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Migrants' massacre

Print edition : Jan 26, 2007 T+T-
SUSHANTA TALUKDAR in Guwahati

DECEMBER 17, 2006: The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) states in its fortnightly publication Freedom:

"ULFA is determined to uproot those illegal migrants who threatened Asom's existence, created chaotic situation in its social formation and occupied the political and economic sphere by making the indigenous people homeless. In our point of view, all those who illegally migrated to Asom from India subcontinent must be identified and expelled from Asom. ULFA clarified that Indian rule and rulers are the main illegal foreigners. In Asom the principal illegal occupational forces are the Indian Army. Those who illegally trespassed from Bangladesh and Nepal must be identified and driven away. But before that the Indian occupational forces must be expelled from Asom. With their notorious tricks to carry on business in Asom, the places which they occupied and converted into `mini Bihar, mini Rajasthan, mini Kolkata' must be evicted."

On the night of January 5, 2007, ULFA militants attacked migrant Bihari workers at brick kilns and petty shopkeepers in upper Assam's Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Dhemaji districts. The security forces apparently failed to take note of the plan of the militant outfit as outlined in its mouthpiece on December 17. Forty-eight Hindi-speaking workers were massacred in the serial attacks. The militants struck again on January 7 night, hours after the visiting Central team led by Union Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Jaiswal returned to Delhi, killing 14 more people.

The massacres spread panic among the migrant population and hundreds of Bihari labourers fled upper Assam and boarded trains bound for Bihar. Around 8,000 Bihari workers took shelter in 36 relief camps opened by the State government.

The Assam government, fearing a backlash on the Assamese population in Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, sought New Delhi's help to ensure security on trains running through these States. In 2003, local people and "outsiders" had clashed over the issue of reservation of jobs in the Northeastern Frontier Railway. Use of force in Guwahati on candidates from Bihar led to attacks in Bihar on railway passengers from Assam and other States in the northeastern region.

However, unlike the clashes in 2003, when other groups in Assam joined ULFA in whipping up anti-Hindi sentiments (29 Biharis were killed in the incidents), the latest attacks on Biharis and other Hindi-speaking people in the five upper Assam districts were the doing entirely of ULFA and were denounced by Assamese civil society. Security analysts say ULFA's aim was to widen the regional divide and capitalise on the fear among the Assamese people that they would be reduced to a minority by migrants from other parts of the country and from Bangladesh.

According to the 1991 Census, Assamese-speaking people constituted 57.81 per cent of the total population of Assam. This is the lowest percentage of people who speak the major language in any State in the country. Even this figure was reached only because immigrant Bengali-speaking Muslims settlers reported their mother tongue as Assamese; the majority of them do not speak Assamese despite being educated in the Assamese medium.

The massacre of Hindi-speaking migrant workers began immediately after Union Home Secretary V.K. Duggal expressed satisfaction over the security preparedness for the National Games scheduled to be held from February 9. He had reviewed the security threats and arrangements with the Unified Command of the Army, police and paramilitary forces following ULFA's call to boycott the Games.

The serial killings have posed a tough security challenge, as they occurred in remote and inaccessible areas, and prompted New Delhi and Dispur to scale up counter-insurgency operations by the Unified Command. In fact, the Army had stepped up counter-insurgency operations in September 2006, and troops were out in full strength, after New Delhi called off a nearly month-and-a-half-old unilateral suspension of operations against ULFA.

The truce, which was declared on the eve of Independence Day in 2006 and extended twice, hit a roadblock over the release of five jailed leaders of the outfit. New Delhi insisted that ULFA should send a communique expressing its willingness to hold direct talks before the release of its leaders. But ULFA insisted on the release of its leaders in order to enable it to take a decision on New Delhi's offer of talks.

The decision to scale up the Army offensive was taken at a meeting of Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and Army chief Gen J.J. Singh at the headquarters of the Army's 4 Corps in Tezpur, which is also the operational headquarters of the Unified Command. At the meeting it was decided to launch a full-scale operation with coordinated action in Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, from where ULFA carried out hit-and-run operations.

The Unified Command subsequently changed its strategy and decided to use troops for proactive operations in the jungles of upper Assam instead of limiting the counter-insurgency operations to intensified patrolling and area-domination to keep the militants at bay. If the scaled-up operations fail to produce results, what with Myanmar and Bangladesh continuing to be safe havens for ULFA militants, it is likely to make the Hindi-speaking people more vulnerable to fresh strikes. The demands raised by Hindi-speaking protesters, such as "hand over Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts to the Army" and "gun down ULFA", may provoke ULFA to single them out as responsible for the intensified Army operations.

The massacres sparked widespread condemnation in the State, but political parties, students and youth organisations were divided on the course of action to be taken. One camp favoured a strong military offensive, while the other wanted negotiations without preconditions to resolve the 28-year-old problem so that innocent citizens were not caught between the insurgency and counter-insurgency operations.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other members of the Sangh Parivar called for full-scale operations to break ULFA, which, they believe, carried out the killings at the behest of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The outfit, they feel, is not in a position to decide independently whether it should take part or not in peace talks with the Government of India. The Opposition parties, including the Asom Gana Parishad, the BJP, the AGP (Progressive) and the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), demanded the imposition of President's Rule.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) accused the Gogoi government of failing to protect the lives and properties of the common people and demanded the immediate holding of unconditional peace talks to solve the insurgency problem.

The State unit of the CPI(M), while condemning the attacks as "cowardly acts of savagery and brutality", cautioned that forces of reaction and evil could take advantage of the situation and try to divide the people. "Already the saffron brigade has stepped up their aggressive communal campaigns with a design to create division and tension.

On the other hand, some political parties are trying to garner political mileage out of the situation without realising the danger and gravity of renewed ULFA violence," said CPI(M) State unit secretary Uddhab Barman. BJP president Rajnath Singh, however, said: "Mere imposition of President's Rule is not going to work. Hand over all militancy-infested areas to the Army to break it [ULFA] down."

Gogoi accused ULFA of carrying out the killings on the ISI's instructions and announced the Congress-led coalition government's decision to launch sustained counter-insurgency operations until ULFA's two top leaders, self-styled commander-in-chief Paresh Barua and chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, came for negotiations.

The BJP said ULFA's attacks were aimed at driving out Biharis from the brick kilns and other jobs in the State so that illegal Bangladeshi migrants could replace them. Incidentally, the exodus of migrant Bihari workers following the massacres had a direct impact on the functioning of the 300 or so brick kilns in upper Assam.

The All Assam Students' Union (AASU) joined the Purbottar Hindustani Samaj, an umbrella association of 56 organisations of Hindi-speaking people, in issuing an appeal to Bihari workers not to leave the State and assuring them that the entire Assamese society was with them.

With elections in Uttar Pradesh round the corner, national leaders rushed to upper Assam to sympathise with the grief-stricken families and Hindi-speaking protesters. Samajwadi Party general secretary Amar Singh handed over a cheque of Rs.41 lakhs to the Tinsukia Deputy Commissioner for distribution of ex gratia of Rs.1 lakh announced by the party to the next of kin of each victim. In addition to the compensation of Rs.3 lakhs to the family of each of the dead, announced by the Assam government, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced an additional ex gratia of Rs.2 lakhs, while the Bihar government announced Rs.1 lakh.

So the family of each victim will get a total amount of Rs.7 lakhs, more than double the compensation of Rs.3 lakhs paid to the families of victims of killings in Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills where more than 100 people were killed in attacks by militants in just one month in 2005. Such politics of compensation, however, will only result in legitimising the regional divide, which ULFA sought to bring in by targeting migrants.

The government, already under pressure to restore peace and instil confidence among the people in the wake of the massacres, faces another tough challenge - that of ensuring the peaceful conduct of the National Games. Since the heightened activities of the ULFA will keep the security forces engaged in operations in upper Assam and other militancy-infested areas, the government will need more Central forces to ensure the security of visiting sportspersons from all over the country.

Indeed, ULFA showed its strike capability by triggering a powerful explosion in front of the Assam Assembly building amidst the heightened security in the wake of the massacres in upper Assam. The government placed two police officials under suspension for negligence in connection with the blast. But that may not be enough to face the ULFA threat.