A BLEEDING SHOULDER – INDIA’S NORTHEAST

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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 fifth episode of a 9-blog serial (which has been on hold for a month for the hectic schedule of events) on the various ethnic insurgencies of the North-East.

5 North Cachar & Karbi Anglong – A Devil’s Cauldron
(Karbi, Dimasa, Adivasi and Other insurgencies)

The two hill districts of Assam, North Cachar Hills and Karbi Anglong – both autonomous – are inhabited by a congeries of tribes that have affiliations with far-flung groups in the surrounding hill states. Besides the two major tribes, Karbi and Dimasa, there are many others like Zeme Naga, Hmar, Lushai, Rungkhoi, Garo, Khasi, Jaintia, Bodo and Tiwa. Therefore it was no wonder that the fallout of the insurgencies going on in the surrounding states as well as the plains of Assam cast their shadows in these districts arousing similar movements. Given the backwardness of the area – literally the forgotten backyard of Assam – there were ample grievances to fan the fire.

The movements that cropped up in these districts however were not secessionist in nature in that they demanded separate statehood outside Assam, rather than separate nationhood. It was the two major tribes, Karbis and Dimasas which raised the banner of revolt first. The Dimasas were the ones off the mark first forming what they called the ‘Dimasa National Security Force’ in early 1990s, only to fizzle out shortly with the cadres surrendering en masse. However a subsequent organization they formed in 1995, the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) survived. It professed carving out a separate homeland, the ‘Dimaraji Kingdom’, by merging some of the adjoining areas from other districts as well as Nagaland to the North Cachar District. Like most insurgent outfits of the Northeast this too split after a while into two factions, one led by ‘Commander’ Dilip Nunisa – DHD-N – and the other led by ‘Former Commander’ Jewel Gorlosa; the latter one assuming an alias the ‘Black Widow’. The latter, with active support from the NSCN-IM, soon became a deadly force to reckon with in the North Cachar Hills.

Although the Karbis also formed two outfits – the Karbi National Volunteers (KNV) and the Karbi People’s Front (KPF) – during the 1990s, only when they came under a single flag calling themselves the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) did their insurgency really take off. However the organization signed a ceasefire agreement with the Union Government in May 2002. Soon thereafter an anti-talk faction broke away to rechristen itself as the Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF). Commencing 2004, the outfit launched itself on a spree of terrorist acts, often in collusion with the ULFA and NSCN-IM.

Karbis and Dimasas who have been fighting each other all along now found themselves engaged in bitter internecine feuds between their rival factions. Caught between these bewildering assortment of insurgent outfits and counter-insurgency operations by the security forces, life became nightmarish for the civilian population which owed allegiance to none of the groups. Extortion became rampant. Killings and counter-killings became the order of the day. Midway through the decade, violence hit an all time high. In a gruesome incident in October 2005 some 34 Karbi villagers were done to death in a revenge act for the murder of three Dimasa autorickshaw drivers a month earlier. As if all these weren’t enough, newer conflicts began to break out. There was the one between the Zeme Nagas and Dimasas in 2009 that claimed 65 lives and saw nearly 600 houses burned down.

The Hmar People’s Convention-Democracy (HPC-D), fighting for an autonomous administrative setup for Hmars, also maintains its operational bases in the Hmar-inhabited areas of the North Cachar Hills. This has been generating additional violence due to its clashes with the DHD which does not want the Hmar outfit in its territory. The Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA) formed in 1999 with the aim of setting up a ‘Kuki Autonomuos Council’ within Assam and its rebel faction, the KRA-Unification aiming to unite all Kukis into a separate state, have also been causing havoc as both groups are active in Karbi Anglong. To add to the mayhem the political class is out fishing in troubled waters, as it happens everywhere else.

The Black Widow’s reign of terror derailed almost every development work. Then the outfit’s leader, Jewel Gorlosa, was arrested in Bangalore in June 2009 with two of his associates and its activities ground to a halt, as is characteristic of most of these outfits on losing leadership. In October the same year its entire cadres laid down their arms and surrendered to the authorities. Meanwhile the KLNLF, which was having the run of Karbi Anglong with extortions – often targeting tea estates and Hindi-speaking people – and terrorism, succumbed to the constant pressure from security forces and declared a unilateral ceasefire in 2009, to surrender en masse in February 2010. All these surrendered cadres of Karbi and Dimasa outfits are currently being held in designated camps protected by the security forces, pending negotiations for a peace settlement (at least it was so in 2013).

The Adivasis who form the bulk of the tea plantation labour in Assam are a people whose ancestors were brought from Central India by the British colonialists. Mostly living in the districts of Golaghat and Karbi Anglong or Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon, there are about 6 million of them living in Assam including a large number who no longer work in the tea estates. The insurgent movement among these people rose from their concerns to protect their tribal identity, with demands of Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for their community and rehabilitation of its members displaced by Bodo attacks (There have been sporadic clashes between Bodos and Santhals, the principal Adivasi community, ever since the former began ethnic cleansing in 1990s). Their armed movement began with the formation of the All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA) in 2006. With its cadres numbering about 100 and supported by ULFA, NSCN-IM and KRA ( the Kuki Revolutionary Army, an outfit of Manipur that has presence in Karbi Anglong and gives training to the cadres), the AANLA soon made its presence felt. It shot into national limelight in December 2007 when it carried out a bomb attack on the Delhi-bound Rajdhani Express train, killing five people and injuring nine.

The insurgent movements among the Adivasis in Assam are also drawing in Santhals from Central India, who are mostly Maoist rebels on the run after committing terrorist acts in their home territory. They add a touch of indoctrination to an already murky situation. The Santhals are known to have promoted at least four insurgent outfits among the Adivasis of Assam’s tea belt, the latest being the Santhali Tiger Force (STF). Two such outfits, the Adivasi Cobra Force (ACF) and the Birsa Commando Force (BCF), however, have since laid down arms. Thus the half-a-decade old Adivasi insurgency too generally seems subsided – albeit for the time being – with the surrender of most of the AANLA cadres along with those of many other similar outfits to the Union Home Minister in January 2012.

The troubles in Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills districts today present a microcosm of the insurgent scenario in Assam and the whole of the Northeast. There have been so many groups and so much of violence that even after the semblance of order that has been attained after the surrenders, lives of the ordinary people remain uncertain, sandwiched between the marauding rebels and the trigger-happy security forces. And no kind of development work can progress in such an environment.

[The general lawlessness of the area has also given rise to a culture of rowdyism where all and sundry can harass the public with impunity. Here’s a day-to-day incident witnessed in the Nagaland town of Dimapur situated at the border with Karbi Anglong: A young local male with a roguish demeanour walks into a shop, picks up whatever merchandise he wants and makes for the door without bothering to pay, brushing off the protests if any of the shop owner – in most cases a Marwari or some other outsider. Unfortunately for the youngster, in the nick of time, in walks through the door the giant of a CRPF constable holding a pole as long as he is tall. (CRPF men somehow seem to prefer a pole than a lathi).

“Paisa diya hai kya (have you paid)?” barks the CRPF man at the now cowering miscreant. The young man stutters something while the shop owner remains dumbstruck – the policeman may not be there the next time the fellow turns up. The constable does not need telling anyway; he makes a threatening gesture as if to cuff the youngster, who promptly drops everything that he took back on the counter.

“Baap ka raj samjtha hai kya (You think it’s your father’s realm?)” The constable howls; “Bhag jaa (Run)”, and the youngster takes to his heels.

In any other place such roughnecks would be reported and brought to book straightaway, but not in the Northeast. The fear psychosis that prevails is such that people are afraid to confront anyone who appears even remotely troublesome. Only the paramilitary patrols offer them some succour, since the local police in most places are ineffective and the army involves itself only when something major – like a shootout or ambush – happens. No wonder the paramilitary forces, especially the CRPF, rather than the army, appear to be the principal objects of scorn for the antisocial elements.]

[To be continued. Next: Tripura – The Success Story]

Capt. D P Ramachandran
Capt D P Ramachandran is a war veteran & military history enthusiast who writes about Indian Army’s battles of the past.
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