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Nani Mahanta
Nani Mahanta in the café of the International House, where he is living while he studies peace and conflict resolution for two years. Photos by BAP

World Peace Scholar Nani Mahanta hopes to bring tools for peace home to northeast India
6 November 2002

By Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs

BERKELEY - Rotary World Peace scholar Nani Mahanta did not come to UC Berkeley simply for a second master's degree.

Mahanta is from Assam, a state in northeast India under siege by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). Intent upon seceding from India and forming an independent Islamic country, ULFA's tactics include extorting money from Assamese businesses, blowing up oil pipelines, and attacking the state police and government army.

"Violence begets violence — I have seen it in my society," Mahanta says, his face stony with intensity. "This is not just a pedagogical interest for me. I'm on a mission. I want to learn how we can create a culture of peace."

ULFA is just one of the many problems that plague Assam, including high unemployment, porous international borders, and ethnic tensions. Mahanta, a political science lecturer at Gauhati University in Assam, has taken temporary leave from his wife, his child and his job, and come to Berkeley resolved to become a peacemaker.

Although he's only 33, Mahanta has already accumulated the experience that just might allow him to transform study into action. In addition to his university post, he is the director of the Assam group of the International Peace Initiative, collaborating with UNICEF on a study of terrorism's effect on children. Mahanta is general secretary of the North-East India Political Association and works with the Regional Centre of Strategic Studies, under whose auspices he has visited Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Bhutan for research. A former newspaper reporter — he still writes frequent opinion pieces for The Sentinel in Assam — he is also an intrepid filmmaker.

    Nani Mahanta
'It is not as simple as how to bring the terrorists to the table. The decay has entered into the social, political and economic fabric.'
—Nani Mahanta, Rotary World Peace Scholar

After writing about ULFA for his dissertation for his master's in political science, Mahanta met the group's leaders while filming "Insurgency in Assam: The Long March toward Uncertainty," a documentary on the group that was broadcast on state-owned Indian television. It was not an easy project. After waiting in a hotel for three days to make contact, Mahanta was blindfolded and led on a terrifying all-day drive into the jungles of Assam's neighbor Bhutan. There, he met with ULFA's leaders but was not permitted to ask questions; they expected him merely to record their mission statement and demands. His cameraman was so shaken by the experience that he fled to Delhi immediately afterward.

ULFA is just the latest group to disrupt the Assamese, who have experienced little peace and even less economic growth in the last 60 years. Pulling out a piece of scrap paper, Mahanta begins sketching a map of the region and drawing arrows to illustrate the threats. A state that protrudes from northeast India like a sore thumb, Assam's geographic location has often put it in harm's way. Its neighbors Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar (where there's an infamous international arms market) account for nearly 90 percent of its borders. Assam itself is fragmented: after India gained independence from Britain in 1947, India's government bowed to the demands of tribal districts and shaved off parts of Assam into five additional smaller states.

There is little industry. Although Assam produces more tea than any other state in India, few of the better-paying jobs and the profits associated with the commodity stay in the state but instead are funneled to Delhi. When the civil war over Pakistan in 1971 poured a flood of Bengali Muslims into Assam, followed by a later influx of Bangladeshi refugees, the depressed economy was destabilized further.

In 1979 Assamese students began agitating, demanding that illegal immigrants be given rights to Assamese citizenship and suffrage. Both the state and Indian governments acted forcefully to quell the movement, but the students persisted and were joined by "all the people of Assam, regardless of caste or tribe," says Mahanta. In 1985, the students signed a treaty and were elected to power in the government.

"There were a lot of expectations, but they just caused chaos," says Mahanta. "They basically went from a popular protest at the university to plundering the capital." The remnants of the student party were ousted in 1990.

Nowadays, ULFA seems to exert more power than the local government, engaging in frequent bloody clashes with the army. Mahanta says that ULFA extorts payments of as much as 70 percent on some projects, discouraging outside investment. Their collaborators are everywhere. "You will find the latest model of every car in Assam — our cars look just like yours," Mahanta says, pointing out the window at cars passing by the International House Café. "But where does the money come from in a state with absolutely no economy?"

Mahanta is not at Berkeley to learn better methods for negotiating with ULFA and its brethren. "Mediation goes only so far," he says firmly. "It is not as simple as getting the terrorists to the negotiation table. The decay has entered into the social, political and economic fabric: if you satisfy one bunch of people, there will be others. We must address the root causes."

Currently Mahanta is taking a Peace and Conflict Studies course with assistant professor Nancy Erbe (director of Berkeley's Rotary Center for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution) and lecturer Darren Zook's political science course on the origins of war, violence, and terrorism. He hopes to introduce what he learns about conflict resolution to Gauhati University, where there are no such course offerings. "I want to incorporate conflict resolution into the education process, to teach that we must respect other people's rights," he says.

Education is just the first part of his plans. He wants to promote investment in Assam through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that will concentrate on social welfare issues. That will require lobbying the government to give tax incentives to entice them to Assam. His role model is Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, who has transformed that Indian state's economy and attracted investment from technology companies into Hyderabad, its capital.

But any plans for economic expansion will have to deal with ULFA, whose goal of Muslim separatism has recently begun enjoying support from the military intelligence wing of Pakistan, known as ISI. About ten Islamic terrorist groups have been growing in strength in various parts of Assam, according to Mahanta. The consequences have been severe: the easy availability of small arms has enabled various ethnic groups to turn to acts of violence to achieve their political objectives, including killing many Hindi-speaking Assamese people originally from central India. The federal government's response has been tragically ineffective, in Mahanta's opinion: "The response of the state has always been in the form of extremes — either confrontational and militarist or pacifying and escapist."

His goal, ultimately, is to make a difference from within. He would like to stand for election to Assam's parliament or state assembly. "That's the only real way to make people's lives better," he says. "In our world, government is powerful, maybe too powerful, but that is the best way to get things done."