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Issue No.: 571 | January 2015


Nani Gopal Mahanta
The people of Assam did not like the grouping of Assam with Bengal for framing the provincial constitution as proposed in the Cabinet Mission Plan in 1946.

CONFRONTING THE STATE by Nani Gopal Mahanta ● Published by Sage Publications, New Delhi ● ● 2013 ●  pp 348 ● Rs. 750

Reviewed by Brig. Suresh C. Sharma (Retd.) advisor to the telecom industry, a freelance writer and a member of the Freedom First advisory board. Email:
The author is an Associate Professor at the Guwahati University and had earlier taught at the University of California. The Government has been facing violence in the North East and has attributed it to lack of economic development and easy availability of arms. These factors do play a part, but the main cause is a feeling of alienation amongst the various ethnic groups. Illegal immigration from Bangladesh and internal migration from India have added to the problem. The erstwhile Congress rulers have not shown any interest in solving these issues. In 1836, the British colonial bureaucrats declared Bengali to be the official language of Assam which hurt the Assamese cultural pride.

The people of Assam did not like the grouping of Assam with Bengal for framing the provincial constitution as proposed in the Cabinet Mission Plan in 1946. Nehru and Maulana Azad agreed with the leaders of Assam in internal discussions but did not take it up with the Cabinet Mission on 10 June 1946. Nehru told Gopichand Bardoloi that the progress of the rest of India could not be held back for the sake of Assam. Bardoloi had to approach Mahatma Gandhi to get his views accepted. 

The abandonment of Assam in the 1962 War, denial of funds for resettling refugees from East Pakistan after Independence and location of an oil refinery further eroded the credibility of the Central Government. The Assam Movement was launched to correct these faults. On 7 April 1979, seven young people after a night long discussion at Ranghar, the entertainment place of the Ahom kings in the 14th century, decided to organize the United Liberation Front of Assam [ULFA]. Its influence was strengthened due to the efforts of the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad [AJYCP]. 

The objective of ULFA was the liberation of Assam which according to them was never a part of India. Political and military wings were organized to support the cause. Surprisingly, its agenda included tolerance of immigrants from Bangladesh. A fifteen page booklet described these immigrants as "major part of the national life of the people of Assam.” The All Assam Students Union did not support ULFA’s policy on immigrants. ULFA had adopted this policy due to their military compulsion of locating training camps in Bangladesh and supply of arms. Lt. General S. K. Sinha, former Governor of Assam, has commented that the political party which came to power on the anti-immigration plank itself later became hostage to vote bank politics.

ULFA gained strength when the Assam Gana Parishad [AGN] came to power in 1985. ULFA had stabilised and it took some populist measures like punishing people who showed disrespect for women. AJYCP occupied state land and put it to cultivation using forced labour. In 1988, Munin Nobis, an AASU leader, tried to internationalise the campaign and established contacts with Intelligence Agencies of Pakistan and Bangladesh. The ULFA cadres were taken to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training. Camps were organized in Nagaland, Bhutan and Myanmar. About sixty youths were sent to Myanmar for training by the Kachins who demanded ten lakh rupees for arms. The Kachins utilised the Assamese youths for attacks on the Myanmar Army and suffered casualties. Quite a few died of various diseases and absence of medical treatment. The trainees were treated like hostages. The Indian Intelligence Agency, RAW, contacted the Kachins and threatened to evict the refugees from Manipur which ended ULFA’s ties with the Kachins. 

Since the state government was not taking any action, the Central Government headed by Chandrasekhar imposed President’s Rule on 27 November 1990 and ULFA was declared illegal. Sakia became the Chief Minister on 3 July 1991 when elections were conducted. His attempts at moderation and negotiations did not succeed and ULFA was decimated in Army operations. Terror acts by ULFA had resulted in a decline of popular support for them.

The ideological base for independent Assam was provided by Parag Das, a journalist. He wrote a few books on that theme and regularly wrote in his paper justifying the demand for independence as only 2% of the land mass is connected to India. This is not a convincing reason as island chains not connected by land can be part of a State. Another reason, he cites is ethnic difference. There is hardly any state that does not have people of more than one ethnic group. Parag Das failed to understand the pulse of the people. The market economy of India had created stake holders who expected to gain more from the Indian Union than from an independent Assam. The reasons for alienation were a disregard for history and culture of Assam and economic neglect. The victory of the Assam kings against the Mughal invaders is not included in the history text books. Public display of honour to the Ahom commander Lachit Borphukan by Lt. General Sinha was greatly appreciated by the people of Assam. 

The state has opted to rely on the police and the army rather than seek a political solution. There will always be allegations of killing of innocent people by the security forces, forgetting that terror acts also result in loss of innocent lives. Negotiations can succeed only in a violence-free environment. Another method adopted was to rehabilitate militants who gave up arms. Militants who surrendered were given Rs. 2.5 lakh each as grant and a soft loan of Rs. 1.5 lakh. They gave useful information about the militants and became the targets of ULFA. They in turn got together to form the SULFA, a group of surrendered terrorists, for their own protection. 130 people have been killed on both sides. We do not know why the security forces did not ensure the safety of the SULFA.

ULFA did not try to get popular support and wrongly presumed that the people of Assam wanted independence. A field survey in May 2001 established that the vast majority of people did not want independence and believed that support for ULFA was declining. To claim that Assam was never a part of India is to ignore the process of building up of a nation state. Support for ULFA declined due to indiscriminate killings, support for Bangladeshi immigrants, contacts with foreign intelligence agencies and support for Pakistan in the Kargil War. A Bomb blast at Dhimeji on 15 August 2004 in which 14 school children died shook the entire country and anti-ULFA rallies were held in all parts of the state.   

More than 5,000 militants of ULFA surrendered and 1,000 were killed during counter-insurgency operations by the military during 1998 to 2001. It has lost public support but continues to be sustained by a pride in Assam culture, strong anti-Delhi feeling, poor economic development and help from neighbouring countries. Conflicts between the state and the citizens may be due to the lack of economic development and it may be seen as continuity of economics by other means. 

Instead of finding a political solution, the state has opted for conflict management and conflict suppression. These measures entice the groups to join the main stream. A few splinter groups continue to follow the path of violence. Liberal funding without human development turn people into recipients of charity. The empowerment of individuals is not taken seriously. The author has missed the issue of misuse of funds with the connivance of local leaders. The states are at the mercy of the Centre for development funds. The states should be able to raise their own finances and the responsibility for various types of taxes should be revised. There is need to involve the civil society to bring peace. 





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Many Voices from the past



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