Ethnic rebels in Assam, in India's Northeast, are engaged in a bloody turf war that has not only opened a new front in the strategic border state's insurgency scenario, but has drawn a large civilian population into the vortex of this latest conflict. In a night raid on March 31, 2003, some one hundred cadres of the ragtag Hmar People's Conference - Democratic (HPC-D), dressed in battle fatigues and armed with guns and machetes, descended on a cluster of villages inhabited by Dimasa tribes people in South Assam's Cachar district. They torched more than 70 hutments and herded together nearly 30 villagers in a four-hour offensive.
The police say that the rebels, assisted by some Hmar youth, led the abducted Dimasas to a hillock along the densely wooded Bhuban hills, on the Assam-Manipur border, tied their hands and shot them from close range. After combing the hills for 48 hours, the police could locate the bullet-riddled bodies of 23 of these civilians killed by the Hmar rebels. Several people are still reported missing.
The root of the Hmar-Dimasa ethnic feud can be traced to the February 24, 2003, abduction of three important members of the Dima Halim Daogah (DHD), a rebel group active in the area, by cadres of its former ally, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim - Isak-Muivah faction (NSCN-IM). This abduction, apparently carried out with the help of Hmar rebels of the HPC-D, led to a string of retaliatory attacks by the Dimasa armed group.
On March 3, Dimasa militants, said to be cadres of the DHD - a group that had entered into a ceasefire with the Government last year - struck back by kidnapping three Hmar farmers. Two days later, on March 5, armed Dimasas attacked two Hmar villages in North Cachar Hills district (adjoining Cachar district where the March 31 killings took place), forcing nearly 800 Hmars to desert their homes and flee to Lakhipur, on the Assam-Mizoram border. Again on March 26, Dimasa rebels launched a fresh attack on some Hmar villages in the area, and ordered the Hmar people to leave North Cachar Hills or face dire consequences.
These attacks and counter-attacks culminated in the latest massacre that has worsened relations between the two ethnic groups that are concentrated in the Southern Assam districts of North Cachar Hills and Cachar on the border with Manipur and Mizoram, two other Northeast Indian States. Both tribal groups are very small in number. The 1991 Census put the total population of Dimasas in Assam at 65,104, and the Hmars at 11,189. The immediate provocations aside, the latest string of attacks is seen as a battle for territorial supremacy.
The DHD, formed in 1995, has been fighting for a Dimasa homeland (Dimaraji) in southern Assam and has laid claim to Dimapur, Nagaland's commercial hub, which is the ancient capital of the Dimasa royalty. This, in fact, is one of the reasons for the DHD and its major ally or mentor, the NSCN-IM, parting ways and turning hostile. The NSCN-IM, rather, wants parts of Assam to be merged into its proposed 'Greater Nagaland' plan. The other reason why the DHD severed its ties with the NSCN-IM was the latter's claim to a large chunk of the 'tax' extorted by the DHD, either on its own or jointly, from areas dominated by the Dimasas. After it parted ways with the DHD, the NSCN-IM has moved closer to the little-known HPC-D.
The situation has become extremely murky, increasing the possibility of full-scale ethnic riots in the under-policed area sooner rather than later. Several factors contribute to the messy situation: the first is the alignment of rebel groups that are at play in the local conflict, in this case, the Hmar rebels and the NSCN-IM; second, is the turf war between the two ethnic groups, backed by rebel outfits claiming to represent the respective communities; and finally, the entire conflict has assumed religious overtones: the Hmars are mostly Christians while the Dimasas are generally Hindus.
While the police is convinced that the HPC-D was behind last week's killing of the Dimasa farmers, an unheard of group called the Hmar People - Defence Wing (HP-DW) faxed a statement to some local news organizations saying it had carried out the March 31 massacre, and not the HPC-D. The group's self-styled commander, Hmar Hnam Santu, said in the statement that, on March 16, a group of DHD militants barged into a church in North Cachar Hills district while a service was in progress. "The DHD militants molested churchgoers, snatched away their offerings and forced them to bow down before them saying they were more powerful than the Almighty," a local media report quoted Santu as saying.
The latest bout of feuding between the Hmars and the Dimasas, who have been coexisting peacefully for decades in the area, has added to the problems of security forces battling violent insurgencies and ethnic conflagrations in this State of 26 million people. The ethnic riots between the Bodo and the Adivasi Santhal communities in western Assam since 1996 have already drained the State exchequer, besides tying down Army, police and paramilitary troopers in a vast stretch in the State's western parts.
More than 100,000 displaced people, belonging to both the Bodo and Santhal communities, are still living in so-called relief camps, in sub-human conditions. Moreover, rebels of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) are still active, completing 24 years since the group's formation on April 7, 2003. The banned National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB), like the ULFA, is also engaged in a bush war for an independent homeland, though its rival Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) has given up arms to join the mainstream after the signing of an Accord with New Delhi in February this year.
If the hands of the counter-insurgency authorities in Assam are still full, the post-massacre threat by the DHD to call off the ceasefire has led to some new fire-fighting measures by the government. The DHD wants the Dimasa people to be protected by the authorities. But no one can provide full-proof security to a widely dispersed population that lives in isolated hill areas, surrounded by dense jungle.
The inability to prevent further attacks, or even counter-attacks by the Dimasas (one misdirected retaliatory killing - in which an unfortunate Kuki tribal was killed by the DHD in a case of mistaken identity, has already occurred), could easily see the situation going out of hand. In the absence of any other coherent options or strategies, the Government has, once again, fallen back on the Army. The troops have moved in. The scene is uneasy, and the quiet, nothing but ominous.
The author is Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi; Consulting Editor, The Sentinel, Guwahati. Courtesy, South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal