Legitimizing Ethnic Militias?
|POSTED ON AUGUST 7, 2009
DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR DEVELOPMENT AND PEACE STUDIES
A rag-tag ethnic militia — which the security
establishment claims comprises just under 200 rebels
— has managed to keep the Government, both in
Assam and the Centre, on tenterhooks for some time now.
The Dima Halam Daogah – Jewel Garlossa faction
(DHD-J), a group devoid of any ideology, has its area
of operation in southern Assam’s North Cachar
(NC) Hills District, spread over 4,890 square kilometers
of dense forests, and with a population of less than
200,000. Beginning March 2009, the DHD-J — formed
by Jewel Garlossa after the parent outfit, the Dima
Halam Daogah (DHD), entered into a ceasefire with the
Central Government on January 1, 2003 — stepped
up its violence in the District, killing security personnel,
attacking infrastructure and symbols of Government authority,
particularly the railways, and creating a situation
that has led to a violent feud between the majority
Dimasas and the minority Zeme Nagas living in the District.
On July 10, 2009, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram
stated that 63 persons had been killed in tribal feuding,
39 of whom belonged to the Naga community and while
the rest were Dimasas (the situation has remained volatile
after July 10 but there have been no fresh killings).
More than 500 houses have been burnt, of which 228 belonged
to Nagas and 300 to Dimasas. The Government of Assam
has set up 32 relief camps and is providing gratuitous
relief. At present 11,737 persons are staying in the
relief camps, including 6,841 Nagas and 4,896 Dimasas.
The immediate provocation was apparently the killing
of four Zemi Naga tribals in Mahur Sub-division of the
District between March 19 and 23, 2009. DHD-J cadres
were suspected to have been involved in the killings.
Some Nagas migrated to Tousem sub-division in Manipur’s
Tamenglong District. Again, between April 28 and May
9, 2009, seven persons belonging to the Dimasa community
were killed and 97 houses burnt by Naga extremists suspected
to be cadres of National Socialist Council of Nagaland
(NSCN) factions. What followed was a full-scale ethnic
‘war’ and an enduring trust deficit between
the two communities.
The stepping up of violence by the DHD-J has brought
the far-flung NC Hills District into focus at a time
when the authorities were patting themselves on the
back for keeping the ULFA (United Liberation Front of
Asom) insurgency under check. Attacks on the railways
brought train services to the District to a halt, leading
to food shortages in the adjoining States, Tripura and
Mizoram. The Centre was forced to act as the situation
deteriorated to such an extent that Home Minister Chidambaram
had to call a special review meeting in New Delhi to
discuss the situation in the NC Hills. Union Home Secretary
G. K. Pillai was rushed to the State for an on-the-spot
assessment. By this time, 56 companies of the Assam
Police and paramilitary (comprising some 5,000 men),
and 22 Army columns (around 2,000 soldiers, including
para-commandos) had been put on the trail of the elusive
DHD-J militants. The Security Forces (SFs) suffered
their maximum casualties in April 2009, when 11 personnel
were killed by DHD-J cadres.
New Delhi has also sensitized the State Governments
in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland to the likelihood of
mobilization and movement of Naga militants across State
borders, who could use this opportunity to make their
presence felt in NC Hills District, cashing in on the
widespread resentment among the Nagas in the wake the
community being at the receiving end in the inter-tribal
After a review of the situation on June 1, 2009, the
DHD-J was declared an ‘unlawful association’
under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
It was at this juncture that the Assam Police tasted
success, as it launched ‘Operation Treasure Hunt’,
a cross-country operation to apprehend DHD-J leaders.
Its plan paid off and, on June 4, 2009, Assam Police
officers managed to capture DHD-J chief Jewel Garlossa
and two of his associates from Bangalore, the capital
city of the south Indian State of Karnataka. Between
June 19 and July 7, 2009, moreover, six cadres of the
DHD-J were killed in operations by the SFs, and 24 cadres/linkmen
were arrested. The SFs have also recovered arms and
ammunition, besides INR 15.1 million from the group’s
linkmen. Among those arrested was Mohit Hojai, the Chief
Executive Member of the NC Hills Autonomous District
Council, the area’s highest elected leader. He
was held on charges of providing funds to the DHD-J
to purchase weaponry.
It is perplexing that nearly 8,000 SF personnel in the
District have failed to neutralize a rag-tag group of
200 DHD-J cadres. At present, counter-insurgency (CI)
operations in the NC Hills appear to be suffering from
a classic case of lack of coordination among the various
SFs deployed in the region. The unified headquarters
arrangement of the Army, Police and Central Paramilitary
Forces (CPMFs) may actually not be in operation in the
District, because the Army units in the area are under
the Nagaland-based 3 Corps instead of the northern Assam-based
4 Corps, as is the case in other parts of the State.
It is also appears that there may be a measure of competition
between various Forces in the District to claim credit
for whatever successes are achieved against the DHD-J.
The result is not difficult to predict: a low success
rate in neutralizing militants.
It is common knowledge that the rebels are familiar
with the terrain in the District, unlike most of the
visiting SF personnel. Besides, there are just two major
roads in the District, leaving vast stretches inaccessible.
The SFs obviously prefer to be located along these two
roads and the railway line. The DHD-J also has several
other advantages. One, of course, is the patronage the
group receives from local politicians. The arrest of
Mohit Hojai provides evidence of a nexus that goes deep.
Another advantage is an easy source of contraband arms
and ammunition. The security establishment in the State
believes that weaponry for the DHD-J was being sourced
from the international arms bazaar and routed through
Bangladesh via the border that Mizoram shares with that
country. A third possible advantage could be the support
the DHD-J receives from the National Democratic Front
of Bodoland (NDFB) anti-talks faction.
Union Home Secretary G. K. Pillai, who paid a two-day
visit to Assam starting July 30, 2009, to specifically
assess the NC Hills situation, expressed concern about
the politician-militant nexus and leakage of Governmental
funds in the region, during a lengthy interview with
this writer. "The politician-militant nexus is
a matter of serious concern. Apart from the law enforcing
agencies, civil society must also play a proactive role
to prevent or break such a nexus," Pillai said.
To deal with a situation like that in the NC Hills (where
the chief executive of the Autonomous Council is himself
accused of leaking development funds to a militant group,
possibly in return for protection), the Centre, Pillai
said, was trying to amend the Sixth Schedule to set
up Village Councils, with direct funding to take governance
further down to the grassroots, adding, "The system
of the elite having access to huge funds must be changed.
Those who lead Autonomous Councils in the region are
the elites from among the community." Pillai also
made a significant revelation — a densely forested
and sprawling District like NC Hills had just four Police
Stations until the DHD-J stepped up violence. "Four
more police stations are being set up," he disclosed.
Despite the arrest of its leader, Jewel Garlossa, the
DHD-J appears to have retained its operational capacities
on the ground. Garlossa had, in any event, been ‘leading’
the group in absentia from his safe haven in distant
Bangalore. The second and third rung leaders of the
group have clearly taken command, though they appear
to be lying low at present. The group has also made
a formal offer for truce, complete with a list of weapons
and demands. The authorities are, however, aware that
the DHD-J had betrayed their trust in the past and are,
consequently, waiting and watching. A clear victory
for the SFs is still to be won. What is absurd is the
fact that the Government is even thinking of considering
the truce offer made by the DHD-J, something that can
only lend legitimacy to small bands of armed men who
kill people, strike terror and then come out to talk
peace. With the experience of so many ‘peace processes’
in the past contributing to so little peace in the region,
it is, indeed, a pity that the authorities have not
(Courtesy: South Asia Intelligence