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More Season's Greetings

As militants pile up a body count of 45 in the year's first fortnight, Mahanta gets no respite

More Season's Greetings
For Assam chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, 1997 was a nightmare. But if he had hoped that the new year would bring good tidings, he has been sadly mistaken. The threat of being chargesheeted in the infamous Letter of Credit (LOC) scam still hangs over his head, although the Central Bureau of Investigation is said to have dropped the most serious of charges against him—that of having taken cash from the prime accused in the case, Rajen Bora—for lack of evidence.

But even if Mahanta comes out unscathed in the LOC scandal, the militants do not seem to be giving any respite to the chief minister. Consider this: in the first fortnight of 1998, at least 45 people were killed by different militant organisations; a Northeast Frontier railway engineer and son of a Hindustan Lever executive were kidnapped. During the same period, at least 12 militants have been killed and several others arrested. The cycle of violence appears unending in the state and with elections less than a month away, Assam is sitting on a powder keg.

In fact, even as most people were busy ushering in the new year, Bodo militants struck in a big way in Darrang district, killing 12 Bengalis near Tangla township. Authorities said the killing was carried out by the banned National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). The following day, the same group attacked another village nearby, killing nine more Bengalis. The pattern of killing conformed to last year's trend when several such massacres were witnessed: well-armed militants storming an unprotected minority (either linguistic or religious) village, firing indiscriminately and escaping into their hideouts across the international border in Bhutan.

The state government perhaps heard its best news in several months when the Union home ministry informed Mahanta that Anup Chetia, general secretary of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), was arrested in Dhaka. Chetia, a key man in ULFA's political set-up, was arrested in '91 too but he jumped bail in March '92 and evaded arrest since then. His arrest had an immediate repercussion in Assam.

A day after Chetia's confinement was made public in Assam, an army major and three jawans were attacked in the busy Pan Bazar area of the city. Although they escaped with not-too-serious injuries, it became clear that the ULFA was not going to take Chetia's arrest lightly. Chief minister Mahanta himself spoke about some 200 ULFA and NDFB militants having entered Guwahati with small arms. "The aim of militants is to unleash violence and create chaos so that conditions for imposing President's rule can be created," he told Outlook. He accused the Congress of being in league with rebels.

Mahanta reiterated the charge again when militants of the Bodoland Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF) attacked Kekerikuchi village in Kamrup district and killed 17 Assamese on the eve of Assam's biggest festival, Bihu. "The massacre is the handiwork of the BLTF in league with the Congress," he alleged.

Although most top state Congress leaders are away in Delhi to solicit party tickets, the middle-level leadership vehemently denies the accusation. "Everytime Mahanta is in trouble, whether it's the LOC scam or the state's worsening law and order problem, he conveniently puts the blame on us (Congress). He first said our leaders influenced CBI director R.C. Sharma to twist the probe in the scam against him and now he says we are behind the violence. The fact is he has miserably failed on all fronts," a party office-bearer says.

Even the BJP, arch rivals of the Congress, agrees. Says the state unit's general secretary Bhubhananda Barthakur: "The AGP government has failed to protect the lives of the innocent people. The state's law and order situation is worsening everyday and all that the chief minister talks about is conspiracies to malign him." Although the BJP leader stopped short of demanding President's rule in the state, the Congress state unit chief Tarun Gogoi is already on record, seeking the dismissal of the present government. "Recent killings of innocent people and the attack on armymen in Guwahati has shown that the present government has totally failed in maintaining law and order. It is therefore imperative that President's rule is imposed in the state immediately," Gogoi told a press conference on January 2.

There seems to be no let-up in the violence. Two bank officials, R.K. Mallik of the United Bank of India and Dilip Deka of the regional Pragyotish Gaonlia Bank, were killed by militants in separate incidents. The ease with which armyman Lt Col Anil Trikha was killed on January 14 in broad daylight has shocked almost everyone. Lt Col Trikha and his wife were on their way to visit a friend's place on Bihu day when two militants, on foot, pumped bullets into him from pointblank range. Trikha had slowed down the vehicle on a bad patch of road. The assailants then coolly walked away as Trikha's wife drove her injured husband to a nearby private hospital. He was declared "brought dead".

The tragedy at village Kekerikuchi was even more shocking. Members of Gunaram Kalita's large family were preparing to participate in the Bihu community feast in the village playground when gun-toting, half-masked ultras stormed his and the two neighbouring houses, fired indiscriminately and left within 10 minutes. The toll: 17 dead, including women and children. Nobody has been able to ascribe any motive to the senseless killing save the theory that it was done to terrorise villagers. This was the first time Assamese villagers had been attacked—usually the targets are Bengalis. The surcharged atmosphere is worrying the authorities since retaliation in mixed (Assamese-Bodo) population villages can't be ruled out. In fact, Kekerikuchi itself has a 50-50 population of Bodos and Assamese.

Even as the state grapples with increasing violence, the Army soldiers on without any pat on the back or rewards. Working with its hand tied—you cannot enter Bhutan, you cannot operate in towns and cities like Guwahati or Jorhat—the army has been coping with increasing demands on its resources. The Unified command's counter-insurgency operations are getting nowhere in the absence of a clear-cut long term strategy from the political leadership. As Mahanta tries to cope with new problems everyday, there is a sense of despondency in the administration.

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