By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
The terrorists struck again in Assam’s restive Bodo-dominated area in India’s Northeast on August 5 shattering peace in the region. Three masked gunmen in black raincoat fired indiscriminately and hurled grenade at a crowed bi-weekly market near Kokrajhar town, killing 14 people and injuring 20. Assam has been confronting militancy since the late 1980s but the recent Kokrajhar attack by suspected National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Sangbojit) or NDFB(S) marks a new type of terrorist violence in the state resembling indiscriminate shootout by the Islamic State (IS) in Europe and other places.
Assam police suspect that the attack was carried out by the NDFB(S) to distract the attention of the security forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations in the state. The NDFB(S), which is opposed to peace talks with the government, has launched several terror attacks on non-Bodos in the northern districts of Assam, killing more than 200 people and displacing nearly 5 lakh from their homes since 2012. The security forces have stepped up counter-insurgency operations against this Bodo militant faction, seizing weapons on several occasions and have also neutralised many of its cadres.
Despite suffering serious setbacks in the recent months, the NDFB(S) continues to be one of the most potent militant groups operating in the state. This anti-talk Bodo militant faction is active in several lower Assam districts, including Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Nalbari, Barpeta, Darrang, Dhubri and Sonitpur. The NDFB(S) operates in Meghalaya’s Garo hills bordering Assam and Bangladesh as well. The recent IS-style terror strike in a market place, which is just 7 km away from Kokrajhar town, not properly guarded by Assam police even before the Impendence Day when militant groups step up attacks across Northeast every year, exposed the chinks in the security arrangement of the newly-elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition government of the state.
The Sangbojit faction was floated in 2012 when a section of Bodo rebels led by Ingti Kathar Sangbojit, who is interestingly a Karbi by birth and belongs to Sonitpur district, broke away from Ranjan Daimary-led NDFB(S) over the question of signing ceasefire pact with the government. The NDFB was established in 1988 with the aim of achieving a sovereign Bodoland. The Daimary faction was created in 2005 after the parent body NDFB split. The other splinter group NDFB (Progressive) led by Dhiren Boro and Govinda Basumatary entered into peace talks and inked a ceasefire agreement with the Centre in 2005. The Daimary faction signed a truce with the union and state governments on November 29, 2013.
The Bodo rebels, who were against peace negotiations with the government and had refused to give up the demand for a sovereign Bodoland, formed a separate group under the leadership of Songbojit in 2012. The NDFB(S) had set up a nine-member National Council to deal with the political issues involving the organisation. However, in 2015, Songbojit was dislodged by a new National Council headed by B. Saoraigwra. He became the “president” of the re-organised NDFB(S).
Senior Assam police officials believe Songbojit and several other North Eastern insurgent leaders are currently holed up in Sagaing Division of Myanmar, while the outfit’s military commander Bishnu Goyari alias G Bidai, and his deputy Binod Mushahary alias Batha, accompanied by at least seven to eight cadres, have crossed over to neighbouring Bhutan taking advantage of the inhospitable terrain and unfenced international border. The India-Bhutan border is 699 km long, of which Assam shares 267 km. This stretch of international border is located on the northern side of the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) comprising Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri, and covered by dense forests and highly inaccessible terrain.
The security forces have intensified counter-insurgency operations against the NDFB(S) after the outfit’s armed cadres massacred at least 76 Adivashis on December 23, 2014 in Kokrajhar, Sonitpur and Chirang districts. Reports suggest that over 27 cadres of the Bodo militant group have been killed and more than 250 others apprehended. However, the militant outfit’s top leaders, including its former “chairman” Songbojit, “army commander” G Bidai and his deputy Batha are on the run. The security forces have also arrested 210 linkmen and recovered substantial amount of arms and ammunition from the NDFB(S) militants.
Reports indicate that the outfit’s cadre strength has been greatly reduced and the militant leaders are not getting new recruits in the recent period. According to the security forces, the NDFB(S) has 30 cadres who are heavily armed. The militant group uses the Manas National Park and the adjacent mountainous area bordering Bhutan as a sanctuary. The NFFB(S) maintains close ties with the anti-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) led by Paresh Baruah. While several hundreds of militants belonging to outfits like ULFA, Karbi National Volunteers, Dima Halom Daogah and Rabha National Security Force had surrendered their weapons and engaged in peace talks with the Indian government, the NDFB(S) has refused to do so and continued to indulge in violent acts, killing innocent people.
In a significant development on July 5, 2016, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Special Court in Guwahati convicted NDFB(S) militant Pradip Brahma, who was involved in a massacre of eight persons in Kokrajhar district, for life. This was the first case of any terrorist being convicted by the court in the state. Meanwhile, Assam’s Unified Command Structure that controls counter-insurgency operations in the state has ordered the security forces to go all out against the NDFB(S) after the Kokrajhar carnage.
The security experts say the recent attack appears to be a response to the Assam police operation that apprehended four NDFB(S) militants in Kokrajhar on August 3. Earlier, the security forces killed five NDFB(S) cadres in encounters on July 16 and 24, and sealed all the supply routes to its Jamduar hideout. The intelligence agencies suspect that the NDFB(S) militants wanted to create a situation similar to the ethnic riots in 2012 and 2014, which could have given the militants much needed space to escape from the BTAD and move towards Karbi Anglong district and finally reach Myanmar via Nagaland or Manipur.
Reports say the Bodo militants’ game plan was to launch a jihadi-type attack and get away without identification so that the finger of suspicion could be pointed towards the Islamist terror outfits, leading to retaliation by the Bodos against the Bengali Muslim migrants resulting in communal clashes like the one witnessed in 2012. Senior intelligence officials are of the opinion that facing massive crackdown by the security forces in the recent months, the outfit’s military chief G Bidai and second-in-command Batha have been “changing their hideouts almost every day”.
The August 5 terror attack was undoubtedly an act of desperation on the part of NDFB(S) but it clearly demonstrated that the militant outfit still retains the capability to strike with renewed vigour. The Kokrajhar massacre was different from the previous attacks executed by the NDFB(S). Like most of the Northeastern militant groups, the NDFB(S) generally targets a particular community. In the past, it targeted Bengali Muslims and Adivasis. On August 5, however, the casualties were Bodos, Muslims and Assamese. The dead included six Bodos, four Bengali Muslims and three Naths (an Assamese caste).
The persisting land conflict between the indigenous Bodos and the migrant communities is mainly attributed for the ethnic tension in the BTAD. The ratio of the Bodos in the Bodoland Territorial Council-administered region has been a bone of contention. In some areas, the non-Bodos outnumber the Bodos, who perceive that the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh would make them minority in their own ancestral land. The Bodo rebels are also opposed to the settlement of Adivasis whose forefathers migrated from the eastern and central parts of India as tea plantation workers during the British rule.
The Kokrajhar assault has also highlighted the uninterrupted flow of arms in Assam, especially in BTAD. The militants used sophisticated weapons like AK-56 assault rifle in the carnage, revealing a huge gap in the security arrangement in the state. Assam has been facing protracted insurgency and ethnic conflicts for more than three decades. Though a large number of militant groups had been persuaded to shun the path of violence, some recalcitrant ethnic rebel outfits strike intermittently endangering peace, security and stability in the state.
It is imperative that the Sarbananda Sonowal government in Assam soon restarts peace dialogue with the insurgent groups, including the pro-dialogue faction of ULFA led by Arabinda Rajkhawa and tries to find out a political solution of the vexed issues plaguing Assam.
*Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent analyst working on issues related to India’s Northeast and Bangladesh. He can be reached at: [email protected]