On June 1, employees at the office of the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council in Haflong went on strike. “Indefinite casework,” they called it. The council, which administers Assam’s hilly Dima Hasao district, has not paid its employees for nine months. The protests were spurred, employees said, by the suicide of a female employee on May 30.

The strike coincides with troubled times for the council. On May 22, a special court of the National Investigation Agency convicted two of its executive members, and 12 others, in two cases related to the diversion of development funds for terror activities between 2006 and 2009.

At the time, the convicted council members, Jewel Garlosa and Niranjan Hojai, led the now-disbanded militant group, Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel). According to the NIA, funds were diverted with the help of elected members of the council. Jewel Garlosa and Hojai are now with the Bharatiya Janata Party. One of the other 12 people convicted is Mohit Hojai, a former chief executive member of the council. Mohit Hojai, though, was a career politician.

‘The ex-militants’

“We have been betrayed,” insisted Debolal Garlosa, the council’s chief executive member. “Even after we signed a memorandum of settlement with the government, two of our executive members have been arrested. This is unheard of in the North East. We were not terrorists. They did not listen to us democratically, so we had to pick up arms.”

Debolal Garlosa – Daniel to his aides – was third in command of the the group run by Jewel Garlosa, holding the rank of “deputy commander-in-chief”. In 2013, a year after the group disbanded, Debolal Hojai, Jewel Garlosa and Niranjan Hojai contested and won elections to the council. Debolal, too, is with the BJP, currently the ruling party in Assam.

Since 1952, the council has run Dima Hasao under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution, which provides for autonomous decentralised self-governance in certain tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. Under this arrangement, the position of the chief executive member is on a par with chief minister, while executive members can be compared to cabinet ministers.

When the ex-militants, as they are referred to in Haflong in hushed tones, joined the council, it was touted as a model case of the state winning over gun-toting rebels and bringing them into the mainstream.

But how democratic was this transition? And will this set-up unravel now, with the conviction of Jewel Garlosa and Niranjan Hojai, the two people instrumental to this democratic experiment?

Employees of the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council protest non-payment of salaries. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

‘Chequered history’

Dima Hasao’s public relations department describes the district’s history as “chequered”. “As it were, the district passed through periods of stress and strain before it acquired the present socio-political identity,” states the department’s website. The “stress and strain” alludes to an insurgency that raged in the district through the 1990s and 2000s.

The first insurgent group in the district was the Dimasa National Security Force, formed in 1991. Its objective was the creation of a separate state called Dimaraji. The group surrendered in 1995, except for one man – its commander-in-chief, Jewel Gorlosa. He was only 26, but was already known as a ruthless operator, local journalists in Dima Hasao say.

Jewel Garlosa soon floated the Dima Halam Daogah. It was funded through informal “taxes” and extortion, a model perfected by the outfit’s mentor, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah). From businessmen to state officials, everyone was supposed to pay a cut to the militant group.

In 2003, the Dima Halam Daogah, under chairman Dilip Nunisa, initiated a ceasefire with the government. Again, Jewel Garlosa refused to go along and, along with Niranjan Hojai, formed the Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel), with an armed wing called the Black Widow.

While the Dima Halam Daogah ran a tight ship, Black Widow, people in the hills recall, upped extortion demands and unleashed unprecedented violence. “Extortion became a cottage industry,” said a Haflong-based businessman who did not want to be identified. “We were sitting ducks. It was pathetic.”

Jewel Garlosa was arrested by the Assam police from Bangalore in 2009, and the group surrendered soon after. In 2012, both factions of the Dima Halam Daogah signed a memorandum of settlement with the Central and Assam governments.

The minorities of Dima Hasao

In Dima Hasao, the ex-militants still inspire fear. As a young man who runs a non-profit in Haflong said, “On a scale of 1-10, if 1 is no fear and 10 extreme fear, I would say 10. We have seen their ugly side, we know what they are capable of if things do not go their way.”

The activist is Dimasa, the majority tribe after which the district was renamed in 2010, much to the consternation of other tribes. Dima Hasao is a multi-ethnic district. Apart from the Dimasa, it is home to Kukis, Hmars, Zeimei Nagas, Hrangkhols and Biates. Add to it a sprinkling of Nepalis, Bengalis and Assamese-speaking people.

But it is sparsely populated. According to the 2011 census, with just over 2,00, 000 people spread over almost 5,000 square kilometres of land, it had a population density of 44 people per square kilometre; the lowest by far among Assam’s 33 districts.

The minority tribes resent the new breed of militant-turned-politician. David Keivom, president of the North Cachar Hills Indigenous Students’ Forum, which represents the district’s non-Dimasa groups, said current members of the autonomous council were “discriminatory”. “They are not fair regarding jobs, contracts, or anything for that matter,” said Keivom, a Hmar. “Only their former cadres get jobs, their relatives get contracts and, of course, you have to be a Dimasa.”

The district’s name Dima Hasao itself is unfair, asserted Keivom. “They are not even 40 per cent,” he claimed, referreing to the Dimasa. “How can a district be named after one tribe? We are also indigenous to this place. What about us?” Keivom’s forum refuses to use the new name and still goes by North Cachar Hills.

The conviction of Jewel Garlosa and Niranjan Hojai, Keivom said, has reinstated the minority tribes’ belief in the judicial system. “This is the best thing that could have happened,” he said. Others echoed him. Min Khongsai, a Kuki businessman called the conviction “a ray of hope”.

He is also critical of the current council. “It controls everything from contracts for development work to jobs,” he said. “And who controls the council? Militants who have suddenly turned politicians who give away everything to other ex-militants.”

Keivom also alleged that the council often allocates disproportionately high amount of development funds to Dimasa-majority constituencies.

The council’s head Debolal Garlosa, however, denied the accusations. “Recently we received Rs 24 crore from the Niti Aayog and we distributed it equally among all constituencies, Dimasa or non-Dimasa,” he said.

Keivom insisted this clarification was a “half-truth”. “The size of non-Dimasa constituencies is much bigger, population is much more. How does equal allocation help?” he asked.

Governance now

Signs of poor governance are evident in Dima Hasao district. Take its headquarters and only town, Haflong. Its roads are riddled with potholes, making them almost unmotorable when it rains, which it does almost every day. The evenings are often shrouded in darkness because of frequent power-cuts, which can sometimes last the night. Summers are marked by acute water shortage.

Debolal Garlosa defended his council saying it had been in power for less than a year. “I do not have a magic wand,” he said. “We are suffering because of the blunders that my predecessors committed.” He also played down allegations of corruption. “There could be some corruption among the staff of the council but the executive is not part of it,” he said. “We are sure it will completely stop as we are leading by example.”

Debolal Garlosa, the council's head, is a former militant. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

Angry and alienated

Yet there is discontent within the Dimasa community as well. While Dimasa groups in Haflong went on protest marches after the conviction of Jewel Garlosa and Niranjan Hojai, many from the tribe claimed they did not represent the feelings of the majority of Dimasa people.

“It is fear that made them join the rally, nothing else,” said a Dimasa activist. In fact, few Dimasa outside the convicted men’s close circle of former comrades seemed to have any sympathy for them. Many alleged the council had become a fiefdom of Jewel Garlosa’s associates from his days as a militant.

A former Dima Halam Daogah militant who gave up arms in 2003 before the formation of Black Widow, said things became worse after the current crop came to power. “We stopped receiving any government contracts,” he said. “I was supposed to get space for a shop but the council kept deferring it. I have stopped asking now.”

A Dimasa trader known to be in the good books of the council admitted that favouritism played a significant role in their dealings. “But isn’t favouritism a way of life in the entire country?” he asked. “Why single out Dima Hasao?”

The council’s leaders are also accused of not mending their old ways and resorting to violence when faced with criticism. Zed Nunisa, a young Dimasa who heads the online news portal News Dima Hasao, said a grenade was thrown at his office after the portal ran a series of hostile stories against the council. “It is just not possible to do anything in Haflong now,” he rued. “We are shifting our office to Guwahati.”

Shifting loyalties

Since the election in 2013, the council has witnessed much instability with the chief executive member changing five times. Analysts point out it is largely because the anti-defection law does not apply to the district, since it has Sixth Schedule status. So elected representatives can change their political affiliation mid-term without getting disqualified.

In 2013, the 28-seat council comprised 19 independents and nine Congress members. Four years on, the BJP enjoys an overwhelming majority with 24 members – without winning a single seat in the election. The Congress had emerged as the single largest party but is left with a lone representative now.

Key to the BJP’s rise in the region is its willingness to embrace former militants such as Jewel Garlosa, Debolal Garlosa and Niranjan Hojai, who had won the election as independent candidates, said Hamjanan Langthasa, who was the BJP’s district chief from 2012-15 before moving to the Congress.

Langthasa claimed the inclusion of the ex-militants was dictated by the party’s state leadership in Guwahati. “When I opposed the inclusion of Niranjan, I was summoned to Guwahati and asked to quit,” he said. “Less than a week later, Niranjan joined the party, so you can join the dots.”

Shortly after Niranjan Hojai joined the BJP in 2015, the party staged a coup of sorts and ousted the ruling Congress. Niranjan Hojai became the chief executive member. However, his tenure was short-lived. The Congress staged a comeback a few months later when the council’s elected members again changed loyalties. Another few months and the BJP was back in power, this time under the leadership of Debolal Garlosa.

‘Rs 1,000 crore scam’

The two cases of financial pilfering that 14 people have been convicted for is often called the “Rs 1,000 crore scam” by the local press. Allegedly, Rs 1,000 crore was siphoned off from development funds to procure arms and ammunition for the Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel).

Journalists, politicians and activists, however, said the truth was more complex. “The Rs 1,000 crore figure is often quoted but no one seems to have documentary evidence to back it up,” said Anup Biswas, a veteran journalist based in Haflong. “The figure was quoted in a letter written by IAS officer Diwakar Nath Misra to the state’s chief secretary, reporting misuse of development funds. Misra claimed the money was being diverted from development funds into paying salaries of council employees.”

The figure gained currency when The Week, in 2010, quoted it in an investigative report detailing financial irregularities in the district. “The magazine published a corrigendum in its next issue clarifying that a large chunk of that money went into paying salaries,” Biswas said. “No one seems to remember that now, though.”

Incidentally, The Week had named several top leaders of the Congress, which was in power then, as beneficiaries of the scam. They included Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is now a minister in Assam’s BJP-led government.

The under-construction NH54 connects Barak Valley with the rest of the country. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

Beyond means

Samarjit Haflongbar, a former MLA who also served as chief executive member of the council, confirmed that development funds were used to pay salaries. “There is a huge gap between the council’s revenue and the salary requirement,” he said. “When I was the chief executive member, the council’s revenue was around Rs 4-5 crore and salary requirement was Rs 34 crore. So, what could have we done? We had no choice but to divert development funds.”

The reason for this disparity, Haflongbar said, was reckless creation of new posts in the council by former chief executive members for political gain. “The only source of revenue is forest resources but that is also limited and the council is severely overstaffed,” he claimed.

The revenue-salary gap persists, evident in the non-payment of salaries for the last nine months. The council’s revenue in the financial year 2016-17 was just over Rs 40 crore while the salary bill was Rs 78 crore. “No way we can pay outstanding salaries if the state government does not bail us out,” said a senior official of the council’s finance department.

A river runs through it

As allegations of the misuse of development funds led to widespread anger in 2009, the practice of diverting development funds reportedly ended. Desperate to increase its revenue, the council fell back on its forest resources.

At the time, two major Centrally funded infrastructure projects were under way in the district: a broad-gauge railway line connecting Brahmaputra Valley with Barak Valley, and NH54 connecting Barak Valley with the rest of India as part of the East-West Corridor.

Jatinga river is mined for stones. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

The two projects created a demand for stones, which the valley’s many rivers had in abundance. According to district forest office official, until recently, the council used to give one individual the lease to mine stones from all rivers of the district. “The contract had no bar on quantity,” the official said. “But the person who had the lease had to pay the council only a fixed amount each year. The council suffered great loss for years because of that.”

According to the official, the average volume of stones mined from each river was over three lakh cubic metres per year. “That is more than 20,000 truckfuls of stones from just one river,” he said. “There are at least three rivers. Just imagine how much money the party who had the lease earned. In comparison, the council got nothing. Who benefitted from such a deal? The district definitely did not.”

The deal not only did not make economic sense, it took a toll on the region’s ecology as well. “The rivers have died,” said Bankim Haflongbar, who runs an environmental organisation called Spectrum. “The level of water has decreased and there are regular flash floods.” Indiscriminate mining has also led to wide-spread erosion.

The vanishing Sixth Schedule

The last five years have been the most peaceful in Dima Hasao in almost two decades. But many claim it has come at a price: erosion of its independent status. “Everything is controlled by Dispur now,” Samrajit Haflongbar, the BJP’s district campaign manager for the 2016 election, said, referring to the state’s administrative capital in Guwahati.

“All senior leaders, the original politicians of Dima Hasao, have been sidelined. We have a CEM [chief executive member] handpicked by Dispur and effectively it is them running the show,” added Haflongbar, one of the district’s most senior career politicians, who claimed he has been sidelined by the BJP in favour of the former militants.

Hamjanan Langthasa agreed. “The whole Sixth Schedule status is a sham now,” the Congress leader said. “Even tickets for the 2013 council election were distributed in Dispur. Most of us could not even campaign in rural areas because there was so much fear of these ex-militants. The elections was anything but fair.”

Langthasa blamed Assam’s political leadership for promoting a “cycle of corruption”. “Development funds go into purchasing tickets,” he claimed. “The money that comes from Dispur finally goes back to Dispur.”

Will the conviction of Jewel Garlosa and Niranjan Hojai upset Dima Hasao’s peace, though? Unlikely, say political observers. “People will not get carried away again,” said Biswas.