It took nine bodies in a gorge over the New Year weekend to draw attention to a 24-year-old conflict that has once again made 5,000 Rengma Nagas staying in Assam since at least the early 18th century feel unwelcome. Samudra Gupta Kashyap on two interlinked and ignored communities, and the price they may pay.
December 27, 2013. It was early morning, and still dark. Joshua Rengma, 27, of Khowani village in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district sat by the hearth on which his mother Logu Rengma (48) was preparing tea. His father had stepped out to fetch water when a group of armed youth suddenly appeared in their courtyard and started firing.
“My father ran away towards the jungle. I pushed my mother and fell down on the floor. But a bullet came through the bamboo wall and pierced maa’s head. In less than a second, another bullet had split open her belly,” says Joshua, sitting on the verandah of Borpathar High School on NH-39, not very far from his village.
For a fortnight now, the school has been Joshua and his father’s home. As the country celebrated the beginning of a new year, this was a displacement that barely registered, as about 2,000 Rengmas, exploited by militant groups and largely abandoned by the government, left their homes from nine villages and adjoining clusters, re-visited by a 24-year-old conflict. For many, there is no way back.
All that remains of Khowani, a village of 21 households and its 108 people, now is rubble. Apart from Joshua’s mother, two other women and one man were killed in the early morning attack here. Two elderly women who were unable to flee were killed in village Sathibasti. Two adjoining schools at Borpathar, which have since been functioning as relief camps, now have 1,110 Rengmas, while around 900 others have been put up in two other camps.
“From the jungle where we fled to, we heard gunshots and people crying in the adjoining Khanari village, with smoke rising from there too. The armed group then went to the next village, then next, until almost all the adjoining Rengma villages were on fire,” says Joshua, at the relief camp in Borpathar High School.
“We don’t know whether we will be able to go back,” adds Keninlo Rengma (52) of Khanari village, tears running down his cheeks. “While one or two houses in our village are still intact, most of our orange trees have been cut to pieces.” Keninlo’s orchard spreads over 10 bighas. “Last year I earned more than Rs 3 lakh selling oranges. This year I was expecting Rs 5 lakh. They also burnt down 120 maunds (one maund is about 37 kg) of paddy that I had harvested.”
Every year, about 4,000 tonnes of oranges are produced in Karbi Anglong district, of which the Rengmas produce about half, fetching them Rs 4 to 5 crore. While harvesting should have started in November, not even one basket of oranges has gone to the market from the Rengma orchards this season. Residents of every Rengma village have to pass through Karbi villages to reach the road leading to markets at Bokajan, Silonijan, Borpathar or Numaligarh, all on NH-39, or Bokakhat on NH-37.
As a fallout of the December 27 violence, some Karbis fled from their homes fearing retaliation. “We heard that the Rengma group had got guns from the NSCN(IM). We ran away towards the police station,” says Kangbura Tisso (60), a farmer from Borlangso, a Karbi village. By December 28, 1,173 Karbis from eight villages situated near Rengma villages had moved to a community centre close to the Chokihola police station.
Karbi Anglong is Assam’s largest district, spread over 10,434 sq km. None of the Rengma villages is connected to roads, nor does the region have a high school. “We have hardly ever seen a doctor. I saw water coming out of a pipe for the first time after coming to the relief camp,” says Ajale Rengma, who fled the attackers carrying her 18-month daughter.
Some Karbis made their way to the camp trekking seven to eight hours. “There are nine women in advanced stages of pregnancy. They too came walking several hours,” says Dr Jeffrewel Hanse, the medical officer at the camp. However, he claims that the local villages get frequent visits from medical teams and ASHA workers.
In this region where tribal loyalties run long and deep, the first official recording of the Rengma Nagas staying in Assam’s Karbi Hills (then known as Mikir Hills) was made in 1855 by Major John Butler, a British officer posted in the Northeastern region. Rengmas are one of the 16 major Naga tribes. While there are about 5,000 Rengma Nagas in Assam, they number about 60,000 in Nagaland.
Butler recorded that the Rengmas in Karbi Anglong had migrated there from the Naga Hills in the early part of the 18th century, abandoned many of their tribal customs and married within the local communities.
Largely peace-loving, the Rengmas never faced any major disturbance, and lived in close proximity with the Karbis, till the early 1990s when militant groups started imposing “tax” on people. This first began with a “house tax” and was then extended to “tax” on their farms, betel-nut trees, fisheries and even poultry, cattle and pigs. Such “tax” imposition also saw attacks by Karbi rebel groups on sugarcane-growing Bihari settlers and ginger-producing Kuki tribals.
According to the Rengma National People’s Council, in 1994, the Karbi National Volunteers (KNV) imposed Rs 500 “house tax” on each Rengma household, allegedly increased to Rs 1,000 last year. “We had no option and kept paying until tax on oranges was raised to 60 per cent of the sales this season. But in January last year, a group of Rengma youths formed the Rengma Naga Hills Protection Force (RNHPF) and began to resist, leading to the current trouble,” says Thonglo Rengma, the government-appointed village headman of Phancherop.
In May last year, the Karbis hit back with the creation of an armed outfit that sought that the Rengmas drop their identity by a certain date, or quit Karbi Anglong. The outfit, calling itself the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT), said one of the reasons for their orders was the setting up of the RNHPF, with “sophisticated weapons”. Police say the group comprises all of 30 to 40 men, but that didn’t affect the KPLT propaganda.
While a Karbi youth called Mukrung Bey was assaulted by suspected RNHPF cadres when he had gone to see a Rengma friend in Sarihuti in Karbi Anglong on December 14, three more Karbi boys who went to make peace were beaten up in Khirang village. A day later security forces launched an operation to flush out armed militants from the area, and a peace meeting was organised.
Denying any links to the RNHPF, Thonglo of Phancherop says: “We have been living peacefully alongside the Karbi people for decades. What has our small community done?”
What shook the government up and drew the nation’s attention was the discovery of nine bullet-riddled bodies, blindfolded with hands tied behind their backs, from a gorge near Chumukedima, about 14 km off Dimapur in Nagaland on January 3. While one of them was identified as Harlongbi Engti, a 21-year old college student, the other eight were found to be Karbi youths working as construction labourers in Kohima.
The feared retaliation was happening. On January 4, a Karbi youth called Dici Rongpi was shot in Karagaon Rongpi village under Khatkhati police station close to the Nagaland border by three persons on bikes. One of the alleged three assailants, belonging to Zunheboto district in Nagaland, was later apprehended.
On January 7, the RNHPF issued a statement claiming responsibility for the killings of the nine men near Dimapur, saying they were associated with the KPLT.
“We have arrested 10 people on charges of arson, apart from three KPLT linkmen and six RNHPF cadres. We have also recovered one AK-47 rifle, one .303 rifle, one M1 rifle, two SLR rifles, five Chinese grenades and 689 live rounds of ammunition from the six RNHPF cadres,” says Sub-Divisional Police Officer Shankar Rai Medhi.
Ronald Engti, a well-off Karbi who owns a fair-price shop with licence to sell kerosene oil in Rongkhilang village, has been held for having a hand in the arson in adjoining villages. “Miscreants used a lot of kerosene to set houses on fire, and he is the only person having a stock of kerosene in the whole area,” says a police officer at the Chokihola police station.
Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, who called the attack on the Rengma Nagas “a reprehensible act repugnant to all norms of civilised human behaviour”, flew to Jorhat to meet his Assam counterpart Tarun Gogoi on December 31. He suggested that given the vast areas inhabited by the Rengma Nagas in Assam, the state government should consider appointment of village guards, similar to those in Nagaland. Their salaries and allowances are subsidised by the Union Home Ministry.
In a letter he sent to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the same day, Rio wrote: “This is a very serious development and draws from past incidents of killings amounting to sinister designs of ethnic cleansing to drive and evict indigenous inhabitants from their ancestral lands, owing to their being a minority tribe in the state of Assam.”
Former MLA Jagat Singh Engti, who was recently elected to the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) and belongs to the Hill State Demand Party, calls the violence “a deep-rooted political conspiracy”. “If you look back at the last few years, you will find violence occurring in Karbi Anglong on the eve of every election, be it Lok Sabha or Vidhan Sabha.”
Questioning the sudden outbreak of violence too, former MP and prominent Karbi leader Jayanta Rongpi says: “Rengmas speak the Karbi language better than many Karbis, and many even have Karbi surnames alongside Rengma surnames. They are also very hard-working people.”
Tuliram Ronghang of the Congress, who is currently the chief executive member of the KAAC, blames extremist elements on both sides. “The common Karbi and Rengma people are not fighting,” he says.
The very targeted nature of the violence too has left many suspicious.
Habib Choudhury of Rongkhilang village, located about 1 km from Chokihola, was woken up on December 27 morning by the sounds of people shouting. “When I came out, I saw two houses in the front of my house up in flames. I took my wife and children and ran into the jungles. But we found later that the houses of non-Rengmas were left untouched.” The Rengma families in the village were targeted again two days later.
Unlike most villages of Karbi Anglong, Rongkhilang has a mixed population. “I had never seen houses burning before. Some people came and set their houses on fire after the Rengma families had all run away hearing about trouble breaking out elsewhere. So have the Karbi families except one,” says Maya Devi, the wife of Jnan Shankar Pandey, a pandit from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh who settled in Assam 30 years ago and runs a grocery shop. Behind their house stays a Nepali settler.
“We don’t know who set the Rengma houses on fire. They have been our neighbours for two-three generations,” says Joysingh Terang, a Karbi in Rongkhilang who refused to join others in fleeing.
For others, the question goes deeper. Tehele and Jeuti are both Rengmas married to Karbis. “My husband Hetlar Tisso asked me to leave the village immediately after he heard about the burning of Rengma villages and people from both communities fleeing,” says Tehele, now living in a relief camp. Her two daughters are with her husband in Longhup Tissogaon.
Jeuti, married for 22 years and with four children, was also told to leave by her husband Sarthe Bey, who works in the PHE Department at Chokihola. “When trouble broke out, he asked me to go and join my people in the relief camp, fearing that somebody will attack our house,” says Jeuti. Both hope to go back “once peace returns”.
Rongbong Terang, a Karbi who writes in Assamese and is a former president of the Asam Sahitya Sabha, regrets the recurrent violence. “Rengmas are a peace-loving people. They have been here for nearly 200 years. In fact there is hardly one Rengma family that does not have a matrimonial relationship with the Karbis,” he says.
Kenison Rengma and wife Lucia have two sons and two daughters. As Lucia stands next to him at the relief camp at No. 7 Borpathar LP School, he says: “She is a Karbi. We fell in love and got married in 2000. Nobody objected.”
“I can speak Rengma fluently, and so can he Karbi. We also speak Assamese well,” Lucia adds. “I will not leave my Rengma husband even if they point a gun at me.”
Taxed by ultras
The Rengmas have been under pressure from different Karbi militant groups since the early 1990s. The first was the Karbi National Volunteers (KNV) which, in 1994, imposed a Rs 500 per household per annum “house tax” on the Rengmas, as well as a “tax” on their orchards, betel-nut trees and even on fishing in streams, says K Solomon Rengma, general secretary of the Rengma National People’s Council. Since then Rengmas have been paying “tax” to different armed groups, and this year the rate stood at 60 per cent of the sale value of various items, like oranges, Naga chillis, betel nuts etc. “When our people refused to pay ‘tax’, the KPLT put a ‘ban’ on us taking the oranges to the market,” says Rolend Rengma of Borlangso village.
A year ago, a group of Rengma youths floated an armed group (RNHPF) to “protect” their people. Police suspect that it was formed at the behest of the NSCN (IM).
In May 2013, the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT) summoned the headmen of all Rengma villages and laid down three conditions: (i) ask your boys to surrender, (ii) declare yourselves Karbis, and (iii) quit Karbi Anglong if you can’t do the first two things. While the government made a timely intervention to avert this crisis six months ago, the Rengmas have been living in fear since then.
Samudra Gupta Kashyap