Their terror-run, which began in March 2009 in a tiny but rugged 4,890 square kilometre district in Assam, did shake the nation, as 63 persons were killed by the group by July this year. The Jewel Garlossa faction of the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD-J) abruptly menaced the region as one of its most lethal insurgent outfits – the butcher among the 30 or more active militant groups that keep the Northeast on the boil.
But the DHD-J’s three-month rampage received a sudden jolt, when the Assam Police, as part of a trans-national offensive codenamed ‘Operation Treasure Hunt’, managed to capture its chief, Garlossa, in Bangalore. The arrest on June 4, 2009, along with two of his associates, had an instant impact on the group, though no one had anticipated that it would collapse so quickly, like a pack of cards, leading to the en masse surrender of its cadres within three months of Garlossa’s capture.
The DHD-J sought to, and had succeeded in, paralyzing normal life in the North Cachar Hills District — train services were brought to a halt and a key highway project was delayed beyond acceptable limits due to sustained violence. Worse, the situation degenerated into an ethnic feud between the district’s majority Dimasa community (from which DHD cadres are mostly drawn) and the minority Zeme Nagas. Garlossa’s arrest changed things dramatically. On June 7, 2009, within 72-hours of his capture, the DHD-J offered a unilateral ceasefire and expressed its desire to hold peace talks. The authorities, for a change, were in no hurry. On July 22, 2009, union home minister P. Chidambaram told the Rajya Sabha that the DHD-J could lay down arms. A week later, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said the group was keen on peace talks.
For once, the central government took a tough position. home minister P. Chidambaram rushed home secretary G. K. Pillai to personally review the situation, and later held a meeting exclusively to discuss the violence in the North Cachar Hills. At this September 1, 2009, meeting, Chidambaram sent out a no-nonsense signal — he asked the DHD-J to surrender by September 15, 2009, adding that the government would consider talking peace with the group only if its cadres laid down arms before that deadline, and agreed to stay in designated camps, end extortion altogether, and ensure the presence of all its top leaders at the talks, as and when they commenced.
The tough-talking worked. The DHD-J surprised many by actually adhering to the government’s diktat. What began as a trickle on September 10, 2009, (when 12 DHD-J rebels laid down arms with 11 weapons), quickly turned into a flood. Between September 13 and 14, 2009, as many as 372 rebels laid down their arms, depositing 136 weapons, including AK-47 and M-16 rifles, as well as other weaponry, including rocket launchers and grenades. The authorities have housed these cadres in two temporary camps at Kapuchera and Jatinga in the district.
It remains to be seen whether the DHD-J is actually putting its rebellion in deep-freeze, or is engaged in a tactical adaptation to the shock of losing its top leadership. After Garlossa’s arrest, the DHD-J had become rudderless, since he had, perhaps deliberately, not groomed anyone to lead the outfit in the event of his exit from the scene.
The big question is, now what? Already, there are reports that the DHD-J has, in fact, held back a huge cache of weapons in case its cadres have to return to the jungles in the event of the failure of the peace process, though going by record of groups that have entered into a truce in the past, with their cadres lodged in government-run designated camps, it is never easy to order cadres back to the fight. Not one of the dozen odd militants groups in the region who are in a ceasefire with the government has called off the truce, so far.
That is insufficient cause for complacence, though. Already, there is talk of a new outfit, the Halam National Liberation Front (HNLF), taking shape in the North Cachar Hills. The Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagland (NSCN-IM) is said to be propping up the HNLF to neutralize the impact of the surrender of the DHD-J. Earlier, the parent DHD faction headed by Dilip Nunisa, had entered into a deal with the government in 2003. Both the earlier DHD factions were opposed to the NSCN-IM’s expansionist ideas, seeking to create a ‘Greater Nagalim’ by incorporating Naga inhabited territories in States abutting Nagaland, including areas in the NC Hills. The HNLF’s agenda remains unclear at present, but may give cause for concern in the coming days.
The government now faces two principal challenges — one, to make sure no new rebel group manages to consolidate itself in the district; and two, to push the peace process forward. Significantly obstacles exist to both objectives. Tribal rivalries in the district, which mesh into the wider conflicts of the region, cannot be wished away, any more than its backwardness, isolation and poverty can. The region is densely forested and poorly connected, creating ideal guerilla county. New adventurers will certainly attempt to fill the gaps left behind by the surrendered DHD factions. As for the peace process, while both DHD factions (DHD-J and the one headed by Dilip Nunisa, DHD-N) have raised more or less the same demands – maximum autonomy for the NC Hills – their leaderships will now be fighting to occupy the same political space. In this small district, that can only result in a competitive escalation of demands, purportedly in the interest of the land and its people. There is a slippery slope here, and a risk that the government will be sucked into the vortex of internecine conflicts in the dual negotiations that must, at some stage, ensue.
The government’s standard procedure in the various ceasefires and peace processes in the region has tended to rely on delay and protraction to wear out down any radical demands. Indeed, in many cases in the region, the government has preferred to virtually forget about rebel groups after sealing ceasefire deals with them. The truce, then, produces new problems of restive cadres in camps gradually returning to some illegal activities, particularly extortion, protected by a curious state of suspension of normal laws – since they have an ‘understanding’ with the government. At the same time, with the ‘political issues’ remaining unsettled for extended periods, new insurrections would arise in the jungles of southern Assam, bringing the situation back to square on. A ceasefire and a peace process can only be meaningful within the context of a broader solution – but there is little evidence that the government has any coherent idea of what this is to be.
Wasbir Hussain is Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi; Director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati. Courtesy the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal