Sinlung /
28 May 2013

Barak: The Forgotten Valley

By Rahul Karmakar

Guwahati, May 28 : For seven years, police in London were looking for Bangladeshi national Abdul Shakoor alias Moibul Haque for a double murder. Last week, Shakoor was arrested from Cachar in south Assam's Barak Valley.

It turned out that months after fleeing London, he sneaked in from Bangladesh through the Meghalaya border. And Shakoor is no Columbus. It was quite an easy exploit.

Here, he remarried, got an OBC certificate, a PAN card and opened accounts with the State Bank and Canara Bank, spending the past few years as just another Indian citizen - till police nabbed him on May 23.

In recent years, the Barak Valley - comprising Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj districts - has become the natural choice of fugitives because of its unique location.

Locals say it is easier for them to step into Bangladesh than go to the other parts of India. The 90-km-long largely flat border the valley shares with Bangladesh contrasts with the surrounding hills of Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and Dima Hasao district of Assam.

The only access to these districts - although there's an airport in Silchar - is either through a highway crossing Meghalaya or a metre-gauge railway line through Dima Hasao district. But they are often cut off due to landslides and strikes by militants and armed bandits.

"The Barak Valley is almost always out of focus, and if at all, it makes news for all the wrong reasons," says Sushmita Dev, MLA from Silchar, south Assam's nerve centre and the headquarters of Cachar district.

In the past two years, the valley has witnessed more than 50 abductions and murders and become a haven for gunrunners, wildlife smugglers and drug traffickers.

Even cars stolen and people abducted elsewhere in the country finally end up here. While car parts are taken apart and then smuggled out to Bangladesh and Myanmar via Mizoram, abducted people often vanish when ransom does not reach on time.

Also, Maoists from Jharkhand come here to cool their heels when the heat is too much back home. Recently, Anukul Chandra Naskar alias Pareshji, a top level Maoist leader on the run, was arrested from this area.

What is bothering the authorities most is the possibility of Maoists gaining clout among the underpaid and disgruntled adivasi workers in the 125-odd tea estates in the valley. Police say the presence of Pareshji could be the tip of the iceberg.

But there was a time when the valley was a prized possession of the British empire. The tea estates here were so precious that in 1835, planters raised Cachar Levy - later renamed the Assam Rifles, India's oldest central paramilitary force - to stop tribal raiders from the adjoining hills.

But Partition cut off the Barak Valley's link with the eastern part of Bengal and alienated them from the Assamese-speaking Brahmaputra Valley.

The sense of alienation grew stronger when the state government made Assamese the official language. The decision was later withdrawn after 12 protestors died in police firing on May 19, 1961.

The impact of all this distancing became most apparent during the past decade. "The Barak Valley has completely gone into the grip of criminals. And the law enforcing agencies are virtually providing security to these criminals," says Waliullah Ahmed Laskar of the Barak Human Rights Protection Committee.

What is worse, the valley's remoteness and disconnect with the rest of the country encourage even law enforcers to indulge in illegal activities. In March 2005, Colonel Chandra Mohan Shukla was accused of posing as a Naga rebel and extorting Rs. 85 lakh from tea estates.


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