ARMED CONFLICTS IN ASSAM: SOME UNADDRESSED ISSUES
A series of incidents of indiscriminate killing by different insurgent groups in the three districts of Assam-- Kokrajhar in lower Assam, Tinsukia in upper Assam and Karbi Anglong in central Assam--, during the run up to the Independence Day, as well as incidents of a series of bomb blasts during the Independence Day celebration rattled the entire state. These incidents have revived the decade-old picture of insurgent activities that seemed to be gradually fading away from the minds of common people. Simultaneously, such massacres have also proved that separatist forces are still active in the state, and are desperate to strike and spread their activities, whenever they get the opportunity.
Thousands have lost their lives since the birth of United Liberation from of Assam (ULFA), the first rebel organisation in the state of Assam in 1979. Over the years the state has become a volatile zone with emergence of a number of militant outfits representing different tribes and communities. While thousands of innocent people, police and personal of security forces have lost their lives in indiscriminate killing and attacks by insurgents, thousands of those insurgents, too, have been killed during counter-insurgency operations. In the midst of the turmoil, series of ethnic clashes also shook different parts of the state- particularly in Bodoland Territorial Area District areas and two hill districts that claimed lives of hundreds of people and displaced over 12 lakh people from their original villages. Most of these people have to face displacement for several times. There is no end to penury and human suffering in these conflict–hit areas.
Statistics regarding this prolonged armed conflict situation and ethnic clashes are easily available in different media. However, accounts of such prolonged turmoil of devastation and endless suffering are not mere statistics nor just information. Whenever a nation goes through a period of turmoil and armed conflict situation, the devastation gives rise to many issues. In a state like Assam where there are a number of insurgent groups representing different tribes and communities in hills and plains of the state are still active, the fallout of such conflicts is even worse. As the core issues pointed out by these outfits are still to be resolved, the unaddressed issues and grievances have led to economic stagnation and anxiety among the communities. The question whether the alarmingly increasing incidents of crime and violence, intolerance and moral policing have anyway connections with prolonged armed conflict situation, and repression and grievances of common people are still to be addressed in academic discourses and dialogues.
The conflict resolution process in Assam has two discourses – firstly the ongoing peace-talks between Central government and different militant outfits for reconciliation, and secondly the government’s effort for rehabilitation of victim families through different schemes to mitigate insurgency at ground level. The main concern of this feature is to bring out crucial gender issues that have failed o find space in the processes of both reconciliation and rehabilitation.
It is important to bring out issues of victim women, as they have to suffer the most pain of desolation and devastation. Prolonged armed conflicts have already claimed lives of thousands of innocent people. Mothers have lost their sons, thousands become widows and many women have lost their brothers and relatives. Most of these women are wives of either of those innocent civilians, who were killed by extremist, or of insurgents killed during counter-insurgency operations.
In a report published by Ministry of Women and Child welfare, it has been revealed that altogether 8,031 persons have lost their lives between a period of 1992 and 2014(November). Out of them, 4,172 are innocent persons, 822 security personnel, and 3,037 insurgents belonging to different insurgency group. The reports also says that apart these, there is no trace of huge number of persons killed during ethnic clashes. The report further states that according to National Family Health Survey II, percentage of women-headed families in Assam is 12.1, which is higher than the national average of 10.1. However, the report is silent if it is because of prolonged conflict situation or due to others reasons.
The rehabilitation process of conflict resolution in Assam mainly include announcement of an ex-gratia to the immediate relatives of the deceased one as compassionate ground, if it is an insurgency-related killing. Although, everybody’s life is priceless and its loss can never be compensated with any amount of ex-gratia, such assistance, however, to some extent helps the family to survive and make out a living, especially when the departed one is the sole bread-earner of the family. There is a need to enlarge the scope of rehabilitation schemes to include free health benefits in the form health cards for free treatment and hospitalisation, ensuring continuation of education free of cost, insurance coverage etc. In most cases, children of victim families in rural areas have to discontinue education to support the family with their earnings.
Till 2008, the ex-gratia amount to the next of kin of the those killed by insurgents was only Rs.1,00,000/. The amount was increased to Rs.3,00,000 in 2008. At present, Rs.5,00,000/ is given to such families as ex-gratia. During the recent killing of Kokrajhar incidents, in addition to ex-gratia of Rs.5,00,000 announced by the State Government, the Bodoland Territorial Council also announced an ex-gratia of Rs.1,00,000/.
Unfortunately, in the discourse of conflict resolution, it is very difficult to trace if such amounts have been released to all the victim families, particularly when the devastation is on a large-scale, such as ethnic clashes. During recent incident of killing of two persons in Tinsukia on August 12 by suspected ULFA(Independent)militants, however, the administration has directly handed over the allocation announced as compassionate ground to the victim family. Conversation with number of victim families in different parts of the state,however, reveal a different picture. More than 80 per cent of such victim families live in villages and most of them have very low education. Even if the money is deposited, these families may not be aware of hoe to utilize the money. In 2007, a widow belonging to Dimasa tribe in Karbi Anglong Hills district, whose husband was killed by insurgents, told this writer that she had spent almost the entire amount received as ex-gratia in performing the death rites of her husband. She considered it as her duty to give feast the villagers, as almost everyone of them came to console her at the time of her grief. She was practically left with no cash in hand after the ritual, and five children to feed and support without any livelihood. During nineties decade many of those victims who lost their near and dear ones, due to series of ethnic clashes in Kokrajhar district did not avail the ex-gratia only because they were either ignorant of such provisions, or they could not muster the courage of visiting a government office to claim the ex-gratia. In absence of any rehabilitation initiatives, most of these families had to stay in makeshift relief camps for over a decade, without any livelihood. Moreover, those who were found “missing” during the clash, too failed to avail anything.
During a conversation with a widow victim of 2014 massacre in Narayanpur and Nonke-Khagrabari area in Baksa district of BTAD, it was revealed that she lost her two children and husband in the brutal attack by militants. It was really difficult to imagine how this young widow, who did not have formal education, would overcome the trauma of losing her children and husband and start a new life, even if she would be paid the ex-gratia.
Witnessing of insurgent activities, killing innocent people at public places, burning of villages, bomb blasts traumatise the children and leave indelible injury on their tender minds which are not visible to others. This often creates serious impact on their behavioral pattern. Trauma for a minor boy, who witnessed the bomb blast triggered by ULFA militants at the Independence Day parade ground in Dhemaji on August 15, 2004, was so severe that he lost speech, and even after three years of the incident, when the family was visited, it was found that the child could not speak in spite of a prolonged treatment and therapy.
Families of insurgents killed during counter insurgency operations are mostly vulnerable, and always kept aside from both the process reconciliation and rehabilitation. The government has no schemes for rehabilitation and rebuilding of life for them. Society too, has shown apathy for fear of possible harassment of government and security forces. Issues of children of insurgent families are often ignored, despite the fact that these families too, belong to our society and they are our own people. These families have never denounced the constitution of India, unlike the insurgent belonging to the family, and are opposed to violence.
The process of conflict resolution strongly needs a concrete plan of action for rehabilitation and rebuilding of life, addressing life and livelihood issues of all victims of violence—insurgency or counter-insurgency, ethnic and other conflicts. It is also important that these issues find space in academic and social discourses. Till now the victims’ families live in isolation, and there is a need for a platform to discuss their crucial issues. We also need organizations which can guide these families devastated by violence to over trauma and rebuild their lives.
Till the armed conflicts as well as issues that trigger ethnic and other clahes in which armed groups also get involved, are resolved, fragile peace in the state cannot hold for long and violence is likely to recur at any time. In such a situation, the efforts should be to ensure that victims’ families get the maximum support for rehabilitation and rebuilding their lives.
Ratna Bharali Talukdar