Media cautiously optimistic about Black Widow surrender

Surrenders by militant groups are par for the course in Assam, which is why the surrender of 340 DHD(J) militants on October 2 merited single column stories in most papers, with not even an editorial comment in the Dainik Agradoot,
says MONIDEEPA CHOUDHURY.

Newspapers in Assam reacted with cautious optimism to the surrender of arms by  the DHD (J) (Dima Halam Daogah • Jewel) group on Mahatma Gandhi's birth  anniversary. The news of the extension of KLNLF's (Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front) truce was also muted, occupying single columns in most newspapers.

The DHD (J) or Black Widow as the group is popularly known had been active in the North Cachar Hills district of southern Assam for six years. Regarded as one of the most lethal insurgent groups in the region it had unleashed a reign of terror with rampant extortion, abductions, killings, arson, and attacks on passenger trains and security personnel. An estimated 100 people were killed by the DHD (J) in 2009 alone.

The Assam Tribune while commenting broadly on the improvement in the security scenario in Assam in its October 1 lead editorial"Welcome Signs" makes reference to the DHD (J) arms surrender and while hailing the development also suggests that the government expedite the process of talks. It says:"The decision of the DHD (J) considered one of the most dreaded of militant groups of Assam to surrender arms to solve the problems through talks is a welcome development and this may isolate militant groups like the ULFA and the anti-talks faction of the NDFB. The centre must expedite the process of talks with militant groups which have already signed ceasefire agreements with the government…."

The Asomiya Pratidin also carried an editorial on October 1 titled"Sign of Peace in the Hills" which while greeting the proposed DHD (J) surrender also makes an oblique reference to the attitude of the government towards establishing peace. It says:"The surrender of arms by the DHD (J) and the announcement of extension of unilateral ceasefire by the KLNLF can certainly allow us to hope for peace returning to the terrorized hill districts of North Cachar and Karbi Anglong…. Here the concern is not whether the militant group surrendered arms due to intensified security force and army operations or whether it finally lost faith in violence…. What is significant is that the government has been given a chance to establish peace in this region and it must embrace this opportunity…. After all it is surprising that a handful of extremists have for years been keeping the security forces and the army on its toes…."

An editorial or even an analysis feature was conspicuous by its absence in the Dainik Agradoot during the period under review. In a single-line comment towards the conclusion of its news story"Top Black Widow Leaders Return to Mainstream, Surrender Arms" on October 3 it says:"The surrender of the Black Widows group whose merciless killings and conspiratorial ways have since long terrorized the hill district and its surrounding areas now augurs hope among the people not only in the district but also the state that an atmosphere of peace will finally prevail." 

The DHD (J) was formed in March 2003 following a split in DHD. The DHD (J) faction led by Jewel Garlosa decided to continue its fight for a separate state for the Dimasa tribe comprising Dimasa-dominated areas such as North Cachar Hills, Cachar and Karbi Anglong districts of Assam and parts of Dimapur district of Nagaland while another faction led by Dilip Nunisa entered into a ceasefire with the Centre.

For a state that has been witness to many such surrenders and their aftermath the mood is more critical than enthusiastic. Of course given the scale of terror in the North Cachar Hills prior to the ceasefire declaration, the announcement of surrender did bring relief and has arisen some hope. And it is this mood of cautious optimism that was reflected in the media. Dainik Agradoot, however, in a more candid and realistic approach published a special correspondent story titled"175 Hardcore Cadres Stay Away from Surrender" alongside the main surrender story"Top Black Widow Leaders Return to Mainstream, Surrender Arms" on October 3. It begins by saying that in spite of the surrender of arms and return of 382 Black Widow militants into the mainstream there is doubt whether peace will at all return to trouble-torn North Cachar Hills. It explains that"175 hardcore cadres have still not expressed a desire to surrender arms. And, even security forces have not been successful in convincing the militants hiding in several camps inside the dense jungles to surrender…. In such circumstances there is bound to be obstacles in the peace process." The report quotes a reliable source as saying that most of the militants who surrendered are recent recruits, that there is deep mystery behind the old and hardcore cadres not laying down arms, and that the bulk of the group's modern arms and ammunition have not been surrendered at all. In conclusion it says:"Keeping this in mind, only time can now tell how realistic has been Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi's statement that the road to peace and development in North Cachar Hills is now open." 

Asomiya Pratidin and The Assam Tribune remained completely silent on this point of hardcore DHD (J) cadres staying away from the surrender and thereby raising doubts about the effectiveness of the peace process. However, as a writer, Sazzad Hussain, wrote in the feature:"Surrender, Status Quo and Permanent Peace" published in The Assam Tribune on September 26:"This surrender by one of the most brutal ethno-national insurgent groups has also created concern among the peace-loving people of the state over the prospect of permanent peace in NC Hills and Karbi Anglong districts. The people of Assam who are wary of such surrenders and ceasefires -- which so far have failed to bring peace, amity and development -- are skeptical whether this latest surrender by the DHD (J) could bring peace or to just maintain the status quo of insurgency and lack of developmental works in this region."

The wary tone is also evident in the September 27 Asomiya Pratidin story,"Grave Allegations against Dimasas by Hmar-Kuki-Zemi Tribals", which states that while welcoming the peace process in the North Cachar Hills district, the Zemi Naga, Kuki and Hmar student unions have warned that any move to rename North Cachar Hills district would not be accepted and would be fiercely protested [renaming North Cachar is one of the primary demands of the DHD (J)]. To quote:"It is significant that such a stand by student organizations of three main tribal groups in the North Cachar Hills district has come at a time when the DHD (J) is preparing to surrender arms. It is certain that this threat will put the government in a dilemma and make the much-awaited peace process very vulnerable."

The wariness also stems from talks doing the rounds about the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) [NSCN (IM)] propping up a new militant group as a bulwark against both the DHD (which had surrendered earlier) and the DHD (J) which announced surrender recently. Albeit none of the papers under review carried any report on the formation of a new militant group in NC Hills but a few days into the start of surrender of arms on September 13 by DHD (J) militants, the Dainik Jugasankha on September 23 carried a report,"New Insurgent Group Formed in North Cachar", which states that a new insurgent group called the Halom National Liberation Front (HNLF) has been formed in the North Cachar Hills district to which the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) [NSCN (IM)] is extending help with arms. The report says:"Twenty-one cadres of the insurgent group are undergoing training at an undisclosed location with the help of NSCN (IM) militants." 

The very next day, on September 24, the Nagaland Post published from Dimapur in Nagaland also states in a query-headlined report,"New Group Keeping Militancy Alive in NC Hills?", that the reported birth of a new group in the NC Hills district coinciding with the process of surrender of the dreaded Black Widow group proves that"there is no business like extortion-driven militancy in the northeast". To quote:"The reported emergence of the Halom National Liberation Front (HNLF) will somewhat deny peace returning totally to the ethnically-volatile district." It says that according to intelligence officials the NSCN (IM) has been propping the HNLF as a bulwark against the DHD (J) and its parent group DHD (Nunisa) which had surrendered a few years back. 

Editorials in The Assam Tribune and Asomiya Pratidin took the surrender as an opportunity to comment on what remains to be done vis-a-vis other groups in order to establish permanent peace. The Assam Tribune in its October 1 editorial headlined"Welcome Signs" says:"The government must realize the fact that signing ceasefire agreements with the groups alone will not solve the problems and the delay in finding solution will only complicate matters. The delay in holding talks with the NDFB resulted in division in the ranks of the outfit and the anti-talks faction headed by Ranjan Daimary has now become a cause of worry for the government. Similarly the slow progress of talks with the United People's Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) strengthened the hands of the KLNLF in Karbi Anglong". In its October 3 lead editorial,"Centre's Stand", the Assam Tribune expounds further on the fact that there can be permanent peace only if the government take steps to expedite talks with militant groups that have signed ceasefire agreements.

It says:"The failure of the government to listen to the grievances of those who declared unilateral ceasefire may send wrong signals to the anti-talks faction of the ULFA and even give rise to frustrations among members of the pro-talks faction… At the same time the government must expedite the process of talks with militant groups which have already signed ceasefire agreements…. And efforts must be made to persuade such groups with similar demands to join hands for permanent solution of the problems…. For example there is similarity between the demands of the DHD which has been holding talks with the government for five years now and the DHD (J), which recently surrendered arms… It is reported that there are serious differences between the leaders of the groups and the government can persuade them to sit down together to settle their differences so that talks with both groups can be held together for restoration of permanent peace in NC Hills. Similarly talks with the UPDS… has been going on for years and recently the KLNLF… declared unilateral ceasefire to express its desire to come for talks. The government must take advantage of this situation and try and hold talks with both groups together to ensure lasting peace in Karbi Anglong."     

Asomiya Pratidin's comment in its October 1 editorial,"Sign of Peace in the Hills", was generic, encompassing broader issues of peace and development. To quote:"The essential prerequisite of development is peace and so long insurgency had been taking a toll on development in the hill districts of North Cachar and Karbi Anglong. Moreover, government funds meant for development activities were being siphoned off to fill the coffers of militant groups, which even the central government recently admitted. With the end of insurgency the people who have for so long been deprived of a better life will witness development. The hill districts have fallen behind in terms of development as compared to other districts and thus peace has to return."

Dainik Agradoot on September 30 in"KLNLF Prepares to Surrender Arms" says that the KLNLF has withdrawn its earlier threat to strike on Hindi-speaking people and government properties if there was no positive response on peace process from the government by October 1. It says that in a telephonic conversation with Dainik Agradoot special correspondent R Dera KLNLF publicity secretary said:"Our threat has been withdrawn because there has been progress in peace talks with the government."

The newspapers have by and large desisted from commenting specifically on the Centre's role in handling the DHD (J) issue. Of course all news reports have made both straight and oblique references to the fact that the path the peace process will now take would depend largely on the government. The Assam Tribune in its October 3 editorial,"Centre's Stand", for instance, says:"The central government has made it clear that it is not interested in talking with one faction of any militant group…. Of course holding of talks with only one faction of any militant group will not help in solving any problem but on the other hand if the process of talks with one faction starts it may encourage the others to join ranks with pro-talks factions." 

The most descriptive coverage was Dainik Agradoot's, which in its October 2 issue even expounded on the arrangements being made for the surrender ceremony. Detailing the travel plans of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi to Haflong, the headquarters of North Cachar Hills district, where the surrender ceremony was to take place the news titled"Black Widow to Surrender Today; Niranjan Hojai in Haflong", says:"Tomorrow Tarun Gogoi and his team will travel to the hill district in a special helicopter. Besides Chief Minister Gogoi Chief Secretary Prafulla Sarma, Home Secretary Subhas Chandra Das and several top police brass will travel in the 13-seater helicopter. Meanwhile, Deputy Inspector General (Southern Zone) of Police Dipak Kumar has been camping in Haflong for the past several days to oversee preparations for the surrender ceremony."

The Assam Tribune, in its traditional style, remained factual in news content and conservative in the language of its editorials. For instance while making a suggestion on rehabilitation of the surrendered DHD (J) militants in its editorial"Development Package" on October 5 it says:"The government can think of providing vocational training to the surrendered militants to provide them self-employment avenues and it can even help the former ultras to set up cooperatives of their own to earn their livelihood…as it will never be possible to provide government jobs to all of them."

Headlines of reports in all newspapers under review were straight, with even the Asomiya Pratidin known for its sensationalism dispensing with its usual dramatic headlines. Its news content too was more factual. But of all the three news papers under review Pratidin was also most interpretive in its reporting. In its October 2 report,"Niranjan's Surrender Along With 378 Cadres", it says:"It is significant to note that even while claiming that peace would return to North Cachar hills following the DHD (J) surrender the government will not immediately withdraw the security forces stationed in the district. A highly-placed government official said that the government would take a decision on the troops only after assessing the situation hereafter…. In this context it may also be mentioned that in terms of the number of security personnel stationed vis-à-vis area covered, the North Cachar Hills district is second only to Kashmir."

In the end, considering that the surrender was to take place just a few days after Durga Puja and the birth anniversary celebrations of Srimanta Sankardev, regarded the greatest Vaishnavite saint of Assam, the coverage was obviously muted. Newspaper offices remained closed for two consecutive days and most newspapers devoted space to reports of Puja and Sankardev birth anniversary celebrations. Lengthy articles on different aspects of Durga Puja and on Srimanta Sankardev and his teachings occupied feature pages of both Asomiya Pratidin and Dainik Agradoot. Space was also given to security arrangements for peaceful Puja celebrations in view of intelligence reports that the NDFB was planning to carry out bomb blasts during that time.

Finally as has been often observed conflict and violence inevitably grab more space than peace initiatives, especially when the initiative looks set for a long haul and promises no immediate pronouncement, as in the case of the DHD (J) surrender. Take for instance the killing of 12 people by the NDFB in Biswanath Chariali on October 4 and the mob fury that erupted in its aftermath. The front page of the Asomiya Pratidin on October 6 was devoted entirely to personal tragedies and stories -- both interpretive and factual -- related to the killing and its aftermath, and which also continued across two inside pages. Dainik Agradoot also devoted three-fourth of its front page space the same day to the NDFB violence. And, even The Assam Tribune, the most conservative of the newspapers under review, carries three reports and two photographs related to the NDFB killings besides its 6-column lead on the violence on October 6.

On 18 October, a fortnight after the Black Widow surrender, the Dainik Asom, a sister publication of The Assam Tribune in its lead editorial page column 'Thoughts From the Editors' Room' says that the Assam Chief Minister's announcement during the surrender ceremony on 2 October that the government would raise a police battalion of former militants"is being seen in knowledgeable circles as an example of his imprudence and lack of foresight". In a tongue-in-cheek remark the commentary says that the idea of raising a battalion of surrendered rebels had been mooted by the government even earlier… only then the background of the remark was the terror-run in North Cachar Hills district by none other than DHD (J) insurgents!

 

The commentary goes on to say that according to recent reports Black Widow rebels have again begun extortion in the North Cachar hills district which only goes to vindicate the judgment of most people that it was not any change of heart that prompted the DHD (J) surrender."The frightening implications of these hardened militants donning the garb of security personnel and being armed with the latest weaponry needs no mention", says the hard-hitting commentary, written in the backdrop of the recent statement made by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi that unarmed people would be given arms to defend themselves against militant attacks.

 

Severely critical of the"bizarre" suggestions of the chief minister to arm the common man the article says,"The alarming suggestion has quite naturally caused anxiety among the intelligentsia and it is being wondered whether the government has openly surrendered its fundamental duty of providing security to the people. In fact so strange is the suggestion that many thought it was simply the involuntary reaction of a man overwhelmed by the Bhimajuli massacre."

 

On the chief minister's pronouncement of raising a battalion the commentary says,"The chief minister had said that raising a battalion with ordinary youths would require investment of time in selection and training, which would not be the case with former militants who would be already trained. Quite possibly by 'already trained' the chief minister meant trained merely in the use of firearms and guerilla tactics. He could not have missed the fact that other than being trained in the use of firearms a security man has also to be trained in responsibility towards society, consideration for other and a humane attitude. And when he talked of former militants the chief minister must also have meant former cadres of the ULFA, NDFB and other outfits who have surrendered over the last few years... The chapter of surrender of militants in Assam began in 1992 with the surrender of a few top leaders of the ULFA. It was then touted as the first bloom of spring. Unfortunately 'surrender' has over the years only proved to be a story of ruined hopes."

 

 

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