Explosions ripped through Assam last October, killing 64 and injuring hundreds. Conflict has grown between indigenous people and immigrants from Bangladesh, leading to the rise of separatist groups and armed insurgents fighting various causes against various enemies. Mark Hilliard of Le Monde diplomatique writes
Dilip Sarma’s lifeless feet poked out from the back of his funeral pyre; logs were placed on his head and ankles so his body would stay flat as it burned. Face down, his head pointed north, as is the Hindu custom, and four coins were tossed on the flames to finance a voyage to heaven. “All of the body’s nerves come together and form a plumb in the middle of the fire,” explained a welcoming mourner. Sarma’s proud son, Rishirag, circled the pyre three times in ritual robes and set fire to his father’s body. It would take an hour to burn.
Across the northeastern hills and plains of India and beyond, Sarma was acclaimed as a folk singer, with music and words that crossed cultures and religions. He was the “singer for the people” who had no voice. He passed away on 7 October and was cremated at the Navagraha crematorium in the city of Guwahati, the capital of Assam, in the respectful company of those who loved him. They paid tribute to a man who looked past the same web of conflicts that had torn a region to shreds, and offered a message of unity.
A human rights lawyer who hovered around the blazing pyre puffed on a cigarette and, nodding at the harmonious gathering of mourners, said: “This is India. This is Assam.”
In the same region three weeks later, 18 bombs tore through the streets, some not far from where Sarma had passed away in Guwahati, and took 64 more lives. Three hundred others were injured. For the majority of those who live in this less travelled region, this too is India. This is Assam.
The state is one of “Seven Sisters” alongside Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya. Together they make up a region embroiled in conflict, with more than a hundred armed insurgency groups fighting a variety of causes, for a variety of people, against a variety of enemies – although notably the armed forces. The population live with the consequences and those who attempt to protect the unprotected – supported passionately by the human rights organisation Front Line – live a life of endless danger and paranoia.
A nation divided
Since the partition that followed British colonial rule, the northeast aspect of India, connected to the main body of the country by the narrow “Chicken Neck” Siliguri Corridor, has been violently divided between indigenous people and illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. The disputes have led to decades of armed conflict, murder, rape and a savage hatred of rival factions and cultures.
Assam, roughly the size of Ireland, has seen the rise of separatist groups since just after the second world war. In the 1980s the state witnessed a mass movement of indigenous people against a surge of registered voters who had crossed the border illegally. They feared politicians were using the vote bank to consolidate support, a fear that remains today. The lack of resolution to the crisis led to a rise of armed militant groups, principally the notorious United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa). It was the same group who were blamed three weeks ago for the bomb blasts in Guwahati. In turn, they blamed the armed forces.
As a result of the insurgency, the Indian army and police clamped down on militant groups and in so doing, sparked a struggle, armed and otherwise, that has raged to the present day. Central to that struggle, and those spread across the Seven Sisters, is a single piece of legislation: the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The controversial laws, first introduced in 1958 and extended in 1972, allow the military a free hand at ruthless law enforcement, far from the reach of civilian courts and remorseless in its methods.
The Act allows a widespread use of lethal force, the right to destroy property deemed suspicious and the right to arrest and search without warrant. But perhaps most incendiary of all is the stipulation that no law enforcement officer or soldier can face prosecution for their actions (outside of classified military court martials) nor can they be identified. The result, according to human rights defenders in the region, is that a large proportion of innocent people are targeted by the security services, that people are imprisoned without just cause and, most sinisterly, that people disappear – never to be seen again – in “secret killings”.
“There has been an armed conflict for the past 30 years; and after 1990, 12,000 people were killed and about 20,000 people have been detained from time to time,” explained human rights lawyer Arup Borbora, sitting in the library of his house in Guwahati, surrounded by towering cases of legal texts. “History and the hard facts of the region clearly reveal one thing: that there can’t be an easy solution. Any attempts to apply the sets of law [the AFSPA] have proved futile, any attempt to liquidate the rank and file of the rebel armed groups have also proved futile. Therefore militarism has never been the answer.”
Armed groups still active
The army disagree and believe that extreme measures are called for in extreme circumstances, or environments. With the amount of militant activity, they need greater power. But with greater power comes greater resentment. And greater reaction.
“I have been defending many detainees and finding cases of fake encounters (with militant groups) over the years,” said Borbora. “They kill in custody and their (victim’s) whereabouts is not known for years.”
The former president of the Guwahati High Court Bar Association was part of a special organisation, the People’s Consultative Group (PCG), formed to act as a go-between for the government and Ulfa command. In October 2005 the talks looked encouraging, but by December of the following year they had collapsed. “It was basically because certain quarters in the government thought that there was no point talking to these rebels and that militarism was still the right way.”
With the collapse of the negotiations, armed insurgency groups remain active although the level and effect of their actions vary according to whom you ask. One thing is clear though: in the centre of the conflict there are victims and many indigenous people are targeted on unfounded and often malicious charges of being connected to the insurgency. Borbora is privileged; his profile – he has addressed the UN on the situation in Assam – and his connections make him a difficult target for those who resent him defending victims. He is unlikely to be arrested – “Not yet. Maybe. And 500 lawyers will come for me,” he says. Others are not so lucky, and support for those who speak out is thin on the ground. Those who do rely on organisations like Front Line for support, both financial and moral.
Human rights defender Lachit Bordoloi was arrested last February by the security services. They had previously seized a laptop from his house without a search warrant – they don’t require one – and charged him under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. His crime, they told him, was helping fund Ulfa. Bordoloi was on the same PCG as Borbora and also worked for the MASS group established to defend human rights in Assam.
Sitting in a hotel room in Guwahati, the journalist smiled as he recounted the charges levelled against him. “I was trying to keep contact with them [Ulfa] because I am a negotiator,” he explained. “So later they [the security services] made many charges like I am the man who prepared the newsletters for the organisation. They found a newsletter in my email because I was talking to a journalist in Delhi!”
Still smiling at the comedy of charge
s, Bordoloi – a prominent and widely respected man – explained his great “bamboo plane” conspiracy. The armed forces accused him of helping build a scale bamboo aircraft in the jungle to train Ulfa fighters to hijack the real thing at a later date. “But this charge is gone now because everyone laughed at it.”
Human rights defenders are not always in the mood to tell their tales with smiles on their faces and their lives are never a joke. They maintain contact with those targeted by one side or the other – the rebel factions are also guilty of many crimes against civilians. The armed forces argue that they have a right to suspect civilians when an underground war rages around them. “The armed personnel see the general population as the enemy and the general population see the army as the enemy,” Bordoloi says of the streets outside where armed soldiers and police roam in endless numbers. “Anyone can throw a bomb.”
On a plane home to Guwahati in 1998, student Nitul Kochari picked up a newspaper. The front page story described how a family had been slaughtered in a gross act of revenge by militia loyal to the state. It was the first he had heard of it. It was his family.
His brother Deepak was a member of Ulfa and was murdered by a group of former rebels who had surrendered, many believe with some financial incentive. Human rights defenders explain that the state uses former rebels as a private militia to enforce the fear and violence that they cannot. It is a loaded accusation in a land devoid of proof.
Kochari’s brother and wife, his sister and mother were butchered by 12 Sulfa (Surrendered Ulfa) members. “The police came after, and they didn’t allow anyone inside,” said a softly spoken young man through an interpreter. “The police told me that there were unknown extremists who killed my family.”
The trouble is outside the city
Most of the trouble around Assam occurs in the countryside, in rural areas there where the indigenous people dwell. It is far out of the city, a one-hour journey, that we encountered Ananta Kalita. He was sitting in his uncle’s house; a strange concrete shed-like structure capped with corrugated iron. A strip neon light hanging over the kitchen table offered a dramatic backdrop as Kalita leaned forward to point out the entry and exit wounds of a bullet. It tore through his right temple and jaw before exploding back out through his left cheek. The scars, now nearly nine years old, were barely visible.
A more obvious reminder are the two armed guards that follow Kalita everywhere. They are paid by the government (after his assassination attempt received widespread publicity), but he supports them and can’t afford to marry because of the burden. A member of the Assam Nationalist Youth Students Organisation, a non-violent group calling for federalism of Assam which split with Ulfa in 1979, he says he was targeted by Sulfa militia, with the knowledge and support of the army.
Kalita was abducted from his home, brought to Guwahati in a car, held for a number of nights – he said in a police barracks – before finally learning his fate. “I was taken to a hilltop and shot through my right eye. I felt dizzy and they pushed me over the edge of a hilltop and I fell down. I don’t know [for how long] but I was unconscious for some time. I was bleeding and I found myself in the jungle.” Kalita was fortunate. Though tied and gagged, he found a road, hitched to help and was rushed to hospital where he stayed for more than four months.
Later, a High Court investigation ruled that there was little evidence to do anything. Kalita says there were subsequent investigations, but nothing came of them either. He was told he should receive half-a-million rupees ($10,000) in state compensation, but he never did. There are many reports and investigations, many payments of compensation and an endless supply of mistrust and suspicion. But justice is never done. The security services rule with impunity and they are never punished or prosecuted. Only the central government can give permission for that, but they never do. Nobody ever asks. Nobody trusts the “system”. And what is left after the public dramatisations of law and order are the same victims and defenders living in the shadow of lawless law enforcement.
“The army kept coming,” says Kalita. “They came twice at night, but I wasn’t targeted because I had security and they were armed.”