In less than a month from now, four Indian states are going to the polls. Two of them may throw up surprises, while the other two promise predictable results. While the Left Front in West Bengal is facing its darkest electoral hour, this election in Tamil Nadu may offer the last melodramatic performance to some of its ‘actors’. But the focus here is on Assam, which generates neither academic interest nor public discourse, and is somewhat absent in the national consciousness. Yet, it has the most fascinating story of ‘power’ packed electoral politics.
Looking beyond the upcoming elections, the 2016 Assam Assembly may have the most interesting composition of legislators. The Congress, AGP, BJP, NCP, TMC, etc. will be sitting on one flank of the house while the other flank is occupied by leaders and cadres of at least eight terror groups now engaged in talks or are almost ready for talks with the Government of India. Two such groups are already represented in the state Assembly. The political formation of what was Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and a few Independent legislators with terror profiles are already part of the government. The BLT used to be the most violent of the armed groups; having blown up passenger trains and causing heavy human casualties. It is not only part of the coalition government but it governs an autonomous council with little accountability. The Assam Police may not have any definite records about the violent activities of BLT members, but a few hundred killings can easily be attributed to this group. Amongst the Independent MLAs, the most active is a surrendered ULFA cadre who ran, amongst other illegal activities, a fishing camp inside Kaziranga National Park. He was finally arrested inside the Park but got away and appeared on local television channels daring authorities to touch him again, arguing that he is the ‘undisputed king’ of that area. So the territories are defined and the satraps run their writ.
The 2011 Assam Assembly may lose out on some of the big names who have just descended on the scene and will take a while before settling down, but it will have its own share of celebrity legislators. For someone who has lived in Assam during the late eighties and early nineties, Dhekial Phukan will be an easy name to recall. He commanded Upper Assam districts from Lakhimpur right down to Sonitpur across Dhemaji and Sibsagar. When asked, residents of those areas refer to him as a brutal murderer and a member of the banned ULFA.
ULFA, one of the few terror groups in the region which sustained itself for thirty one years without a split, is now a divided house. Or so it appears. But an evaluation of its terrorist activities has not been carried out. The police do not have sufficient records and the documentation of conflict rests heavily on orally recounted stories. One such incident during the early nineties was the killing of a doctor; he was crucified on a tree in the Upper Assam town of Lakhimpur. Documents are, however, available on the killing of the Officer in Charge of Laluk Police Station in the same district. During the same time, in the same town, a student leader was buried alive simply because he refused to join the group. Numerous instances of stories similar to these are available with several families. The mastermind or possibly even the perpetrator of each of these crimes allegedly was Dhekial Phukan, who is now an aspirant for a seat in the Assembly. And a national political party has nominated him as its candidate.
Nowhere, except in India’s North East, would one find so blatant a policy of granting amnesty and legitimacy to people or groups of people who have used the most abhorrent forms of violence against civilians, women and children.
The law allows every individual to contest for elections even it is from the jail. If election is a participatory process, then surely elections in Assam are well participated in (even by once self styled ‘underground’ commanders who still carry guns but engage in ‘overground’ extortionist methods). So while Dhekial Phukan has no legal hurdles in aspiring for a seat in the Assembly, the moral (and not the model) code of conduct should have barred political parties from giving him a ticket. At the same time, if former Bodo militants Chandan Brahma and Hagrama Mohilary along with their Central Committee members can occupy ministerial berths, then why cannot Phukan at least contest in elections?
Mizoram perhaps set the trend with former guerillas taking over the office of the Chief Minister. That office has been virtually reserved for former rebels. But the Mizo insurgency was different in nature from the others. Some of the biggest underground leaders are waiting their turn in the Nagaland and Manipur assemblies, though their de facto control over the political establishment is well known. In Assam too, the influence of the underground rebels and the alleged nexus of politicians and parties with various groups is not only a media speculation but a matter of current investigation.
The study of electoral politics in the states of the North East explains how democracy can absorb people who have fought against the democratic institution. But it fails to answer a critical question - the victims’ right to justice. For example, the families of the victims of Dhekial Phukan’s terror run are now on the streets demanding action. The parents of the children who were blown up on Independence Day (2004) in Dhemaji now say they want the killers to be hanged. So while authorities argue that amnesty is granted to buy long term peace, they must find answers to individuals’ right to justice. After all, we do not seek a counterproductive peace which sets the clock back to where it all began.