Kaberi Kochary carries a humble demeanor, and shy smile that gives nothing away of the incredible life she has lead, nor the tireless work she does in communities all across Assam. Kaberi is a community mobilizer, a political poet, the wife of Chief of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), and just one of two women involved in the ongoing peace talks with the Indian Government. We stole some of her rare time to ask her to share some of her experience, and the struggle Assam has endured for the last five decades.
Northeast India is a land forgotten – by the nation it never asked to be a part of, and by the rest of the world. Since the end of British rule, much of the Northeast has existed in the crosshairs of two guns – proliferating militias on one side, and the Indian Army on the other.
'Assam was always an independent state, even before British rule. But when the British left, the whole of the Northeast was coerced into joining the new Indian state. In the very beginning our struggle was based on independence and sovereignty.'
The situation is complex in Assam, and as Kaberi explains, it often boils down to the same common denominator – control of natural resources.
'Gradually as time passed by we have realised that while we are struggling for independence, our resources are being taken away from us, like tea and natural oil. While Assam is famous for its tea, little of it is sold locally. Where is the tea sold then? We don’t know, and that’s because many of the dealings, sales and purchases are not transparent.'
The armed struggle in Assam began as a genuine revolution, and was largely lead by ULFA, which demanded secession from the Indian State, and enjoyed popular support across much of Assam. For years the clashes between the Indian forces and the UFLA drenched the state in constant insecurity, but little progress was made towards an independent Assam. Most ULFA today are surrendered, and its leadership is now in peace talks with the Indian government.
'The struggle is now taking a turn for the good, and actually sitting down to talk with the government for different developments. Although the motive of ULFA hasn’t changed, the processes of the struggle has taken a more peaceful turn.'
While Kaberi married into the armed struggle, and continues to support its aims, she believes the true solution for Assam is a peaceful one.
'There is no other solution other than a peaceful solution. And the primary motivation is to save our identity, to preserve and promote our inherited rights over Assam’s property and resources.'
As the wife of the Chief of the ULFA, Kaberi explains that it is often assumed that she falls in line with whatever her husband says. But Kaberi is an activist figure in her own right.
'I never suppressed any of my thoughts on political views and also on the topic of the peace process. I never trusted blind faith on anything that the ULFA did because I have my own political views that I act on.'
Indeed it was her own political views that lead her to ULFA as a young woman, in the days the revolutionary movement was building. She was a young literature student, and was emboldened by the political radicalism on her college campus, and the growing support for the ULFA across Assam.
'I was still studying in University when ULFA first reached my mind. By that time I had already developed my name and fame in the literary world as a young poet. [UFLA’s] seniors were searching for new recruits from amongst cultural, literary and political youth who were eager to work as political commissioners.'
Bright, young and swayed by the political messages of the newly formed UFLA, Kaberi joined the movement, which transformed her from poet, to progressive political thinker and writer.
'I think [joining ULFA] was a turning point in my life. I realised that, the notion of life is nothing but an illusion in the face of reality. I was exposed to political literature. I had the urge to know more, and work more. I was introduced to the work of Karl Marx and Mao Tse-tung and others. From then onwards, I took up a new path of political thinking.'
As a feminist, what I find most inspiring about Kaberi is her commitment to working with and for women. The armed struggle left women most affected, and has wound back a lot of the freedoms they previously enjoyed.
'It’s become common for women to be the most affected in zones of conflict. People say the worst-case scenario happened here or there, but truly it’s all the same, when it comes to women. I’m not going say, “it was terrible here”, or, “you couldn’t have imagined”. But it was terrible, and it was the Indian army who claimed to be our protectors that were often the perpetrators of rape and other human rights abuses.'
Kaberi remembers an incident between the Indian Army and ULFA in Lakhipothar, and the kind of impunity that prevails even still.
'The whole village was drenched in blood, the Indian army attacked everyone, be it a child, woman or an elder. Two ladies that we will never forget were Bhonimai Datta and Raju Boruah. These ladies had the cruelest deaths at the hands of the army. The saddest part is that the reports for the deaths in Lakhipathar have been banished or destroyed, so we have no records, and we couldn’t go and record for ourselves because the village was occupied by the army.'
While Kaberi has never herself taken up arms, she has always been active in the political process. She is an incredible community mobilizer, something I have witnessed myself. She can raise a whole village to renew their silk cultivation, even in a climate of distrust, and long memories of broken promises. They come out to listen to Kaberi, and they put their faith in her.
'The people of Assam might have lost faith in unity but they are still willing to put their faith in us individually. There is nothing to gloat about, but people still have a belief that I will be able to make a difference, or that if they work with me they will get new opportunities. This is why I use whatever power I have to the fullest, so that I can really do something for the people who have trusted us.'
Today, a tentative peace has been restored in much of Assam, and Kaberi dedicates her time mobilizing the handloom and silk industries – which primarily supports the livelihoods of women. Always dressing in the beautiful natural silks of Assam is just one way she expresses her commitment to the development of the local handloom industry. Whenever I compliment her clothing, she can tell me where it was made, by whom, and what kind of silk it is.
But the kind of work she does is hard, and paved with people harboring ill intent. Middlemen, corruption, and weak government development that turns a blind eye to illegal dealings are all part and parcel of trying to effect change in the sector. Kaberi describes one incident where a government funded NGO approached her to make a large batch of ceremonial scarves for the harvest season. She mobilized weavers, purchased the yarn from her own pocket and got the items ready in time. In the end, the NGO rejected the scarves and pocketed the government funding dedicated to purchasing the products.
'They had me take the fall and ate the money given by the government. But I still didn't leave handlooming, because I still saw the scope in it. And here I am today, still working with all my heart and soul.'
Sharna is the Co-Founder of The Fabric Social, a social enterprise working exclusively with conflict-affected women. The Fabric Social work to transform one of the greatest causes of poverty: armed conflict. You can shop, donate, or get involved here.