Thousands flee tribal clashes in India's Assam state

By Subir Bhaumik

Image source, Biju boro
Image caption, More than 3,000 tribespeople have fled their villages

Thousands of people have fled their homes in India's north-eastern Assam state after clashes between two tribes in which at least 16 people have died.

More than 3,000 Karbi and Rengma Naga tribal people have taken shelter in relief camps following the violence which in late December.

Assam has been plagued by ethnic and separatist violence in recent years.

The state's ethnic problems mainly stem from claims for territory between rival tribal groups.

Assam police official MJ Mahanta told the BBC that more than 1,600 Rengma Nagas and some 1,500 Karbis had taken shelter in makeshift camps, mostly set up in local schools by officials in Assam's Karbi Anglong district.

"The displaced villagers are suffering from lack of essentials like food and clothes and living in the bitter cold," said Sushanta Roy, who edits a newspaper in Karbi Anglong's main town of Diphu.

The exodus of the villagers followed clashes between the two tribes late last month.

On 27 December, rebels belonging to the Karbi People's Liberation Tigers (KPLT) attacked Rengma villages in the Bokajan area of Karbi Anglong district and killed six Rengma Nagas, five of them women.

The KPLT demands a separate homeland for Karbi tribespeople.

Locals said the rival Rengma Naga Hill Protection Force (RNHPF) retaliated immediately by killing three KPLT members.

Analysts say the latest violence was sparked by attempts by the Karbi rebel group to gain control over territory dominated by the Rengma Nagas.

On 3 January, seven Karbis, including a student leader, were found dead just across the border in the neighbouring state of Nagaland.

Image source, Biju boro
Image caption, Assam has witnessed ethnic violence in recent years

"All those killed were found blindfolded, their hands tied behind their backs, shot through the head. This points to murders after abductions," said Bano Haralu, editor of the Nagaland-based newspaper Eastern Mirror.

The Nagaland police say it is not clear who was responsible for the killings.

The Assam government has blamed the main Naga rebel group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Issac-Muivah) (NSCN I-M), for backing the Rengma Naga rebel group from across the state border. The group denies the charge.

The NSCN I-M has been negotiating with the Indian government for 15 years for the creation of a greater Naga state that would incorporate Naga-dominated areas of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh into the present state of Nagaland that India created in 1963 following a separatist uprising.

The governments and political parties in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh oppose the NSCN's demand and say there could be no deal that takes away their territory and merges it with Nagaland.

Analyst Uddipana Goswami said the rebel groups were involved in "competitive radicalism" and that "conflicting demands for homelands" were leading to violence and displacement of tribespeople in Assam.

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