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Assam: Updating the Past

The recent killings of Hindi-speaking migrant workers in Assam have sparked an outrage against the United Liberation Front of Asom. It is also likely that the state's hitherto "ding-dong" responses that have culminated in the deployment of the armed forces will soon evoke an equal outrage.

Commentary

Assam: Updating the Past

The recent killings of Hindi-speaking migrant workers in Assam have sparked an outrage against the United Liberation Front of Asom. It is also likely that the state’s hitherto “ding-dong” responses that have culminated in the deployment of the armed forces will soon evoke an equal outrage.

M S PRABHAKARA

B
etween January 4 and 8 this year, 73 persons, almost all of them Hindispeaking migrants scratching a living by providing necessary and essential services to the community and popularly though not entirely accurately known as “Biharis”, died in over a dozen incidents of targeted killing spread over five districts of upper Assam. According to the stories of death, near death and miraculous survival recalled by those who have lived to recount many terrifying moments, small bands of highly motivated and ruthless killers came in the dark or the dead of night to their modest settlements and picked their targets. In some instances, reports say, the killers were dressed in camouflage.

There is little doubt that the killers belonged to the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) which has a history of engaging in such killings, though the ULFA has not formally claimed responsibility for the present killings. The reticence in this case is understandable for, even in an environment inured to the most extreme forms of terrorist violence, the killings have led to widespread, though curiously qualified, outrage. Typically, expressions of such outrage condemn the killings because the victims are all “innocent persons”; the obverse implications of such qualified outrage are quite frightening.

Typically, again, the ULFA and some of its overground supporters have ascribed responsibility for the killings to the covert agencies of the state and union governments – part of the dirty tactics of defaming the organisation. George Fernandes, the convenor of the National Democratic Alliance who during his recent visit to the state met the ULFA vice chairman Pradip Gogoi, presently an undertrial prisoner in Guwahati jail, communicated to the media that Gogoi had told him that the killings were the handiwork of the state and union governments. This was done not merely to defame the organisation but also to stand the ULFA in the corner for the non-resumption, actually the non-beginning, of the talks, or the talks about the talks, a drama that has been going on for more than a year.

There has been a depressing predictability about the events and their aftermath. Security forces in full strength and in full alert are once again on the prowl, individuals and organisations are issuing indignant statements and writing “letters to editors”, Very Important Persons (VIPs), local and from outside the state, descend on the state everyday, there are symbolic marches and signature campaigns and lighting of candles, in short unending photo opportunities for one and all. The media has been having a field day. So too, the clichés and the platitudes. On the top of it all, the prime minister on his way back from the Philippines dropped in to meet the victims and “take stock of the situation”.

The killings, however, abated and stopped even before such bestirring, as if in tacit acknowledgement of the outrage, both genuine and contrived, that they had caused.

The ULFA itself has never made a secret of its antipathy to the “Biharis” and other working class migrants from outside the state and had earlier targeted the Hindispeaking people of the state, notably in November 2003, when it exploited parochial resentments that had nothing to do with its stated objective of “Swadhin Asom”. Hindi-speaking people were again targeted in two incidents in Guwahati in October and November last year. Indeed, the latest issue of its journal, Swadhinata, specifically refers to the emergence of mini-Rajasthans, mini-Bihars and mini-Kolkatas on the soil of Asom, prefiguring as it were the shape of future initiatives by the organisation.

The socio-pathology of such antipathy towards “uncouth Biharis” and, more generally, against ordinary working class people who speak Hindi, among people who do not speak Hindi as their home language and are indeed contemptuous of the language and of its speakers, a truly nationwide phenomenon, is much too complex a subject to be dealt with in this brief note. One example of such complexity is that the very people who would give their arm to flaunt themselves in the company of a glamorous Hindi film star would also be the first to engage in plainly racist stereotyping of the Hindi-speaking people as the “great unwashed”.

Perhaps, as a “balancing” factor of such racist bigotry, one has also to note that the people of Assam and, even more so, of the rest of the north-east region with their pronounced Mongoloid features also suffer routine stereotyping as “Chinks”, not merely by the “uncouth Biharis” but in the supposedly civilised and sophisticated metropolitan areas of peninsular India as well. Apart from its separatist ideology, ULFA, so much rooted in the soil of the state, is also the inheritor to such bigotry.

Rationalisations

There are any number of theories to explain and, some from persons known to be close to the ULFA, to rationalise the killings. The standard, one may almost say received, explanation is that the killings are part of a long-term plan to drive away the Hindi-speaking working people from the state and thus enable the vacuum caused to be occupied by Bangladesh migrants – part of the service that ULFA is rendering to its patrons in Bangladesh where its leaders are believed to have taken shelter. In this perspective, based on the facts and circumstances of the 1947 partition of the subcontinent and widely shared (and feared) even now in Assam, Bangladesh (like Pakistan before it came into being) has its own agenda of completing the unfinished task of that partition, meaning incorporation of Assam into what then would have been East Pakistan and what now is Bangladesh.

As against such “communal” arguments are the “Assamese nationalist” rationalisations which see the killings as an expression of the ULFA’s legitimate anger

Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007 over the failure of the government to be more responsive to its preconditions for sitting down for talks. One such precondition is the release of five of its imprisoned leaders; another is that the “restoration of Asom’s sovereignty” should be part of the agenda of such talks.

Ignored in both the explanations are the facts and circumstances, in particular those relating to the economy of the state, that have led to the emergence and, over the decades, the consolidation of the ULFA as the dominant and a near-legitimate factor in the state’s political and social discourse even as the organisation itself remains formally outlawed.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times, and the enfeeblement of the Indian state and its ruling elite, that even those who share the “received explanation” for ULFA’s actions also urge for the acceptance of such preconditions, arguing that even if India’s sovereignty is not negotiable, there is nothing wrong in discussing Asom’s sovereignty because those who argue such a cause are after all “our own boys”.

‘Ding-dong’ Response

Only this explains the constant dingdong response of the state and union governments to the challenges posed by the ULFA. This too is understandable, for even though outlawed and disdainful of “Indian politics”, ULFA has been an important factor in every election since the emergence of the first regional party government in the state in December 1985. In fact, the ULFA has been consistent in its stated objective, making and offering only tactical shifts and concessions, throwing its adversaries off balance time and again.

Caught in a bind of its own making, the state and union governments can only blow hot and cold, sometimes at the same time. Hence, the approach of fight, fight and talk, talk, which a constitutional authority like the state, unlike an outlawed organisation like the ULFA, simply cannot sustain indefinitely. Only this explains the recent admission by the chief minister that the government perhaps should not have suspended operations against the ULFA in August last year – they were resumed six weeks later following recrudescence of violence – which was accompanied by the promise that the government was prepared to resume truce, provided the ULFA stopped its violent activities.

Such ambivalence is understandable since the medium-term objective of the government is simply to ensure that there would be no violence during the Republic Day celebrations, an occasion that along with the Independence Day celebrations provides occasion for the ULFA to engage in some kind of armed propaganda; and that the forthcoming national games will be held as scheduled in Guwahati despite the ULFA’s call for a boycott of the games.

As on earlier occasions, the government has responded to the latest gruesome acts of outrage by the ULFA by deploying the armed forces, clearly acknowledging that the task is beyond the state’s law and order maintenance structures like the police and its auxiliaries.

The Army’s Mandate

This is indeed a terrible kind of admission to make, for a state and its constitutionally mandated government, with the powers and resources at its command. But given the political realities, it is perhaps useless to expect that the state should have a professionally qualified, well-trained and well-equipped police force, with a good intelligence network, that it is allowed to function according to established rules and without any kind of interference from political or bureaucratic bosses, that the police forces should so conduct themselves that they are seen as friends and not enemies by the ordinary people. These seem to belong to a world of normative makebelieve, not the hard inheritance of decades of cynicism and corruption.

Instead, to go by the belligerent statements of the defence minister during his visit to the state, the armed forces that were already deployed would “do whatever it takes” (not the first instance of life imitating the senseless platitudes of television anchors) to “beat down the ULFA challenge”. However, since the armed forces are professionally trained to battle enemies and not malcontent citizens, even if such malcontents claim not to want to remain citizens, and are moreover trained to kill, not control and apprehend, the adversaries, the consequences of deployment of the armed forces with a mandate “to do whatever it takes” in operations against rebels within the country are all too predictable.

Hence, it is only a matter of time when the present curiously qualified indignation over the outrageous actions of the ULFA is replaced by more unequivocal protests against army atrocities and complaints over the deaths of “innocent civilians”. Put simply, the armed forces are being inveigled into performing a task that is properly the domain of the police.

We have been there before; we will be there once again.

EPW

Email: p_motnahalli@yahoo.com

IICM

Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007

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