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Lawlessness in the Hills of Assam

Dr. M. Amarjeet Singh is Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution, School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Banglore, India. Prior to this he was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 12, 2009

    Following the arrest of one of the most wanted insurgent leaders of Assam, the state government must immediately act tough against other insurgent groups operating in the hill districts of the state.

    In one of the biggest achievements of the Assam Government in its fight against insurgency, Jewel Gorlosa, who had held hostage the entire North Cachar Hills (NC Hills) district of Assam since 2004, was finally arrested by a joint team of Assam and Karnataka Police from Bengaluru on June 3. Jewel Gorlosa, the ‘chairman’ of the Dima Halam Daogah-Jewel Gorlosa (DHD-J) faction was arrested along with his ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Partha Warisa. In a related development, one of Jewel Gorlosa’s top aides, Frankie Dimasa, was killed in a police encounter in Guwahati on June 4.

    In 1991, Jewel Gorlosa co-founded the now defunct Dimasa National Security Force (DNSF). The group had a rather short life with almost all the DNSF insurgents, except Jewel Gorlosa, surrendering en masse in 1995. Garlosa then co-founded the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD). Again, his association with DHD was short-lived, with the group deciding to enter into a ceasefire with the government in 2004. Subsequently, he launched DHD-J, which is estimated to have about 300 to 400 active members today. The DHD-J seeks a separate Dimasa state, called Dimaraji, comprising the whole of the NC Hills, the Dimasa-dominated areas of Karbi Anglong district of Assam, and parts of Dimapur district in Nagaland. It unleashed a reign of terror in the entire NC Hills and has been accused of resorting to illegal taxation and siphoning-off development funds. Its main targets include local politicians, the rail network, and Naga tribes. The group was accused of killing three prominent local politicians - Purnendu Langthasa, Ajit Boro and Nandu Langthasa - in 2007. DHD-J also caused widespread destruction of public property including rail infrastructure and did not even spare passenger trains. Since May 23, 2009, goods train services in the NC Hills have been indefinitely suspended due to frequent insurgent attacks. Earlier on April 20, the DHD-J had killed six persons, including five security-men, in an ambush on the convoy of a private cement company's vehicles in the NC Hills.

    Between 2007 and 2008, more than 70 civilians were reported killed and 35 security forces personnel died in operations against insurgents in the NC Hills. Further, between January and May 2009, about 60 people have been killed in the NC Hills, which included 45 civilians, 12 security-men and three insurgents. During this period, the DHD-J also mounted about 15 attacks against the railways.

    Spread over 4890 square kilometres and home to about 189189 persons (2001 Census), the NC Hills traverses Nagaland, Manipur and Meghalaya. It is inhabited by various tribes as well as non-tribal people. Prominent tribes in these hills are: Dimasa, Zeme Naga, Hmar, Kuki, Biate and Hrangkhol. The district is also home to various insurgent groups. Insurgency is one of several reasons that has adversely affected the timely implementation of development projects in the NC Hills. In several instances, insurgency delayed the timely execution and completion of development projects leading to escalation of costs. Sometimes projects had to be abandoned due to insecurity. One example in this regard is the 201-km long Silchar-Lumding Broad Gauge Conversion Project, which was sanctioned in 1996 with a budget of Rs. 648 crore. It came to a grinding halt due to unabated violence unleashed by insurgents, more particularly by the DHD-J, which resorted to kidnapping and killings of workers engaged in the project. Envisaged for completion in 2006, the deadline was revised to 2009 resulting in a cost escalation of Rs. 1823 crores.

    Further, contesting claims over land and territory by various insurgent groups who claim to represent a particular tribal group have often led to violent conflict, such as the ongoing Naga-Dimasa conflict in the NC Hills. While Dimasa insurgents claim to safeguard the Dimasa tribe, Naga insurgents claim to be protecting the interests of Nagas. The DHD-J has been accused of instigating the Dimasas to target Nagas, compelling Nagas to retaliate. The death toll in the current spate of attacks on villages of the Dimasa and Naga tribes has gone up to 29 (till June 9). More than two hundred houses have been destroyed and hundreds of people have been displaced in the past few months. The Zeliangrong Hoho, a Naga organisation, has accused DHD-J for the ethnic violence. And the Dimasas have accused some Naga groups of engaging in land-grabbing. Dilip Nunisa, the chairman of the DHD, which is currently observing a ceasefire with the government, has accused both the DHD-J and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) for the ethnic disturbances in the district. Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi has blamed the two factions of the NSCN and the DHD-J for the current intra-tribal unrest. But refuting Gogoi's charge, the NSCM-IM said, "We are made the scapegoat as they found none to blame for the incidents … It is unfair on the part of the chief minister to put the blame on us. However, this is not the first time." The DHD-J also washed its hands off the incidents.

    The situation in the NC Hills has been further compounded by the reported nexus between insurgent groups and local political leaders. On May 30, 2009, Assam Police arrested the chief executive member of the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council (NCHAC), Mohit Hojai, for allegedly paying Rs 1 crore to two persons, Brojen Hojai and Babul Kemprai, for purchasing arms for DHD-J. The cash was, however, recovered from the duo following their arrest from Guwahati on April 2, 2009. The duo alleged that Mohit Hojai had given them the money to purchase weapons for DHD-J from an unidentified international arms dealer.

    On May 26, 2009, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram warned the DHD-J that its challenge to the state will be met. On the following day, a high-level meeting on the security situation in the NC Hills decided to requisition the army’s help in the running of trains in the district. The decision was part of a security blueprint prepared at the meeting attended by senior central and state government officials. The blueprint also envisages the redeployment of security personnel, including those from the army and better co-ordination among the various security agencies.

    Following the arrest of the chief architect of the violence in the NC hills, the DHD-J will definitely be weakened, and may lie low for some time before they regroup. At the same time, it would be premature to assume that the group will lose its fire-power in the aftermath of the arrest of Jewel Gorlosa.

    Tough times are ahead before the state government, which now has two options: (a) initiate dialogue with the DHD-J; and (b) mount full-scale operations against them. If it chooses the first option, the DHD, which is currently observing a ceasefire with the government, will definitely oppose this move and may even pull out of the talks. The government should therefore not be in a hurry to initiate a dialogue with the DHD-J. Simultaneous peace talks with two Dimasa groups, DHD and DHD-J, may not be a good idea under current circumstances.

    If the government chooses the second option, massive security manpower would be required in view of the terrain of the NC Hills, which is hilly and thickly forested. Since the insurgents have easy access to the neighbouring Karbi Anglong district, counter-insurgency operations will have to cover both the NC Hills as well as Karbi Anglong. Although the second option is a challenging task, it appears more appropriate at this juncture. In that situation, the ongoing peace dialogue with the DHD can be pursued further to redress the grievances of the Dimasas.