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Assam: Legitimizing Ethnic Militias?

POSTED ON AUGUST 7, 2009

WASBIR HUSSAIN
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 conflict.


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 learned much.

(Courtesy: South Asia Intelligence Review, www.satp.org)