India’s Northeast, which now officially includes the eighth state of Sikkim, has the dubious distinction of being home to Asia’s longest-running insurgency. The Nagas under A.Z. Phizo began an insurrection against the newly-formed Indian nation way back in 1956. Since then, it has spawned dozens of similar protests across the region, built around a sense of alienation and ethnic-cultural difference, that stay on the periphery of national consciousness. At last count, there were 30-odd banned insurgent groups in the region. Through the ’90s, some 11,000 died in insurgency-hit Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Nagaland.
Going strictly by numbers, Assam continues to bleed most. Till end-September, over 300 people had been killed this year. But numbers can be deceptive. Unlike the mid-’90s, insurgency no longer dominates headlines or people’s lives, which must be worrying for the two big outfits here, the ULFA and the NDFB. The Bodos are trapped in a seemingly intractable turf war against mainstream Assamese and ‘outsiders’ such as the Bengalis and even tea estate labourers from Jharkhand. The ULFA, formed in 1979 around the idea of homeland Ahom, virtually ran a parallel regime in ’88-90 but over the years was seen to degenerate into mere extortionism: the latest instance came last week when it demanded Rs 2 crore from HLL. The company refused, and upped security. CM Tarun Gogoi says his regime’s biggest plus is this changed mindset: “There used to be an uproar when a militant was shot down earlier. Now, the people themselves catch militants.” Still, there are over 3,000 cadre of both outfits hiding in the jungles of south Bhutan believing their ilk can only prosper outside the Indian Union.