Bru Militancy at Ratabari Assam

Mithu Choudhury *

It was the break of dawn on 19th August when the Army(33 Field Regiment of 57 Mountain Artillery Brigade under the Red Shield Division) gunned down 7 Bru militants near Gutguti in Ratabari constituency in the southern tip of Karimganj district in the extreme bordering part of Assam. There was an hour long exchange of heavy fire following which the 7 militants were shot down and one was captured alive . One Army jawan was also injured in the exchange.

It is ironical that this one incident, albeit negative, has brought little focus and attention to an area of the state of Assam, that seems lost in abject wilderness.

Ratabari is around 40 kms from Karimganj. Here Karimganj South constituency ends and Ratabari constituency starts. Another 5kms will carry one to Anipur. 8 kms from Anipur is Durlavchhera, relatively a place of little greater prominence. 9 kms from Durlavchhera is Nibia, the last place which is connected by road in motor-able condition. 6 kms hence one reaches 'Bhuter Pool'( ghost bridge) , the creaky wood bridge over river Singla .

The river Singla flows down from Mizoram...its rapid current causing rapid erosion . There are no proper bridges over it right from Mizoram border to Durlavchhera. The previous bridges have all collapsed or have been washed away. People have on their own made makeshift wooden bridges to cross the river but these are obviously dangerous. No heavy vehicle can cross excepting bicycles and horse /mule carts to ferry goods.

Many of the bridges are in perilous condition ......some lives have also been lost due to bridge collapse in recent past. Public transport like buses and trekkers ply from Nibia but end midway to Bhuter Pool as the road condition doesn't permit any further movement. Walking is the only means of transportation.....some travel by bicycle but even cycling uniformly for a period is not possible.

A dirt tract laden with deep potholes , mud and slush starts from here and carries all the way ahead till the Mizoram border. Spell of rain makes the tract almost non-negotiable at times. Then even walking becomes perilous and the mule/horse carts ferrying essentials collapse or get stranded at times. 3 kms from Bhuter Pool is the village of Cheragi.

Another 9 kms from Cheragi carries one to Rongpur, the last established village/locality in Assam side .It has a border Bn of the police namely the 6 Bn headed by a platoon Commander. Beyond this there are mountains which have small hamlets in them. Through these mountains, on one side is the approach to Tripura , another face of the mountain is the approach to Mizoram.

The living condition of the 40,000 people residing beyond the Bhuter Pool till the Mizoram / Tripura border, particularly in places like Cheragi and Rongpur are seen to be believed. That daily movement of both humans and essentials can be such a daunting and demanding task, is virtually unimaginable anywhere else .

Nothing practically remains of all the PWD roads and bridges. It has been more than a decade that the NEC was vested the responsibility of re-building the PWD roads . The work even started from the Anipur side but got halted soon and never reached the bordering areas where roads have almost become non-existent. Nobody knows the reason for this.

When the villagers residing in Cheragi and Rongpur became vigorous and demanded explanation through the 'Anipur -Jaamwaan ( in Mizoram)Sadak Nirman Sangram Committee' that they have formed, paucity of funds or objection by the Forest Department were cited as reasons for the work having stopped despite the project being under NEC .

It is almost five years now that the Forest Department has said to have given its go ahead without any objection but still there is no sign of the work starting. Essentials are steeply priced mainly because transportation of goods, days in days out , by mule/horse carts in such ground condition is not only a very demanding task but also an activity that has a huge monetary cost attached to it.

Cheragi has a NRHM Hospital but beyond that there is absolutely no medical help available. Many illness becomes serious and even fatal for the lack of treatment . Often people pray to God for 'nature cure' when somebody gets afflicted with any serious ailment as because making him walk all the way or even carrying him in a bicycle over such road condition is inviting sure death than giving him any chance to survive.

Same applies for pregnant women......majority of the females who were attempted to be carried to Hospital , gave birth under the sky on the these cases the chances of survival of the mother as also of the child is at Gods mercy. During monsoon the condition of the river Singla becomes such that vast areas get devoured in its waters and even communication links between its two banks gets snapped .Children often cannot attend school and even cannot sit for exams as crossing the river during the monsoon months become impossible due to lack of bridges.

Many schools are running without the attendance of teachers, who despite being on payroll, do not turn up due to the labour and sheer hazards involved in attending. There is big problem of getting clean drinking water. Electricity has reached, courtesy the Rajiv Gandhi Rural Electrification scheme but there is massive malpractice which directly affects the people here.

For any outsider, just stepping in this part of the state would be a challenge. But if one is ready to undertake that , like this Correspondent did , then he will come face to face with an area of the country that looks to be still backward by a Century or more in time with the cup of miseries spilling over for the people living here.

The physical geography of the area is such that despite some natural hazards, bringing infrastructural development won't be any tall order at all and should take just handful of days . Then these people have always been extremely loyal to the ruling party , always voting overwhelmingly in its favour .Then how can one account for such sheer neglect and apathy ?

The shameless political leaders, knowing well that people here are their 'loyal dogs' (one can ask for pardoning the language but that is exactly how they visualize these people) , have paid precious singular visits but just before elections to beg for votes and promise time and again to the people that they will shortly see a transformation in everything around them.

So many times these people have been fooled by these hollow promises that ultimately fed up and seeing through the real character of the political leaders, all the 16 centres falling under the Cheragi--Rongpur area boycotted the last Assembly elections held earlier this year with no one casting their vote. If the malls and marts booming in the capital Guwahati are the only index, then Assam being on the road to 'rapid development' , as the State Govt often boasts and tom-toms these days, looks true.

But if intrinsic development of the whole state on all counts is taken as the parameter , then one just needs to peek at this portion of Assam in the extreme south of the Karimganj district. Claims of the state being on the path of 'rapid development' will look utterly misplaced and cheap on discovering that dogs and swines are better off than these 40000 odd people dwelling here !

And now to top it all, this particular area , right from Cheragi -Rongpur to the extreme bordering areas over the mountains, is in spate of worst kind of spillover insurgency from across the States boundary. Apart from being a big security concern, it has come almost as the final nail in the coffin for the really unfortunate lot of people residing here.

This area, till the border , has a population which is a unique motley mix. Interestingly there are no Assamese here .There are Hindi speaking people and Bengalis as also tribals , many of whom are actually from the neighboring states of Mizoram and Tripura but have settled here for good. The 'bastis' and families of Reangs, Wrangkhals , Shakacheps etc are the population that falls in this category. They all have had co-lived here peacefully , braving their physical and natural hardships together . However, the scourge of militancy from across the states border, particularly from Tripura, has disturbed and changed everything.

Being situated just at the border, movement of armed Bru militants in the mountainous regions, particularly in the Reang populated areas had been going on for some time. They were coming and going, taking help of the Reang villagers for shelter, protection , food and for other amenities and help. The incident of Army killing 7 militants occurred early on 19th August morning at Gutghuti, 4 kms from Rongpur ,atop the mountain .This area has thick mountainous forest and only a few Reang families indulging in Jhoom cultivation has a small habitation here.

A few days prior to the incident, a group of armed militants arrived at the Gutghuti area with an intention to camp for a length of time. They evacuated the hamlet and some of the villagers themselves came down feeling threatened and alarmed . Three Reang females were forcibly taken up by them on intimidation from the Reang settlement . These females remained with them for a few days , looking after them , cooking food and also providing sexual favors to them. The Army, on being tipped off, arrived in the area in the middle of 18-19th night. Before starting their operation early on the 19th, the Army asked them to surrender to which the militants responded by opening fire.

The heavy firing exchange resulted in the killing of 7 of the militants . 1 got arrested and another 7 managed to escape. The Army not only caught hold of one militant namely Madai Reang alive but also the three females. Satisfied that these females were only forced to oblige the militants, the Army released all three of them to move back to their villages.1 Army jawan was also seriously injured in the exchange . He was airlifted to Army Hospital in Kolkata for treatment immediately after the operation.

The immediate statement of the Army in the aftermath of the incident said that 7 United Democratic Liberation Army( UDLA) have been gunned down. However on interrogating the lone captured militant, Madai Reang , the Army said that the group of militants actually belonged to United Liberation Army of BruLand (ULAB).

Following the ethnic-violence of 1997, around 35,000 Brus moved out of Mizoram and as refugees took shelter in the 6 relief camps at Kanchanpur in North Tripura. Their frustration and disappointment was vent in the formation of Bru National Liberation Front(BNLF) and then Bru Liberation Front of Mizoram(BLFM). However, both these groups were convinced to lay down arms in 2005 and 2006. Later Bru youths again in frustration floated the United Liberation Front of Barak Valley(ULFBV) and then its breakaway faction came up , namely the United Democratic Liberation Army(UDLA).

While ULFBV laid down its arms, UDLA remained elusive. However,at present the morale and strength of UDLA is believed to be low after arrest of its leaders, surrender of large number of cadres and continuous Army crackdown on them. There are contrasting opinions and doubts as to whether UDLA at all exists today or not or is it just lying low trying to recover and regroup.

The bordering areas of Hailakandi and Karimganj , given their close proximity to Tripura as well as Mizoram ,have come under the grip of militancy for at least one dacade now. The UDLA was very active in bordering areas of Karimganj and Hailakandi . But now the United Liberation Army of Bruland (ULAB) seems to have taken its place and masquerading and spreading its net in these very areas .

The ULAB is believed to have been formed of/by men out of the erstwhile BNLF. The ULAB cadres, like the UDLA before them ,continuously extort money from the area. The exact figure of Bru militants in the bordering Assam areas cannot be pegged exactly as it is floating but Police and the Army say that at least 150 cadres are active in and around this area.

The cadres are Myanmar trained and they have also procured the sophisticated weapons from/ through Myanmar. It is also widely believed that they have forged good relation and understanding with groups who are today in alliance like NSCN (K), ULFA - Paresh Barua faction and PLA amongst others inside Myanmar . In the recent past they have also drawn a tacit understanding with NLFT of Tripura .

The situation since the 19th August operation has continued to remain very tense here. The Reangs are afraid to go to their hamlets above the hills . The militants, after a brief lull following the Army operation, have again started visiting the mountains. The Reang villagers have this strong misapprehension that this time the militants are looking out for them to take revenge and they think that the militants believe that it has been some person/s from amongst the Reang villagers who had informed the Army about the camping of militants resulting in the killing of 7 of their brother militants last month.

For days together, the Reangs are not even going up the mountains for Jhoom cultivation out of fear. Lately, the feeling of safety, settled in the plain areas too , is slowly diminishing with sighting of gun totting militants in the night even in the plain regions between Cheragi and Rangpur. This has not only alarmed the Reangs but also made all others in the locality very disturbed and panicky as nobody knows exactly what these militants want or whom they intend to target in their present state of vengeful rage.

Anipur has the nearest Army post while Ratabari the Police Thana. Faced with the deep sense of insecurity, other villagers from the Bengali , Bihari community or the other tribals inform the police , Army of the situation either by phone or else visiting the nearest Army camp , Police Thana . There now floats an atmosphere of terrible misapprehension and mistrust in the region.

The Reangs are the actual scapegoats of the volatile situation. Their help and support is forcibly taken by militants, although there seems to be some black sheeps amongst the Reangs who are extending real support out of their own wish. But now the same militants are supposedly angry on them and are baying for their blood in revenge. On the other hand , the Reangs are looked down by other segments of the population as the main trouble mongers and taken as the ones who have created all the problem by harboring and helping the Bru militants. The Reangs are now totally separate and they look at the other tribes/ community as the ones who are the police , Army informers/ spies and feel that for the passing of information , they are being hounded .

There is even misunderstanding and reported clashes cropping up amongst the Reang themselves over the issue of support to the militants and the stance to be adopted. In stark departure from the days of peaceful co-existence, almost every community/ tribe now looks at the other with suspicion.......a state of mind created out of the disturbed situation. Many people in the Cheragi-Rongpur belt complain of sleep ditching them even at nights simply out of fear and the ever lurking threat.

The police , despite having a border Bn at Rongpur , are not well equipped and simply do not have the teeth to function and deliver in a communication strapped and insurgency prone area like this. The people know it well and even the Police themselves know it . As a result , their personnel are disgruntled and demoralised rather than motivated by any sense of responsibility. The people here look up to the Army as the ones they can really rely on. The villagers of Cheragi and Rongpur are demanding immediate deployment of an Army camp in either Munafi ( Reang dominated village between Cheragi and Rongpur) or in Rongpur to check the plummeting situation and the almost free run of the militants, particularly after their audacity to descend down and advance more and more in the plain areas now.

Villagers in Rongpur also speak of rampant fixed extortion demands by the militants, who apart from demanding money , also collect items from the market/ shopkeepers at will. However very few cases of extortion become public as those who are obliging and paying also prefer to keep mum out of fear . There have had also been cases of kidnapping by the militants for the demand of ransom .

If ever there is a limit to human endurance, then surely for the miserable people of this region that limit has long been crossed. Now after this fresh surge of insurgency, there is spotlight on the region .The resonance has not only reached the people who matter but they have also expressed their concern .Will they now go one step ahead by caring to stand up to at least look closely and then try to deliver what is due for this wretched place ?

Because actually in its acute backwardness lies the breeding and prospering ground of the spillover insurgency. The long due development of this area can only free it from the scourge of militancy. But if the powers who matter continue to remain intoxicated and smugly satisfied regarding the 'rapid development' path that Assam is progressing in and if this in turn prevents them to look and understand the grave situation of this frontier area , then only God can save this region and the damned people who are not living but merely surviving days here.

* Mithu Choudhury , journalist based in Guwahati, contributes to regularly . The sender of this article can be contacted at sivaassam(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was webcasted on September 12 2011 .

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