05/14/2007, 00.00
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“Ethnic cleansing” of Karbi in Assam

by Nirmala Carvalho
Fr Mangattuthazhe: pressing poverty and inter-racial conflicts lead to frequent violence, which is sure to explode again unless steps are taken to prevent it. Yesterday, clashes between tea plantation workers and thousands of ethic Assamese led to deaths and injuries.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – Two groups of ethnic protesters battled each other yesterday with bows and arrows, machetes and stones in Doomdooma, Tinsukia district in Assam, leaving four people dead and more than a dozen injured. A priest said this is a very poor area where violence is sure to break out again if steps are not taken to prevent it.

Hundreds of ethnic Assamese demonstrators blocked a main highway for more than a week to protest the killing of a civilian by the Indian army in an anti-rebel operation. The blockade prevented supplies from reaching tea plantations in the area, which remained without food. Yesterday, a group of plantation workers, armed with bows and arrows, attacked the demonstrators, who responded with stones and machetes. Police fired in the air to disperse those fighting and admitted to finding at least three dead and six injured people. A curfew has now been imposed. Over a span of 30 years, ethnic and tribal clashes have caused thousands of deaths. Police also opened fire on other Assamese demonstrators, seriously wounding at least four.

Fr Tom Mangattuthazhe, a collaborator of the bishop of Assam, told AsiaNews that a tough and uncertain situation prevails in the area, not least because “many people live in miserable conditions”. He said: “The situation in Karbi Anglong district [where he works], diocese of Diphu, is critical and could deteriorate into an outburst of ethnic violence at any time. The disappearance of Soinetsing Diphusa and his wife Kenedy Diphusa who went missing from Kheroni area on 30 April and subsequent rumours that spread in the region are examples of widespread violence. They are farmers and have seven children and no one knows where they are now. This is not the first instance of people disappearing.  The Karbs and Dimasass have a history of an ethnic conflict, which two years back exploded into ethnic violence, displacing nearly 75,000 people who fled to relief camps. Around 150,000 people lost practically all they had. The conflict started when three auto drivers were kidnapped and it has not stopped since. There are indications that there will be fresh violence soon, if nothing is done to prevent it.” He continued: “Among the people, there are frequent rumours that homes have been burned down. To quell these rumours, we have organized a village-to-village campaign in sensitive areas, appealing to people to remain calm and not to listen to rumours.  We also have peace meetings in different locations to sensitize people.” The priest this was the “poorest and most backwards area of Assam, where people do not even have enough to live.” Although the Karbi are the largest ethnic group in the region, “every year thousands are displaced due to violence and natural calamities and in a few years time, they will become a minority; in other words this is ethnic cleansing.”

 Several separatist groups, including the main United Liberation Front of Asom, (ULFA) have been fighting since 1979 for an independent homeland in Assam. Peace talks between ULFA and the Indian government broke down in September last year after a six-week truce. ULFA responded with violence, killing more than 70 Hindi-speaking migrant workers across Assam.

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