‘I’ll keep raising issue of autonomy’: Horen Singh Bey
The demand for full statehood has fuelled first time parliamentarian Horen Sing Bey since his 20s.Updated: Jul 09, 2019 07:20 IST
“In the last two-three years, so much work has happened in Karbi Anglong…,” Horen Sing Bey, the newly elected parliamentarian said in a speech on the 68th Foundation Day of the Karbi Autonomous Council on June 23 at a ground adjoining a newly built stadium in Donkamokam in West Karbi Anglong.
Despite light showers, an impressive crowd gathered, with many from the Karbi tribe wearing their traditional gear — women in bright pekoks and men in white selengs and pohos.
Dressed in a brown kurta and trousers, Bey, 49, thanked the people for his victory and called for their unity in his speech— mostly in Karbi language, peppered with Assamese, and punctuated by slogans of “Bharat Mata ki jai”.
Bey describes his candidature as a “bolt from the blue”. On March 16, he was part of a delegation from Karbi Anglong who met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to submit a memorandum reiterating the demand for an autonomous state for the tribal autonomous areas. During the meeting, which was also attended by Himanta Biswa Sarma, the convener of the North East Democratic Alliance, Bey was informed that he would be the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate from the Autonomous District constituency.
“I did not think I was fit to be an MP yet,” Bey said. “I was comfortable as an executive member (equivalent of a minister) of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC),” he said. “After I was made incharge of the Public Works Department [of the KAAC], my only ambition in life was to build roads in Karbi Anglong.”
One of the 14 Lok Sabha constituencies of Assam, the Autonomous District seat is reserved for the Scheduled Tribes and comprises two Karbi-dominated districts of Karbi Anglong and West Karbi Anglong, as well as Dima Hasao, dominated by the Dimasa tribe. As per the sixth schedule, which is the constitutional provision for special governance mechanisms in tribal areas of the North-east, two autonomous councils govern the region — the KAAC (which looks after the two Karbi dominated districts) and the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council (which looks after Dima Hasao). The demand for autonomy as a state within a state, under Article 244 (A) of the Constitution, has been around since 1986, a year after the Assam Accord was signed by Assam movement leaders and the then Centre, over illegal immigrants.
The autonomous councils under the sixth schedule have legislative, administrative, executive and financial powers over many policy areas, such as collection of revenue. Saddled between the Brahmaputra Valley and the Barak Valley, the Autonomous District is simply called Diphu by the locals, named after the biggest town here.
Holiram Terang, a former legislator from the Baithalangso and senior Karbi politician who was among founders of the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC) in the 1980s, said one of the biggest issues of the region was the need for “real autonomy in the shape of an autonomous state” besides tackling economic backwardness, unemployment, corruption, and shoddy health and education infrastructure. Terang fought the recent Lok Sabha elections but lost to Bey.
Bey’s entire political life has also centred around this demand. As a 24-year-old, he jumped into the agitation for the demand of an autonomous state after graduating from a college in Shillong. “The people were agitated. They wanted to be heard,” he said. He offered the example of the Khasis, one of the dominant ethnic groups in Meghalaya. “Before Meghalaya was formed, the Khasis, the Garos, the Jaintia, the Karbi, the Dimasas — we all had equal status. Now look at Khasis, for example. They are far ahead.”
As “democratic means of protest failed,” Bey says he joined a militant outfit — Karbi National Volunteers — and went underground in 1994. Established outfits such as the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland and the banned United Liberation Front of Assam supplied arms and provided shelter from the police and the security forces to this militant outfit, which was later christened the United People’s Democratic Solidarity.
From 1996 to 1998, Bey moved from one hideout to another in Nagaland, Manipur and Myanmar. In 1996, he was appointed the “foreign secretary” of the group. “I was not part of the armed group, which would carry out ambushes. But like Subhash Chandra Bose, who led the Indian National Army, I learnt how to use a gun,” Bey said. In 1998, however, he ran out of luck. “I was in Dimapur when the soldiers of the Indian Army and the Assam Rifles picked me up,” he said. Bey spent 16 months in jail.
“An associate got out of jail before me. He knew an Intelligence Bureau officer in Diphu and so a channel of communication with the government opened. Soon, I was also released, and then we started talking to Indian government,” Bey said.
On November 25, 2011, after nearly a decade of negotiations, UPDS (with Bey as general secretary) signed a tripartite memorandum of settlement with the Centre and the state governments. Enhanced autonomy and special packages including special financial assistance, transfer of additional subjects to the council, greater devolution of powers to the KAAC among other things, were part of the settlement. Bey was one of the 568 UPDS members who laid down arms the following month.
In 2012, Bey won the election to the post of KAAC member. In 2016, as the BJP came to power in the state, he joined the party, but remained part of the council.
This March, he was part of a Karbi Anglong delegation that submitted a memorandum reiterating the demand for an autonomous state for the tribal autonomous areas to the Prime Minister.
Though the BJP-led Centre approved a Constitutional amendment in January, to grant increased powers to Autonomous Councils in sixth schedule areas, the sentiment on the ground is one of suspicion. “The people of the plains of Assam are exploiting the situation by claiming that we want to part ways while all we are asking is for is an autonomous state (within Assam),” said Motilal Nunisa, former president of cultural body Dimasa Sahitya Sabha.
“The recent order of the state government to control salaries [of council employees] will virtually make the council bureaucracy more loyal to state and Centre,” said Terang, echoing the worry that the Centre was trying to dilute the autonomy of the sixth schedule areas.
The issue also dominated the discourse in the run-up to the 2019 elections. Besides Bey, all major political parties, including the ASDC and the Congress, supported greater autonomy.
Terang credited BJP’s win in Assam to a lack of strong Opposition combined with RSS’s active work in the region over the years. Bey, too, was associated with the RSS as an adolescent. “I was part of the RSS in class 6 and continued till I was sent to another school after passing class 7,” he said. The Karbis are mostly animist. “But we have an affinity with Hinduism.”
Bey’s biggest challenge will be serving all sections of his diverse constituency, which includes Hmars, Nagas, Biharis, Gorkhas and Kukis. Bey is also expected to push for an autonomous state in Parliament, as he did on July 4 during the Zero Hour. “I will keep doing it. It is up to the state and the Centre to agree,” he said.