Even though the menace of militancy has reduced, insurgency remains a major poll issue in Assam
Since 1991, elections in Assam have been overshadowed by attacks, threats, intimidation and boycott calls from various insurgent groups. This time round, the State is poised for a relatively peaceful election since all the insurgent outfits, barring some factions, have either signed ceasefire agreements or are engaged in dialogue with the government.
Even though the cadres of various militant outfits are yet to mothball their battle fatigues, the main political formations are making the lull in insurgency a major poll plank, wooing voters with promises of bringing back an enduring peace to a State ravaged by three decades of insurgency.
During the last five years of the Congress-Bodoland People's Front (BPF) coalition government, Assam's violence profile reads — total number of incidents: 1,949; extremists arrested/killed/surrendered: 5,033; civilians killed: 801; security forces personnel killed: 111.
According to the annual report of the Ministry of Home Affairs for 2010-11, the number of incidents of violence in 2010 in the State dropped to 251 from 424 in 2009. During 2010, a total of 1,026 extremists were either arrested, killed or had surrendered as a result of sustained counter-insurgency operations.
For the financial years between 2001-02 and 2010-11, the State was given assistance of Rs.1,070.56 crore by the Centre for security related expenditure. The amount for the entire northeast region during the period was only Rs.2,024.09 crore.
“Development cannot wait for peace, and when development takes place, it brings peace and prosperity,” was the mantra of the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government for the last two consecutive terms. The ruling party claims that the mantra worked and that the people's mindset changed after the development work over the last 10 years.
The insurgent groups were weakened over time as a result of counter-insurgency operations. Unable to find shelter in the State, the two major insurgent outfits — the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) — first sought shelter in Bhutan and later in Bangladesh.
The subsequent crackdown on the outfits in these countries pushed the insurgents to the wall. Fed up with being caught in the crossfire for three decades, the people also intensified pressure on the groups and the government to engage in unconditional talks.
“We promised in the last election to initiate the peace process with insurgent groups,” says Mr. Gogoi, while promising to carry forward the dialogue process. The ruling party hopes to reap the benefits of bringing them to the negotiating table.
Voters will now have to choose between the ruling party's claim and the charge levelled by the Opposition parties — that the Congress-led government is insincere in carrying forward the dialogue process, having delayed talks to gain political mileage.
The violent faction
Although the ULFA, led by chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, announced that it would have “no role” in these elections, the faction led by its estranged self-styled commander-in-chief, Paresh Barua, carried out a bomb attack on the PCC headquarters in Guwahati. It also warned of more attacks on the ruling party.
The ULFA, however, has denounced the violence by the Barua faction, saying it is a conspiracy to sabotage the peace process.
The Barua faction's hardened stance has prompted the Congress to allege that the AGP and the BJP have made a secret pact with it. In response, the two Opposition parties say the Congress came to power with the ULFA's assistance.
“It is well known that the Congress took the help of militants to destablise the AGP governments in a bid to prevent the regional party from ruling the State,” claimed Leader of the Opposition and former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta.
The allegations and counter-allegations have revived the issue of the politician-militant nexus. Since 1991, the ULFA and other insurgent outfits have tacitly helped one party or the other by attacking or intimidating the candidates and workers of its rival.
The issue of the “secret killing” of family members of ULFA leaders and cadres during the second AGP government from 2001-06 has become another major poll plank. The Congress alleges that the killings were carried out by masked men in connivance with the AGP government. The AGP, while refuting the charge, says the Congress has kept the issue alive only to score political points.
The war of words between the ruling and Opposition parties has managed to keep the insurgency problem alive, even if the threat from militancy has vastly diminished.