By Giriraj Bhattacharjee
676 militants belonging to seven militant formations surrendered at a function held at the indoor stadium inside the Sarusajai Sports Complex in Guwahati on January 24, 2012. The surrendered militants were drawn from the Adivasi People’s Army (APA), All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA), Santhal Tiger Force (STF), United Kukigam Defence Army (UKDA), Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA), Kuki Liberation Army (KLA) and Hmar Peoples Convention-Democratic (HPC-D). The militants deposited 202 weapons during the ceremony.
Union Home Minister (UHM) P. Chidambaram, in whose presence the surrender ceremony took place stated, “Not often do we see so many groups return to the path of peace, development and brotherhood and join the process of reconciliation. This development means that the other groups will follow suit.”
Further, another two Adivasi (tribal groups; however, in the Indian Northeast, the term refers to tribal groups that were brought into the region, principally as indentured labourers, from other parts of the country) formations, the Birsa Commando Force (BCF) and the Adivasi Cobra Military of Assam (ACMA), instead of surrendering, submitted their charter of demands to Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and UHM Chidambaram. Birsingh Munda, ‘commander-in-chief’ of BCF, explained, “We decided to attend this event in our civvies since there is no question of laying down arms in a ceremony until final settlement is reached. Mere surrendering of arms doesn’t bring peace; Government also has to respond by starting meaningful dialogue.”
A 16-page booklet, Farewell to Arms, Welcome to the Mainstream, circulated during the ceremony, provided a brief profile of the nine groups. It gave the cadre strength of these nine groups as: BCF – 557; ACMA-453; KRA – 138; STF – 134; UKDA – 120; AANLA – 90; KLA – 83; APA (about) 70; and HPC(D) – 50. All but nine of the total of 685 cadres surrendered. Worryingly, however, the two most prominent groups in terms of cadre strength, BCF and ACMA, failed to lay down arms.
Significantly, four of the surrendering outfits, APA, AANLA, KLA and HPC-D, had declared a cease-fire in 2011; APA, on July 16; AANLA, on September 1; KLA, on November 5; and HPC-D, on December 2. The UKDA’s declaration of ceasefire came on January 8, 2012, while the KRA leadership stated that they would be adhering to a cease-fire with effect from January 24, 2012, the day of the surrender. ACMA and BCF, on the other hand, had signed a Suspension of Operations (SoOs) agreement in 2001 and 2004 respectively.
Buoyed by the development as it compounded the growing successes of the past years, Additional Director General of Police – Special Branch Khagen Sarma claimed that, with the surrender of seven militant groups and two others [BCF and ACMA] actively participating in the January 24 function, there were “no militant groups left in Assam” and that,
What is left are splinter groups, deserters and breakaway factions of groups in ceasefire. They have nothing but nuisance value. Our Government will therefore try to reach a settlement with the cease-fire groups as soon as possible by starting talks in February. Today’s ceremony is the first of its kind. Never before have so many militants and so many groups returned to the mainstream at one go.
Significantly, led by its ‘chairman’ Longsoder Senar, 568 United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) militants, including 22 women cadres, had laid down arms at a function organized at Diphu stadium in Karbi Anglong District on December 14, 2011.
It is noteworthy that the Adivasi groups – APA, AANLA and STF – surrender took place despite the fact that neither of the two core demands of all the five Adivasi militant groups, including BCF and ACMA, have been met. These core demands include the demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for the Adivasis and grant of ex-gratia payment to riot victims. Reports suggest that the Government might offer ST status to select Adivasi groups, including the Oraon, Munda, Santhals and Birsa. These groups already enjoy ST status in other States. Besides, the Government is also considering an economic package for the community.
The Adivasi militancy started in the State following the Bodo-Santhal riots in 1996, and their recurrence in 1998. About 80 persons were killed in the 1996 conflagration, and 50 in 1998. Adivasi groups have projected an estimated 250,000 Adivasis living in camps in Kokrajhar and Dhubri Districts.
Media reports, meanwhile, claim that the latest surrender of Adivasi groups is the result of widening of Communist Party of Maoist (CPI-Maoist) operations in Assam, and the consequent apprehensions regarding the Adivasis joining this Left Wing Extremist (LWE) formation. Reports suggest that AANLA, with logistical support from some other unidentified groups, has already started a training camp for Maoists in the foothills between Chandalashung ‘B’ and New Chandalashung, in Ralan under the Wokha District in Nagaland, along the interstate border with Assam. The training commenced in October 2011, with an estimated 300 trainees attending the camp. Indeed, Assam’s Chah Mazdoor Sangha [Assam Tea Labourers Association], delegation led by its General Secretary B. Tanti, on December 21, 2011, informed Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, that many instances of CPI-Maoist cadres luring youth belonging to the ‘tea tribes’ (the Adivasis) to join them had come to light. He warned that if this trend continued, it would spell doom, not just for the tea tribes, but also for the entire State.
Crucially, however, at least some militant indigenous groups continue to hold out against the state, and Kuki or Hmar militants see little reason to surrender. Indeed, the Government’s response to the demands of Kuki and Hmar militants is still awaited. The primary demand of the Kuki groups – United Kukigam Defence Army (UKDA), Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA), Kuki Liberation Army (KLA) – is the formation of a regional council for the Kuki tribes living in the Karbi Anglong District. Hmar militants demand a separate District for their own tribe. While KRA was involved in the Karbi-Kuki clashes in 2005, HPC-D was involved in Hmar-Dimasa clashes in 2003. Over 100 people were killed in the Karbi-Kuki clashes, and another 50 in the Hmar-Dimasa violence. Both Kuki and Hmar are minor tribes, living in the two hill Districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao [formerly North Cachar (NC) Hills], respectively. The January 24 surrender, consequently, leaves many unanswered questions.
Crucially, there are several ethnic groups in the State who oppose both the demand of ST status for Adivasi groups and for a regional council for the Kuki tribes. Led by the All Assam Tribal Sangha (AATS), which comprises various ‘local’ tribal organisations, including Bodo, Karbi, Dimasa and Tiwa student organizations, opposes further ‘scheduling’ in the State. In addition to the Adivasis, another five ethnic groups – the Morans, Muttocks, Tai Ahoms, Chutia and Koch Rajbongshis – are also demanding ST status. Indeed, the Moran and Muttocks have threatened armed rebellion in case they are not included in the list. In the case of Kuki outfits, another vital issue could be the management of their internal rivalry, especially between UKDA and KRA.
Moreover, while the two most prominent Adivasi groups, BCF and ACMA have failed to surrender, surrendered groups like AANLA have already started talking tough. AANLA ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Peter Dang, following the surrender declared,
Our main demand is granting ST status to Adivasis and it should be fulfilled soon as it is a genuine demand. The Government’s apathy towards Adivasis in Assam had led to AANLA’s birth. We have not laid down all our arms. If talks with the Government are not successful, we may go back to the jungle. Hence the Indian Government should fulfill our demands at the earliest.
APA and ACMA have also expressed similar sentiments.
Moreover, none of the surrendered groups have been involved in major violent incidents, barring some stray activities, since the announcement of their respective cease-fires and SoO agreements. Only one incident of firing has since been reported, involving these groups, when APA militants shot at and injured All Assam Muslim Student Union (AAMSU, Kamandanga unit) assistant secretary Zakir Hussain at Grahampur Bazar under Gossaigaon Police Station in Kokrajhar District on November 16, 2011. Another, group, ACMA was behind two reported cases of abduction in 2011. The BCF was allegedly involved in one extortion case in 2010, besides setting ablaze a bus in 2008. No activities of Kuki or Hmar militants have been recorded since the time they declared a cease-fire.
Nevertheless, taking into account the stalemate in peace talks with other prominent groups such as the Nunisa faction of Dima Halim Daogah (DHD-N), Pro-Talks Faction of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-PTF) and Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), and the residual potential of the remaining active groups such as the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT), Hill Tigers Force (HTF), United Democratic Liberation Army (UDLA) and Anti-Talks faction of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-ATF) to create trouble in the State, some quarters have described the latest mass surrender as merely symbolic. It is, however, premature to pronounce final judgment on this, and the continuous consolidation of the state against a multiplicity of armed factions certainly opens out tremendous opportunities for a lasting peace in Assam.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management