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India: Recent Incidents of Targeted Violence in Karbi Anglong District, Assam (December 2013-January 2014)

14 February 2014

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This report presents our findings as a fact-finding team (FFT) that went to Karbi Anglong district mid-January (2014) to inquire into a series of targeted attacks and the retaliatory violence that followed. As a team, we sought to fully comprehend the factual record and the specific political context within which these incidents occurred. We have found that perpetrators of violence have not been identified, far less brought to book. This has allowed for rumour to flourish and mutual suspicions to mount. A deepening estrangement between the Karbis and Rengma Nagas living in the district could be the outcome. The multiple armed groups that operate in the district and the wider region with agendas that remain unclear, often using methods of terror and extortion, could become bolder as a result.

Separately, we have as a team, urged the Assam state government and the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council to ensure accountability for the violence and adequate compensation for the victim-survivors. We have also urged that every opportunity be furnished for the victim-survivors to reconstruct their lives and livelihoods, which means that their statements should be respected and honoured, their claims assessed fairly and settled without undue delay. For ensuring that faith in the administrative system is not undermined, we have urged that compensation norms be followed rigorously and equitably for all the affected persons, irrespective of tribal or community affiliation.

We have found from our interactions with a number of administrators, civil society organisations and individuals displaced in the recent violence that the current trouble in Karbi Anglong began with a number of minor incidents that were clearly identified by responsible citizens as potential flashpoints for future trouble. Despite a repeated entreaties to check the alarming spiral of hostile rhetoric and actions, the local administration remained quiescent.

The tension probably has its genesis in the claims of a section of the Karbi tribal community for turning the autonomous hill district into a ‘Karbi state’, a project that clashes with the several decades old aspiration of other groups for greater autonomy within the Indian nation, and in the case of the “Greater Nagalim” project nurtured by factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) for an even more radical program of political separation. We have been told that in the absence of fair mediation between these competing demands, a number of armed groups have sprung up which claim to represent these communities but whose antecedents and agendas very few know about. Several of them are seen by civil society and political organisations to be active impediments to the pursuit of collective demands through peaceful means.

Thus, a number of minor incidents occurring over the recent past, particularly since June last year, have created a larger conflagration in late-December and early-January resulting in the death of six people of the Rengma Naga community and nine of the Karbi.

Our inquiries have revealed that these killings have been random and brutal, but with a clear intent to provoke communal enmity. The shooting and burning of elderly women of the Rengma Naga community, the burning of their homes and the destruction of their orange orchards and betelnut trees, together with what seem to have been retaliatory killings of Karbi youth who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, show that the alienation between the communities has reached alarming levels.

We believe that there are ways of mediating between the competing demands of the Rengma Naga and Karbi communities – and indeed, all other tribal groupings in Karbi Anglong – without providing any room for unresolved claims to spill over into violence. This would require a comprehensive policy to be worked out within a consistent framework of principles, to ensure every ethnic group a proper place of dignity, full access to their traditional resources and every opportunity to pursue avenues for growth and development. This will also require mediation by a genuinely neutral group that has the skills of diplomacy and negotiation and also the trust of all the rival groups on the ground.

We have concluded from our inquiries that many of the demands of these ethnic groups have been manipulated for expedient gain by political forces both at the national and local levels. Indeed, there are grounds to believe that at least some of the armed groups that claim to be working for the cause of these ethnic groups may themselves be playthings in the hands of larger political forces.

Security officials that we interacted with have informed us that militant groups on both sides have been securing easy access locally to both home-made and professional arms. We believe that the sources of arms procurement should be identified and blocked since the easy availability of lethal weaponry is a powerful incentive for militant groups to first emerge and then splinter into multiple factions.

We also believe that the police force in Karbi Anglong should show greater sensitivity to the demands made by civil society leaders for protection and security, when they have reason to apprehend a breach of the peace. In the recent incidents, we have been told that civil society organisations from both sides made a number of representations to the civil and police administration in the district, yet found them mostly unresponsive.

We have found that well-meaning mediation between the warring groups by civil society organisations based in the area has often been undermined by the intrusion of wider political interests. This manner of intervention from the state and national-level groups is generally motivated by resource exploitation interests. We believe that involvement of state and national-level interests should be premised on the decree that they will do no harm. Only by giving local groups the autonomy and the space to negotiate their differences and determine the resource use pattern that would best serve their collective interests, would the wider peace be ensured.

In terms of immediate action, we urge the Assam state government and Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council to ensure quick rehabilitation of all people displaced by the recent violence, mostly from the Bokajan sub-division. At the time of our visit, the main camp for the displaced was sheltering an estimated one thousand three hundred inmates. We learnt also that a number of persons from the Rengma Naga community had taken refuge with relatives and friends in the district. The number of the displaced according to our estimate at the time, numbered about two thousand.

We found from our visit to one of the camps for the displaced that pregnant women were in need of specialised medical care. There was in fact, a particular need to assess the needs of women and children in the camp and to provide among other things, for special treatment for the injured and the disabled. Trauma counselling, confidence building and reconciliation procedures needed to be conducted in the camps, preferably on the initiative of civil society organisations from both the communities.

We found that because of the geographic remoteness of Karbi Anglong from the national capital and other metropolitan centres, the crisis of internal displacement – which is little less than a gross violation of the rights to equal citizenship, life and liberty — had not drawn the kind of concern it should have. We have in accordance with this finding, urged that all relevant bodies with advisory and statutory authority in related matters, such as the National Human Rights Commission, the National Commission for Women, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, conduct their own inquiries to arrive at the causes that triggered the violence and the best means of ensuring there is no recurrence.

We found that some of the killings showed cruel intent and premeditation. These need to be referred to local and state-level human rights watchdogs for investigation in accordance with applicable national and international standards and then taken up for appropriate sanction in accordance with criminal law.

Narration of facts

The recent spurt of ethnic violence in Karbi Anglong followed a certain pattern. When speaking to civil society leaders from affected communities, this team found a certain degree of agreement on the facts, though not so on matters of agency. On the Rengma Naga side, there is a belief that the Karbi Peoples’ Liberation Tigers (KPLT) an organisation ostensibly committed to the creation of a separate state for the people of the Karbi community, has been the principal agency of violence. This belief stems from a number of events in recent months and we have been able in the course of our inquiries to uncover some of these.

Civil society leaders among the Karbi people though, are not convinced that this militant group is for real. Even if they claim to be fighting for a demand that has long been on the agenda of the leaders of Karbi civil and political society, they are not seen to be advancing the cause with their acts of violence. Karbi civil society is convinced that both the Rengma Naga community and they have become unwitting tools of an agenda being executed by a “third force”. They believe that the militant armed group that has in recent months sprung up on the other side, the Rengma Nagma Hill Protection Force (RNHPF), is similarly, a new creation that serves an agenda of this putative “third force”.

On 13 December two young Karbi men appeared in Khirang village in Silonijan tehsil and from just outside the traditional gateway found in most such habitations, began shouting all manner of abuse at the residents for allegedly sheltering members of the RNHPF. As the Rengma civil society organisations tell it, they were perhaps in a state of inebriation. A group from the Rengma village then went in search of the two boys and found them in their native village. They impressed upon the Karbi elders of the village that the two miscreants should be held to account for their transgression of the code of civility. The Karbi elders evidently in a conciliatory mood, wrote out a letter of apology.

The following day, in this narration, the two young Karbi men involved in the incident returned to Khirang with the apparent intention to apologise in person for their misconduct. They were however, taken captive by the villagers and roughed up. Under this mistreatment which Rengma civil society actors say could have verged on torture, they admitted that the KPLT may have been behind the October disappearance of a prominent youth leader, Nzankhen Rengma. This revelation was followed by still more severe mistreatment of the two youths.

Rengma civil society leaders concede that the methods used in extracting this confession may not have been appropriate, and that it may have been a wiser course to report the entire matter to the local authorities. Since the investigation into the disappearance of Nzankhen Rengma had stalled, the information gathered from the two youth seized in Khirang village may have suggested possible leads in tracing the disappeared person, now believed dead. Alongside, Rengma civil society organisations (CSO’s) also insist that there was a major double standard in the public reaction to the incident. While the roughing up of the two youths occasioned much public outrage, including in the local press, the disappearance of a young man of their community earlier and his possible killing, passed without a murmur.

Community elders from both sides saw the possibility of an uncontrollable tit-for-tat developing from these events and called a peace conference on 17 December at which all major CSOs from the Rengma and Karbi side were represented. As reported in the agreed account, the meeting “resolved that any individual or group involved in anti-social activities would be fully held responsible by their own tribe”. The meeting also asked that police outposts be set up at points where the possibility of trouble was identified.

In the event, the appeal for calm went unheeded. On 18 December, a pastor of the Rengma community was assaulted – beaten with rifle butts — by suspected KPLT militants as he returned from a funeral service for his son-in-law. According to an account rendered by the Rengma CSO’s, the attackers had an ample supply of firearms and other lethal weaponry on display as they attacked the hapless pastor.

The following day, Nanthi Rengma, a resident of Panjan Lethe village was assaulted and dragged away from his fish farm, which was then vandalised. All the live fish from the farm were stolen and the bunds were broken, draining out all its water. On 21 December, a group of Rengma villagers on their way to attend a peace meeting convened on the initiative of the local unit of the Congress party was intercepted and turned back, allegedly by KPLT militants. The militants reportedly fired blank shells and used dire threats to turn the peace contingent back. The next day, three Rengma youth were assaulted very badly in the vicinity of Teron village, a Karbi habitation.

On the other side of the current communal divide in Karbi Anglong, we have an account that is convergent in terms of identifying the key incidents that tended to deepen embitterment. But the Karbi account reverses the burden of blame. It speaks of two young men who after a day of hard work, ventured into the vicinity of a .Rengma village on December 13, to partake of a paan, but suffered the trauma of being taken captive and mercilessly thrashed. Their offence had ostensibly only been to identify some fifteen alien elements hanging about the Khirang village, all heavily armed and to warn that they would raise the alarm since the explicit understanding between Karbi and Rengma community leaders was that armed groups would not be allowed the run of villages where peace-loving people from both sides lived.

Following this incident, in the Karbi narration, there was a meeting of community elders, who drafted a letter making the case for conciliation. On December 15, a small delegation that went to Khirang village to deliver the epistle was again beaten up and left badly bruised in body and spirit. According to subsequent testimony by a Karbi political group, published in the Nagaland Post on 8 January 2014, the assailants on that occasion “spoke fluent Assamese” and had masked their faces.

In terms of the subsequent events, there is no serious divergence between Karbi and Rengma accounts. But as in every such incident of collective violence, the narration of the original cause that lit the first sparks is considered on both sides to be very important.

The attempt at conciliation

Even with all these differences in perception, there was a sufficient identity of interests between the two communities for leaders from both Rengma and Karbi sides to jointly appear before the Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Karbi Anglong district, demanding administrative measures to cool the violent eruption of tempers. “The Karbis and the Rengmas have been living together since many generations and they enjoy cordial relations”, said the memorandum submitted to DC P.K. Burgohain on 24 December. Residents of the Chowkihola area, the petitioners said, had “come to know that some unknown people are trying to foment trouble among the two peace loving tribes”. This “unknown force”, the petition claimed, was “trying to create another ethnic strife in the region”. “Witnesses from both the Rengma and Karbi villages have reported that some unknown masked men have been unleashing terror among the villagers and trying to put the blame on either the Rengmas or the Karbis each time”.

CSO leaders from both sides during meetings with this team, spoke of the DC being fairly responsive to their requests. He was also reportedly, prompt in referring the matter to the Superintendent of Police (SP). The response of the local police though, did not seem to inspire great confidence among either side.

An example brought to the attention of this team involved the “gaonburha” (or village headman) of Barlanshu who went to the Chowkihola on 23 December, to register a complaint that at 4 p.m. the previous day, a group of armed Karbi youth had arrived at their village and physically abused three among the residents. The victims of the abuse, who also accompanied the gaonburha were also threatened to not speak about the incident since in the event that any investigation was launched, they would be held responsible by the armed militants. The village headman though aware of the threat, nonetheless took it as his responsibility to bring the matter to the attention of the local police.

The three victims of physical abuse were then directed to undergo a medical check and to file the results with the police station. The gaonburha was asked to take responsibility to ensure that all necessary information was made available. This team has seen a copy of the diary entry made at Chowkihola police station on the occasion and has also been briefed on the numerous alarms that were sounded by the villagers about the possibility of an attack by militant groups.

The police they allege, failed to post the required number of personnel at the places where a threat existed. This team learnt from the local authorities that the police force lacked the four-wheel drive vehicles that were required to reach the affected villages. So once they were apprised about the threat, they set about requisitioning the vehicles through the prescribed procedure, which required the police station head to write to the SP, who in turn would write to the DC. The DC would then grant the authority following which the SP would write to the head of traffic police. Orders were to be issued by the head of traffic police for requisitioning the required number of private vehicles with the four-wheel drive feature. The process was delayed till well after the trouble broke out, and of almost twenty-five trucks requisitioned, only eleven had the four wheel drive feature in working condition.

These trucks had other engine problems and were seen parked in the Chowkihola police station gathering dust. Inmates of the shelters for displaced people, informed this team that it is normal practice for them to transport their orange harvest out of remote orchards by mini-trucks. Though the roads need to be repaired after every orange harvest, most villages where violence occurred are accessible through this mode of transport. This team believes that the police alibi that they lacked necessary means of transport to address the security needs of the threatened villages, may be an evasion of responsibility.

Incidents of December 27

Mutual suspicion was growing and in these troubled circumstances, random and opportunistic attacks were transformed into organised violence. This team interviewed several inmates of the displaced persons’ shelter at Borpathar High School on 17 January. One of the individuals that this team interviewed, a resident of Khonwani village in the Borpathar Police Station jurisdiction, spoke of hearing gunshots late-evening on 26 December. Fearing some serious attack, the village gathered together in the village headman’s premises. Suspecting imminent danger, some among the village community prepared to fight back, posting guards at all possible access routes into the village.

One among the male residents of the village, seventy-years old, prepared to meet the challenge by joining the gathering in the headman’s home. But as they sat there, they found that a number of attacks were already occurring – at around 5 a.m. on December 27 – targeting residences near the village gateway. Among the first houses attacked was this septuagenarian’s, but since he was mobilising to defend the village at the headman’s premises, he escaped the assault which his wife fell first victim of. According to victim-survivors that this team met, the armed men who marched into the village were followed by identifiable residents from a neighbouring Karbi village. There was no compassion on display there, as they sang “praise the lord” to the arson of the Rengma habitations, burnt the betel nut trees within the homestead and pillaged the orange orchards that were the main source of the villagers’ sustenance. The attackers then moved on to a number of other villages, creating equal havoc.

In Renongaon in the Chowkihola Police Station area, residents who happened to be just outside the village boundary say that they saw flames leaping up as their huts were set on fire by the raiders. Seeing a nearby camp of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), they sought to alert the personnel on duty to the danger, seeking their intervention. But the security picket refused to move. They reportedly had all the communications equipment required to receive specific orders, but chose not to act. Most of those who came to the relief camp said that the tea garden workers student union leaders (adivasis) helped them to come to the safety of the camps.

Revenge attacks

While learning about these planned attacks, this FFT also explicitly condemns the killing of nine youth, whose bodies were discovered in highly decomposed state in Dimapur district in Nagaland. The incident is yet to be traced to its sources, but is believed to be a revenge action by the armed group that goes by the name of the Rengma Naga Hill Protection Force (RNHPF). The only identified victim of this killing at the time that this FFT was in the field, was of a youth leader of the Karbi tribe. All other bodies remained unidentified, though the overwhelming belief was that they were all of the Karbi community.

Distrust builds up

In the days that followed, one among the bodies discovered was identified as a youth leader of the Karbi community, who happened to be in Dimapur district of Nagaland, probably on a personal errand. The other bodies remain to be identified, though they are believed to be of casual workers from the Karbi community. Again, these were just innocent individuals who chanced to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Assam government soon afterwards announced compensation for all the victims of this seeming revenge attack, though most remained to be identified. This heightened the sense of distrust among the Rengma community, since the bodies were discovered in Nagaland and the issue of redress for irreparable losses suffered, should have been addressed by the government of that state.

Rengma Naga sensitivities were also piqued by the response of the judiciary. The community believes that the number of their people killed in the December 26 attacks should merit the same attention as the nine who were killed in seeming vengeance. But the nine victims who may be from the Karbi community have seemingly received greater attention, including in terms of a judicial directive asking that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) be tasked with pursuing the matter. At the same time, the Rengma villages that have been ransacked, have had no such ministrations from the central government authorities.

And the authorities do nothing to remedy the situation

These are issues that need to be resolved within the terms of the autonomous district administration that the Karbi Anglong district has been privileged with since 1952. Within the terms of the autonomy that the district has enjoyed, there have been a number of other movements that have emerged, often in collision with each other. The Karbi community has been seeking a further degree of autonomy within Assam state and if that demand remains unmet, they think that a further escalation to full statehood should be kept in reserve as an option.

Rengma Nagas believe that the demand for full statehood is a narrow demand of the Karbi community, which they are being emboldened to pursue by the initial constitutional concession they managed to extract, of getting a district named after them, almost as an ethnic homeland. The Rengma community insists that they have a stake in the territory within Karbi Anglong and have counterposed their own demand of a district within Assam state that will accord them the recognition they deserve.

For a while, it seemed that the Rengma demand for greater latitude within the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council, would be fulfilled through a cooperative arrangement between the two communities. That has not quite happened. And in that vacuum of several unmet demands, which exists within the larger context of the negotiation that seems to go nowhere, between the NSCN and the Indian government, there have been various disorders developing. At one time, the Karbi community leadership showed an inclination to accommodate other tribal groups such as the Rengma, the Santal Adivasi, Chakma and others, within the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council. That ecumenical spirit now seems to have vanished, leading to a hardening of the demands from other tribal communities within Karbi Anglong, for their own autonomous spaces.

Nation state politics may have done a lot to make things worse
Within this matrix of unmet demands and political aspirations that tend to collide, the state and central authorities may have played a far from constructive role. From the early-1990s, Karbi Anglong district has witnessed a number of armed movements cropping up, ostensibly to pursue the same demands that parliamentary political parties have been seeking. First there was the Karbi National Volunteers, then the Karbi National Liberation Front and various others. The KPLT, believed to be the key player in the current phase of turmoil, supposedly came into existence in the early years of this decade. Few among the Karbi community seem able to identify the main players behind this militant group. Responsible CSO leaders from the Karbi community speak of about fifty elements, supposedly armed cadre of the KPLT, surrendering to the district authorities in 2013, in a ceremony that remains to this day, shrouded in secrecy. There is very little known about the identity of these elements that surrendered, or what their status following that act is.

Local police authorities show little hesitation in admitting that it is part of the prevailing security doctrine to use surrendered elements from the various militant groups in fighting the counter-insurgency battle. In the process, a number of militant organisations could be spawned that exist entirely on the patronage of the security and intelligence agencies. The tribal groups that these militants ostensibly fight for, remain completely unaware of where they came from and who they represent.

Soon after the bodies of the nine Karbi youth killed in supposed retribution for the attacks on the Rengma villages were discovered in Dimapur district of Nagaland, all Rengma CSOs issued strong statements disavowing the deed. Clearly, neither the Rengma nor Karbi communities had any faith in the principle of an eye for an eye. The RNHPF at the same time, issued its own statement condemning the heinous mass murder and disavowing any responsibility. However, the following day, the RNHPF’s supposed chief, Keyhan Rengma, issued his own clarification – supposedy based on information received from the head of the militant group’s “eastern command” – that his group had indeed, carried out the mass killing.

The sequence of events left people from both sides deeply sceptical, except for those willing to believe the worst about the other side. The suspicion is strong among both Rengma and Karbi civil society leaders, that they are becoming playthings in the hands of a manipulative state apparatus, that in fact, they are being compelled to own up and take responsibility for the most cynical actions of a security system that cares for little else than its own sustenance.

Security officials now claim that a further sequence of surrenders of KPLT cadre is imminent, including of their supposed leader Rono Rhongpi. If this does materialise, it is to be carried out in the full light of day, with Karbi CSO’s and other tribal communities also being involved, and with the future plans involving the surrendered militants being revealed and held up to a full scrutiny by all stakeholders in maintaining the peace in Karbi Anglong.

Dr Doma Tshering Bhutia, Human Rights Law Network, Sikkim.
Prof.Rosemary Dzuvichu, Nagaland University; Co-ordinator Human Rights Law Network, Nagaland
Ms Samhita Barooah, Associate Professor Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati
Mr Sanjai Sharma, Human Rights Law Network, Delhi
Mr.Satya Sivaraman, Freelance Journalist Human Rights Campaigner, Delhi
Mr.Sukumar Muralidharan, Freelance Journalist, Delhi