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‘Ethnic councils’ dividing people on ethnic lines?


wasbir hussain
Executive director,
centre for development and peace studies

The latest attack on Rengma Nagas by a Karbi militant group in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district is yet another example of the ongoing battle for territorial supremacy among ethnic groups in the North-east. The region is touted as a mosaic of cultures where diverse ethnic groups cohabit, but the reality is that there is a perpetual ‘ethnic war’ going on, which is nothing but a battle for space or a turf war. And fuelling such turf war or battle for preservation of identity or gain political power is the autonomy granted by the Government to various tribal groups on ethnic lines. The formation of ‘ethnic autonomous councils’ rather than regional autonomous councils often encourages groups who have not been granted autonomy to fight for it and engage in sort of ethnic cleansing to claim dominance over a territory or a region.

Take a look at the trigger for the attack on the Rengmas in the Chokihola area in Karbi Anglong in which at lest seven Rengmas, including three women, were killed and around 200 families displaced. "The Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT) had issued a quit notice to the Rengma Naga community some time back, and had also fixed a deadline, which the latter ignored," a senior Assam Government official was quoted as saying while describing the cause of the attack. The community was targeted earlier in June last year. It is not an issue of how many people have been killed or displaced, it is a clear attempt at ethnic cleansing of the minority community from the area.

Such attacks with a definite design have almost always led to retaliation by existing rebel outfits or armed men representing or seeking to represent the ‘victim community’ or have even led to the creating of armed groups for self-defence. In the latest case, too, the rag-tag Rengma Naga Hills Protection Force (RNHPF) had retaliated. The result of all this has been unrest in areas inhabited by different ethnic groups and widening of the divide, leading to continued ethnic conflict that are simply unmanageable by the authorities. Quest for money and political power is the prime driving force for ethnic rebel groups, many of which are nothing more than armed gangs, to target minority ethnic communities for dominance over territory.

Such a situation has largely arisen because of the Government’s flawed policy in trying to fulfill the aspirations of tribal communities on ethnic lines. As one has seen in the case of the disturbances in the Rabha Council areas, the minority Garos and others do not seem to accept the arrangement of having to stay under a Council whose nomenclature suggests it is meant for the majority Rabhas. Therefore, the question whether there is merit in granting regional autonomy in the days ahead and not succumb to pressures from a particular ethnic group and grant autonomy on ethnic lines.

It is high time the government takes a re-look at its policy of dealing with the ethnic groups in the North-east. The clamour for autonomy, the desire to retain their distinct identity and the hope that power to their own would raise the living condition of its people had led to agitations in the seventies that culminated in Assam’s reorganization and creation of new states. That has not satisfied the ethnic groups because they had realized that there was still no decentralization of power. Demands and agitation by more and more ethnic groups led to the creation of autonomous councils on ethnic lines. And, this has escalated matters with every ethnic group demanding autonomy. The corruption indulged in by leaders of several autonomous councils perhaps led many with vested interests to clamour for autonomy. I am not generalizing the allegation or perception.

The solution perhaps lies in providing regional autonomy, autonomy to an area, rather than to an ethnic group. This can work wonders, and help prevents flare-ups like the one in Karbi Anglong or Goalpara. Regional autonomy, and not autonomy on ethnic lines, could well hold the key to a harmonious cohabitation of ethnicities in Assam or the North-east.

(courtesy: The Sentinel)