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Counter-insurgency industry, mysterious militia’s and parochial politics

by Sanjay Barbora, 6 November 2008

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Express Buzz, 3 November 2008

When bomb becomes the symbol of failure

Initial reactions are an important indicator of how people take stock of events beyond their control. On October 30, as the news of serial bombs exploding around Guwahati spread, people around our office complex called friends and family to make sure that they were safe. As the enormity of the blasts sunk in, one heard that similar explosions had occurred in Barpeta Road, Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar. The overwhelming response among people was one of concern. The administration however reacted by trying to apportion responsibility on perceived perpetrators of the blasts. Government spokespersons and senior security personnel, looking politically dyslexic went on air to say that they were not ruling out the responsibility of one or the other militant group in the attack. Obviously angered by this display of callousness and failure, local people began to stone police vehicles. A local television channel kept repeating footage of an angry man throwing a tyre twice his size at a damaged police vehicle. To add to the death toll, ten more people mostly police personnel were killed in an ambush in North Cachar Hills. A small faction of a militia claiming to fight for the rights of the Dimasa people was said to be responsible for the ambush. Trapped between the anonymity of bombs and the intimacy of an ambush lies the tragic story of contentious politics in contemporary Assam.

While journalists and security experts ask the obvious post-event question of who is responsible for the blasts, this would be an opportune moment to pause and think about why this has happened. Anger and resentment are recurring themes in the political landscape in the region. While Thursday’s events are on a different scale altogether, it would be pointless to see them as a paradigmatic shift in more than three decades of conflict. Which is precisely what the administration and security experts would like us believe, since such hollow profundity sounds sombre and chilling and make them look less insensitive. No, this is a variation of an old Assamese story of the abject lack of a political space to express collective angst of people who feel that an unsympathetic and calculating administration has forsaken them.

Barely three weeks ago the north bank of the Brahmaputra was witness to riots that left many dead and thousands displaced. Many of the displaced still live in makeshift camps in Darrang district. The riots originated in a charged milieu follow ing a general strike called by the All Minority Students Union (AMSU) against the alleged victimisation of Bengali-speaking Muslim youth. Tensions generated during the general strike erupted as non-Muslims attempted to prevent AMSU from mobilising. Again, the state machinery looked thoroughly inept as spokespersons went on their finger-pointing exercise. Similarly , in 2005 hundreds of people were killed and more than sixty thousand displaced in clashes between mysterious militia claiming to represent the Dimasa and Karbi people in Karbi Anglong district.

Why has political difference become a matter of violent confrontation and what does the bomb do to notions of a political process? For a provisional answer to the first part, one has to understand the manner in which constitutional vocabulary and counter-insurgency have created a milieu of distrust among different communities who share the same resource base. Political scientist Sanjib Baruah has written about the manner in which a colonial spatial order has been imposed upon groups of people in Northeast India, whereby notions of a people belonging to a particular habitat has been instrumental in framing identity politics. In Assam antiquated census categories such as “hill tribe”, “plains tribe” and so on are part of political currency during negotiations with the state. The remarkable simplicity of these categories is dangerous when one applies them to complex processes of political mobilisation. Hence, an Oraon extea worker may still live in a relief camp sixteen years after a particular phase of the Bodo movement, where non-Bodos were forced out of western Assam. In every such incident the possibility of dialogue diminishes and prejudices multiplied. Confrontation, therefore, becomes an inevitable reality and every community looks for protection within its own fold, ostensibly to provide security to a collective based on kin ties.

The bomb changes the contours of political possibilities even within such a contentious terrain. Placing a bomb in a public place is an act that circumscribes the development of a political process where dialogue is possible. In Assam, two decades of ferment have led to escalating levels of violence perpetuated in equal part by the state and nonstate actors. During this time, the people of the Assam have been subjected to targeted killings by death squads organised and armed by the state; forced to live in camps following attacks by armed militia; with successive governments showing no interest in resolving the causes of conflict. The Congress-led coalition has been in power for two terms now, and in the course of which it has signed cessation of hostilities — erroneously called “ceasefires” in the local media — with at least five armed groups. The modality of talks with these groups has not gone beyond immediate photo-ops and securing cadres to designated camps. Worse still has been the state government’s pusillanimity in pushing for political dialogue between the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the government of India. The security establishment has been inept in resolving conflicts in Assam and aggrieved constituencies are looking for plausible answers. Bombs are symptomatic of an overall failure of existing conflict-resolution paradigms.

Instead, the political establishment has chosen to make wild, irresponsible allegations to cover its failures. It has had able support from a pliant and crude electronic media, with television channels pushing out their young defence experts to simplify and even falsify the course of events in Assam. It was frightening to see the absence of journalist ethics in the manner in which smarmy reporters and analysts kept quoting “intelligence sources” and behaving as though they were investigative officers in the case. The sum total of this post-blast administrative madness is the inevitable process of ethnic polarisation on religious grounds. One fears that in our haste to move on from the ghastly memories of the blasts, we will be helping a cynical political establishment that does not want to address the structural causes of resentment in Assam. In a few weeks, our anger might be assuaged by a constant barrage of useless information that tells us who might have been responsible, but we would then be party to turning a blind eye to why another section of people feel resentful.

At times like this, wiser counsel would suggest that we temper our initial reactions with sobering ideas for the future. What Assam does not need is another recipe from the unimaginative counter-insurgency machinery that talks of more militarisation, but one where concern for others is brought back into political discourse.