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Prod after Assam flare-up

Protesters carrying weapons block the NH 39 in Golaghat on Wednesday. Picture by UB Photos

New Delhi, Aug. 20: Union home minister Rajnath Singh today asked the chief ministers of Assam and Nagaland to “sit across the table” and restore normality after a land dispute in a border district snowballed, leaving at least 17 persons dead since last week.

Three persons, including a Class IX student, died as police and protesters clashed in Assam’s Golaghat district this morning as the violence continued, fuelled by ethnic tensions and the intervention of militant groups.

Singh called for “strict action” but added that forces should exercise restraint while dealing with peaceful protests.

The home ministry has sent a report to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying the conflict was triggered by a land dispute between an Adivasi farmer in Assam and a Naga resident.

Sources said the report suggested the situation had been compounded by the presence of insurgent groups and protests in which activists and “political leaders from within the Congress party opposed to the chief minister” were involved.

Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi has been facing a challenge from a section of the state’s ruling Congress.

Tomorrow, the sources said, Gogoi and Nagaland chief minister T.R. Zeliang will make a joint statement calling for peace on the border after a meeting with Union minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju in Guwahati.

At the crux of the conflict is a land dispute between Salmon Sama, an Adivasi farmer in Golaghat, and Ekon Lotha, a resident of Wokha, Nagaland, just across the border.

Adivasis in the border areas have been tilling farmland owned by Nagas since the past decade but have, of late, started demanding land deeds. On August 12, CRPF personnel posted on the border caned a group of these Adivasi protesters, who ran amok. Mistaking it for an attack on their village, Naga villagers in Wokha opened fire. Later, houses on the Assam side were set ablaze.

The violence took on an ethnic colour when the Adivasi National Liberation Army backed one side and Naga militant factions like the Khole-Kitovi and Isak-Muivah of the NSCN backed the other.

Nepalese settlers and migrants from other states, such as Jharkhand, Odisha and Bengal, also live in the border areas.

Assam chief minister Gogoi today accused the CRPF of being biased towards the Naga villagers. CRPF director-general Dilip Trivedi dismissed the allegation. “We function according to the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code and are helping (in the) rehabilitation of the affected people in the disturbed belt,” he told The Telegraph.

Gogoi also blamed the absence of central intervention for the worsening law and order, prompting a sharp response from Rijiju.

“The chief minister’s statement is irresponsible… we are helping them,” the Union minister said on the sidelines of an event.

The All Assam Students Union (AASU) called for Gogoi’s resignation. AASU leaders, who met Rijiju and requested the Centre to intervene, asked for the withdrawal of the CRPF which, they alleged, is not neutral — an allegation also levelled by Gogoi — and demanded that those displaced be sent back to their villages with “full protection” of Assam police.

Nearly 10,000 people living in border areas have been displaced in raids, allegedly by Naga villagers.

The AASU is in touch with the Naga Students Federation. Both are members of the North East Students Organisation, an umbrella body of student unions in the Northeast.

“We want people-to-people contact to continue,” AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharjya said.

The Opposition AGP has called a 12-hour Assam bandh from 5am tomorrow.