Looking back, into the future

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST

Of bandhs and boycott of Independence Day and Republic Day celebrations in the northeastern States as an assertion of separatist intentions.

CALLS for the boycott of Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations have for long become a part of life in Assam and much of the northeastern region. The pace-setter was almost certainly what happened in Guwahati and its environs on Republic Day in 1968. On that day mobs looted and set on fire shops in the Pan Bazar and Fanshi Bazar areas, the commercial heart of Guwahati, and at Bijoynagar, a commercial township near Palashbari on the outskirts of Guwahati. The majority of the victims were traders, both big and small, and mostly, though not all, non-Assamese. There are many theories about how the rage against outside exploiters built up over the years and about who gave the call for boycott of Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations.

However, since then the calls have not been accompanied by mayhem, arson and looting. The official Independence Day celebrations this year at the Judges Field in Guwahati went off without incident, marked as they were by a heavy deployment of security forces. The only violence was what was depicted in a street play at the end of the parade.

The normal observance of January 26 and August 15 throughout the 1970s, even during the agitation in the early 1970s for the introduction of Assamese as the medium of instruction in colleges, seemed to suggest that January 26, 1968, was just a bad dream. Even during the years of the Assam agitation (1979-85), especially during the 'illegal' government under Hiteswar Saikia (1983-85) which lacked legitimacy, the All Assam Students Union (AASU), which spearheaded the agitation, called only for a boycott of the official flag-hoisting ceremony. It scrupulously hoisted the national flag and did the honours at functions that it organised.

Things have changed vastly in the last two decades or so. The exception to the depressing situation is Mizoram, which was racked by a violent separatist insurgency for over two decades. It is now the most peaceful State in the region. The once-dreaded Mizo National Front transformed itself into a political party and has been in government and in the opposition.

In Assam, unlike the AASU leaders, who made a fetish of adherence to the Indian Constitution and wanted to 'save Assam' from being overrun by illegal migrants from Bangladesh, their political and moral successors have a very different agenda: a sovereign and independent Assam. The United Liberation Front of Asom's (ULFA) centrality to the politics of insurgency and separatism in the region (along with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland) has remained a constant through all the twists and turns of confrontation and setbacks, bravado and offers of compromise and negotiations, accusations of bad faith and so on. Some of their allies in this struggle in Nagaland and Manipur have a much longer history of armed insurgency.

For the Naga nationalists, the issue is the restoration of their sovereignty and independence, not attainment. In the Naga nationalist perspective, the Naga people were never conquered, but only subjugated by the British. They thus automatically regained their independence on August 14, 1947, on the eve of transfer of power. However, since then India has been the aggressor, the occupying power in Nagaland, and the struggle is to secure the vacation of Indian occupation. Such is the rhetoric, formally reiterated every August 14 by Naga nationalist leaders, irrespective of the splits in the Naga nationalist leadership or the differences in their political ideologies and perspectives for the future.

Other versions of history abound. In Manipur and Tripura militant outfits observe October 15 as a day of national humiliation and commit themselves to restoring their sovereignty and independence. It was on that day in 1949 that the rulers of these States signed the instrument of accession.

This is the broader regional context of what has over the last two decades become a fact of life in Assam and much of the northeastern region - the call for a bandh and boycott of official celebrations on January 26 and August 15 by one or other outfit promoting an exclusivist and insular nationalism in which the concept of India has no meaning. This year has been no different.

But this time the bandh and boycott call, given by about a dozen organisations, emanated from Imphal. The departure from the practice of making such announcements from Guwahati follows the recent 'alliance' between the ULFA and the much older United National Liberation Front of Manipur. The 'alliance' is the latest of several such constantly shifting and cross-cutting linkages.

A brief and by no means complete listing of the organisations whose names have been mentioned in connection with the bandh and boycott call, some of them little more than their anagrammatised initials, provides some indication of the variety and spread of the organisations (militant, extremist, secessionist, insurgent or terrorist) engaged (or claiming to be engaged) in struggles that range from making sporadic attacks on civilian targets or supposedly well-protected symbols of the state and its authority to sustained insurgency. Their objectives, too, range from seeking some immediate and attainable concession to greater political autonomy or outright sovereignty and independence.

The nomenclatural identification by the media of the dozens of groups active in the region is riddled with imprecision and confusion. For instance, in reporting a violent incident in which several people are killed and one group or the other claims responsibility, official statements and even accounts over semi-official media such as All India Radio and Doordarshan use the terms militant, extremist, insurgent, secessionist and terrorist without any discrimination to describe the perpetrators or the organisation claiming responsibility.

One can also never be certain about the genuineness of a bandh call, not to speak of the outfit that issues the call. However, given the deeply ingrained bandh culture in the region, and the risks involved, there is seldom any defiance of such a call. For, more often than not, a bandh call is simply communicated to news agencies on the telephone. Rarely does an identifiable person from an recognisable militant, terrorist or insurgent outfit summon a media conference to announce and explain a bandh and boycott programme.

Apart from the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) of Manipur and ULFA, the more recognisable organisations associated with the bandh and boycott programme are: the Manipur People's Liberation Front (MPLF), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD).

Of these, the MPLF is an alliance in action of three of the oldest valley-based insurgencies of Manipur: the UNLF, the oldest of these founded in November 1964; the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which in its present name and form came into being in September 1978 but which traces its origins to structures existing much earlier; and the People's Revolutionary Party of Kagleipak (Prepak) founded in October 1977. All these organisations are committed to securing independence and sovereignty to Manipur and observe October 15 as a day of national humiliation.

THE NDFB, which began as the Boro Security Force, is committed to achieving an independent and sovereign Bodoland. It was founded in October 1986 at the height of the Bodoland agitation for a separate state within the Indian Union.

The DHD, founded in December 1999, had its origins in the now-defunct Dimasa National Security Force. Claiming to represent the national aspirations of the Dimasa people, one of the two Hill Tribes of Assam (the other being the Karbi), its stated objective is a separate Dimaland, comprising the Dimasa inhabited areas of Assam and some neighbouring areas. (The United People's Democratic Solidarity, a corresponding outfit based in Karbi Anglong district, is now observing a ceasefire and engaged in negotiations.)

The site of the ancient capital of the Dimasa people is present-day Dimapur, Nagaland's largest city. In the unique intermix of people and territories in the northeastern region and the migration patterns, there is no correlation between a people and the demarcated territory - be it a district, a territorial or district council, an autonomous region, or a full-fledged State - they now occupy. Exclusivist and absolutist solutions charted out in elaborately spelt-out manifestos and programmes of action by every group anxious to preserve its identity are simply not feasible on the ground. The problem will persist even if the separatist ideology were to be postulated in broader regional terms.

Another organisation that has figured in the call is the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), whose objective is the creation of a separate Kamatapur State comprising north Bengal and the contiguous areas in west Assam. The politics of Kamtapur, an idea and a political entity which was linked in historical times to ancient Kamarupa, is now inextricably linked to the politics of Bodoland.

The Rajbongshis comprise a substantial section of the non-Bodo population in the envisaged Bodoland. Also known as Koch Rajbongshis, they trace their roots to the same ethnic stock as the Bodos. However, over the generations they became de-tribalised and Hinduised. But now there are demands within the community that they be re-classified as tribal people. Some of them have even reverted to using 'tribal' surnames in a conscious attempt to re-tribalise themselves. The older leadership of the Koch Rajbongshis in north Bengal also cherish fond, though unreal, memories of once having been part of the greater Assamese community and even an imagined greater Kamta-Kamarupa state. Politically, parties and individuals espousing such ideas have made little impact, except maybe on the parish-pump politics of north Bengal.

The political perspective of the KLO, however, is much broader and more ambitious. Despite the apprehensions among the non-Bodo people over the yet-to-be-constituted Bodoland Autonomous Council, the KLO has linked up with ULFA, which in turn has close links with the NDFB, whose objective is a sovereign Bodoland outside the Indian Union. The alliance of convenience is unlikely to be sustainable in the long run. Their international linkages with structures based in Bangladesh are a matter of common knowledge.

Meanwhile, in what may be described as a bandh within a bandh, and seemingly unrelated to these initiatives by separatist outfits, an organisation called the Sanmilita Janagossthiya Sangram Samiti, a co-ordinating committee comprising some 18 non-Bodo organisations having apprehensions about their future in the event of the creation of a separate Bodoland gave a call for a 12 -hour Assam bandh on August 15.

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