa tribes followed by a clash between the Karbis and the Kukis in Karbi Anglong in 2004. However, all three clashes were different from ordinary ethnic riots; on both sides the perpetrators were not unarmed civilians but belonged to the armed cadres of the UPDS and the DHD. Ironically, both sides had already agreed to peace talks and thus are bound by the ground rules of the ceasefire agreement they signed with the Centre, which debars them from brandishing arms in the open and inciting violence. The UPDS entered into a ceasefire agreement in 2002 and the DHD in 2003. The DHD, however, has denied any role in the clashes and sought to blame its anti-dialogue faction Black Widow, besides the UPDS. For those affected, there has been no sign that the Centre has enforced the ceasefire. Open violation of the agreement by both militant outfits continued for nearly a month and no attempt was made to push back the masquerading militants to their designated camps. Instead, they were allowed to roam free, terrorising unarmed civilians belonging to both tribes.

THIS series of incidents involving the two armed factions cannot be seen in isolation from the larger issue of the revival of the statehood movement in the two hill districts. In 1970, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi contemplated granting full statehood to Meghalaya, a case for an independent State of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills was also made in a memorandum signed by a Cabinet member from Mikir Hills (renamed Karbi Anglong) and 11 others. Almost 16 years later, on May 17, 1986, that demand for statehood led to the formation of the Autonomus State Demand Committee (ASDC). The ASDC spearheaded a strong mass movement demanding the creation of an autonomous State under Article 244(A) of the Constitution that culminated in signing of the MoU on April 1, 1995 between the Assam government and the leaders of the ASDC.

The signing of the MoU led to an upgrade of both councils of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills with enhanced powers under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule. Ten years after signingthe MoU, the same set of leaders are now disillusioned with the councils that are in place in both hill districts and have demanded creation of an autonomous State comprising the geographical areas of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills.

In the course of a debate in the Lok Sabha, veteran Karbi politician and Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) leader Dr. Jayanta Rongpi said: “The Sixth Schedule has been in practice since 1952. I have the experience of heading such an Autonomous Hill Council for seven long years. I was Chief of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council for seven years. With that experience I can say that the Sixth Schedule has failed in India since 1952.” The former MP from the Diphu constituency made a case for an independent State for the two hill districts of Assam by insisting that the Centre had upgraded all Sixth Schedule areas into States. He pointed out that the Khasi Hills, the Jaintia Hills and the Garo Hills were in the Sixth Schedule; that Mizoram was in the Sixth Schedule; and that the Centre had upgraded all these Sixth Schedule hill areas to States “because there are inherent weaknesses in the Sixth Schedule”. He also pointed out that the Jharkhand Autonomous Council was upgraded into a separate State less than a year after the formation of its autonomous council under the Sixth Schedule.

Holiram Terang, president of the ASDC and a signatory to the 1995 MoU, also justified the revival of the demand for statehood by his party. The ASDC has been demanding the creation of an autonomous State by combining the areas covered by the geographical boundaries of Karbi Anglong and NorthCachar Hills. He told Frontline that it was the ASDC that brought a private member’s resolution in the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) and the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council (NCHAC), passed unanimously in both tribal councils, which subsequently saw the ruling Congress table an official resolution demanding the creation of an autonomous State comprising the hill districts.

Ternag feels that the present situation could have been avoided “had the centre not ignored our warning that Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills have become fertile ground for insurgency due to a combination of neglect, apathy of the rulers at Dispur and the failure of the Sixth Schedule to fulfil the hopes and aspirations of the people”.

FUNDING is one of the basic problems of the Sixth Schedule, an issue which the leaders of the statehood movement and militant outfits agree. They argue that even under the Sixth Schedule the two tribal councils do not enjoy financial autonomy, and for development projects they remained at the mercy of Dispur. Moreover, since the Assam government is burdened with overdrafts, the fund released by the Centre do not reach the council authorities and are often diverted elsewhere.

Leaders of the statehood movement also argue that though 33 development departments were transferred to the tribal councils, the council authorities were not delegated adequate financial and legislative powers. As a result the councils’ dependence on Dispur continued and the very purpose of the Sixth Schedule could not be achieved.

Political analysts feel that the present situation calls for a thorough debate as to whether it is the Sixth Schedule or its delivery mechanism that has brought about the revival of the statehood movement by the Karbi and Dimasa leaders.

It was against this backdrop that a section of youths took up arms. The UPDS was formed in 1999 in a merger of the erstwhile Karbi People’s Front (KPF) and Karbi National Volunteers. However, the ceasefire agreement between the UPDS and the Centre led to a split in the UPDS in 2003 with one group opposing the peace talks. The anti-talk faction re-christened itself the Karbi Longri National Liberation Front (KLNLF). Its demands include the creation of a political institution for self-determination for the Karbi people of Karbi Anglong and contiguous Karbi-dominated areas of Assam and Meghalaya under Article 3 of the Constitution with additional powers under Article 371, and the eviction of all non-indigenous people who have settled in the proposed self-rule institution after 1951.

“Self-determination here means self-rule within the framework of the Constitution. The institution for self-rule demanded here is the creation of a full-fledged State. The new State shall be created by carving out the areas of present Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, contiguous Karbi-dominated areas of Nagaon, Morigaon and Kamrup districts of Assam, and the Ri-Bhoi district of Meghalaya,” explains UPDS joint secretary Wajaru Mukhrang.

The DHD was formed in 1995 after almost all the leaders and cadre of the erstwhile Dimasa National Security Force (DNSF) surrendered en masse. The DHD is demanding the creation of a separate Dimaraji comprising the Dimasa-inhabited areas of North Cachar Hills, Karbi Anglong, parts of Nagaon district and parts of Dimapur district of Nagaland. Its rival faction the Black Widow, formed by the ousted chairman Jewel Garlossa, is also active in the twin districts.

Although the ASDC revived the statehood movement, New Delhi’s focus shifted to dealing with the two armed groups rather than the democratic movement because it found the former easier to deal with; once the militant group is reined in and a ceasefire agreement signed, the dialogue can be prolonged.

Assam State Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Hemen Das said that a dangerous trend of dialogue with the militants in the so-called process was that these armed groups were allowed to roam free and indulge in all kinds of anti-social activities. He said: “The bizarre experience of Karbi Anglong, where militants belonging to both the UPDS and the DHD massacre innocent villagers before the very eyes of the law-enforcing agencies, has rung alarm bells about the government’s illegal practice of allowing armed people to roam free. It is not only in Karbi Anglong. We had similar experiences of armed groups using guns to extort money in the Bodoland Territorial Council(BTC) areas, in Nagaland. Militant groups do not adhere to the ceasefire-rules that bar their armed movement outside the designated camps, and there are no instances of law-enforcing agencies trying them in accordance with laws pertaining to illegal use of arms. Just because armed groups enter into ceasefire agreements they cannot be allowed to go on violating all laws and still go scot-free.”

Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs Rajiv Agarwal, who accompanied the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Sriprakash Jaiswal to Karbi Anglong, had accused both outfits of violating the ceasefire and even hinted at disarming them. However, the security forces made no effort to rein in the militants who continued to roam freely out of their designated camps.

The latest bout of violence in Karbi Anglong and past incidents of armed Hmar-Dimasa and Karbi-Kuki clashes indicate that the people of the two hill districts have had similar experiences of the post-peace process as those of the BCT areas. Whilst it was the influential All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) that spearheaded the mass movement for statehood, the Bodo Liberation Tigers(BLT) were only a force multiplier. However, the BLT rose to prominence once it entered into a ceasefire agreement and the leaders of the democratic statehood movement gave way to the militant leaders in negotiations with the Centre.

The dialogue ended with the Centre signing a deal with the BLT, in which the leaders of the democratic movement had little role to play other than facilitation. The result was that in the post-accord period there was a tug-of-war between the militant faction and leaders of the democratic movement. The mass of people who had once rallied behind the leaders of the democratic organisations remained aloof because they had witnessed the militants roaming freely with arms during the peace process.

Political forces like the ASDC, which are clamouring for an autonomous State and claim to have the support of the Karbi and Dimasa people as well as other communities living in the two hill districts, have failed to exercise any influence over the UPDS and the DHD and convince them to refrain from using arms against innocent villagers or each other. This is most likely to weaken the democratic voice and encourage armed groups to dictate the terms of peace. For the Centre it will again be easier to convince militant groups to accept a package in lieu of the statehood demand than to negotiate with leaders of the democratic movement on the same demand.

At the moment the solutions to the Karbi and Dimasa insurgency problem seem far away;there is still confusion over the territories to which they would apply. The territory demanded by the UPDS overlaps with the territory demanded by the DHD. The persistent demand of the UPDS to shift the designated camp of the DHD from the Dhansiri area of Karbi Anglong is also perceived by the rival militant outfit as an attempt to stake a claim over the territory demanded by the Dimasa militant outfit. With these perceptions the two militant groups are most likely to intensify their battle for supremacy. The two hill States may have to witness further bloodshed if a solution continues to elude the twin districts and the political dialogue with the militant outfits is prolonged further.

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