The massacre of innocent men, women and children in Sonitpur and Kokrajhar districts of Assam is a familiar, cynical, bloody cycle of violence that is never far away; it is a testament to the simmering cauldron of suspicion, fear and hate stalking the Assam valley and hills. Can there be any ‘reason’ that can even begin to justify such murders of children, some of them barely a few months old?
The butchery indicates a set of well-planned and coordinated operations that clearly caught law enforcement agencies and the State government by surprise. The marauders had been under pressure for some time, with police forces inflicting recent losses on them in Sonitpur district. A breakaway group of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) named after its elusive leader, I.K. Songbijit, is the group responsible for the killings, State police and administrators say. The faction is opposed to talks between the larger NDFB group and the Indian government but does not seem to have any clear and tangible goal apart from that of spreading mayhem and terror.
It recently told the local media that it would show that it is capable of tough retaliation if the pressure continued. But the use of weapons against women and children in the northeastern region is not new or limited; such abuse and brutality has been extensive not just in Assam, but also its neighbouring States. In Meghalaya for instance, earlier this year, a Garo armed group shot dead a young woman in front of her children. There are allegations of abuse against armed groups in Nagaland and Manipur as well.
What has also made such groups difficult to tackle is the fact that they camp on the forested and lightly patrolled border tracts of Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan, according to officials. The latter was the camping ground, until 2003, of three major armed groups — NDFB, United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation — which were using it to organise attacks and recruit members in Assam. That year, they were attacked, devastated and driven out by the Royal Bhutanese Army. There have been reports that some groups have relocated to these thickly forested and sparsely populated areas.
No rationale It is not just a sense of tragedy that embraces us, but of despair too, when we look at these murders in our own land by rebels without a cause. These murders are without rationale in many ways — but in some perhaps there is a morbid design: for one, to destabilise the state by creating a backlash by the targeted community against Bodos. Thus the armed group would be in fact harming their own people if not their cause, but this does not seem to bother the killers or their leaders or organisers. The Ranjan Daimary group, whose leader was handed over to Indian authorities by the Bangladesh government under Sheik Hasina Wajed in 2009, as were the ULFA and Manipuri leaders of secessionist movements, has indicated a willingness to talk. Daimary is out on bail and there is a ceasefire.
An earlier armed group, the Bodo Security Force, gave up the struggle and entered the peace process and participative democracy under the banner Bodoland People’s Party (BPP). Although it holds political power in the Bodoland Territorial Council districts of western Assam, the BPP has been accused by its opponents of involvement in extensive violence and intimidation as well as extortion, like all other militant groups there.
Yet, despite public opposition to the BPP from non-Bodo groups, the Tarun Gogoi government had kept it as a coalition partner. The public anger against the BPP peaked during the 2014 general election which propelled Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party to power at the Centre, and in ‘Bodoland’, a non-Bodo candidate who was once a prominent former leader of the ULFA, crushed all candidates, including the official BPP nominee.
But the Songbijit faction has rebuffed efforts to reach out to it and never clearly declared its aims and objectives. This could lead to major law and order problems in the State and its many diverse and divided ethnic and linguistic groups which both the State government and the Centre could find difficult to tackle. The Bodos have often been seen as a privileged ethnic group. One should note that in the Bodo-run districts of Assam in a chunk of the Western parts of the State, Bodo militant groups have wielded the stick against other communities and have not faced any substantial repercussions, despite the extensive violence of the summer of 2012 when over four lakh people were displaced and nearly 100 killed in attacks targeting Muslims of Bengali origin.
A Member of Legislative Assembly of the ruling Bodoland People’s Front was arrested for alleged involvement in those attacks. In early May 2014, women and children from the minority community were again victims of murderous assaults by the same Songbijit group.
Poor government response The impunity with which the killings have taken place raises two fundamental questions: Has the State government failed to fulfill its first responsibility of providing security to ordinary people? And are its forces, especially the police and civil administration in the districts, capable of launching the strikes and counter-strikes which must defang the killers?
Clearly, the State government has not done enough. The reasons for this are varied: a lack of sustained political pressure to tackle the challenge, as well as the diversion of focus as a result of the fierce challenge to the Chief Minister’s rule by his one-time lieutenant, former Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma — a crisis that had crippled the State administration for the best part of this year. In addition, effective measures were not taken against the organised violence in the Bodo districts over several years; a climate of laxity and impunity had crept in, only to be shaken by occasional bursts of acute violence and a deep sense of insecurity, fear and suspicion.
As far as the State’s police machinery is concerned, it has numerous effective, thoughtful and efficient officers, including at the field level. But the size of the force is inadequate to deal with the challenges it faces: its numbers and firepower need to be increased as they are spread too far, too thin, otherwise. Also, the state becomes dependent on central paramilitary forces and the Army, which cannot be sustained but for brief periods of time.
We saw such acts a few days ago in Peshawar, Pakistan, where over 100 children were gunned down by extremists. These are crimes against humanity which can neither be condoned nor justified. Not only are they barbaric but they deserve the strongest possible response from the state. This must be accompanied by the continuing determined effort by civil society and moderates at all levels to maintain peace and not fall into the trap of the killers.
Today, the Bodo political leadership cannot watch in silence any more, especially the former armed groups and their leaders: they are on trial here as is everyone else. The issues are not just of land or political or economic power, but of simple survival and learning to live with one another in a complex State with its 20-odd ethnic groups, many minorities, few majorities and over 50 languages.
(Sanjoy Hazarika is director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.)