Ghosts of Kokrajhar

July's conflict has a bitter afterlife in Assam. Government must heed the warning

The fragile calm that had settled in Assam after July's ethnic clashes was broken when fresh bouts of violence broke out on Saturday. On Tuesday, three people were killed in Kokrajhar and Baska, both Bodo districts, taking the toll up to seven. The same day, a tea-planter was shot in Sonitpur district, close to the Assam-Arunachal border. The anti-talks faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) is alleged to be behind the violence. The Bodo movement retains its militant edge, with hardline factions undermining the peace settlement of 2003, when the Bodoland Liberation Tigers agreed to give up arms and hold talks.

Many of the militant factions have funded their activities through extortion, and tea planters are easy prey. At least 21 planters or executives of tea companies have been killed in as many years. The latest spate of killings also points in the direction of a continuing and unresolved problem: the vast quantity of illegal arms still floating around in Assam and the Northeast. Not only is the region home to a large arms market, the government has also not been able to confiscate the weapons owned by militant groups, even if it managed to bring certain factions to the talks table. In a region flooded with arms, a disturbance can take a bloody turn, and the Kokrajhar violence of July has had a bitter afterlife. With over 4.78 lakh people displaced at the peak of the violence, the state government was faced with a massive and fraught rehabilitation process that it has not been able to manage successfully.

This week's conflagrations have been isolated incidents so far, but the state government should not ignore the warning signs of a gathering unrest. It was slow to react in July, when it did not act in time to address and stanch the build-up of tensions. This time, it must move quickly to ensure that law and order is maintained. The battered state cannot afford a tragic repeat.

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