Tempest In A Tea Spot
In Assam, too many factions boil with wrath

Assam dangles on India's northeast corner like an elephant's ear. Tigers, golden monkeys, one-horned rhinoceroses, and dozens of aboriginal tribes in colorful costumes meander in the beautiful woodlands while, in the cities, the Assamese are well-educated and wealthier than their subcontinental brethren, as well as having a reputation for religious tolerance. Sounds like paradise? Want to fly there, for a relaxing vacation? Warning! Assam is dangerous! Massacres, rapes, riots, assassinations, kidnappings, guerrilla warfare, and bombings of buses, trains, and bridges have shattered tranquility there for 50 years.

See also...
... by Hank Hyena
... in the Scope section
... from January 18, 2000

Why the chaos? The catalytic problem is: Assamese hate their Indian government.

"Everyone feels exploited," explains Jugal Kalita, ex-President of the Assam Society of America. The 25 million people of Assam are blessed with 848 tea plantations and half of India's petroleum. New Delhi vampirically pumps out the oil and tea leaves, he claims, "but it never invests money in the region, in colleges, corporate industries, or research institutions." India's sole contribution seems to be battalions of brutal soldiers to quell revolution.

Although two-thirds of the Assamese are Hindu, they view themselves as culturally separate and their inclusion in the Indian republic is regarded as an unlucky historical accident. The Assamese language has been traced back 900 years by scholars, and an Ahom Dynasty ruled the region until 1840, when it was conquered by the expanding Burmese. The imperial British overlords of India ruffled their brow at this cheekiness, and subsequently snatched Assam up for themselves. Ever since then, the lovely territory has been ravaged like a virgin by the greedy central megalopolises of India.

Most Assamese today desire independence, Kalita suggests, but they recognize that their small nation would be immensely threatened by gargantuan China (population 1.25 billion) or Bangladesh (120 million). Realistic citizens primarily aim for greater autonomy within the Indian state. The defiant country's unrest with central authority has also created a fanatical clamor for self-governance in the myriad ethnic groups who are presently slaying each other in a pointillist miasma of territorial disputes.

Assam isn't a battlefield with two easily-identifiable foes; it's a dodecahedron with crimson bleeding from every angle. Multifarious conflicts exist, notes Amnesty International, "over land, resources, cultural identity, and political power." The best way to comprehend its existent horror is to separately examine each of the players:

The United Liberation Front of Assam is an outlawed Maoist cadre of separatist extremists that has killed more than 10,000 foes (mostly soldiers and policemen) since its inception in 1979. Controlled by non-tribal Assamese -- a multi-racial cultural group of Mongolian, Indo-Burmese, Indo-Iranian, and Aryan origin -- it allegedly receives weapons from Pakistan, which enjoys destabilizing its Indian arch-enemy. Extortion money is bullied out of major tea companies; bridges, railways, military barracks, and the oil pipeline are routinely attacked.

Indian Army
Assam is occupied by 250,000-500,000 soldiers, drawn from distant, unsympathetic regions of the vast subcontinent. This aggressive force "doesn't speak Assamese... and they're very rude," states Kalita. "They've committed terrible atrocities on hundreds of people in the last 20-25 years." Human Rights Watch defines his accusation: "Villagers have been threatened, harassed, raped, assaulted and killed by soldiers attempting to frighten them into identifying militants." Soldiers zealously guard the 725-mile oil artery that pumps black gold out of resentful Assam.

Bodos (aka Boros or Kachari)
In recent years, extremists of this populous indigenous tribe have outperformed even the UFLA in terrorist actions. Their numerous militias include the Bodo Security Force (BSF), the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), the Bodoland State Movement Council (BSMC), and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). Many groups want an autonomous "Bodoland," others seek a separate state within India, but all madly crave maintenance of their distinct ethnic identity and control of their natural resources and economy. Bodos are pushing for an "ethnic cleansing" of recent intruders: they want to drive Santhals, Oroans, and Nepalis completely out of Assam, and Bangladeshis and Assamese from all areas where Bodos are the majority. To accomplish this they have massacred hundreds, and burned their villages. They've even attacked the state-guarded refuge camps of their victims, and, of course, the Indian Army.

Bangladeshis (aka Bengalis)
An enormous wave of primarily poor Muslim farmers has migrated north from teeming Bangladesh in numbers that threaten to politically dominate Assam. "Already they control 30 of 120 representative seats," worries Kalita. "But the migrants and the Assamese can't see eye-to-eye, and there are groups that are willing to kill to stop immigration." Many Bangladeshi settlers are macheted to pieces by territorial Bodos, who annihilate them for chopping down trees. The enraged eco-Bodos have chased thousands of Bangladeshis into refugee camps.

Tea plantations
Corporate owners in New Delhi, Bombay, and Calcutta have hired enormous private armies or ex-soldiers to guard their extensive plantations. Despite this, over 200 tea farms still pay blackmail money to insurgents.

This "adivasi" (tribal) caste of indentured servants migrated north from famished Bihar state 50-100 years ago to work as tea plantation laborers. Massacred wholesale by Bodos, they have commenced fighting back, with mediocre success. Approximately 100,000 Santhals reside in refugee camps for protection.

Like Santhals, this impoverished tribal group from Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Orissa labors on tea plantations and is insatiably slaughtered by Bodos. The Adivasi Cobra Militants of Assam (ACMA) are retaliating, armed with guns and traditional bows and arrows.

This exotic Christian tribe already has its own Indian state -- Nagaland -- cloistered in the jungle between Burma and Assam. But 90 percent of these ex-headhunters want full independence, and they're restless for more land because 50 percent reside in Assam. The militant National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) has teamed with the ULFA and the BSF against the Indian army, and battles with adjacent tribes for control of the Burmese drug trade are endemic.

Final Madness

Perhaps all of the 200 ethnic groups in Assam and the other northeastern states have their own guerrilla armies. Incessant border clashes occur and numerous tribes, like the Kuki, are intent on establishing their own autonomous "Kukiland." Compared to this fractiousness, ex-Yugoslavia looks tame.

Hank Hyena writes the daily "Naked World" column for Salon.com.