Workers set up the stage in Haflong on Friday for the homecoming ceremony. Picture by Anup Biswas
Haflong, March 8: Thirty-plus Gautam Saha is a contented man. For over three years now, he has been selling his assortment of chana uninterrupted on trains between Lumding and Lower Haflong, the station for Dima Hasao district headquarters, Haflong.
There have been occasions — sometime as long as over a month — in the past when he and the 35 other vendors on the route had to find odd jobs as trains wouldn’t ply in fear of attacks by the Joel Garlosa faction of the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD-J).
The end to the depredation came in 2009 when the DHD-J laid down their weapons after entering into a ceasefire with the government and began talks. “Those were terrible days,” he recollected today on the eve of yet another significant chapter in the history of the district earlier called North Cachar Hills — the formal “homecoming” of the Dilip Nunisa faction of the DHD.
“Even I had survived an attack on the Barak Express,” he said today on the Hill Queen Express that runs between Lumding in Nagaon district and Lower Haflong.
The two factions had jointly signed the memorandum of settlement with the Centre and the Assam government on October 8 last year.
In fact, the leadership of the two had come face-to-face for the first time after nine years since they parted ways that led to the creation of the two groups. The Nunisa group had, however, not formally surrendered their weapons although these are kept under the double-lock system with a key each with the outfit and the government. Come tomorrow, the group will no longer have the key to the violence they had once unleashed and set the then backward North Cachar Hills district back further. Come tomorrow, the group will cease to exist.
In the offing, sources in the outfit say, could be a political party, instead. The morrow is likely to lift the veil on the outfit’s future. Unlikely to be present are Joel Garlosa, who had signed on the dotted line of the memorandum of settlement along with Dilip Nunisa, and his commander-in-chief Niranjan Hojai. Unlikely to be present also are representatives of the Indigenous People’s Front, an organisation of non-Dimasas, who claim they number more than the Dimasas in the district and want an autonomous council of their own. Both Nunisa and Garlosa have separately extended the olive branch to the non-Dimasas after signing the MoS assuring they had nothing to be apprehensive of.
The MoS itself holds out promises for them. L. Lima Keivom, president of Indigenous Students Front, which is a constituent of the IPF, was categorical.
“There is no question of our attending tomorrow’s function. We are not going,” he said this evening. Such absence, coupled with the presence of some militant outfits owing allegiance to various ethnic groups, remain a matter of concern for the future.
“Yes, it is a matter of concern, but it is not difficult to contain,” a senior police official, who had served in the district during the troubled days, said. “The government had left the district to fend for itself,” with just one MLA, the district just did not figure in the government’s scheme of things and it continued to languish, while on the other hand, the autonomous council funds were being looted by a few.
“The government, together with the council, must now think of doing something to develop the district. As for the assorted militant groups still present, the government needs to be strong and not drifty,” the official said. The journey from Lumding to Lower Haflong takes one from darkness to light and darkness again as it passes through 18 tunnels in the hills. Tunnels, though fewer with the longest to measure 3,250 metres as against the present longest measuring 1,000 odd metres, will remain even when the ongoing conversion of the metre gauge to broad gauge is completed.
But there will be a difference: the new tunnels will have lights unlike the ones built by the British at the turn of the last century. The journey then will not be one from darkness to light and to darkness again. The Gautam Sahas can keep their fingers crossed.