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Rabha bloodshed: a political and security failure


wasbir Hussain
Executive director,
centre for development and peace studies

The violent protest by Rabhas against the holding of Panchayat elections in the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council area led to deaths and rioting in western Assam on polling day, 12 February. More than a dozen people were killed in police firing and at least six died in group clashes. The bodies of the six people have been recovered from the Mornoi police station area. Scores of houses were torched, asphalt carpeted roads were dug to disrupt vehicular traffic, trees felled to block roads, wooden bridges and even school buildings were burnt, and police and polling personnel attacked. The Rabhas were clearly bent on putting a halt to the Panchayat polls and the Congress–led state government was determined to hold the elections.

When two sides stick to opposite views, it is common to make attempts to achieve a breakthrough and end the deadlock. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi did appoint a group of ministers to talk to the Rabha bodies, but as usual the group of ministers failed to break the stalemate. This only demonstrates the lack of expertise or political wisdom of the members of the Gogoi cabinet. I am saying so because we have hardly seen Congress ministers in Assam being able to resolve any burning issue and prevent a situation from escalating and turning violent. The rehabilitation of victims of the riots in the BTC area is still hanging in a balance, the issue of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is still stuck in uncertainty, and the question of resuming work on the Subansiri dam is left unanswered.

In the current case, the Rabha groups have been saying they would not let the Panchayat polls be held before the elections to the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council. But the non–Rabha communities were in favour of the Panchayat polls. Tension was mounting and things escalated 72 hours before polling was to begin on Tuesday morning. The State Election Commission and the police administration clearly failed to gauge the situation. They were clearly ignorant of the build–up. Otherwise, Dispur would have managed 25 paramilitary companies for the area as projected or requested for by the Goalpara district administration. They had to make do with just 14 companies. On 13 February, a day after two dozen people were killed, Chief Minister Gogoi rushed three ministers to the district. The question arises as to why these ministers were not stationed in the area before hand?

The big question is not the failure of the state and its security establishment to anticipate the mood among the Rabhas in the area. The big question to ask is why the Assam Government did not think it necessary to conduct the Rabha Council polls in the past 17 years! Yes, the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council came into being in 1995 and not a single election was held all these years. This means, a section of community leaders, in league with the Assam Government and its innumerable babus and netas, merrily ran the Council affairs with all the funds at their disposal. It was a happy arrangement. There is nothing to be surprised if some of these local netas running the Council for so long do not want any elections to the Council at all and do not wish to face the electorate.

So, on this occasion, it has both been a political and security failure on the part of the Tarun Gogoi government. After all, it seemed the government was on a big ego trip and therefore pushed ahead with the Panchayat polls defying the mood among the Rabhas. There was also no lessons learnt because during the 2008 Panchayat polls, too, the area witnessed violence over the same reason. There was all the more reason for the State Government to have gone for the Council polls during the past few years. But politicians can goof up more than they can resolve matters. And yes, they could actually be interested in keeping the issue alive for obvious reasons!

For once, Chief Minister Gogoi has said he owns full responsibility for the poll violence in Goalpara district. And yes, he has said the state government would also order a CBI probe aside from a judicial enquiry. With so many assurances or pronouncements of handing over cases to the CBI, and with no results for people to see, such talk does not enthuse many. And for the leaders leading the Rabha agitation, they need to ponder if they too have mishandled the situation by failing to reach an acceptable position during their talks with the state government. After all, only common Rabhas had to pay with their lives in this messed up affair. (courtesy: The Sentinel)