Smoking the peace pipe in Assam: Bodo and Karbi to Dimasa, the push to ‘end’ tribal insurgencies
After the government signed a peace settlement with the Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA) earlier this week, both Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma declared that it marked the end of the tribal insurgency in Assam.
This was a significant claim for a state which — even after Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Arunachal Pradesh were carved out of it — has seen insurgency by various tribal militant groups, particularly from the 1980s onwards. The core demand of most of these groups has been greater political autonomy, primarily through separate statehood demands.
There are 15 recognised tribes in the autonomous districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills and 14 recognised tribes in the rest of the state. Of these, the major tribes are Bodo (35% of the state’s tribal population), Mishing (17.52%), Karbi (11.1%), Rabha (7.6%), Sonowal Kachari (6.5%), Lalung (5.2%), Garo (4.2%), and Dimasa (3.2%).
Of these, the most sustained and violent movement for autonomy has been carried out by Bodo groups, but there have also been Karbi and Dimasa groups that waged militant operations over the decades. The peace process has been a long one and the claim of ending insurgency in tribal areas comes after a string of peace settlements with different groups in recent years.
Three accords were signed with Bodo militant groups in 1993, 2003, and 2020. While the first organised demand for a separate Bodo state emerged in the 1960s, it revived and gained strength through the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) after the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. The first Bodo Accord was signed with the ABSU in 1993 and paved the way for the Bodoland Autonomous Council. But this fell through when the ABSU withdrew from it and revived the demand for a separate state. The second Accord in 2003 with the Bodo Liberation Tigers subsequently led to the formation of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), with jurisdiction over the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD).
The third Bodo Accord of 2020 was essentially a truce with four factions of the militant National Democratic Front of Bodoland. It extended provisions already in effect through the previous accords by providing more legislative, administrative, executive and financial powers to the BTC; the power to alter the area of the BTAD; and the notification of the Bodo language as an associate official language in the state.
In 2021, a settlement was arrived at with five militant groups of Karbi Anglong — Karbi People’s Liberation Tiger, People’s Democratic Council of Karbi Longri (PDCK), Karbi Longri NC Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), Kuki Liberation Front (KLF), and United People’s Liberation Army (UPLA) — that was said to have brought Karbi insurgency to an end.
The insurgency by Karbi groups, too, revolved around the demand for an autonomous state and had taken off in the 1980s. In 2011, the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UDPS) — formed by the coming together of the Karbi National Volunteers (KNV) and the Karbi People’s Force (KPF) — signed a tripartite settlement with the Union and Assam governments that provided for greater autonomy and special packages for the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council. USDP leader Horen Singh Bey is currently the BJP Lok Sabha MP from the Autonomous District, Assam constituency. The 2021 settlement further granted more autonomy and provided a special development package of Rs 1,000 crore over five years.
The DNLA, with which a tripartite agreement was reached earlier this week, was the newest group to take up arms in Dima Hasao district. While the DNLA was formed only in 1991, the region earlier saw outfits such as the Dimasa National Security Force (DNSF), the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) that was a breakaway group from the DNSF, and the Dima Halam Daogah – Jewel that was a breakaway group from the DHD. While the DNSF surrendered in 2005, both factions of the DHD signed a settlement with the Union and Assam governments.
The settlement signed with the DNLA now has similar provisions along the lines of the settlement arrived at with the five Karbi Anglong groups two years ago. Following these settlements over the decades, several former militants such as Hagrama Mohilary from the BLT, Horen Singh Bey from the USDP, and Jewel Garlosa, Debolal Gorlosa and Niranjan Hojai from the DHD (J) turned to mainstream politics.
While settlements with all active tribal militant groups have been arrived at in recent years, history has seen breakaway factions and new groups crop up after negotiations with a given group or a section of the leadership of a group.
Conflict analyst Jaideep Saikia, an observer of the security situation in the Northeast, said although the agreement with the DNLA was an important step in the direction of peace in Assam, caution should be exercised as the possibility of other groups coming to the fore remains open. He said one can never definitively proclaim the end of insurgency in the state.
“New Delhi’s magnanimity may turn out to be the reason for onlooking potential belligerents to setting out on the path of insurgency as taking to arms could be utilised by certain nefarious elements to attract New Delhi’s notice and consequently benefit from pacifiers in the future. New Delhi must set up a North East Security Council to both comprehend and administer the region holistically.”
In the meantime, while talks with these tribal militant groups have been carried out, the biggest challenge for the government remains the Paresh Baruah-led ULFA (I), which continues to hold fast to the demand for sovereignty.