x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Victims of burning ethnic tensions

Attacks by insurgents are becoming part of daily life for innocent villagers in the remote hills of one Indian state.

NORTH CACHAR HILLS, INDIA // The gunmen, nearly a dozen of them, some in black commando fatigues and bandannas, others in ordinary clothes, came in the early hours of the morning. While the villagers were still sleeping, they opened fire. Those who were able to, ran, taking only their children. But the gunmen chased them down and then torched their homes. Pabitra Lankhasa, 50, remembers shouting over the din of confusion to his wife and children, telling them to run for their lives as their village was set ablaze behind them.

Days later, the family returned, to find a blackened divot where their house once stood. Everything they owned was destroyed. After the early May attack, a clutch of policemen armed with indigenously-made assault rifles nervously guard Jorai village, in India's state of Assam, hunkering behind a sandbag outpost and a makeshift watchtower in a jackfruit tree. "Why did they target us?" said Mr Lankhasa, wearing only a lungyi. "I have no clue. All I can say with certainty is that they were Zeme Naga assailants thirsty for Dimasa blood."

A Jhum cultivator, he, like other Dimasa tribals in this remote hamlet in the jungles of Assam's North Cachar Hills, dreads going to his farm, lest he get waylaid by the same insurgents. Just a few days after the attack, that is exactly what happened to another farmer - his bullet-pocked body was recovered from the jungle. North Cachar Hills is home to 18 ethnic communities, including the Dimasas, Zeme Nagas, Hmars, Kukis and Karbis.

Of these, Dimasas make up the majority 35 per cent of the district's 200,000 people. Zeme Nagas, who constitute 12 per cent of the population, are the second-largest ethnic group. For decades, they have lived together amicably. But for nearly three months, an outburst of ethnic violence - which some have likened to ethnic cleansing - has engulfed the insurgency-ravaged district. Thousands have been displaced as a dozen Dimasa villages and 18 Zeme Naga villages have been razed in the past few months. More are expected to be targeted as the violence spreads.

Neither the local government, nor local tribals, is certain who is orchestrating the attacks. Witness accounts say armed insurgents with sophisticated weapons, not ordinary people, lead the attacks. But the spreading ethnic violence is stoking suspicion and deepening the mistrust between both communities. Civil society groups are holding peace meetings in Haflong, the district headquarters, and pressing for calm.

Ironically, Zeme Naga tribals from Mabao, a sleepy hamlet atop a rugged mountain, had just returned from one such peace meeting late last month, convinced that the hills had seen the last of this new bout of ethnic violence, when they were attacked. Two teenage boys were shot dead, and as villagers fled, their homes were set on fire. Kilometres away, in Haflong, on that busy weekday afternoon, thick plumes of smoke could be seen billowing above the mountain.

An Assam police battalion, stationed in Sontilla town, just downhill, could not get there in time. Villagers are now living in wattle-and-daub huts in a temporary relief camp close to Sontilla. They long for a time of peace when they can return to Mabao and rebuild their homes. On a recent overcast morning, as rain-laden clouds glowered in the sky, a couple of families decided to brave the hike home to see what remained.

Skirting goat-droppings on the meandering mountain trail, they nervously scaled up to Mabao, armed with spears, machetes and an ancient country-made rifle. There was nothing to salvage, it was all ash and embers. "This will take a lifetime to rebuild," said Lungdi Buing, 36, looking forlorn as he stared at a contorted piece of metal roofing. His son was one of the two teenagers killed. The women gingerly plucked brinjal, colacassia and mint leaves from their still-remaining kitchen gardens, as the men stood on the threshold of the village standing guard.

At the village school, perched further up the hill and the only building spared, there were signs that the gunmen had been cooking there recently: a still smouldering bonfire and remnants of mustard oil. Concern that the gunmen could return sent the party back down the steep pitches of the mountain to the safety of the relief camp. On the motorway up to Mabao, car and lorry drivers these days flag down vehicles coming from the other direction with the question.

"Are there any insurgents creating trouble up ahead? Did you hear any bang?" It is without a doubt that the perpetrators of the ethnic flare up are linked to the myriad insurgencies fighting for autonomy or independence. But which one, and why? Umeshwar Singh, an officer from the state intelligence bureau, blames the Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel), also called Black Widow, the most dangerous insurgent group in the region against which the Indian government recently launched a massive anti-insurgency operation.

In a telephone interview, Daniel Dimasa, a top DHD (J) commander, flatly denied he had anything to do with the ethnic flare up. "If we had done it, we would admit we've done it," he said. "We fired at [freight] trains and we admitted that we did so, didn't we?" But Mr Singh claims DHD (J) is doing this in collusion with "some Naga miscreants". Widely suspected is the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, a banned insurgent group from neighbouring Nagaland that yearns to form a sovereign homeland - called Nagalim or Greater Nagaland - by integrating Nagas from all neighbouring states.

Because of this, it has a special interest in the North Cachar Hills: out of 4,869 sq kilometres, the group wants 3,703 sq km for Nagalim. Local tribes are vehemently against it, and for the National Socialist Council of Nagaland to achieve its goal, it needs to be the power broker in the region. Its two factions - NSCN (Isak-Muivah) and NSCN (Khaplang) - are infamously known as the "mother of all insurgencies" in the north-east because of their broad spun nexus with other insurgent groups in the region.

The government admits both groups are slowly, but inexorably, making a foray into the hills. A local Haflong-based reporter, who rushed to Mabao within an hour of the attack, even before the police forces, says he saw armed insurgents from NSCN (K). "They were the only ones there," said the reporter, wishing to remain anonymous. "What would they be doing in a village that had just burnt down?" "A Naga group burns down a Naga village - it looks like a conspiracy to whip up an ethnic backlash."

In one rare confession, Peter Zeme, the finance secretary of NSCN (K) took responsibility for burning down Yah, the first Dimasa village to be razed in late April. It has not claimed responsibility for any other arson attacks. Soon after the confession, a new insurgent outfit calling itself the Citizens Rights Protection Volunteer (CRPV) emerged. No one had ever heard of it before. It claimed responsibility for setting ablaze two Dimasa villages in early May, a week after Yah was attacked.

Believed to be an offshoot of NSCN, the group disappeared after an inquiry was launched. No insurgents, suspected of being involved in the ethnic flare up have been apprehended by the government. And villagers continue to live in dread. The real fear is that the carnage could spiral into ethnic clashes. In one village, Digrik, a quiet, Dimasa-dominated village bordering Naga villages, each of the 118 families had volunteered to donate bamboo sticks to build a three kilometre boundary wall to keep out attackers.

They take turns at night to guard the village. "These days you can't trust anyone," said Muktanath Kemprai, the village chairman. achopra@thenational.ae