By Namrata Goswami
On November 25, a new beginning was made in the conflict-ridden Karbi Anglong District of Assam when the Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram signed a tripartite Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) with the United Peoples’ Democratic Solidarity (UPDS). The UPDS has been fighting for a separate Karbi state within India since 1999. The MoS envisions amongst other things, the renaming of the present Autonomous District Council as the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Territorial Council (KAATC); increasing seats in the Council up to 50 members of which six will be nominated by the governor (presently there are 30 seats with four being nominated by the governor); a special economic package of Rs. 350 crore (Rs. 70 crore per annum); improvement of road connectivity; rehabilitation of UPDS cadres; and setting up village councils for deepening the democratic process.
The MoS has been received well by the Karbi population as the first concrete step towards establishing peace in Karbi Anglong since conflict broke out in 1999. For more than a decade now, the Karbi Anglong District has been afflicted by violence, especially between the UPDS and the rival ethnic Dimasa armed groups, the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD), especially the DHD (Black Widow) faction. The worst of Black Widow violence occurred in October 2005 when it ravaged the UPDS in Karbi Anglong by killing more than 30 of its cadres and supporters. Since then, the situation has calmed down but tension continues to exist even after the arrest and rehabilitation of the DHD (Black Widow) group.
While the MoS is a tentative step in the direction of peace, there are certain obstacles towards its implementation in letter and spirit. First, the Assam Government has shown signs of resistance to the dissolution of the current Congress-led Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council in order to pave the way for the creation of the Territorial Council. This runs contrary to what the Chairman of the UPDS, Longsodar Senar, is claiming. According to Senar, “Union home minister P. Chidambaram has assured us that after signing of the accord, the present autonomous council would be dissolved and elections to the autonomous council would be held under a neutral administration. If the Centre fails to deliver on the promises it had made, we will consider it a betrayal.” This deadlock could result in tensions, not only between the union government and the state government but also diffuse public support for the MoS. It will also create anxieties between the Assam state government and the UPDS at two levels: political, between the government functionaries and the UPDS; and social, between the Karbi and other Assamese societies.
The other troubling issue is that while the MoS ensures that the UPDS transforms itself into a political party and joins the democratic process, the two other Karbi armed outfits responsible for most of the violence today, the Karbi Longri N C Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF) and the Karbi Peoples’ Liberation Tigers (KPLT), are not covered by the MoS. According to Pongbi Dilli, Chairman of the KLNLF, the MoS is unacceptable as it says nothing on their demand for a separate Karbi state outside of Assam.
The other tricky issue is the concept of “territorial council” itself. Karbi Anglong District is home to several tribes, prominent amongst them being the Karbi, Dimasa, Bodo, Kuki, Tiwa, Garo, Rengma, etc. The tribes do not live in contiguous areas but are instead housed in villages that are scattered across tribes. When one travels in the heavily forested district, it is noticed that a Karbi village is followed by a Dimasa village and then there is a Kuki village. The fate of the Kuki and the Dimasa villages is not clear in the MoS when the Karbi-dominated territorial council comes into existence. This is indeed a complicated issue as the Kuki and the Dimasa villages form part of the demand for a Kuki territorial council and a Dimasa state respectively.
When the author had met Dilip Nunisa, Chairman of the DHD (Nunisa) faction, in February 2010 at the DHD designated camp in Dhansiri in Karbi Anglong District, he had stressed on the importance of inter-communal harmony in the district as exclusive ethnic narratives come in the way of inter-ethnic progress. Ironically, his own armed outfit, the DHD (N)’s rationale for existence is to fight for an exclusive Dimasa homeland stretching from Dimasa inhabited areas in N C Hills District, Karbi Anglong District, Cachar District, parts of Nagaon District in Assam, and Dimapur and Dimasa inhabited areas in Dhansiripar in Nagaland. The idea of an exclusive territorial council to the UPDS could result in the demand by other smaller tribes in the district for similar arrangements. It must be understood in this context that ‘land’ is an extremely emotional issue in these remote areas of India. Villagers depend on it for their livelihood as well as enjoy a sense of ‘entitlement’ to a home, family and status in a village depending on their land holdings. Any threat to that results in deep seated fears of disempowerment and disillusionment.
In this situation, a feasible policy option for the union government is to take the state government into confidence and reassure the other tribes in the district that the concept of ‘territorial council’ includes their rights and privileges as citizens of the district. Security must be beefed up to ensure that the likes of the KLNLF and the KPLT do not engage in ‘spoiler’ behaviour and thereby derail the MoS. Finally, while it is helpful to declare a large financial package for the district for purposes of development, it is extremely critical to establish a neutral body to oversee how the money is being spent so that the disease of corruption and siphoning off funds is kept in check. That said, Karbi Anglong is one of the most picturesque districts of Assam. It has great potential for tourism and horticulture. Hopefully, the MoS can create an environment for peace to unfold in the not too distant future.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/TheHillsofAssamAGlimpseofPeace_ngoswami_051211