Sunday, January 07, 2007

Violence in Assam

Over 50 people have been killed in overnight violence in India’s remote north eastern province Assam. Hundreds of Indian Army soldiers now patrol the streets of the strife-torn province enforcing a curfew with orders of shoot to kill. The separatist rebels known as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) instigated the violence killing 48 people, mostly immigrant labourers and traders from the eastern state of Bihar, in a series of coordinated overnight attacks. The rebels then blew up a government vehicle killing seven people, four of them policemen.

According to local police, the violence was an attempt to intimidate after an independent opinion poll showed 90% of people rejected ULFA’s separatist demands. The deaths all took place in the eastern provinces of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, and Dhemaji, where there is a large migrant work force. The Hindi-speaking minorities in these areas are forming peace committees involving leaders of all communities. A police official told the Times of India the committees “are working as vigilantes, helping the affected people come to terms with reality and trying to heal the wounds”. The Bihari immigrants had moved to the tea-rich province of Assam decades ago and mostly lived as labourers, fishermen and farmers.

The Bihari chief Minister Nitish Kumar urged the national Government to protect Biharis in Assam. Kumar said the families of the murdered Biharis will get Rs 1 lakh (a lakh is the Hindi word for 10,000) each from his government and wanted the Central and Assam governments to compensate them too. The Central minister for state for Home is now on his way to Assam to assess the situation. Meanwhile the rebel group ULFA blamed the Indian Government for the trouble. The group’s vice president Pradip Gogoi said the Government have stalled the peace process forcing his group to carry out sporadic violence. At least 10,000 people have been killed in separatist violence in Assam over the past 25 years.

Assam is a t-shaped state. It is one of the “seven sisters”, the seven states in the north east that are separated from the rest of India by the 20km wide Siliguri Corridor, more colourfully known as the Chicken’s Neck. The Chicken's Neck was created in 1947 to allow access to Assam after the state of Bengal was partitioned between India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Siliguri in West Bengal is connected to Guwahati in Assam by a railway and National Highway 31. It is a very dangerous road due to rebel activity and the closeness of the Bangladeshi border. ULFA is not the only active insurgency group and rebels have often bombed the railway line to isolate the state from the rest of India.

The areas remoteness also means there is little international or humanitarian access so precise information about atrocities and victims is hard to come by. However it is likely that 50,000 people have died due to violence in the Seven Sisters since independence in 1948. The conflicts are rooted in the extraordinary diversity of the area at the crossroads of east and west. The area was a melting pot of cultures during the British administration. Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 caused economic disaster for the north-eastern states. The move severed the water, road and railway communications with the rest of India and they lost access to a port.

Assam, the largest of the seven sisters, is typical of the area’s multi-ethnicity with 45 different languages spoken. It is rich in vegetation, forests and wildlife. As well as being t-shaped, Assam is very much shaped by tea. Assam tea is grown at near sea level, giving it a malty sweetness and an earthy flavour as opposed to the more floral aroma of highland teas. It is the second largest tea production area after China. Assam also produces crude oil and natural gas. Assam’s resources mean that India is not likely to look fondly on efforts for secession. Its large immigrant population complicates the picture further as they have allegiance firstly to India not Assam.

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