Bitter brew

Conflict in Karbi Anglong is fuelled by a history of deprivation, continuing state abdication.

In Karbi Anglong district on the Assam-Nagaland border, a simmering 15-year-old unrest has flared up again. The fresh spate of ethnic violence between the Karbis and the Rengma Nagas started towards the end of December, when members of the Karbi People's Liberation Tigers (KPLT) allegedly shot nine Rengma Nagas in Karbi Anglong. Since then, a cycle of retaliatory violence has claimed at least 19 lives and displaced thousands.

For decades, the discontent among these tribes was expressed through demands for autonomy. In many cases, the state responded by granting the tribes autonomous territorial councils. Karbi Anglong, an autonomous district under the Sixth Schedule since 1952, witnessed the rise of a Karbi statehood agitation in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, the movement turned violent, with Karbi militant groups increasingly involved in killings and extortion rackets. The Rengmas, in contrast, are numerically weaker. Despite a feeble demand for a regional council, they have little political space in the state. Yet both communities live in abject conditions and with few avenues for employment. The competing struggles for limited resources and opportunities have sharpened ethnic rivalries. It is a pattern that has become familiar by now competing claims to increasingly scarce land were responsible, to a large degree, for the Bodo-Muslim violence of 2012. Tragedies like Kokrajhar and Karbi Anglong highlight the inadequacy of autonomous councils to meet the economic and developmental needs of the people.

Also in evidence is the abdication of the government, which seems to have receded from these areas altogether. In the case of the Karbi insurgency, the government's efforts to bring the rebels to the table for talks have been only partially successful. In 2010, it signed a ceasefire agreement with one militant faction, but the KPLT remained armed. An already charged situation has become volatile with the easy availability of arms in the region. If it is to stem the rising tide of violence in the region, the state government must cut off these channels of supply and address the longstanding grievances of the people.

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