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Terror 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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  • November 21, 2006

    The two hill districts of Assam, North Cachar Hills and Karbi Anglong, are fascinating because these territories together are a microcosm of the larger ethnic profile of Northeast India. The indigenous peoples inhabiting this small area have tribal affiliations with far-flung groups in the surrounding hill states. They are Karbi (most dominant numerically), Dimasa, Jeme Naga, Kuki, Hmar, Lushai, Rangkhol, Khasi, Jaintia, Bodo and Tiwa. It is no wonder that the effects of the multiple insurgencies going on in the vicinity - Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura and plains of Assam - have gradually but inevitably spilled over into the two hill districts. This has become more likely given the rise of better communications in recent years. These so called "autonomous" hill districts of Assam are the least developed, kind of a forgotten backyard for the dominant Assamese who are not native to this area, being plainspeople of the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys. The latter is, however, dominated by ethnic Bengalis of East Pakistan origins.

    The Dimasas are an indigenous people of Assam and due to the tribulations of history have their present day home in the North Cachar Hills District. There are also a few Dimasa villages in Karbi Anglong and Cachar Districts. Dimasa organized militancy started with the Dimasa National Security Force, but lacking fizzle, its members surrendered en masse to the government. Subsequently, the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) was formed in 1995, which is still a force to be reckoned with today. The DHD is premised on the ideology of carving out a separate Dimasa homeland "Dimaraji Kingdom" comprising the Dimasa inhabited areas of North Cachar Hills, Karbi Anglong, parts of Nowgaon district, and parts of Dimapur district of Nagaland. However, internal dissensions have led to the DHD's split into two outfits, one led by 'commander' Dilip Nunisa and the other by 'former commander' Jewel Gorlosa. The latter group has an alias, 'The Black Widow'.

    The other most dominant militant group is the United Peoples Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) of Karbi Anglong. Formed in 1999, the UPDS is a rebel group fighting for a separate Karbi homeland outside of Assam. The two insurgent groups have been engaged in a bitter turf battle for years, with violent clashes killing hundreds and rendering many more homeless in the villages dotting the hilly terrain of the two districts. According to a report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights, as a result of the ongoing conflict, nearly 44,016 ethnic Karbis and Dimasas have been displaced till October 2005 in Karbi Anglong, North Cachar Hills and Hojai sub-division of Nowgaon district. What makes matters worse is that these two groups lay claim to the same piece of land, especially in the Karbi Anglong district, which is largely dominated by the Karbi tribe.

    The Government of India had entered into a cease-fire with the UPDS effective from August 1, 2002, extended periodically till July 31, 2007, and with the DHD since January 1, 2003, extended periodically till December 31, 2006. However, violence broke out on September 26, 2005 when three Dimasa autorickshaw drivers were murdered at Tissom village near Diphu, the district headquarters of Karbi Anglong. In retaliation, five members of a Karbi family were killed at Hemari Terang village on October 2, 2005. Such retaliatory attacks continued throughout the later part of 2005. Most gruesome was the killing of 34 Karbi villagers on October 17, 2005 in Doyangmukh village of Karbi Anglong district. The DHD and UPDS rebels also set fire to 50 houses in the village. In this context, the villagers expressed anguish that they are increasingly becoming victims of armed clashes between the two rebel groups to neither of which they extend support nor have ethnic affinity.

    More recently, the anti-talk faction of the DHD, the Gorlosa faction, carried out an ambush in the North Cachar Hills on a railway team in October 2006, killing 11 persons, including seven Railway Protection Special Force (RPSF) personnel. Earlier in February 2006, 30 cadres of the Hmar People's Convention (Democratic) entered the North Cachar Hills from Manipur and set up camp in Jinam Valley, 80 km southeast of Haflong, the district headquarters. In connivance with the Hmar People's Convention, the Gorlosa faction made an attempt on the life of Dilip Nunisa, leader of the pro-talk DHD.

    The repeated killings of members of so-called rival ethnic groups are gradually vitiating the cordial atmosphere of concord that had existed between the two communities in the not too distant past. As usual, the state authorities are being taken unawares by the spate of violence and appear to be lacking the logistical requisites to launch a rescue and relief operation. The inaccessible nature of the terrain, crisscrossed by hills and rivers and dense forest, demands a counter-force equipped with sophisticated skills of mountain warfare in countering such hill-based ethnic insurgencies. Moreover, besides being a law and order problem, the conflict is between two ethnic rebel groups inhabiting a contiguous landscape. This requires a more sensitive approach rather than purely "hard core" policing measures.

    The government could tap into well-established bodies like the organisations for Dimasa and Karbi women. In tribal societies, women have a major role to play in the overall decision making of the village. (Manipur and Nagaland are good examples of women's role in conflict resolution and management). The State as well as district administration could hold meetings with other active civil society groups in these areas to find realistic ways of dealing with the growing crisis. Basic facilities like roadways, hospitals, schools and water supply could be improved to bring about a steep drop in people's hardships and ease up a hard hill life. It is not true to say that resources at the districts' disposal for development activities are meagre. A cursory glance at funds earmarked for these two hill districts in the Assam State treasury would reveal that they are more than sufficient to establish a "good enough" base for developmental purposes. For instance, under the Hill Areas Development Programme (HADP) of the Planning Commission, Assam was allocated Rs. 51.11 crores in 2003-04 and 2004-05 for the development of its two hill districts. Political parties do not help matters much either, with the Congress, the Asom Gana Parishad, and the Bharatiya Janata Party blaming each other for the volatile situation. These parties are clueless in finding a solution to the problem.

    The primary fear expressed in policy and security circles is the growing prowess of the DHD (Gorlosa faction) and the rapid spread of its activities across the landscape of North Cachar Hills and Karbi Anglong. Given the fact that the cadres are mostly young men from the area, their understanding of the local terrain is intrinsic and therefore crucial in carrying out sudden surprise strikes. Perhaps, this local intelligence skill is equipping the DHD faction with the ability to outmanoeuvre the security forces. Growing nexus with larger insurgent groups like the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (IM) is also providing the DHD, especially the Gorlosa faction, with strategic and tactical guidelines, weapons and finance from across the border. New Delhi's lacklustre approach in rising up to the challenge of small insurgent groups is also becoming an obstacle in applying time-tested solutions to such crises. The pro-talk DHD faction chief, Dilip Nunisa, is threatening to pick up the gun again as his security related proposals to the Home Ministry are yet to invoke any meaningful response. The group's deputy commander-in-chief, Nairing Daulagupu, was badly wounded in Haflong by the Gorlosa faction in April 2006. The last peace talks with the Nunisa group were held in January 2006 and the group's demand for more security cover has not been met yet.

    The dynamics of the situation is a struggle to gain dominance with the objective of establishing a totalitarian, ethnically slanted future political domain in the two hill districts. This has degenerated into a free for all pattern of deadly strikes and retaliation between the two dominant peoples, namely the Karbis and Dimasas, with the other smaller groups also being drawn into the conflict. The other major point of conflict is the bloody feud between the DHD factions. What is also frightening is the discernible NSCN-IM influence on the DHD's ideology of territorial claim in Karbi Anglong. Very much like the NSCN-IM's aspiration for a greater Nagalim, contested narratives of territory and tribal affiliation notwithstanding, the DHD Gorlosa faction is laying claim to typically Karbi dominated areas that have only a sprinkling of Dimasa villages. This is a deadly recipe for greater violence and ethnic discord. As the law and order authority, the government has to contain the situation by clearly mapping the territories/peoples under consideration in any talks with these outfits. Dimasa land has to be clearly demarcated from Karbi land to discourage any extra-territorial claims. Out of area Dimasa villages could be integrated within a "Dimasa Tribal Council" very much on the lines of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. This arrangement would apply to Dimasas in both Karbi Anglong and Cachar districts. Overlapping/clashing jurisdictions have to be worked out parallel to successful models elsewhere. All claims/counter claims have to be ironed out through talks.

    The immediate ground measure would however be a strong military presence to discourage ethnic cleansing. This would also create conditions for enforcement of cease-fire ground rules especially in keeping the cadres of the UPDS and DHD in designated camps as agreed under the cease-fire agreements. It would also be beneficial to the affected communities if the Assam government were to set up an institutional mechanism to monitor the cease-fire on a "round the clock" basis and keep a vigilant count on internally displaced persons. Intelligence gathering by a mountain trained and combat hardened military team is crucial for early warning and assessment of probable strike areas in an otherwise densely forested region. For this to happen in an effective and efficient manner, it is crucial to recruit local youths who inherently possess a deep understanding of the terrain. Also, the government would then have the doubly more important security task of protecting the villages and families from where these youths are recruited into the intelligence team, to avoid possible retaliation by rebel groups.

    Though the task appears to be of a tall order, it is not impossible to achieve. There are many unemployed youths, who, if guided and trained well, would be an asset to the Indian military in these 'special' combat operations. Once security is ensured, more substantive measures of economic development and social harmony should be instilled by a well thought out and planned peace process. This must account for the complex ethnic dynamics. A sound rehabilitation package, which not only provides for reconstruction of destroyed houses, compensation for lost properties and food but also securing the affected areas must be set in place. The Indian state must be viewed by the local communities as a "welfare organism" motivated by a democratic ethos rather than one of a military nature, an image omnipresent in these hill areas on account of the frequent highly visible counter-insurgency operations. These remote hill villages must come to look upon the 'idea of India' as one of their own, in which they have high stakes. Time is short. The government needs to act fast, with vision and fortitude and determination. If not, the danger of violent insurgencies spreading its network to even smaller tribes in Assam appears all but inevitable.