In The End, Assam is The Loser
For weeks, protesters had blocked the national highway at Doom Dooma, among the major tea producing areas of Tinsukia district. Their grievance appeared genuine: demanding justice for the family of a young man who was killed by the army in the area, a man from the Moran community, one of the most economically backward groups in Assam, which anyway is at the bottom of India's economic pile.
Members of the Morans and another indigenous group in upper Assam, the Muttocks (whose best known leader is the shadowy Paresh Baruah, the commander of the armed cadres of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom or ULFA) are among those communities that have been supportive of anti-government movements in Assam, especially the campaigns against New Delhi. They have produced numerous cadres and leaders for ULFA and some have also been killed over the years. In addition, there has been a steady attrition in the number of ordinary people who have died at the hands of security forces, both central and state.
So the pendulum of public opinion, anchored by a noisy and breathless media, has been swinging from the side of the militants on the run to the government and then back again, depending on the nature of conditions and the incidents which take place. Thus, when the ceasefire collapsed last September between ULFA and the centre following the breakdown of talks between the ULFA-appointed delegation and New Delhi, the army went after the armed faction. Public opinion was sharply divided, thinking the government had not done enough to bring the group to the negotiating table.
There was also confusion spawned by the self-righteous members of the ULFA delegation and their acolytes in a new group called the People's Committee for Peace Initiatives in Assam (PCPIA) which represents nothing but itself. These groups in their myriad forms, claiming to speak on behalf of the people of Assam, are a blot on the state. They have left no stone unturned to divide the people of the state between ethnic and language groups, as we shall see in this column. They have worked to ruin the state.
ULFA has kept exploding bombs in public places to exhibit its nuisance value and also affirm its degeneration into a terrorist organisation, thanks to the funds in which it is floating, blood money sucked from Assam and supported by its masters in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Bangladesh's Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI). ULFA's Paresh Baruah's worth was estimated at $115 million by an international security assessment firm based in the United States which branded him a "racketeer" with business operations in India, Bangladesh, Thailand and across South Asia. If he is described as such then what is one to think of his followers in various forums like PCIPA.
ULFA's bombs kept killing ordinary people; the group's cadres slaughtered 70 people, mostly Hindi-speakers, in January. The incidents drew public opprobrium and the government went after ULFA with a heavy hand.
Although it may appear that the army is still groping, they have had success: not less than 50 ULFA cadres have been killed since January and another 100 captured or have surrendered. This has slashed the active armed strength of the organisation in upper Assam, where the remnants exist, to about 100.
The deaths are tragic. These were young Assamese who died for a cause that they did not understand, whose leaders they rarely if ever met and who could have had a fuller life. All of us, not just their families, have suffered a loss. ULFA and the state and central governments are to blame for this tragedy.
Many cadres have scattered to the fringes of Arunachal Pradesh and moved into Myanmar. Barely 30 are functional in Tinsukia district but they and their contacts have been at work, exploiting the anger of the Muttocks and Morans, and egging them on to confront the district administration.
The army, of course, played into their hands by killing a young man recently in the Doom Dooma area. The Morans and Muttocks, at the instigation of ULFA and its front groups, launched a blockade of the district administration and then the national highway, shouting slogans against the army and the government. The blockade was raising tensions, fuelling hunger and anger in the areas beyond Doom Dooma as well as in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh, since it was stopping food and fuel from reaching markets and homes, leading to a full fledged crisis.
Doom Dooma is an old ULFA stronghold and cash cow where extortion is common. The tea garden workers in the area were getting restive; the warning signals were out but the agitators were in no mood to relent. The denouement was not long in coming.
The agitators refused to let essential commodities go, despite official requests, demanding that the chief minister come personally to listen to their grievances. Finally, hundreds of tea garden workers, a community slow to get angry but once infuriated difficult to control, armed with bows and arrows, attacked the protesters, many of whom fled although others fought back vigorously. By nightfall, officials said, the demonstrators were asking for police and army protection and many were kept in a field under army protection before being dropped to their homes under police escort.
Those who have done their utmost to divide Assam on ethnic lines have, in turn, been dealt a severe blow by the divisive politics they have played. In the process, Assam has been harmed. The results have been inter-group bitterness, suspicion and violence.
Political issues need negotiation but these incidents -- the death of ordinary people at the hands of security forces and the subsequent violence -- only reduce the space for discussion.
(Sanjoy Hazarika, a specialist on the northeast, is author, filmmaker and independent columnist. He can be contacted at email@example.com)
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