Sinlung /
29 October 2012

An Accord For More Violence?

The tripartite peace deal between the Centre, Assam and the Dimasa rebels might end up sowing the seeds of future ethnic conflict in the region, says Ratnadip Choudhury
Chief Minister of Assam Tarun Gogoi, Self-styled Commander-In-Chief, Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel) Niranjan Hojai, seen in front of a massive haul of arms and ammunitions surrendered by the 360 militants of the outlawed Jewel Garlosa faction of the Dima Haolam Daogah (DHD-J)
Photos: UB Photos

Chugging along the metre gauge track, the Hill Queen Express is one of the most mesmerising rides in Northeast India. Running between Lumding Junction of Karbi Anglong district and Haflong, the district headquarters of Dima Hasao district, the route, passes through numerous tunnels. Travelling along this scenic route, a first-timer would hardly suspect the pervasive violence in the region. Ask 36-year-old Gautam Dutta — a vendor on the Hill Queen — for whom this route has been both the means to a livelihood and a gamble with life, and he says: “For 10 years, Dimasa rebel groups have unleashed a reign of terror in the area. The train was ambushed on a daily basis, hundreds have died in attacks by Dimasa rebels and even the army could do nothing.” Gautam has himself survived two ambushes on the train.
On 8 October, a tripartite agreement was signed between members of the Dimasa outfit, Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. What is being touted as a major step towards lasting peace in the region could well turn into a long and bloody battle between factions of various armed outfits. One only needs to look at the Hill Queen to understand why the peace pact could come to naught.

From 2003 to 2009, the Hill Queen Express was like a train readying for war. Bulletproof engine cabin, bulletproof vests for drivers and guards, paramilitary and army guarding the trains with automatic weapons and mortars. This is the Dima Hasao district of Assam, formerly known as the North Cachar Hills.
Home to many tribes, the hills have been infamous for the terror of the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD). In 1995, members of the Dimasa National Security Force (DNSF), a militant outfit, surrendered en masse to security forces. DHD was a spin-off of the DNSF; self-styled commander-in-chief Jewel Garlossa started DHD as its chairman, with Dilip Nunisa as its vice-chairman and Pronob Nunisa its commander-in-chief. Its aim, like that of other ethnic outfits in the region, was to create a separate state of ‘Dimaraji’ for the Dimasa tribe, comprising Dimasa-dominated areas of the NC Hills, Karbi Anglong district of Assam and parts of Dimapur in Nagaland.
In 2003, DHD declared a ceasefire to create a scope for negotiation with the government, but the outfit split again in 2004. Dilip and Pronob Nunisa formed DHD (Nunisa faction), which continued with the ceasefire, while Jewel Garlossa, with the help of trusted aide Niranjan Hojai, formed the DHA (Jewel faction) with an armed wing known as the “Black Widows’ and started a spell of bloodshed.
In 2009, after the arrest of Jewel Garlossa in Bengaluru, the Black Widow faction laid down arms and joined the peace parleys. Currently out on bail, Jewel has been named in the chargesheet by the National Investigating Agency (NIA), which is probing into the Rs 1,000 crore NC Hills Autonomous Council scam, where government funds were not only siphoned off, but also used by rebel groups to purchase sophisticated weapons.
At the time of laying down arms, Black Widow cadres had demanded that the NC Hills district be renamed as Dima Hasao (Dimasa Hills) district. Much to the chagrin of the non-Dimasas living in the region, the Assam government gave in to the demand. According to the 2001 census, Dimasas constitute 35 percent of the total population of the district, while smaller non-Dimasa tribal groups like the Zeme Naga, Hmar, Kuki, Karbi, Baite and Hrangkhol add up to 45 percent. A sizable non-tribal population comprising mostly Bengalis and Nepalis bring up the remaining 20 percent.
“Right from 2003, the Dimasa rebels have been involved in ethnic cleansing of non-Dimasa people and the Assam government has kept quiet,” says Atheng Luingthang, president of the Indigenous Peoples’ Front (IPF), the umbrella organisation of all non-Dimasa tribes. “The nomenclature Dima Hasao is not acceptable to non-Diamsa tribes. Other tribes have also been living here for ages.” The IPF wants bifurcation of the district; they want a separate autonomous council under the 6th Schedule of the Constitution with one seat in the Legislative Assembly. For four years, the non-Dimasa tribes have been vocal against any ‘peace deal’ that gives the Dimasas an upper hand in the region. So, even as the DHD shunned violence, the region saw a series of bandhs, protests, clashes and counter-attacks. Adding to the Dimasas’ worry, smaller tribes like the Hmars and Kukis have their own armed outfits, apart from the NSCN(IM), which is quite active in the area.
It is against this backdrop of violence and an open arms race that factions of the DHD climbed down from their demand of a separate Dimaraji to ink a tripartite Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) with the Centre and the Assam government on 8 October. The peace pact has paved the way for upgradation of the North Cachar Hill Autonomous Council (NCHAC) to the Dima Hasao Autonomous Territorial Council (DHATC) where fresh polls will be held. A Rs 200 crore special development package will be provided apart from other developmental activities, including those in non-Dimasa areas. Three new administrative units will be carved out.
The DHD will disband and its leaders will in all likelihood form a political outfit and contest elections for the territorial council. Very much like the Hagrama Mohilary-led Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF), which was formed after the Bodo Liberation Tigers signed a peace deal in 2003 that led to the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and disbanded itself. And therein lies the rub.
“The BTC model has shown its teeth recently,” says Luingthang, referring to the recent violence in Kokrajhar between Bodos and Muslims. “The resentment of non-Bodos at being governed by Bodos even in areas where Bodos are in a minority resulted in conflicts. We do not want this. We want a separate council for the Dimasas and another one for us.” Luingthang adds that if the territorial council is not abolished and bifurcation is not done, the state and central governments will be responsible for another round of ethnic turmoil.
“IPF’s allegation is baseless. The peace deal is not only for Dimasas but also for other tribes. They are playing ethnic politics,” retorts DHD(N) Chairman Dilip Nunisa. However, the bigger challenge for Nunisa is not the non-Dimasas, but his one-time partner-turned-foe Jewel Garlossa. “Jewel is also a signatory of the accord, thus he will have to respect it. His cadres have killed our boys even during ceasefire. Now, as the outfits get disbanded, all this must stop,” adds Nunisa.
Other groups are wary of the animosity between the two warring Dimasa factions. “We took a lot of pain to convince the Jewel faction to lay down arms,” says Jethang Naiding, President of the Jadike Naisho Hosom (JNH), the apex body of the Dimasas. “The Dimasa society wants peace. If DHD leaders fail to show commitment, they will be outcast from Dimasa society.”
Among Dimasas, the feeling is that the deal is a “soft one”. Not only has the aspiration for a separate Dimaraji state been blown into thin air, the demand for inclusion of 94 contiguous Dimasa villages outside the district into the proposed territorial council has also been laid to rest. There’s also the fear that the government will make the same mistake with the DHATC that it made with the BTC — that is, carve out new districts within the territory. If that happens, then, for the people of the region, it could be the classic case of getting out of the frying pan only to get into the fire. To make matters worse, Dima Hasao has illegal firearms in plenty, and rebel outfits ready to use them against each other.
Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.


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