The Centre, the Assam government and insurgency groups from the state have signed an agreement to bring peace to the Northeastern state’s Karbi-Anglong district. Hailed as an “historic" move, the accord aims to “end the decades old crisis" and ensure Assam’s territorial integrity and comes months after more than 1,000 members of armed outfits came forward to surrender and give up the path of violence. But the signing of the accord has also seen protests break out in Karbi Anglong. Here’s what the accord means for Assam and why it’s attracting bouquets and brickbats.
Why Did An Insurgency Break Out In Karbi Anglong District?
Karbi-Anglong is Assam’s largest district in terms of area and is home predominantly to a tribal and ethnic population comprising members of Karbi, Bodo, Kuki, Dimasa, Hmar, Garo, Rengma Naga, Tiwa, and Man communities. Karbis make up more than 46 per cent of the district’s population of close to 10 lakh people per the 2011 Census. In a state and region that is thus home to a multiplicity of ethnicities, armed outfits arose that aimed not only to challenge the Indian state but also protect group interests and identities.
“Turbulence in India’s Northeast is… not caused just by armed separatist groups representing different ethnic communities fighting the central or the local governments or their symbols to press for either total independence or autonomy, but also by the recurring battles for territorial supremacy among the different ethnic groups themselves," said a report by the Union Women and Child Development (WCD) ministry.
The first insurgency in Assam was the one started by the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in 1979, seeking a breakaway “sovereign, socialist Assam". Then, in the 1980s, came the Bodoland movement led by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), which sought the creation of an independent home for the Bodos, the largest ethnic group among the plains tribes of Assam. As these outfits pursued their own objectives other groups, too, sprung up to protect and pursue their specific goals.
“Apart from ULFA and the Bodo insurgency, Assam has been affected by insurgent movements initiated by Karbi and Dimasa tribes and the Adivasis. Karbi and Dimasas have demanded autonomy for their homelands whereas the Adivasis have demanded greater recognition of their rights," the WCD report said.
When Did The Karbi Insurgency Start?
While the demand for a separate state for the Karbis goes back many decades, the movement took a violent turn in the mid-1990s. Two groups — Karbi National Volunteers (KNV) and Karbi People’s Force (KPF) — were formed in 1996, which in 1999 merged under the banner of the United Peoples’ Democratic Solidarity (UPDS). However, by 2002, UPDS had entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Indian government and by 2011 had formally disbanded.
In 1995, the Karbi-Anglong Autonomous Council was set up under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which contains provisions for the administration of tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.
However, as has been the case with multiple insurgencies in the Northeast, the coming to the talks table and the signing of a peace accord with one group often leads to a split within that group and the creation of a new faction that is opposed to talks. Such moves practically nullify the effect of the peace accord and it is back to square one for the government and other stakeholders. UPDS underwent a split in 2004 and the anti-talks faction Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF) was formed. Then,
KLNLF laid down arms in 2010 only for another insurgent group, Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT), to appear on the scene.
As the Centre engaged with all these various groups, in February 2021, more than 1,000 members of five outfits —
People’s Democratic Council of Karbi Longri (PDCK), Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT), Kuki Liberation Front (KLF) and United People’s Liberation Army (UPLA) — laid down their weapons. Among those to surrender was IK Songbijit, once the leader of an NDFB faction named after himself, and the leader now of PDCK.
The Centre had at the time said it was working on a new peace accord and that is the one which has now been signed by these groups. In a detailed note on the 2021 accord, the Centre noted that while tripartite agreements were signed with Karbi-Anglong groups in 1995 and 2011, “peace could not be established in Karbi-Anglong".
What Does The Peace Accord Say?
Among other things, the Centre said that the Memorandum of Settlement — as the accord is called — “will ensure greater devolution of autonomy to the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council, protection of identity, language, culture, etc. of Karbi people and focussed development of the Council area, without affecting the territorial and administrative integrity of Assam".
Under the agreement, the armed groups will shun violence and join the democratic process while the government will facilitate the rehabilitation of their cadres.
The accord also talks about giving “more legislative, executive, administrative and financial powers to KAAC" and setting up “a Karbi Welfare Council for focussed development of Karbi people living outside KAAC area".
One of the highlights of the accord is the creation of a Special Development Package of Rs 1,000 crore for the state to run over a period of five years that will fund “specific projects for the development of Karbi areas".
A senior Assam police officer had said at the time of the surrender by the insurgents that “all insurgent outfits of Karbi Anglong district have now been brought into the mainstream" and that “Karbi Anglong militant outfits joining the mainstream means a decline in influence of Naga militant outfits in Assam".
Why Are There Protests Against The Accord?
Reports from Karbi-Anglong district following the signing of the accord on September 4 said that more than 24 outfits representing indigenous and ethnic groups in Karbi-Anglong have come out against the accord saying that their demand remains for the creation of an ‘autonomous state’ under the provision of Article 244(A) of the Constitution.
The groups said they were also against the marking of 10 seats on KAAC for people from any community. “There is no point of reservation of seats in sixth schedule administered areas like KAAC. We knew that all seats here are for tribes. All constituencies in KAAC should have been reserved for the tribals living in Karbi Anglong. Tactfully, these 10 seats have been taken away from us, paving the way for other community representation," Times Of India quoted Abinash Ronghang, convenor of the forum for the 24+ outfits, as saying. He added that their forum would continue protests on the issue of Article 244(A).
This article, inserted into the Constitution by the 22nd Amendment Act in 1969, provides for the creation of an ‘autonomous state’ within Assam out of tribal areas. It is different from the sixth schedule in that it provides for greater powers for the council, including the creation of a legislature and a council of ministers.