Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and his Nagaland counterpart have sent delegations and are in talks to try and de-escalate the recent outbreak of hostilities in the bordering district of Karbianglong inside Assam. Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis has displaced thousands of people. There are fears that the conflict may spread to other sensitive parts of the Assam Nagaland border.
But what exactly isgoing on here?
Newspapers and television channels have reported that 15 people from the Karbi and Rengma tribeswere killed in the last fortnight. Houses have been torched and people are fleeing the area., but I have failed to find any perspective or even a context to this sudden crisis.
The Rengmas are indigenous to Nagaland but are also found in Karbianglong and the two tribal groups have been living together since time immemorial. In the last couple of years, a group called the Naga Rengma Hills Protection Force has emerged. The Rengmas were recently served a quit notice by an armed Karbi group called Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT) for allegedly not agreeing to pay 60% of their income as extortion. To make sure their threat was taken seriously, the KPLTare suspected to have killed the Rengmas. Soon Karbis were killed and their bodies were found dumped in Dimapur which is in Nagaland. Clearly people here are caught in a turf war between two armed groups over their area of money collection.
Singhasan Hills in Karbianglong, one of the country’s larger districts at 10,400 sq kilometers has been a strategic base for almost all armed groups operating in the Northeast. This district borders the states of Nagaland and Meghalaya and ethnic conflict even in the past has been triggered by fratricidal war. Besides KPLT the other two local armed groups, the Karbi Longri N.C. Hills Liberation Front(KLNLF) and United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) have signed ceasefire agreements and one has even been disbanded. A breakaway faction of KLNLF, calling itself KPLT, wants control over the district.
Three elements emerge from this situation – turf war over extortion, peace agreements and recycling of cadres. Interestingly, none of these elements can be attributed to any social transformation theories or sub-national assertion. These are the result of disastrous policies by the government. Scores of groups today are in peace “deals” with the government of India but peace remains as elusive as ever. The government throws statistics to prove that killings have come down but evades the issue of the legitimisation of these surrendered militants to extortion gangs. None of the groups have surrendered their arms or their ways of operating. The worst massacres ever in Assam in 2008 were planned from ceasefire camps in Lower Assam. The most organised extortion that continues unabated is carried out by armed groups in Nagaland while the organisations have been in peace talks with the Indian government for years. Each of these groups has followed the pattern of recycling cadres to keep some amount of pressure on the protracted talks.
The government without thought or consideration created rehabilitation policies which ranged from amnesty to contracts to monetary deals and even political party tickets. Some groups were offered territorial autonomy while others were promised greater autonomy. Soon the government realised that their policy of appeasement had too many takers but they didn’t have enough to offer. “Appeasement” has a historical context in conflict in India. In the absence of any other policy to address armed insurrections, the government has had only one lame policy of buying peace and every time they bought one group over, another raised its ugly head. The collateral in each case is the common citizen who must pay illegal taxes to a number of groups and face intimidation and suffer under development. If there is any way forward, doing away with unreasonable peace offers surely is the first step.