Hawks descend on Assam

Hawks descend on Assam

Caption: Guwahati rally, 11 January.

Two years ago, it had looked as though talks between the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and thegovernment of India would begin, and a solution would be found to a conflict some describe as terrorism for secession and others as a nationalist struggle for space and identity. A good beginning was made when the ULFA issued a manifesto that described its economic ideology and political strategy. The document spoke of the nation of Assam being ready to deal with the nation of India as well as other nations within Assam, and mentioned sovereignty rather than independence. The socialist Assamese nation would have overall control of the economy, especially the tea industry, which makes up 56 percent of India-wide output, but which is controlled from Calcutta.

It had seemed that the ULFA wanted the manifesto to be the starting point for talks with the central government, and for the first time a militant outfit was spelling out its political as well as economic positions. While the political positioning seemed ambiguous and the socialism espoused somewhat dated, the manifesto certainly provided the basis for negotiations. The Centre responded positively, committing itself openly to talks. The ULFA formed the People's Consultative Group (PCG) as a think tank to assist it in the parleys.

Problems began immediately, for within weeks came an army crackdown on the ULFA in a wildlife sanctuary in Dibrugarh District. An explosion attributed to the rebels killed several children at Dhemaji on Independence Day, 15 August 2005. There were explosions in Guwahati and elsewhere throughout the following year, all of which were attributed to the ULFA. The latest act was the killing of Biharis in the Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts in January 2007. The government has invariably attributed the explosions and killings to the ULFA, without producing adequate proof, and with each blast or killing the possibility of negotiations recedes. The killings of Biharis have now pushed back talks indefinitely.

Hawks on Assam
To understand the players in the Assam problem, it needs to be accepted that neither the ULFA nor the government of India is monolithic. Within each, there are both hardliners and those who accept the need for dialogue. While many political figures in the present government in New Delhi seem willing to keep an open mind, one could not say the same about the security forces, nor the apparatchiks within the Ministry of Defence. Additionally, there is a hawkish mindset among those from mainland India who control the economy of the Northeast, including Assam. The ULFA, too, has its hawks, many of them inhabiting Upper Assam, but not exclusively so.

There is a distance in both ideology and the understanding of 'sovereignty' and 'autonomy' between the two sides. The hardliners in the ULFA seem to veer towards independence, while the mainland hawks believe in centralisation, in addition to perceiving the Northeast as a buffer zone to be maintained under the total control of the Centre. There is such a focus on national security and territorial matters that there is no openness to the concept of autonomy. The mainland hawks like to speak of a single Indian culture, which of course reflects the culture of Hindi-speaking India. As one scholar says, Indian-ness is determined by one's Aryan-ness.

This goes against the struggle for Assamese identity that is central to the ULFA cause. While the Assamese people do not support violence, nor some of the other ULFA positions, the demand for cultural and identity-based exclusivity as well as autonomous economy has near-universal support among the population. The majority may not support the hardliners of Upper Assam who talk of secession from India, but the identity issue can nevertheless mobilise the masses, who feel dominated by the Hindi-speaking region.

Many of the attacks which contributed to stalling the peace process have to be situated within this scenario. The Assamese hawks are wary of any dialogue, and it is also true that a long-drawn conflict creates its own vested interests. The low-intensity warfare has been beneficial to the security forces and to those who are involved in the arms and drug trades. Meanwhile, the power centres controlling the economy would have a strong vested interest against rapprochement and consideration of autonomy demands, because that would automatically signal loss of control over the economic levers. Similar vested interests have also developed within the militant groups, with rampant extortion and consolidation of social and political power amidst the insurgency. Some Guwahati analysts believe that many security operations are conducted not because they are needed, but to forestall the dialogue process. The security forces themselves on occasion are thought to be engineering explosions.

But no one considers the hardliners in the ULFA to be innocent, and the latest killings are seen to be their handiwork. In a plebiscite conducted on the matter of 'sovereignty' recently, out of three million Assamese polled, 95 percent opposed sovereignty. Newspapers with little sympathy for the cause of autonomy highlighted this issue. Identifying 'sovereignty' with 'independence', these papers presented the ULFA as isolated from the Assamese population. The killings came two days later, as a message from the ULFA hardliners that they cannot be taken for granted.

Immigrant demographics
The Northeast and Assam have had an immigrant problem, and the focus of the media and the political parties is on the Bangladeshi migrants. In reality, the 2001 census shows that the Bengali-speaking Muslims make up only about a third of the immigrants. In 2001, Assam had four million more immigrants than shown in the 1971 census, and about 1.7 million of those were Bengali-speaking Muslims, the rest being Biharis and Nepalis. The Muslims live mostly in western and southern Assam, while the Hindi-speakers are concentrated in Upper Assam, particularly in Tinsukia.

The Assamese view the growing number of outsiders – whether Bengali, Hindi-speaking or Nepali – as an attack on their identity, and also as a threat to their economy through land encroachments. The immigrants also do low-paid jobs as construction workers, rickshaw pullers and the like. In the context of high unemployment in Assam – about three million is the estimate in a population of 27 million – resentment is easily developed towards them. The Bengali-speaker becomes the prime target as the predominant group in lower Assam, whereas in Upper Assam and Karbi Anglong it is the Hindi-speaking Biharis.

The immigrant encroachments to an extent explain the ambiguity in the muted reaction of ethnic Assamese to the January killings. Most of them condemned the action, but local groups such as the All Assam Students' Union did not call a bandh. That call was given by the Bihari-dominated Assam Bhojpuri Association, which received poor response from the locals and was observed mainly on the main highways and in the Barak Valley of southern Assam, where there are a good number of Bengali-speaking immigrants.

There are more complexities under the surface. The Hindu-fundamentalist forces in the state are alleging that the killings were a conspiracy to turn Assam into a Muslim-majority state by sending Hindus away. A daily newspaper went as far as to ask the ULFA why it was attacking Hindu Biharis and not the Muslim Bangladeshis, overlooking the fact that Upper Assam does not have many Muslim immigrants. The overall reaction of the political parties and state bodies was to demand retribution with no talk of a search for peace based on justice. In the process, the thinking that identifies 'sovereignty' with 'independence' is legitimised.

Indira Goswami, the facilitator of the dialogue between the establishment and the rebels, has declared at a press conference that she does not support sovereignty. Meanwhile, the killings have provided the security forces the legitimacy required to take charge of the region, and the Bihar Regiment has been brought to Upper Assam. During the next few months one can expect every Assamese village to feel the burden of threat. The fear will result in resentment, and one can expect the cause of the ULFA to gain sympathisers. Many of the new converts will be hardliners.

The central government takes a large portion of the blame for the renewed descent into violence in Assam. It has maintained an ambiguous position with regard to the PCG as the civil-society interlocutor, knowing full well that the ULFA requires such a group to facilitate the parley. Most of the ULFA cadre who had a political understanding of the issues and would be in a position to skilfully negotiate were killed in the Bhutan operation of December 2003. The equivocal position of the state and central governments towards the PCG was also reflected in the media.

It is important to realise that the ULFA represents the socio-economic and political aspirations of the people of Assam, even as most Assamese do not support the means it uses. But the fact is that the matter of militancy in Assam cannot be resolved through use of the armed forces against the ULFA. The political process has to be re-started, and the national-security issue, as seen through a New Delhi lens, must not be allowed to dominate the agenda. Territory is not the central issue in Assam; it is the matter of identity and autonomy. If repression becomes the main tool, one can expect resentment to grow and violence to follow. The vicious circle in Assam has to be broken through a political process, for which the state side must reactivate civil society.

~ Walter Fernandes is the director of the North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati.

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