By Anshuman Behera
On August 25, 2010, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram said that “while the year 2009 was a distinct improvement on the year 2008, it is in the 2010 that we have seen a dramatic decline in the number of incidents and in the number of casualties in the Northeast.” He disclosed, further, that there had been only 464 incidents until August 15, in 2010, as against 1,297 and 1,561 for the whole year in 2009 and 2008, respectively. However, the State ranked the second most vulnerable in the Northeast, according to a April 2, 2010, Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) release, Assam, [Manipur was ranked the worst affected], has witnessed some distressing incidents, despite an overall improvement and the neutralization of a number of active insurgent groups.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, a total of 158 persons, including 98 militants, 48 civilians and 12 Security Force (SF) personnel, were killed in 417 incidents in 2010 (all data till December 5) as against 392, including 196 militants, 175 civilians and 21 SF personnel, killed in 753 incidents in 2009, indicating a 59.69 per cent decline in militancy-related fatalities, and a 72.57 per cent drop in civilian killings in 2010 as compared to 2009, indicating considerable improvement in the security scenario in the State.
* Data till December 5, 2010
The State witnessed 10 major incidents (involving three or more killings) in 2010, as against 24 in 2009. The major incidents of 2010 included:
November 8: At least 19 persons, including 13 Hindi-speaking people, were killed and several others injured when militants of the Anti-Talks Faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-ATF) went on a killing spree in five Districts across Assam.
October 3: The Police shot dead four NDFB-ATF cadres during an encounter in a thickly forested area at Dekatan in Dhemaji District and rescued an abducted trader, Cotton Nandy.
July 30: At least five Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers were killed and 33 were injured, when United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) militants triggered an improvised explosive device (IED) blast and damaged a bus at Bhalukdubi under Goalpara District.
July 26: Four Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) personnel, including an Assistant Commandant, were killed, and three were injured, in an ambush by the NDFB-ATF at Amlaiguri under Panbari Police Station in Chirang District along the Bhutan border.
March 1: Four suspected militants of the Bengali Tiger Force (BTF) were shot dead in an encounter with SFs at Chereng Chapori in Darrang District.
January 2: Unidentified militants shot dead three persons, including two NDFB-Pro Talks Faction (NDFB-PTF) cadres and one college student, Bilifang Basumatary (20), at Mukuldang under Gossaigaon Police Station in Kokrajhar District. A truck driver and two other students were also injured in the gun attack.
The NDFB-ATF has emerged as the most violent militant group in the State, despite the fact that the surviving rump of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the most dreaded formation till 2009. The NDFB has been involved in 30 civilian killings in 2010, as against four by ULFA. 18 ULFA militants were killed in 14 incidents, while the NDFB lost 56 cadres in 42 incidents in the year. 25 of these cadres were identified as members of NDFB-ATF, killed in 23 incidents. Reports are not conclusive about the affiliation of the fatalities in remaining incidents.
While the NDFB-ATF has been on a killing spree, the NDFB-PTF has been engaged in a cease-fire with the Government since September 23, 2009, and has mostly remained away from militant activities. Unsurprisingly, on January 29, 2010, NDFB-PTF announced that it would participate in the Bodo Territorial Council Elections in Assam. The elections were held on April 9, 2010, and the Bodoland People’s Front won the majority. The role of NDFB-PTF was, however, unclear. On February 1, 2010, a NDFB-PTF delegation met the Centre’s interlocutor in Assam, P. C. Haldar, to press for an early solution to the impasse by creating a separate State for the indigenous tribal people of Assam. As the NDFB-PTF sustained its commitment to peace talks, on July 1, 2010, the Union Government extended the cease-fire agreement with it for six months till December 31, 2010. Meanwhile, on November 19, as many as 43 Bodo political and non-political organisations came together to form the Bodo National Conference – a common platform to resolve various issues affecting the Bodo people. The Conference was formed in a bid to convince the NDFB-ATF chairman Ranjan Daimary to join the peace parleys and also to ensure peace and unity among the Bodo people, and those living in the Bodo areas. On November 18, 2010, NDFB-PTF cadres had distributed a map depicting a separate Bodoland to participants at the Bodo National Convention. The map included nine Districts. NDFB cadres insisted that a resolution be passed by the Convention on the basis of the map. Though some important resolutions were adopted during the two-day national convention, the Bodoland State issue was not included in the new set of resolutions, as it is one of the oldest demands of the Bodo community.
ULFA’s capacities have, of course, been decimated as a result of the capture or surrender of almost its entire top leadership. Nevertheless, the surviving elements continue to sustain a violent intent. In June, a group of 10 ULFA cadres were reported to have entered Guwahati city to carry out extortion and subversive activities as per directions from the ‘commander’ of the ULFA’s ‘709th battalion’, Hira Sarania. According to partial data compiled by SATP, ULFA has been involved in nine reported incidents of extortion in 2010, as compared to 21 reported in 2009. Reports indicated ULFA had launched an extortion drive in April 2010, and had served extortion notices to people in different parts of Assam. A November 2 report indicated that ULFA hardliners, headed by ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Barua, were trying to launch a fresh recruitment drive to replenish the organisation’s depleting strength. Highly placed Police sources indicated that the outfit had started its recruitment drive in the Upper Assam Districts. Nevertheless, sources claimed that ULFA had failed to recruit significant numbers of youth.
Despite this, on February 1, 2010, the Union Government proposed peace talks with ULFA. Immediately thereafter, on February 2, ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, in custody since December 4, 2009, rejected the offer, saying that they could not talk with the Government while in custody. Rajkhowa was arrested in Bangladesh on December 2, 2009, and was subsequently handed over, along with nine other persons, to Border Security Force (BSF) personnel at the Dawki outpost in the Jaintia Hills District on December 4. Meanwhile, Paresh Barua, in an e-mailed statement, on April 21, declared: “There is no question of talks without the issue of sovereignty on the agenda. Agreeing to hold talks without the sovereignty issue would be like surrendering to the colonial forces”.
On November 27, 2010, however, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi stated that peace talks between ULFA and the Centre were expected to begin in January 2011. On November 7, 2010, he had observed, “We have only expressed our hope to start the peace process in December. Before the initiation of peace talks, all jailed ULFA leaders have to be released on bail, which we can’t (do). Though the State Government isn’t against the release of the jailed ULFA leaders on bail, it depends on the Court.” Nevertheless, the Government did release four prominent ULFA leaders, Raju Baruah, Pranati Deka, Bhimkanta Buragohain and Pradip Gogoi.
In another major development for the State, on February 11, 2010, about 400 cadres of the Karbi Longri NC Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF) laid down arms and surrendered to the Government at a formal ceremony in Diphu, some 270 kilometers south of Guwahati. Thong Teron, ‘general secretary’ of the KLNLF, declared, “We initially started armed struggle to solve our problems, now we want to try to solve them politically.” Following the surrender of the KLNLF militants, Union Home Secretary G. K. Pillai stated, on February 22, 2010, that the Government was also engaged in peace talks with groups like Dima Halam Daogah (DHD), United Peoples’ Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), KLNLF, NDFB-PTF and ULFA, and would try not to have any further divisions in Assam. Meanwhile, the KLNLF-Anti Talks Faction, on October 28, 2010, decided to test its support base among the general people of Diphu District by calling for a 24 hours District bandh (general strike) on October 30, to protest against the alleged killing of its cadres by SFs, in league with KLNLF rank and file presently under the cease-fire. However, there was no further report about such a general strike talking place.
On November 3, 2010, the State Government informed the Union MHA about the involvement of members of National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) in illegal activities such as extortion in Assam. The matter was also reported to the Cease-fire Monitoring Committee in Nagaland, which includes representatives of the Central Government and the militant outfit.
Worryingly, a November 5, 2010, report quoting Police sources indicated that the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) had established links with the Adivasi People’s Army (APA) raised in Sonitpur District with ULFA backing. This was discovered during the interrogation of Tarjan Majhi, the Sonitpur District ‘commander’ of the APA. Majhi was arrested along with five others on November 3, 2010, at Bhairabguri under Dhekiajuli Police Station of Sonitpur District. Majhi claimed that an ULFA ‘sergeant major’, Das, had provided arms training to APA cadre in Majbat area of Udalguri District and helped them contact the Maoists. The APA ‘District Commander’ from Gossaigaon in Kokrajhar District claimed he had recruited a large number of APA members and procured some firearms.
Assam’s counter-terrorism strategy still relies disproportionately on Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs). In the beginning of 2009, 150 companies of CPMFs were deployed in the State. According to Government sources, their number has come below 100 companies in 2010. However, the State Government has expressed the view that the present strength of Central Forces in the State is inadequate. The Centre, on the other hand, has expressed the position that the overall improvement in law and order in the State, the decline in the strength of ULFA, and several other outfits entering into cease-fire with the Government, justify the pull-out of CPMFs from some Districts, leaving a sufficient Force to operate against the NDFB-ATF in areas of their dominance. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, during his visit to the State on November 12, 2010, in the aftermath of the NDFB-ATF killings between November 8 and 10, urged the State Government to mobilize its reserve Police battalions for deployment in the NDFB-ATF affected areas, to launch an offensive, along with the Army. The State Government was asked to fill up existing vacancies – over 6,000 – in its Police Force, to fight the surviving insurgencies and stabilize the operational gains of the past years.
Assam has a Police-population ratio of 172/100,000, better than the all India average of 124, but the lowest for any State in the troubled Northeast. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi while speaking at a conference of Chief Ministers on Internal Security in New Delhi on February 7, 2010, said the Assam Government was proposing the recruitment of 4,100 Police Constables by June 2010. He also said that the appointment letter for 2,401 Police personnel would also be given by June 2010, resulting in a decline in the Police vacancy to just 1,239. The State Government has also approved the recruitment of 10,000 Home Guards and 3,500 Special Police Officers (SPOs), including 1,500 to be deployed in major markets and 2,000 to be deployed on National Highways and Railways. The Assam Government also proposed to raise the sanctioned strength of the Police Force by 50 per cent in a phased manner over the next four years. However, given the State’s dismal financial profile, the implementation of such ambitious plans appears unlikely.
Assam has made very significant gains against insurgency over the past years, in part as a result of operational successes, in part because of chance factors such as the change in attitude of the regime in Bangladesh, and part, because several groupings have simply succumbed to exhaustion. Nevertheless, it is evident that some groups retain significant residual capacities, even as others – ominously including the Maoists – are just waiting to fill the emerging vacuum. As far as its disturbing history of insurgency is concerned, Assam is still a long way from being out of the woods.
Anshuman Behera, Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management