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Poll flavour in, exit fear of rebels

Tezpur, April 6: If Bhupen Bora had his way, he would have sent the NDFB(S) packing.

The influence of militants has been waning in the Northeast, but in election season, politics and poll rhetoric revolve around them still.

So days before Tezpur, in upper Assam, votes on April 7, Bora let rip at the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit). If he wins, the Congress candidate from Tezpur said, he would finish the NDFB(S) within a day.

Many believe the outfit was involved in the Bodo-Muslim riots that shook Assam in 2012. Whether it was involved or not is another question but, after Bora’s public declaration, a perception has set in that minority voters may have tilted in his favour.

Muslims account for over one-and-a-half lakh voters in Tezpur, while Bodos number more than a lakh in Sonitpur district that includes Tezpur.

But won’t Bodo voters turn away from the party?

“Bodos will not go away as the students and others are with us,” said a senior leader close to Bora.

Sonitpur abuts Arunachal Pradesh in the north and the Bodo-dominated Darrang district on the west and has been known to have a presence of the Bodo faction whose leaders operate from Myanmar.

But barring Sonitpur and the Bodoland Territorial Areas District where the NDFB is active, the rest of Assam is apparently standing up to the rebels.

Security forces have been vigilant, too. As one crosses over to Dibrugarh from Lakhimpur constituency by ferry across the Brahmaputra, taxies plying from the south bank are stopped at Jamirah, midway to Dibrugarh town.

“The United Liberation Front of Asom is more active during elections, so we are being extra alert,” said a CRPF jawan, as he shuffled through rucksacks and bags.

In the rest of Assam, however, several groups have either signed suspension of operations agreements with the central government or simply dissolved themselves. Result: elections have a fresh flavour.

That was evident from yesterday evening’s procession of youths in Biswanath Chariali, in Tezpur, with effigies of a local leader. “People are standing up,” said Atul Bora, a government employee. “Fear is a thing of the past.”

A senior Intelligence Bureau officer confirmed what the Biswanath Chariali resident said. “Never in the past two decades-and-a-half has Assam seen such a groundswell of enthusiasm for elections,” the officer said.

Elsewhere in the Northeast, in Arunachal and Nagaland, the involvement of Naga rebel groups in the elections is hardly a matter of debate.

On National Highway 39, army personnel stop taxis and private cars to check for contraband in a reminder that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is still in force despite the relative peace.

NSCN factions insist they are not involved in the elections but evidence and claims on the ground indicate otherwise.

A Nagaland-registered vehicle was burnt down in Itanagar on Wednesday by activists opposing the participation of the Naga People’s Front in the state elections and the alleged involvement of NSCN factions in eastern Arunachal districts.

In the Assembly seat of Miao in Changlang district that falls in Arunachal East Lok Sabha constituency, local people said at least two rebels were among the audience when a Congress candidate delivered a speech in a market.

Arunachal, where Lok Sabha and Assembly elections will be held together, votes on April 9 along with Nagaland and Meghalaya.

In Manipur, valley-based militants are said to be active ahead of the April 9 and April 17 elections. This is the only time they can replenish their cash reserves, said a senior police officer.

In Meghalaya, police are keeping a watch on the Garo National Liberation Army and security has been beefed up on the Bangladesh border.

Assam votes on April 7, April 12 and April 24.