India: Karbi Groups And Peace, Finally? – Analysis
By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On September 4, 2021, the Union Governments and the State Government of Assam signed a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) in New Delhi with six Karbi militant formations: Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), People’s Democratic Council of Karbi-Longri (PDCK), United People’s Liberation Army (UPLA), Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers-Mensing Kramsa (KPLT-M), KPLT-Ceasefire (KPLT-C) and KPLT-Run Rongpi (KPLT-R).
The preamble of the MoS talks of greater devolution of power within the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) structure to preserve and protect Karbi language and identity without affecting the territorial and administrative integrity of Assam. The salient features of the MoS include:
- The Committee of the Legislative Assembly of Assam, as envisaged under Article 371B of the Constitution, will be constituted expeditiously.
- The Government of India may expedite passage of the Constitution (125th Amendment) Bill, 2019, which proposes to rename the Council as Karbi Anglong Autonomous Territorial Council (KAATC) and increase the number of members to not more than 50, of whom, 6 members including at least 2 women members will be nominated by the Governor and the rest of the members will be elected on the basis of adult suffrage.
- The Government of India and the Government of Assam will take necessary steps to reserve 34 seats for Scheduled Tribes (ST) and 10 seats under the Open category for all communities, out of 44 elected seats in KAAC.
- The Constitution (125th Amendment) Bill, 2019, proposes the transfer of a number of subjects to the KAAC by amending paragraph 3A (1) of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution (Annexure-I).
- The Government of India will examine the demand for notifying the Karbi people living outside the KAAC area as STs in Assam, in consultation with the Government of Assam.
- The Government of Assam may also consider conferring ST (Hill) status on Karbi people living outside the KAAC area.
- The Government of Assam shall set up a Karbi Welfare Council for the focused development of the Karbi people living outside the KAAC area.
- All signatory armed groups shall abjure the path of violence, surrender their weapons and disband their organizations within one month of the signing of the Agreement.
- All camps occupied by these groups shall be vacated forthwith. Armed groups shall submit lists of their cadres to the Additional Director General of Police – Special Branch.
Referring to the MoS, Assam Chief Minister CM Himanta Biswa Sarma emphasized,
Vast areas of Northeast come under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution but there is no system of reservation. For the first time, the Karbis and the Scheduled Tribe people will get reservations in KAAC.
The Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council was rechristened as KAAC on April 1, 1996. This was done after an agreement was signed between the then Assam Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia and the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC), Karbi Students Association (KSA), North Cachar Hills Students Federation and All Dimasa Students Association, in presence of the then Union Home Minister Shankarrao Bhavrao Chavan. The agreement also facilitated renaming of North Cachar District Council as North Cachar Autonomous District Council. The KAAC will now be rechristened KAATC after the passage of the Constitution (125th Amendment) Bill, 2019.
Interestingly, even before the signing of the MoS, the groups representing the non-Karbi population living in the two districts – Karbi Anglong and West Karbi Anglong – which the KAAC will cover, had raised their apprehensions over any loss of political and land rights. Apart from Karbis, there are tribes such as Bodos, Kukis, Dimasas, Hmars, Garos, Rengma Nagas, Tiwas, and Man (Tai speaking) communities inhabiting the twin districts.
On June 12, 2021, the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA), Bokajan District Demand Committee, Karbi Anglong Adivasi Youth and Students’ Council, Assam Gorkha Sanmilan, East Karbi Anglong Hindi Bhashi Sanstha, All Assam Minorities Students’ Union, Assam Gorkha Autonomous Council Demand Committee, Adivasi Ekta Manch and two units of the All-Assam Gorkha Students’ Union had sent an email to President Ramnath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, expressing their concerns. According to a June 15, 2021, report, Anil Toppo, chief adviser of AASAA’s Karbi Anglong District Committee, had noted,
We just want the Government to ensure that the rights of the non-tribal communities living in Karbi Anglong [Autonomous Council] are not diluted in any way. Our land rights and our voting rights should be ensured like before… We also want that at least 12 seats in the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council are open for even the non-tribals to contest.
It seems that by dividing the seats between Karbi [including other Scheduled Tribes (STs)] on one hand and 10 general seats on the other in the KAATC to be formed, the Government seeks to balance the interests of both the groups.
Though the reactions of all of these non-Karbi groups to the signing of the agreement are yet to be publicly articulated, Karbi Anglong Zila Asomiya Bhashik Sanstha (KAZABS), an organisation of Assamese speakers in the Karbi Anglong, has welcomed the tripartite peace agreement.
Worryingly, however, a group claiming to represent the Rengma Naga tribe, a minor tribal community, had raised apprehension even before the signing of the MoS. According to a June 8, 2021, report, Rengma Naga Peoples’ Council (RNPC), a civil society group representing Rengma Nagas, was demanding a separate autonomous council. RNPC president K. Solomon Rengma argued,
How can they do this? We have been writing to them for many years. The KAAC population is around 12 lakh [1.2 million] and the Karbis constitute only 3 lakh [300,000], the remaining are non-Karbis, including the Rengma Nagas, whose population is around 22,000. We are also demanding a separate legislative seat for Rengmas.
The demand of the Rengma Nagas is also backed by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM). On June 7, 2021, NSCN-IM had issued a statement cautioning the Government,
Government of India (GoI) and State Government of Assam finalizing the proposal to create Karbi-Anglong Autonomous Territorial Council (KAATC) in Karbi Anglong, an agreement to appease the six (6) rebel outfits like KLNLF, PDCKL, UPLA, and three factions of KPLT. However, historically nothing is far from the truth and no authority should go far enough to override the interests of the Rengma Nagas who are the legitimate owner of the land under the questionable proposition. No wonder, taking cognizance of this historical status, the Rengma issue in Assam constitutes one of the important agendas of Indo-Naga political talks pending final decision.
RNPC has not reacted to the MoS thus far.
Further, two minor Kuki militant formations – Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA) and United Kukigam Defence Army (UKDA) – based in these two districts, and who are engaged in peace talks, are also demanding a ‘Kuki Tribe Autonomous Regional council’ for Kuki tribes living in the Singhasan and Khumbamon Hills of undivided Karbi Anglong District. NSCN-IM opposes the Kuki demand as well. On February 27, 2021, NSCN-IM kilonsor (Minister) Joseph Rengma, who is also the head of the Naga Rengma Hills National Workers (NRHNW), a body affiliated with the NSCN-IM, warned that the Rengma people would “never allow” formation of a Kuki Regional Autonomous Council “in their lands”.
Though NSCN-IM has not yet reacted to the signing of the MoS, it remains to be seen how steers itself after the Governments has ignored its objections to the KAATC. It is pertinent to recall here that the talks between NSCN-IM and the Government of India have reached a stalemate over the contentious issues of a separate flag and constitution based on a ‘unique Naga history’,
Meanwhile, the decision to create 10 general seats seems to have upset some of the civil society groups based in the districts fearing loss of political dominance.
On September 5, 2021, protestors from 24 civil society groups, also known as 24+, demonstrated along the Diphu-Manja Road, shouting slogans and burning tyres in front of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party-East Karbi Anglong District Council. Their principal objection was to the addition of 10 seats that would be open for all communities. Avisnash Ronghang, President of one of the constituents of the 24+, the Karbi Farmers Association, declared,
Though we welcome the peace accord, it is a black day for us. In the peace accord it has been mentioned that of the 44 elected seats in the KAAC, 34 seats are reserved for those from ST communities with 10 seats open for all communities. The 10 seats open for all means throwing the door open for the general communities to get elected to the KAAC and assert their dominance over the ST communities.
Further, on September 8, 2021, ASDC, a political party, and two civil groups – Karbi Nimso Chingthur Asong (KNCA) [Karbi Women Association] and KSA – expressed disappointment with the accord in the absence of the implementation of Article 244. The main and long-standing demand for an autonomous state within Assam under Article 244 of the Constitution, has not been conceded in the MoS.
-On September 12, 2021, UPLA ‘chairman’ Sorjon Lo-eh, while participating in the group’s disbanding ceremony, reacting to the protests by 24+, said,
We are not putting a full stop to the Autonomous State demand by signing the peace accord as it is being propagated by APHLC [All Party Hills Leaders Conference] and 24+ organisation in Karbi Anglong. We have kept the door open for negotiating the statehood demand and shall pursue it in a democratic manner…We have realised that we cannot attain statehood by means of arm revolution. It is only through dialogue that we can resolve the long-standing issue. A section of organisation is trying to take political advantage by spreading false propaganda among the public.
Amidst these many concerns, implementing the MoS will remain a challenge. Crucially, the previous accord signed with United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) in 2011, was supposed to facilitate the up-gradation of the existing KAAC to a Territorial Council by 2016-2017. However, even after nearly 10 years of the signing, KAAC has not been upgraded to KAATC. Further, as opposition to the MoS has begun, though weakly, as of now, there is an urgent need to monitor related developments. In the past, dissatisfied cadres have formed new militant groups, thus diminishing the expected gains from such agreements signed earlier.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management