The Recent Karbi-Kuki Clashes in Assam

-- Selawar Bey

THE ONGOING fratricidal conflict between Karbi and Kuki tribes has already taken a toll of more than fifty lives, apart from burning down more than a hundred villages belonging to the two communities. The number of casualties and quantum of loss may be much higher, as government agencies are yet to reach all the sites of the ghastly incidents, especially in the higher ridges of the Singhason-Khonbamon mountain range. The entire episode was triggered off when the terrorist outfit “Kuki Revolutionary Army” (KRA), swooped down on Thekerajan village – a cluster of Karbi hamlets in Singhason hills under Manja P.S. of Diphu subdivision on 2 November 2003 and rounded up all the villagers at gunpoint. They then mercilessly killed three of the villagers including a woman, burnt down the few houses, looted entire households besides subjecting the villagers to physical torture. On their way back, the terrorists also abducted nine youths. One of these youths somehow escaped from captivity while the decomposed bodies of two others were found days later and the fate of the rest is yet to be ascertained. The KRA later justified their action as a revenge for the abduction of two of their cadres, reportedly by the UPDS – a militant outfit of Karbi youths. In retaliation, the UPDS burned down a nearby Kuki village called Gangjang and also killed six Kuki persons including students and children near Manja and Diphu within a week of Thekerajan incident. Thus a cycle of attacks and counter-attacks got started between Karbi and Kuki communities.

Before going deeper into the whole episode, some facts need to be kept in mind. There are two different groups of Kukis in Karbi Anglong. One group that inhabits the Hamren area is indigenous to Karbi Anglong; they are fully integrated with the local population in all respects. Anthropologists call them ‘Old Kuki’, whereas for the Karbis they are ‘Nochans’. The present conflict has nothing to do with the ‘Old Kukis’, who have a population of around four to five thousand and are confined only to a small pocket in Hamren subdivision.

The other group that is involved in the present conflict with the Karbis has migrated from the neighbouring states of Nagaland and Manipur during the last two decades. Some of these migrations have taken place via the North Cachar Hills route, that is, the migrated population first came to North Cachar Hills from Manipur and stayed there for a couple of years before moving to Karbi Anglong. The population of these ‘New Kukis’ is around twenty five thousand and they have settled mostly in Singhason-Khonbamon Hill range of Diphu subdivision. Prior to this migration, there were no Kuki villages in Diphu subdivision, except a few Kuki hamlets bordering Dimapur sector of Nagaland. The cause of this migration was also very obvious. The socio-political turn of events in Nagaland during the 1980s had compelled the Kukis to leave that state. While one section crossed over to Manipur, the other came to Karbi Anglong, feeling it to be a more secure place. But Manipur again got entangled in Kuki-NSCN(IM), Kuki-Paite and numerous other inter-tribal, and sometimes inter sub-tribal violent clashes, leading to a situation where Kukis there also started looking for a safer place to settle down and the Hills of Karbi Anglong with an environment of democratic movement became a preferred place to migrate.

The migrant Kukis would also have integrated with the socio-political as well as cultural milieu of Karbi Anglong, as was the case with other ethnic groups like Dimasa, Rengma Nagas, Tiwas, Man-Tais, Garos, Tea-tribes, etc., who have been maintaining a cordial and vibrant relationship with the Karbis since ages. But the ruling clique, in their bid to sabotage the popular movement for Autonomous Statehood, floated a number of sectarian organisations to divide the movement and people, and Kukis were instigated to join one such outfit called ‘Banner Organisation’, with a declared anti-Autonomous State movement stand and rabid anti-Karbi orientation. Those among the Kukis who were part of the Autonomous State movement and therefore refused to follow the parochial and communal line of ‘Banner Organisation’, were suppressed with the tacit support of the government agency. Thus a social tension started brewing in Karbi Anglong, thanks to the policy of the ruling Congress party.

Apart from this intrigue on the part of the Congress, the renegades of the Autonomous Movement, who have now usurped the name of ASDC(U), tried to outsmart Congress in this game of subversion of the Autonomous State movement by dividing the people of Karbi Anglong. Soon after their desertion from the original ASDC in September 2000, they entered into a written pact with Kuki National Assembly (or KNA, which has its sister armed outfit under the name of KRA) on 4 December 2000. The KNA is part of ‘Banner Organisation’, known for its anti-Autonomous State stand. The renegade ASDC(U) entered into this pact only to secure Kuki votes, and in the bargain they promised that in case they win they would ensure that Singhason Hills is recognised as a Kuki area and awarded a Kuki Hill Council. After this agreement, the Kukis who were residing in Nagaland and Manipur thought that the safest place to dwell was Karbi Anglong, and their influx into this Hill District started in a big way. And KRA, so far active only in Manipur, also sneaked into Karbi Anglong. This massive increase in the Kuki population base further hardened the anti-Autonomous State stand of KNA, resulting in heightened tension with the indigenous Karbi community.

The renegades of ASDC(U) had taken this opportunist stand of entering into unholy alliance with KNA only in order to oppose the CPI(ML) spearheading the Autonomous State movement. Just like the anti-people policies of the Congress had in the past engendered social tensions and divisions among the people of Karbi Anglong, the renegade ASDC(U)’s bid to outsmart them subverted the cause of Autonomous State movement.

Now, after arriving in Karbi Anglong in the early 2001, the KRA started collecting ‘tax’, by way of extortion, from the Kuki villages. This is the general practice of these terrorist outfits. But their drive did not remain confined to the Kuki villages, they also infiltrated into the nearby Karbi villages and started extorting money from Karbi villagers, claiming that the Singhason Hills area was a Kuki territory and so it was their own fiefdom. The Karbi villagers who refused to pay them were beaten, tortured, and in some cases the KRA thugs engraved with blades, phrases like ‘Kuki Hill Council’ on their foreheads or backs. Facing this oppression and humiliation, some Karbi people contacted the UPDS, which then entered into clash with KRA. But UPDS too proved not much different to KRA with regard to collecting taxes. Crushed between the armed outfits of KRA and UPDS, it was the common people of Karbi Anglong who were the real sufferers. Then the fight between the two outfits assumed another dimension – who would control the ginger cultivation and trade, which is a profitable venture. Economic blockades over ginger selling was imposed alternatively by KRA and UPDS. This added to the sufferings of the people. All this strife went on during 2001 and 2002, and even into 2003, but the Central as well as State governments only stood by as silent spectators, because the course of events was in accordance with their design to divide the people of Karbi Anglong, keep them busy in ethnic clashes and divert them from the Autonomous State movement. With a policy of non-interference they only encouraged the conflict to grow.

In particular, this fitted well into the overall strategy of the BJP-led NDA government, which has encouraged inter-tribal conflicts such as Kukis vs. Nagas in Nagaland and Kukis vs. Paites in Manipur, Bodos vs. Santhals in Bodo-dominated areas of Assam, local Arunachal tribes vs. Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh, and conflict between tribals and non-tribals in Tripura. In the Northeast their agenda is to keep the tribal people busy in inter-ethnic clashes, making it sure that their genuine democratic cause does not come up in a forceful united shape. In this conflict, the BJP wpold like to fish in troubled waters and secure a foothold by favouring a faction, because otherwise the people of Northeast have been so far non-responsive to their Hindutva agenda, or to an appeal for Ram Mandir.

Our Party has firmly opposed this blatant anti-people scheme of inciting clashes and genocides. And we have always taken first-hand initiatives to reach the troubled spots, to work to restore peace and harmony, to indict the government for its failure and secure compensation for the victims. However, the apathy of the government is clear from the fact that except the Assam chief minister, who reached Diphu circuit house in a helicopter only to stay there for 20 minutes, no other State or Central government representative showed up in the 35 days when the conflict was at his height. Even customary measures for maintaining ‘law and order’ like imposing curfew or deploying armed police or military were not taken while looting and arson had become the order of the day in this part of Karbi Anglong. George Fernandes, the Union Defence Minister neither visited Karbi Anglong, nor uttered a single word on the Karbi-Kuki clashes.

Our Party instructed all its leaders and cadres in Karbi Anglong to plunge into relief work and devote all resources for rehabilitation and normalisation of life. In contrast, all other political parties of Karbi Anglong, be it Congress, BJP or the renegades of ASDC(U), were busy in Diphu Town Council elections. Our MP from the Autonomous District, Comrade Jayanta Rongpi, himself stayed on in the troubled area and could not come to Diphu to address a single election meeting. One month’s salary of our MP has been contributed to the relief and rehabilitation fund, apart from collections made by the Party throughout Karbi Anglong for the purpose of rebuilding the gutted Karbi villages.

Our Party demands from the Central and State governments:
1. The KRA terrorists must be flushed out of Karbi Anglong. The KRA must be declared a banned organisation.
2. Influx of Kukis from the neighbouring states into Karbi Anglong must be stopped.
3. Negotiations must be initiated with the ‘anti-talk’ faction of the UPDS.
4. The families of the persons killed in the clashes must be offered a compensation of Rs. five lakh each.
5. The people who were displaced due to clashes have lost their paddy crops unharvested. Therefore, free ration must be supplied to them for the whole year till the next cropping season under Annapoorna Yajana.
6. A special survey must be conducted to assess the real loss suffered by individual households and a special package must be awarded to compensate the losses.
7. The pact between the renegade ASDC and KNA must be scrapped immediately.