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Northeast Echoes
Remains of a burnt house after ethnic clashes between Garo and Rabha tribes in East Garo Hills. (PTI)

Need: conflict study unit

The Northeast is an ethnic cauldron. With 238 ethnic groups (and counting), whose homelands are contiguous, it is not surprising that inter-ethnic conflicts would erupt at the slightest provocation.

The latest conflagration is between the Garos and Rabhas occupying the areas that border Goalpara district of Assam and Garo hills of Meghalaya. Ethnic unrest is nearly always followed by largescale violence leading to loss of lives and property and displacement of human beings. It is hard to believe that people who have lived in perfect harmony for years can suddenly take up arms against each other and become worst enemies. You are left to wonder at the overwhelming force of hatred being unleashed on innocent victims.

We watch in disbelief the burning of houses, rendering people homeless and rootless. At such times, the question that comes to mind is: Could this conflagration not have been avoided? Could it not have been foreseen, and could someone not have diffused the situation before it got out of hand? There are of course no easy answers. Politicians and policy makers have shown that they are incapable of taking time off to understand the nuances of ethnic conflicts or of spending quality time to develop policies that do not exacerbate the perception of neglect and under-development.

Political gains

For a while now, the Rabhas of Assam, a group that has very close cultural affinity with the Garos, both being of Tibeto-Burman origin, have been restive. We have lost count of the number of bandhs and road blockades the Rabhas have called just in the past year to press for their demand of a Rabha Hasong. This, if we understand correctly, is a political framework which would bring them under the ambit of the Sixth Schedule and allow them the space and the flexibility to develop their area. Every ethnic group that finds a voice and the right political pitch usually makes such demands because it knows that this is the only way to get a share of the political and financial pie. Such demands will become more strident as the Assembly elections approach.

The only problem with the Rabha Hasong is that it includes 416 villages inhabited by Garo people. In August last year, the Garo National Council, comprising Garos living in Kamrup district of Assam, had demanded a separate Garo Autonomous Council which would exclude those villages from the proposed Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council. A section of non-tribals under the umbrella of Ajanajatiya Suraksha Mancha who live in 135 villages which also fall under the RHAC have asked that they be excluded from the Rabha Council. Assam is in the eye of the storm with 21 ethnic communities sharing a living space that can by no means be termed as “belonging” to any single homogenous group. Over the centuries, the groups have conflated into new entities. But when an ethnic group begins to demand greater autonomy to address the development backlog, then new problems are bound to emerge. Those who are not of that ethnic profile may not subscribe to those demands because they are unsure what the new dispensation would look like, or if it will look after their interests.

In this already murky scenario, it is unfortunate that the poison of politics has seeped in to queer the pitch further. Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma has taken the clichéd way out and demanded additional security forces from the Centre but not before blaming a BJP MP from Assam for meddling in the conflict. His bête noire P.A. Sangma and MP Agatha Sangma who have toured the riot-hit areas have raised a feverish pitch asking for army deployment. They have alerted defence minister A.K. Anthony to rush in more forces.

Mud slinging

The former Speaker and Tura MLA has gone hammer and tongs at Mukul Sangma, literally blaming him for allowing the condition to get out of hand. They are, of course, not far off the mark. The simmering discontent between the two tribes was palpable. Some strict policing along National Highway 37 could have contained the problem. Repeated bandh calls by the Rabhas have disrupted movement to and from Garo hills to the rest of Meghalaya and the country. This highway is the only lifeline for the Garos. NH 62E which goes from Nongstoin in West Khasi Hills via Nongshram onwards to South Garo Hills has been abandoned and in disrepair. In fact, this stretch has become a hideout for the militant groups of Garo hills.

The Rabhas had called a bandh before and during the festive season of Christmas, thereby throwing out of gear the travel plans of many. Even the worst of enemies tone down their disruptive strategies during periods of religious celebrations. After all, in a secular democracy, this goodwill is the minimum that is expected from any agitating group. But the Rabhas maintained a very uncompromising posture. This was the time when political leaders from the Garo community could have approached the Rabha leaders and worked at a compromise. But no such thing happened. Things were allowed to simmer until they reached a flashpoint.

Missed chance

Now the unfortunate part is that every militant group in Meghalaya and Assam have joined the fight. Ulfa, which is known to empathise with the Rabha militant outfits, has joined issues and accused the state governments of Assam and Meghalaya of fishing in troubled waters and trying to score political points from a human tragedy.

Meanwhile, the newly formed Garo militant outfit, the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), headed by a former cop, has announced that it would take matters into its own hands and protect the Garo people as they have literally been left defenceless.

All these developments do not augur well for the region and especially the affected people from both communities, thousands of whom are now in living in makeshift camps.

Way out

At this juncture, one wonders why a region marked by frequent violent ethnic convulsions does not have a centre for conflict resolution where different groups can articulate and share their anxieties and political aspirations.

The profiling of an “enemy” is what leaders of an ethnic group wishing to ride the political bandwagon to power, normally do.

We find that the ordinary man or woman is the least interested in such aggressive postures adopted by self-proclaimed leaders, but they have no space to speak their minds.

A conflict resolution centre could provide voice and space for the moderate elements of every ethnic group so that they can counter the lumpen elements within their communities.

Perhaps the problem also lies in India’s simplistic notion of democracy and nation building where language and not ethnic differences were considered important. India’s simple majoritarian democracy seems to have failed us in the Northeast.

We are ethnically divided societies and there is no discounting that fact. The other reality is that minority ethnic groups perceive that they will be permanently excluded from power through the ballot box.

They are apprehensive of electoral contests conducted under the principle of simple majority rule.

Scholars like Timothy Sisk who have studied ethnic conflicts across the world, propose power-sharing practices as an alternative to simple majoritarian forms of democratic governance. Indeed what every ethnic group in the Northeast wants is a share in governance. Unfortunately, we have yet to devise this fully participatory form of democracy where everything does not end with the ballot box but begins from there.

(The writer can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com)

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