Peace-meal politics


DOOMDOOMA, IN eastern Assam’s Tinsukia district 515 km east of Guwahati, symbolised the state’s economic wellbeing until the 1950s. Some of Asia’s largest tea estates around this town of some 20,000 people yielded the best of beverages. And by 1980s, it became one of the major hubs of the timber and plywood industries in Assam.

Nothing could go wrong for Doomdooma, a ‘doubly doomed’ place as locals would say in a lighter vein. But the joke turned prophetic after the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) was born in 1979. The outfit that would strike terror for the next 30 years started out in Sivasagar 152km to the west but shifted to a dense jungle – Kakopathar – 10km east of Doomdooma to graduate to subversion and extortion.

Doomdooma’s tea estates were among the first to suffer the Ulfa onslaught; executives fled, sales plummeted, quality fell. The fear psychosis had a domino effect on the timber businesses and the oil sector. Three decades later, the tea industry hasn’t quite recovered and Assam is no longer the focus of India’s petroleum promoters.

But around the time that Tarun Gogoi began his innings as chief minister in May 2001, Doomdooma found a reason to be upbeat once again – a new factory set up by Hindustan Unilever Limited to produce home and personal care products.

Today, the HUL plant in Doomdooma Industrial Estate off NH37 run by 650 locals doesn’t just produce 50,000 tons of toothpastes, hair and skin care products annually. It is often cited as an example of what Assam is capable of industrially when peace reigns.

“The Doomdooma plant is an outcome of our government’s endeavour to end militancy in the 1990s and usher in an industrial boom in the new millennium,” says former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, whose Asom Gana Parishad party was routed in Mandate 2011.

Taking credit for an initiative and sustaining it are two different things, industry captains point out. Gogoi turned the common theory – “development brings peace” – around to first ensure peace. “Development comes automatically to a peaceful place,” he says.

But the first few years were tough for Gogoi. The Ulfa had by 2001 changed its style to specifically target Hindi-speaking people and use explosives for greater terror impact. The Congress government seemed to be losing it. Gogoi, though, was prepared to wait.

The wait looked like ending in October 2005 when the Ulfa agreed to a ceasefire-like arrangement. The equally dangerous National Democratic Front of Boroland (Ndfb) had already called truce by then, as had lesser outfits such as United People’s Democratic Solidarity and Dima Halam Daogah (DHD). But the Ulfa reneged, its commander-in-chief Paresh Barua refusing to give up its demand for a sovereign Assam.

By 2009, almost all the Ulfa top guns including chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa were behind bars. Heads of the other outfits – Ndfb’s Ranjan Daimary and DHD’s Jewel Garlossa – were caught too. And in February this year, the Ulfa initiated a peace process with New Delhi although Barua remains elusive, vowing to continue to destabilize an Assam “controlled by colonial India”.

“The past 10 years were quite satisfactory. Assam moved up the development index, farm production has increased by 5-8% over 2005 while tourist inflow has more than doubled from 24.7 lakh in 2005. Major corporate houses have invested or are investing in the IT sector and hotel industry. MNCs have set up FMCG units and pledged Rs 4,000 crore to start cement plants. The list is endless, but we know this is just the beginning. And we owe it to the atmosphere of peace,” says Gogoi.

Until the other day, Gogoi was known for his dhaba diplomacy. He would make an impromptu nocturnal visit to a highway eatery and have his ‘peace meals’ to underscore how the dhaba culture has flourished fearlessly since 2001. He hopes this culture would rub off on the industrial sector for Doomdooma – other pockets of Assam as well – to be called Boombooma.

(A slightly shorter version appeared in the Hindustan Times)

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About rahconteur

A mid-career journalist who's worked horizontally across India - from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat
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