Assam violence: Good governance only way out
If the Modi government is serious about bringing peace to the Northeast, transparency in the utilisation of funds is a must.
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In the last couple of years, over 200 people have been killed by NDFB militants in Assam. None of the terror groups active in India has been responsible for such a staggering number of killings in such a short span of time. If the death toll in the 2008 Guwahati serial blasts, triggered by the same group, is added, the figure crosses 300. The Bodo terrorist organisation, now divided into three factions - pro-talk, Ranjan Daimary and Songbijit - has been demanding an independent country for nearly two decades. While the pro-talk faction is holed up in designated camps, the head of the second faction, Ranjan Daimary, is in Guwahati jail. The most violent of the three, Songbijit, carried out the latest killings.
In 2012, when nearly 100 people were killed in clashes between suspected NDFB militants and alleged immigrants from Bangladesh, the media and politicians immediately termed it either communal violence or ethnic cleansing. While the killings were sparked by a struggle for control over land and politics of Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) area, it was misinterpreted because the alleged immigrants were Muslims. Though Bodos dominate political power in BTAD following an accord with government of India under the sixth schedule of Constitution, they are only 30 per cent of the population which is a mix of Hindu Assamese, Adivasi, Koch Rajbongshi and Muslims. Ever since the demand for a separate Bodo state or country originated in 1990s, Bodo militant groups have tried to establish monopoly in the geographical region, which is now known as BTAD, by killing or driving out other communities from the region.
If the 2012 violence was triggered by political assertion by minority pressure groups in BTAD, the killing of nearly 50 Muslims earlier this year was the retaliation against non-Bodo groups coming together to lend support to a non-Bodo candidate in the Lok Sabha polls. The candidate, a former ULFA militant, eventually won from Kokrajhar, the lone Lok Sabha seat from BTAD. Though Kokrajhar, the capital of BTAD, is one of the locations of the December 23 massacre, the epicentre of violence has shifted this time to Sonitpur, a district bordering Udalguri, easternmost district of BTAD. The targets are also different, Adivasis, who are mostly Christians. The Bodos are either animists or Christians.
The immediate motive also varies from the past. In the last six months, Assam government had intensified operations against NDFB Songbijit faction which suffered heavy losses in terms of cadre strength and arms. Two days before the attacks, the group had warned of violent retaliation against operations by security forces. Just because the government had upped the ante in Muslim-dominated areas in BTAD, the target for the strike was locked elsewhere. However, this is not the first time Adivasis have been targeted. Between 1996 and 1998, around 150 people were killed in clashes between Bodos and Adivasis. Besides, there are reports that the government of India is on the verge of signing a deal with the other two factions of the NDFB. Songbijit is desperate to prove his might and relevance.
So why has the Tarun Gogoi government, which has been in power since 2001, remained a mute spectator to such massacres at regular intervals? The blame doesn't squarely fall on the Assam government only. While tackling insurgent groups across the country, the government of India has often adopted a divide and rule policy by engineering splits in these groups and then signing peace agreements with one of them. While such experiments may have earned political or electoral gains for the party in power, they fail to address the root causes driving such violent "movements", if we chose to use the term. So even after several peace treaties, the Northeast remains a hotbed of terrorism. The 2004 Bodo accord gave democratic legitimacy to the terror organisation Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT), which converted itself to a political party and is now ruling the BTAD. But even after a decade the issue of Bodoland continues to create bloodbath in Assam.
The road to peace in Northeast may be a long and slippery one but the beginning must be made with both state and central governments sticking to their fundamental roles. While law and order must be ruthlessly maintained, development of the region must be fast tracked to eliminate the sense of deprivation and alienation. And it must be done on ground, not on paper. Every penny of the huge amount of money spent on NE every year must be accounted for. Unfortunately, the central funds are mostly siphoned off by a criminal nexus of bureaucrats and politicians which ironically thrives on the insurgent industry of the region.
If the new Union government is serious about turning NE into a growth engine, swachhata or transparency in the utilisation of funds meant for seven sisters is a must. And it should not be just yet another campaign.