On December 27 last year, gunfights between two ethnic rebel groups — the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT) and Rengma Naga Hills Protection Force (RNHPF) — left seven people dead in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district.
More than 3,000 Rengma and Karbi tribals have since moved to nine relief camps.
This is not the first militant-induced ethnic violence in Karbi Anglong, where a third of its 965,280 people have been uprooted in a decade. It is unlikely to be the last in this hill district, where a number of rebel groups catering to the dominant (Karbi) or smaller tribes have been fighting for territorial control and larger share of the extortion pie.
The clashes of the past were restricted to Karbi Anglong or adjoining districts of Assam. But the Taliban-style execution of nine Karbi tribal people in Nagaland after the December 27 incident indicated forces beyond the district were at play.
The finger of accusation is being pointed at the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), otherwise under fire from locals in Nagaland. On ceasefire mode since July 1997, NSCN-IM is believed to be the fountainhead of militancy in the Northeast.
According to Gauhati University’s conflict analyst Noni Gopal Mahanta, the tinderbox situation in Karbi Anglong is the fallout of a combination of factors such as ethnic rivalry, extortion and terrain (the nearest police station is 50 km from most villages). “The centrality of the problem seems to lie in Greater Nagalim and the NSCN-IM’s bid to establish control over Assam’s hill districts,” he said.
Greater Nagalim is the NSCN-IM’s concept of a unified homeland comprising all Naga-inhabited areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Myanmar besides Nagaland. The Rengmas of Karbi Anglong are believed to fall in this plan.
“These hills have on fire for too long. But one cannot help wonder why the Rengmas chose to hold rally in Dimapur (Nagaland’s commercial hub) to protest killings of their tribespeople in Karbi Anglong. An issue in Assam should have been taken to its capital Dispur and not to another state,” said litterateur Rongbong Terang from district headquarters Diphu.
The NSCN-IM has denied any role in Karbi Anglong or in the execution of the Karbis in Nagaland. The RNHPF, on the other hand, said its fight was for existence and protecting the rights of the Rengma Nagas.
The ‘Naga nationalism’ factor aside, some believe decades of neglect and state sponsorship of inter-tribe animosity are at the bottom of Karbi Anglong’s troubles.
“Karbis and Rengmas have no historical fault-lines for the situation to deteriorate so much. Their clashes are a result of the divide-and-rule policy that pitted one tribe against the other, thereby prolonging the non-fulfilment of the people’s aspirations initially for an autonomous state and then for statehood,” Jayanta Rongpi, former MP from the area, said.
A Sixth Schedule area, Karbi Anglong is administered by an autonomous tribal council. The Congress has been heading it for the third straight term.
Hardcore militancy in Karbi Anglong began in the late 1990s with the United People’s Democratic Solidarity, which metamorphosed into the KPLT via other outfits. Ethnic cleansing in the district began in the early 2000s with a pogrom against Hindi-speakers. Violent clashes between the Karbi and Kuki tribes for control of the ginger trade raged for almost a year in 2003-04. The following year was marked by sporadic Karbi-Khasi tribal clashes.
But the worst bloodbath was in 2005 between the Karbis and Dimasas, who, like the Rengmas, had a history of inter-dependence and cultural ties.