A BLEEDING SHOULDER – INDIA’S NORTHEAST
The Kashmir insurgency having taken centre-stage for many years now, the insurgencies of the Northeast no more occupy significant spaces of newsworthiness. Nevertheless, they aren’t dead as yet, lingering on preventing the region from going full steam on the road to development. This is an attempt to trace the histories of these insurgencies until 5 years ago when this study was undertaken. Nothing has changed drastically since then, with the insurgencies still existing or claiming to exist, with the formal burials yet to take place. Even the one notable development of the Government of India entering into a peace accord with NSCN (IM), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muviah) in 2015, is yet to draw any dividends because the exact terms of the accord are yet to be made public and implemented. This is the third episode of a 9-blog serial on the various ethnic insurgencies of the North-East.
3 Assam – A Demographic Nightmare
The name ‘Assam’ derives from ‘Ahom’, the kingdom established by a Tai prince in 1228 AD in the Brahmaputra Valley to reign for almost 600 years until 1826, when the British displaced it following their victory over Burma in the First Anglo-Burmese War. Though this historical data was used by the exponents of the Assam insurgency to validate their claim for sovereignty, it is the Assam agitation spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) on the foreigners’ issue – influx of foreigners (mostly Bangladeshis) and inclusion of their names in the electoral rolls which threatened the demographic balance of the state – that really catalyzed the insurgent movement. It was in turn fuelled by a sense of neglect the Assamese had long harboured against the Indian establishment and resentment about the exploitation of the state’s natural resources. The formation of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the premier Assamese insurgent organization in 1979 marked the beginning of insurgency in the state. The Assam agitation ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord between the AASU and the Government of India and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the regional political party formed by the AASU, went on to win the elections and form the government in the state; but the damage had been done – the roots of insurgency had already grown deep.
The ULFA found a ready partner in NSCN-IM, which whole-heartedly supported it with arms, ammunition and training for the cadres. It was soon able to create such wide-spread terror that the law and order machinery in Assam was thrown to doldrums and President’s rule was imposed on the state. Two military operations codenamed, ‘Bajrang’ and ‘Rhino’, followed in quick succession between 1990 and 1992, hitting hard at the militant bases and their entire leadership fled to refuge in Bangladesh. Pakistan’s ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) and its Bangladeshi counterpart, DGFI (Director General of Forces Intelligence) lost no time in patronizing them.
The ULFA managed to establish camps in Bhutan as well, but in 2003, the Bhutanese Army dislodged their entire lot in a dynamic operation, neutralizing 650-odd members of its cadre. The outfit suffered a further setback when it fell out with its partner in terror, the NSCN-IM, for making overtures to the latter’s arch rival, the NSCN-K, in its bid to obtain bases in Sagaing division of Myanmar where the NSCN-K was dominant. Then in June 2008, it was jolted when two companies of its Myanmar-based 28th Battalion declared a unilateral ceasefire, seeking negotiation with the government in open defiance of its ‘no talk’ policy. They severed their links with the mother outfit calling themselves the ‘pro-talk ULFA faction’.
The ULFA however had already been forging alliances with newer outfits mushrooming all over Assam espousing a variety of ethnic causes (such as Bodo and Karbi movements, the stories of which need separate telling). It teamed up with these outfits to carry out nine coordinated bomb blasts in October 2008, which rocked the towns of Guwahati, Barpeta, Bongaingaon and Kokrajhar, killing 89 and injuring over 300. These unprecedented, ferocious attacks demonstrated a higher degree of professionalism the militants had acquired. Investigations also revealed the involvement of the Bangladesh-based Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) indicating the growing nexus between Jihadi and Northeast outfits. After the blasts the Assam government adopted a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards militancy in the state, clamping down the Assam Preventive Detention (Amendment) Act 2009, raising the maximum period of preventive detention of terror suspects from six months to two years. However the electoral machinations the political parties constantly engage in continue to undermine the success of any strategy to combat terrorism.
Other Muslim fundamentalists and Maoists also pose grave threats to the precarious state of affairs in the state. At least two Muslim outfits, the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) and the Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM) are known to be active in the state, though with nominal cadre-strength, mostly recruited from among the poor immigrant population. There has been an upsurge in Maoist activities too, especially in Upper Assam. This, combined with the existence of many an insurgent outfit committed to the Maoist ideology in the outlying hills of Manipur and Nagaland, can prove a dangerous brew. The CPI-Maoists have already raised an armed wing of theirs in Assam styled the Revolutionary People’s Guerilla Army and have established ties with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a known Maoist outfit of Manipur.
The Assam insurgents in general and the ULFA in particular ran into real bad weather once the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government came to power in Bangladesh in 2009. In a massive crackdown on Indian insurgents on their soil that year the Bangladesh security forces rounded up almost the entire leadership of the ULFA and handed over many a big fish to Indian authorities by the year end. The haul included the ‘Chairman’, Arabinda Rajkhowa, the ‘Foreign and Finance Secretaries’, ‘Deputy Commander-in-Chief’ and many others of the who’s who. The outfit was badly hit. Paresh Barua, the Commander-in-Chief, remains the sole member of the top brass still at large.
Nevertheless the outfit survives in strength with bases in Myanmar. Paresh Barua is believed to have been successful in setting up bases in the Yunnan province of China as well sometime around 2009. Despite being deprived of its bases in Assam and forced to remain low key with its entire lot of leaders cooling their heels in jail, the ULFA has still been active, colluding with other insurgent outfits to perpetrate acts of terror whenever opportunity presented itself.
Peace initiatives were being taken up by the government as well as the civil society groups in Assam from late 1980s itself, but made no headway for more than a decade and a half in the face of unrealistic conditions the ULFA set for talks, like the UN mediation and a venue outside India, besides, of course, inclusion of sovereignty as the core issue. In a softening of position it withdrew the first two conditions by 2005, but stuck to the sovereignty condition and formed a People’s Consultative Committee (PCG) constituted of 11 members from different walks of society to represent them. Though the PCG did hold a couple of round of talks with the government, the process fizzled out eventually with both sides remaining uncompromising in their stance. Many other organizations – students’, literary and social ones such as the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP), the Assam Sahitya Sabha (ASS) and the Assam Public Works (APW) – have been lending their mite to the dialogue building process, but to no avail with the ULFA sticking to its guns. Wary of these societal groups that strived for genuine peace, it has been propping up groups like PCG and PCPIA (the People’s Committee for Peace Initiatives in Assam), which did not find favour with the government for their pro-ULFA outlook.
The new millennium’s first decade did not go too well for the ULFA, and the defection of its cadres at Myanmar in 2008 eroded its standing. The defected ‘pro-talk’ group went on a campaign for peace, settling for ‘full autonomy’ for Assam instead of sovereignty. With the final blow of the ULFA’s entire leadership being rounded up in Bangladesh in 2009, peace became a real possibility. A group of eminent citizens of the state led by the intellectual, Dr. Hiren Gohain, formed a convention, ‘Sanmilia Jatiya Abhivartan,’ to facilitate peace talks with no pre-conditions by either party. However the move was vetoed by Paresh Barua, ridiculing the proponents for their ignorance of the ‘freedom movement’ and declaring that there would be no talks without ‘sovereignty’ on the agenda.
During 2010, the Assam government took up the initiative and released jailed ULFA leaders to encourage talks. Enraged at this turn of events Paresh Barua sent out a message in January 2011, with a video footage of him with his cadres in battle fatigues vowing to fight for an independent Assam. Nevertheless, the released ULFA Chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, went public during February 2011 announcing unconditional talks with government and admitting that ‘all killings are wrong’.
In spite of such announcements and talks – in Delhi the Home Secretary held peace talks with a delegation led by Rajkhowa in June 2012 and the former Assam Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, was constantly at it trying to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table – no peace initiative worth counting has got off the ground. The main hiccup seems to be the ULFA leadership’s uncertainty to proceed with the talks without including Paresh Barua, who has virtually split with the pro-talk leaders and even assumed a separate identity, ULFA-I (for Independent), for his faction since April 2013. He remains dogmatic on the issue of sovereignty. Apparently Barua’s clout with the cadres keeps the rest of the leadership on tenterhooks.
Indeed, with the cadres thin on the ground (not only of the ULFA but of a horde of outfits of Bodo, Karbi, Dimasa and such other identities as well that have been generally brought around), Assam has been enjoying comparative peace since 2010; the level of violence receding with every passing year. Yet it is estimated that there are at least some 14 insurgent outfits – old and nascent ones – still active within the state. And the toll the various insurgencies combined have extracted in human lives during the last two decades or so – from 1992 till June 2013 – tells a macabre tale. 7734 lives lost; that of 813 security personnel, 2884 insurgents and most tragically, 4037 innocent civilians.[Notwithstanding the prevailing scenario of relative peace, there are allegations that the claims of the government about the massive surrenders are suspect; many of those were supposedly ‘arranged’ – so as for the administration to score some brownie points – by paying young men to pose as insurgents. It is also plausible that many of the unemployed youth have volunteered for the show to grab the benefits. Unless the state government is prepared to take the bull by the horns and see that its writ runs – instead of being swayed by the insurgents on one side and the central security forces on the other – by strong and proper administration, durable peace will remain elusive. Actual insurgents who surrendered too are facing a horde of problems in picking up their lives from where they left it, ranging from their rehabilitation and re-integration back into the society to the threat to their lives from former colleagues who have not surrendered and see them as traitors of the cause. This is one of the many humanitarian problems that Assam will have to overcome before it can usher in real peace.]
[To be continued. Next: Bodoland – An Insurgency within Another]