The ethnic carnage in Assamís Cachar district has put the government of Mr Tarun Gogoi to a severe test. The brutal killing of 23 people, belonging to the Dimasa tribe, by Hmar militants has shocked the people in the area as much as it has shaken the administration. The incident shows that ethnic rivalries not only in Assam but also elsewhere in the Northeast can take frightening forms at the slightest of provocations. Clashes between the Nagas and the Kukis in Manipur or between different clans in Nagaland had often destroyed peace and social stability in these states. Assam too had suffered a long night of bloody ethnic battles between the Bodos and the Santals. But there had been a long spell of peaceful co-existence by ethnic and tribal groups, which has now been so rudely broken by the Cachar tragedy. The two districts of North Cachar Hills and Karbi Anglong are among the most backward areas in Assam. This, coupled with the inaccessibility of these areas, makes them a happy hunting ground for diverse militant outfits. It is still not clear what triggered the wanton killing in Cachar. But it would be an ominous signal if an outlawed Naga group was involved, as has been alleged, in inciting the killers.
The governmentís first task, however, should be clear. Even as it investigates the events leading to the violence, it has to do all it can to stop further bloodshed. And this should be done on war footing because the Dimasas would certainly look for an opportunity to avenge the murderous assault on their kinsmen. Since the Dimasas are a much larger ethnic group in the area, a retaliatory strike could lead to a worse cycle of violence. This explains why large numbers of Hmar people have left their homes and taken shelter in refugee camps set up by the district administration. Mr Gogoi did the right thing in quickly visiting these camps and assuring both communities of the governmentís efforts to restore peace. The terrified inmates of the camps can think of returning to their homes only if they feel secure in doing so. The government need not hurry them to return home until steps have been taken to ensure their safety. The administration should also guard against any political group exploiting and further rousing ethnic sentiments. This is an important task, given the history of political parties playing the ethnic card in the Northeast. It is time they realized that this is a suicidal game both for themselves and the people who fall prey to their heinous politics.