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Women's group douses tribal flare-ups in northeast India

Jun 15, 2009

In Assam, a conflict-ridden northeastern state of India, women and children are facing the wrath of militant outfits and security forces alike. An apex women’s body of the Karbi tribe is working towards their empowerment and is also taking up peace-building initiatives as one of its activities.

Karbi Anglong Hills District: Walson Teron, 51, who belongs to the Karbi tribe and lived in Langmili village in the Karbi Anglong Hills District of Assam, has gone through many a nightmare.

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But the worst was when his 12-year-old daughter, Prativa, was gang-raped in October 2003. Teron had to carry her on his back across a 14-kilometre-long hilly route to the district headquarters of Diphu to get medical assistance.

While he knew his child needed immediate medical care, the traumatised father was also wondering how he could file a report at the police station.

A day earlier, while Teron and his wife were out working in the paddy fields nearby, the child had been gang-raped inside their house by personnel belonging to the Assam Police.

The police personnel were deployed in an area domination exercise, as part of counter-insurgency operations against the Dima Halam Daoga (DHD), an insurgent outfit that was active at that time in both Karbi Anglong and the adjacent North Cachar Hills districts.

For around a decade, the United Democratic People's Solidarity (UPDS), who represent the Karbi tribe, and the DHD, who fight for the interests of the Dimasa tribe, have been engaged in an ethnic turf war.

In fact, hundreds of innocent tribals have been caught in the crossfire – and in the counter-insurgency firing, as well.

Karbi Nimso Chingthur Asong

As Teron was making his way to Diphu with his daughter, he met a group of women from the Karbi Nimso Chingthur Asong (KNCA), the apex women’s body of the Karbi tribe, which was set up in 1986.

When these women learnt of the atrocity – one of the endless instances of abuse that women and children experience in this conflict-ridden district area – they promptly decided to help Teron.

Experienced in fighting cases for female victims of conflict and ethnic violence, the KNCA members quickly made arrangements for the girl’s treatment at a district hospital.

They simultaneously spearheaded a movement to pressurise the authorities to punish the guilty police personnel.

This, however, was not an easy task. According to Kajektak Bipi, 45, President, KNCA, senior officials in the district administration allegedly tried to conceal the evidence.

The medical report, however, established that rape had been committed on the minor girl, following which the KNCA registered a case in the Diphu Police Station.

The organisation also moved the Assam State Women Commission and the Assam Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in their campaign to seek justice for the child.

For Prativa, however, life was never the same again. The KNCA’s assistance could not spare her the social stigma that comes with rape, and her poor, illiterate parents would not dare take her back home.

Instead, the young victim found accommodation as a domestic help in Diphu town, in the home of a Christian priest, who was kind enough to ensure that the girl went to school. Hope resurfaced when Prativa was able to identify the culprits during an identification parade.

The KNCA members were constantly in touch with her and her parents during this period. The guilty police personnel were thereafter dismissed from service and sent to prison.

Teron went back home in 2003, but without his daughter. Unfortunately for Teron and his family, their traumas were far from over.

Traumas far from over

Two years after the assault on his daughter, he along with his entire village was forced to flee their homes when an ethnic clash between the DHD and UPDS flared up on October 8, 2005, in different pockets of the district.

The sudden attacks claimed 11 lives. The extremists burnt down 15 villages in the area and forced the residents to flee at gunpoint. The attack and retaliation in the entire district resulted in over 200 people getting killed and led to the displacement of about 49,000 people belonging to both the tribes.

The displaced persons had to take shelter in different relief camps. They eventually settled down in Chachear Langso village near the Diphu town, having had to abandon their original Langmili village.

People started settling in Chachear Langso, which is 10 kilometres from Langmili, from 2006, but without receiving any rehabilitation grant. The families were allotted houses under the Indira Awaj Yojna later in 2008.

All the families have been allotted one acre of land by local Karbi people, but for the Jhum cultivation they still go to Langmili. As the area falls in a conflict zone, they go to their jhumland in groups during agricultural season.

The KNCA members, toughened through years of conflict, are not deterred by these clashes. They focus on their mission to help and empower women and girl-child victims of insurgency.

Prativa’s case is just one among the many they have taken up. In addition to such assistance, they stand by the affected families, just as they stood by Prativa’s parents when they finally found the courage to bring their daughter home in 2008.

Even as the organisation continues to work towards its initial goal of empowering Karbi women, it has also taken up peace-building initiatives as one of its activities.

Through its 96 branches and a joint-action committee with the Dimasa Welfare Society, the women's body of the Dimasas, the KNCA has undertaken peace-building programmes in the entire district, mobilising women to jointly raise their voices for an end to violence, including inter-tribal conflict.

Their members have been holding peace rallies, visiting relief camps of both tribes, distributing relief materials and motivating the women to join in their initiatives.

Says Bipi: "The indiscriminate killings by militant outfits, the ethnic clashes, and the atrocities of security agencies on common people during search operations, have made our lives vulnerable.

Many from traditional tribal families have become homeless, as they have had to abandon their original villages. From being farmers most have become daily wage earners today. Women and children are the worst sufferers of this desolation and misery."

Mikon Rongpharpi, Vice President, KNCA, reveals that even elderly women are sexually harassed by security agencies.

In 2007, a 55-year-old Karbi woman was raped by army jawans (soldiers) in the remote Singhasan Timung village. Her case is still pending in the Guwahati High Court.

Given the extremely isolated location of the village and the age-related ailments of the victim, it is difficult for her to appear before the court on time and the possibility of justice being delivered to her grows more remote by the day.

No easy task

Bipi points out that even KNCA members are often subjected to harassment. For instance, on December 25, 2005, two Karbi girls, allegedly involved with the Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), were apprehended by security personnel, and subsequently raped and killed.

Later, the forces claimed that the bodies of the girls were not recovered. The KNCA, although they had nothing to do with the alleged involvement of the girls in militant activities, demanded disclosure of the postmortem report. Instead of responding to them, the police started harassing KNCA members, accusing them of having links with KLNLF.

But there is a good news story here as well. The KNCA’s struggle for peace and for ensuring more political power to women has resulted in the election of the first Karbi woman, Kabon Ingtipi, to the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council.

In 1996, Ingtipi was elected from the Hamren constituency as Executive Member.

This is how a small, determined group of women, far away from the centres of power, overlooked by the mainstream media, have made a significant difference to the lives of forgotten people.

The names of the rape victim and her parents have been changed to protect their identity.

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