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Increasing Violence in the Assam Hills

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • May 26, 2008

    The hill district of Assam, North Cachar Hills (N.C. Hills), has been recently in the news all too often but for the wrong reasons. Known for its pristine mountainous landscape and myriad ethnicities, culture and breathtaking bio-diversity, this hill district is now sadly dominating news bytes as a place plagued by a ‘vicious cycle of ethnically slanted indiscriminate violence’. May 15 was one such day when suspected militants of the Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel Garlosa faction) ---DHD (G) ---- infamously known as the Black Widow, opened indiscriminate fire on a special passenger train travelling between Migrandisa and Haflong, the district headquarter of the N.C. Hills. The train driver, N.N. Bora, who succumbed to the bullet wounds, saved more lives from getting lost by reversing the train into a tunnel as insurgent guns blazed all around him from the neighbouring hillocks reminiscent of a wild western movie. This was no movie though but violence at its worst. What is perhaps striking to an observer in a tactical sense is that the DHD (G) had advance knowledge that the special train was carrying 22 railway engineering staff and 10 Railway Protection Special Force (RPSF) personnel. Subsequently, the outfit viewed the train as a strategic target in order to deter railway construction in the area. Over the months, the DHD (G) has been consistently obstructing construction of the broad gauge railway line and the National Highway under the East-West corridor project in the area by demanding huge extortion money from onsite labourers as well as killing railway personnel on a regular basis.

    The same day, the outfit also attacked trucks laden with cement from the Vinay Cement factory of Umrangshu at Kurmilangshu under Umrangshu police station, N.C. Hills and killed 10 truck drivers. The consequence of this untoward violence has been that both rail and road traffic to N.C. Hills has been stopped thereby cutting off the district from the rest of India. This has resulted in rapid shortage of food stocks in the markets and a terse situation has emerged with ethnic tensions running high.

    On closer scrutiny it appears that the DHD (G) wanted just that: a complete stoppage of traffic to N. C. Hills in order to symbolically showcase its power and muscle in these hill areas of Assam. While it is understandable that the railways have stopped its services due to frequent attacks on its personnel, it is rather discomfiting to know that despite the Assam government’s special efforts at buffing up security in the area, nothing seems to have worked to counter the outfit’s violent activities. Interestingly, the Assam government had refused to consider a faxed ‘unilateral declaration’ of cease-fire by the DHD (G) sent on March 25 to the Special Branch of the Assam Police following close on the heels of the March 18 bilateral ceasefire between the Dima Halam Daogah--Nunisa faction (DHD-N) and the United Peoples’ Democratic Solidarity (UPDS). Instead, it promised to raise a special force of 2000 ex-servicemen as special police officers (SPOs) to provide security to railway personnel working in the construction sites. Four companies of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel have also been deployed to provide security to the railway employees and project workers, but it has all proved ineffective on the face of DHD (G)’s incessant violence. Arguably, local terrain knowledge is proving a boon to the outfit’s kind of guerrilla warfare based on tactics of ‘hit and run’. What is worse, the outfit even easily orchestrated a violent counter-attack on May 11 killing ten railway construction workers in a construction site near village Phainagar in N. C. Hills as a crafted reply to the killing of twelve of its cadres by the 8th Sikh Regiment and state police at a village near the Assam-Manipur-Nagaland border on May 10.

    Amidst this violent confusion, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who belongs to the Congress, has accused the BJP led N.C. Hills Autonomous District Council on May 20 of having direct links with the DHD (G). This accusation of politician-insurgent linkage is however, not something startling or new. In June 2007, the DHD (G) killed three local Congress leaders, Purnendu Langthasa, Nindu Langthasa and Ajit Bodo just before the District Council elections in July that year (which was thereupon shifted to December) when the latter had gone to meet the outfit in a forested area of N. C. Hills for political mileage. Also, these statements from the Chief Minister, though important in their own merit, do little to address the growing violence on the ground. At best, it clears the state government from any responsibility for the growing violence and diverts the focus from the apathy of state forces in protecting peoples’ lives. At worst, it reflects a ‘hands off’ policy by the state government towards deterring insurgent violence in these remote areas; it’s the District Council’s problem, isn’t it? Indeed, clashes between the rival DHD (N), which is under cease-fire with the Union Government since 2003 and the anti-cease-fire DHD (G) have vitiated the atmosphere of N. C. Hills and militarized society. In interviews to the author, civil society groups like the Dimasa Apex Body (Jadikhe Naisho Hoshom) and the Dimasa Women’s Body (Dimasa Mahila Samiti) lament the appalling breakdown of the “rule of law” in these remote corners of India with state forces either absent or in-effective and de-motivated to counter the insurgents. At times, the civil society bodies cannot reach out to victims of insurgent violence due to the “death threats” lashed out at them by both factions of the DHD.

    It is rather disturbing to take cognizance of the fact that small outfits like the DHD (N) and especially the DHD (G) are wrecking havoc in peoples’ lives in these hills areas. The DHD (N) has a cadre base of about 400 with the loyalty of its cadres maintained by the leadership by advocating family ties, clan loyalties coupled with economic incentives and promises of promotion within the outfit through the system of patronage. Also, the use of violence by the leadership to solicit loyalty amongst its cadres is common. In June 2007, the DHD (N) killed more than 20 of its cadres in cold blood when they were trying to switch their loyalty to the Black Widow in the Dhansiri reserve forest area where it has a designated cease-fire camp. On the other hand, the DHD (G) is a very reclusive group mostly based in the thickly forested areas of Langting, Darangibra, Mupa, Maibang sub-division, Mahur, Laisong, Harangajao, Boro-Haflong and Haflong area. Its cadre strength is about 200 heavily armed youths mostly belonging to the above mentioned areas. Significantly, both outfits have a common political demand for a unified Dimaraji state comprised of Dimasa inhabited areas in N. C.Hills district, Karbi Anglong district, Cachar district, parts of Nagaon district in Assam, and Dimapur and Dimasa inhabited areas in Dhansiripar in Nagaland. Interestingly, the demands of the NSCN (IM) for a unified Nagalim (Greater Nagaland) consists of conflicting claims to overlapping territorial space and range it against smaller outfits like the DHD. Intelligence sources reveal that the NSCN (IM) works in close collaboration with the DHD (G) consequently improving the latter’s effectiveness despite its small number.

    The increase in ethnic tension from the rise of these violent outfits in N.C. Hills is palpable. On May 20, following the DHD (G)’s growing violence, the other tribes of N. C. Hills comprised of Hmars, Kukis, Rangkhols, Jemes, Jaintias, Vaipheis, Khasis, Mizos, etc., took out a rally in Haflong under the banner of the Indigenous Peoples’ Front (IPF)protesting the killing of the 11 people on May 15 by the outfit. The IPF was also protesting the DHD (N) and DHD (G)’s demand to rename N.C. Hills as Dima Hasau Raji (land of the Dimasas). Though the rally was peaceful, the presence of militants in their midst watching every move created a tensed situation with a limited state security force presence further fuelling the atmosphere. Indeed, the atmosphere in Haflong and neighbouring areas is quickly descending into ethnic battles over land, resources and identity, and is going to simmer for a long haul if not dealt with effectively soon.

    The question, however, arises: why is the DHD (G) increasing its violent activities in waves of attacks in recent months? Obviously, the Assam government’s refusal to accept its unilateral three month cease-fire declaration (March 25-June 25) is one reason. By engaging in ‘costly signaling’, the outfit hopes to pressurize the state government to accept the cease-fire. But why is it keen on a cease-fire. It has been seen that cease-fires between the state forces and the insurgent groups in North East India are an attractive option to the latter as outfits like the NSCN (IM), DHD (N) and UPDS have benefitted by signing cease-fires; freed from fighting state security forces, these outfits have ‘upped the ante’ when it comes to fratricidal killings, forced extortions and running illegal drugs and small arms networks.

    What should be done to counter this violence? First and foremost, the state government needs to bring down the level of violence by beefing up the security presence in the area. The idea of an auxiliary force mooted by Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi on May 20 is not a bad idea but it should not comprise of surrendered militants as he envisions; such militants are always suspect regarding their loyalty. Instead, a regular force based on fresh recruits from the hill areas and adequately trained in mountain warfare must be set up. Interviews conducted by the author with tribal youths in remote villages of N. C. Hills in 2007 and 2008 indicate that they are more than willing to serve in this capacity provided they are given an opportunity. Moreover, the local youths’ terrain knowledge is a great asset for intelligence. Such an endeavour would also guarantee them a livelihood and consequently cut into the recruitment base of the DHD (G). Therefore, the state must vigilantly target those areas infested by the DHD (G) in the Mahur, Maibang, Lanting area for recruitment into the auxiliary force. Civil society bodies must also be actively involved in an advocacy role to assuage peoples’ fears. Also, given the fact that the Union government is involved in peace negotiations with the NSCN (IM), the outfit must be firmly told by Union government negotiators that further help provided by them to the DHD (G) will have an adverse impact on the Naga peace negotiations. Finally, the state government must not succumb to the violent tactics of the DHD (G) and instead remain committed to improve the “rule of law” in N.C. Hills.