By Ajit Kumar Singh
Despite a residual threat of terrorist violence, the two-phase Assembly Elections for 126 seats in Assam were held on April 4 and 11, with little violence. While 62 constituencies went to the polls on April 4, elections for 64 constituencies were held on April 11. The Chief Election Officer, Hemanta Narzary, told reporters on April 12 that the overall percentage of voting in both the phases was 76.03 per cent – 73.04 per cent in first phase and 78.6 per cent in the second. In the last Assembly Elections in 2006, also held in two phases, the overall percentage of voting stood at 75.77.
The first phase of Elections in 2011 was almost free of violence. Out of 11,264 polling stations, only two were marred by some disturbances. The second phase also passed off relatively peacefully, barring some clashes and Police firing, which injured 22 people. However, two persons were killed and four were injured in stray poll-related – not terrorist – incidents on the eve of the second phase.
The worst incident of the present electoral cycle came in the campaigning phase, on March 14, 2011, when National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) cadres had attacked a convoy of Border Security Force personnel in Kokrajhar District, killing eight and injuring several others. Later, on April 2, Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT) militants killed three Central Reserve Police Force personnel and injured four, in an ambush near Rongshuli village in Karbi Anglong District. Again, on April 4, at least three Sashasthra Seema Bal personnel were killed in an ambush by NDFB militants in Kokrajhar District. Notably, in 2006 too, while the first phase of elections was free of violence, the second phase had ended amid low violence – most notably, a schoolteacher killed, and Security Force (SF) personnel attacked and abducted on the eve of elections.
The people, it is clear, are fed up with violence, and have not been deterred by terrorist threats, or influenced by their rhetoric. Significantly, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which now has two factions, the Anti-Talks Faction (ATF) and Pro-Talks Faction (PTF), had either threatened the people or had remained neutral with regard to the elections.
Though the ATF did not clarify its stand on the elections at large, it had issued a threat to the ruling Congress Party members and grassroot workers, and had warned that it would resort to ‘armed struggle’ against the ‘arrogant policies’ of the Congress. The ATF called on the people to stay away from meetings organized by party leaders, and for a boycott of ministers of “colonial India” and leaders from any political party who ‘came to’ Assam to “sow the seeds of divisiveness among the indigenous people of the Northeast to continue their domination”. Significantly, ATF militants had triggered an improvised explosive device (IED) blast at Rajiv Bhavan, the State head office of the Congress Party, at Guwahati on March 14, injuring five party members.
On the other hand, Pradip Gogoi, vice chairman of the Arabinda Rajkhowa-led PTF said that his faction would remain neutral during the Assembly Elections. “We will have no role to play in the coming elections. Our organisation has resolved to be completely neutral during the polls… Implementing the peace process we have initiated with the Government is right now more important for us than being involved with the elections.” Similarly, the PTF ‘foreign secretary’ Sasha Choudhury declared, “We will have zero involvement in the Assembly polls… Our topmost priority is now to take the peace process initiated with the Government forward.”
By contrast, in 2006, ULFA (there was no division in the outfit then) had openly warned political parties ‘not to encourage the people to join the poll process’ and had called upon the people to strive for their right to self-determination. Arabinda Rajkhowa had then stated, “The election process is an attempt on the part of the Government of India to expand its colonial rule to Assam and an effort to prove the freedom struggle of ULFA as irrelevant… without a peaceful solution of (the) Indo-Assam political conflict, nothing can bring peace and prosperity to Assam. No political party is working sincerely to find an amicable solution to this problem.”
Moreover, media reports indicated that there were apprehensions of attacks by Karbi and Bodo militants during the elections, though there were no specific threats issued by these groups. Instead, the NDFB-Anti Talks Faction led by Ranjan Daimary on February 23, 2011, had claimed that the group had no plans for violence during the elections. An email to the media from the outfit’s ‘general secretary’, N. Dinthi Gwra, stated: “The NDFB has no so-called ‘blue-print’ planning attacks during the forthcoming polls and we warn forces carrying out such misinformation to refrain from doing so.”
Despite the dramatic erosion of insurgent capacities in Assam, and the relatively lower levels of threat to the poll process, in order to ensure violence-free elections, the Centre had deployed an additional 350 companies of Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs), to strengthen the 96 companies already present in the State. Two helicopters had also been kept ready to meet any emergency.
In the past, when additional election deployments of Force were withdrawn, this has ordinarily signaled a rise in militant violence, targeting those who participated in the elections. It will, consequently, be a challenge to safeguard the security of those who defied the militant diktat, after the additional Forces are withdrawn. Significantly, one person, identified as Ranendra Borgoyary (35) of Laukriguri, has already been killed in Ballamjhora in Kokrajhar District on April 13, 2011. Police disclosed that Borgoyary, a surrendered NDFB cadre, was the vice- president of the Gossaigaon District Committee of the United Democratic Peoples’ Front (UPDF), but had joined the Bodoland Peoples’ Front before the Assembly election. The UPDF is backed by the NDFB.
Meanwhile, there are apprehensions of electoral politics playing the spoiler again. Both the Government led by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, hoping for a comeback to power and other political parties in the State, including the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), have done their bit to take advantage of the State’s troubled situation in the hope of securing some electoral gain. There have been allegations and counter allegations of covert deals with militant groups. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi argued that the BJP’s ‘silence’ on the ULFA threat (to the Congress) was particularly significant, as they “have information that the outfit [ULFA] will extend support to the saffron party (BJP)”. He also denied opposition allegations that his party had requisitioned the services of surrendered ULFA (SULFA) militants, declaring that he was “capable of doing it (winning elections) on the basis of its (his Government’s) performance during the last 10 years”. Interestingly, seven SULFA leaders had filed nominations for the first phase of the Assam elections, one of whom was a Congress candidate against former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta of the AGP. Four SULFA members contested the second phase on Congress tickets.
The election results are due on May 13 and, whatever the outcome, it can only be hoped that the successor Government will seize the moment to reinforce peace, and not squander the momentous gains of the past years.
Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management