The curious thing about banning rebel outfits is that the action has followed or has been followed by the emergence of clones, often carrying the same name, styling themselves dissident or pro-talks factions.
The Centre’s decision to ban the Jewel Gorlosa faction of the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD-J), also known as Black Widow, under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967, is of a piece with its well-established response to problems whose essence is no great mystery and which neither side or, of late, sides to the dispute want to make an honest attempt to resolve. They are instead keen on making tactical gains.
The DHD-J, banned on July 2, following the arrest of its leader Jewel Gorlosa in Bangalore in June, joins the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), which have also been proscribed under the same Act. The ULFA was banned on November 28, 1990 simultaneously with the launching of Operation Bajrang, the first military operation against it. The NDFB was outlawed on December 21, 2000.
The curious thing about banning rebel outfits is that the action has followed or has been followed by the emergence of clones, often carrying the same name, styling themselves dissident or pro-talks factions, or as structures even more genuinely representative than the original, of which they were till recently a part, and more committed to their stated objectives. Further, despite seemingly nuanced differences, as for instance an apparent shift from a commitment to secure ‘sovereignty and independence’ to a demand for greater ‘autonomy,’ the core objectives of these factions, pro- or anti-talks, remain the same. The rhetoric is self-determination; the reality is ethno-nationalism, a deadly cocktail in the context of the territorial and ethnic mix of the region’s land and people.
Both pro- and anti-talks factions continue to be in contact, directly or indirectly, with the government — at the Centre and in the States — they are supposed to be fighting against, suing for peace and seeking talks, on their own terms. What, then, should one make of such bans and the more or less simultaneous phenomenon of both the banned outfit and its ‘pro-talks’ factions apparently suing for peace and talks?
There is hardly an insurgent/terrorist organisation in Assam or the northeast that has not gone through such a process. The standard explanation of the rebel groups is that such splits are encouraged, indeed, engineered, by the “agencies of the Union and State government[s],” the standard code for intelligence agencies of the GOI with a view to weakening their “revolutionary resolve.” There might be some truth in such paranoia. However, such a reading is also a typical instance of scapegoating since it fails to address the weaknesses and contradictions of the ideology and practice of such groups, in particular the attainability of their stated objectives — sovereignty and independence. In reality, such perceived malevolent manoeuvres have not necessarily led to the “weakening” of these outfits.
Thus, Operation Bajrang and Operation Rhino (September 1991), the first two military operations against the ULFA, directly contributed to the phenomenon of the so-called SULFA (Surrendered ULFA), the first instance of a split in the outfit. Though an element of criminally tainted careerism characterised the activities of many SULFA cadres, not all of them abandoned the ‘politics’ that first led them to the organisation whose stated objective has remained the same: restoration (not attainment) of the lost sovereignty and independence of Asom. Since then, there have been other groups that, while still considering themselves organically linked to the ULFA, want to talk to the Centre about their objectives which in essence are no different from the stated objective of the ULFA, also on their own terms.
Similarly, with the ‘removal’ of Ranjan Daimari as NDFB founder-chairman in December last, the residual leadership of the outfit has come to be identified as the “pro-talks faction.” The description is not strictly accurate; nor was the development, like what happened with respect to the ULFA nearly two decades ago, sudden or unexpected. The outfit entered into a ceasefire agreement with the State and Union governments in May 2005. However, the NDFB leader who signed it was Dhiren Boro, who was to replace Daimari as chairman over three years later. Indeed, the decision to replace its founder-chairman was preceded by a decision in the outfit’s general assembly in September 2008 to take part, directly or indirectly, in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls, a decision denounced by the ousted chairman as “capitulation.” “I am still the president of the NDFB to carry out the principles and ideology that are enshrined in the constitution and manifesto of the NDFB.” (The Hindu, December 28, 2008).
The United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDA), a rebel outfit driven by Karbi nationalist aspirations, meaning very broadly greater autonomy for and integration of Karbi people, one of the hill Tribes, living in Karbi Anglong and Karbi inhabited areas outside and contiguous to that district, signed a ceasefire agreement with the Union and State governments in May 2002. As sure as night follows day, an anti-talks faction of the UPDS, styling itself the Karbi Anglong North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), came into being two years later, with the objective of attaining the rights of self-determination to the Karbi people.
The trajectory of the DHD and its clone too has followed similar lines. Its stated objective is the establishment of a ‘Dimaraji’, a political and territorial structure for the Dimasa, another hill tribe. The path chosen, as by similar structures, was armed struggle. However, again following the established pattern, the DHD decided to enter into negotiations with the State and Union governments that led to the emergence of the anti-talks faction led by Jewel Gorlosa, though one version of this trajectory has it that factionalism on the part of Gorlosa led to the DHD suing for talks and peace. Be that as it may, both ‘pro- and anti-talks’ factions have engaged in violence, declared ceasefire ‘voluntarily’, and expressed their desire to hold talks.
None of this has mitigated violence in Assam where these outfits are active. Though, barring the ULFA whose domain is the whole of the State, all outfits have a limited territorial spread defined by the dominant group (Boro, Karbi, Dimasa) identified with them. Thus, every such ethno-nationalistic mobilisation involves an element of territorial assertion, with even the smallest of groups claiming territories inhabited by the other. For instance, the Naga nationalistic assertion, the oldest of such struggles, claims for the putative Nagalim territories that are inhabited or claimed to be inhabited by the Naga people outside the State of Nagaland: in Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar. The violence and killings in North Cachar Hills involving the majority Dimasa and the largest minority Zeme Nagas also have this dimension, the inescapable fallout of ethno-nationalistic assertions. For, integral to such assertions is the dehumanisation and demonisation of the other, which alone explains the periodic exercises of “ethnic cleansing,” integral to all such ethno-nationalistic assertions and their rationalisation by the ideologues of ethno-nationalism.
Self-determination, sovereignty and independence, autonomy, territoriality, language and culture: there is no end to the buzzwords that animate such struggles. Some of these, like land and language, are matters of life and death to the people. However, as noted at the beginning, almost every such struggle has led to the emergence of structures that replicate the slogans and tactics, often even the strategic objective of the original. During the years this writer was a working journalist in the region, security officials used to gloat over the splits, seeing in them the beginning of the disintegration of such outfits. Life and experience have taught that the splits, far from weakening, have made the problem more intractable. In the beginning was the Naga National Council. Out of the NNC, and against its dominant politics, emerged the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, later Nagalim. Now there is another NSCN. The story is the same everywhere: to divide is to multiply.