Friday, December 18, 2009

Telengana spurs Assam insurgency, ethnic aspirations

Until New Delhi spoke its mind out saying Telengana can indeed become a state, the homeland seekers in the Northeast were more or less reconciled to the idea of autonomy without any further division of the existing States in the region. But the Congress-led UPA Government’s Telengana card seems to have changed all that. Today, tribal MPs from the ruling Congress, ethnic allies of the Congress-led government in the State, student groups representing different ethnic communities, and pro-talk factions of several ethnic insurgent groups have raised their voice for separate states to be carved out of Assam. And yes, the Centre’s Telengana gambit may prove costly because the hardliners among the various insurgent groups in the State who have kept away from the peace process, like the Ranjan Daimary faction of the NDFB, for instance, appears to have received a good dose of adrenaline to pump up their demand for homelands, and that too outside India, at a time when they are desperate to stage a comeback.

For the ruling Congress party in Assam, the Telengana issue could not have come at a more inopportune time. Under the leadership of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, the party is hoping to make a hat-trick at the State Assembly polls, due in 2011. Now, of course, the challenge to the ruling Congress has only increased with the dormant statehood demands suddenly making a strident comeback. If the Dimasas have stepped up the Dimaraji demand, the Karbis have already started pushing hard for the elevation of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills districts into an autonomous state within Assam. If the Bodos see this as a great opportunity to clinch their separate state dream, the Koch-Rajbongshis too seems to be getting their imagination stirred up.

I would say the Telengana fallout in Assam is going to be the first major test of Chief Minister Gogoi’s political and administrative skills. He has been chief minister for more than eight years now and all these years, his government’s key challenge has been the issue of insurgency. But, this did not provide people with any real opportunity to judge his political or administrative acumen because anti-insurgency measures were already in place and, on and off, we had seen rebel factions entering into a truce with the authorities and lying low. Things would be different now because the statehood issue has the potential to turn into a major electoral issue in 2011, an issue that can actually revive regionalism from its deepest slumber ever in Assam’s political or electoral history. Regionalism has in fact taken a severe beating in the past ten years at the hands of the Congress and regional parties like the Autonomous State Demand Committee and others have been desperately looking for that one potential poll-winning issue with which to re-ignite its dying embers. The State’s main Opposition party, the AGP, cannot directly support the statehood demands of ethnic groups, but would hope to tie up with smaller ethnic parties should they win a good deal of seats in 2011 to grab power back.

It is not surprising to find Congress MP from Diphu Biren Singh Engti too taking sort of a lead in pressing for the elevation of his Karbi Anglong district into an autonomous state within Assam in accordance with the provisions of Article 244 (A) of the Constitution. If Engti decides to keep quiet today, his or his party’s political survival in an area like Karbi Anglong will be at stake because there are rival forces which go by the name of Autonomous State Demand Committee or ASDC! And the ASDC has already enforced a 60-hour bandh in the area to press for its longstanding autonomous state demand.

The thing that would be most tricky for the Assam Government or the ruling Congress party to handle is the possible turn of events in the Bodo heartland. Already, the pro-talk NDFB faction has formally placed the statehood demand before the Centre. In fact, on Wednesday, the pro-talk NDFB faction told the Centre’s peace interlocutor PC Halder (former Intelligence Bureau Director) during a meeting in New Delhi that the Government should consider granting a separate state to the Bodos on the lines of Telengana. Not to be left out, the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) headed by Hagrama Mohilary, an ally of the ruling Congress in the State, has also formally raised the Bodo statehood demand. Unless the Centre or the Congress leadership gives some kind of an assurance to Hagrama & Co., it is possible that the BPF could decide to go it alone at the Assembly polls in 2011. Things are volatile to say the least. THE SENTINEL

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