“The gruesome killing of innocent people by the NDFB (Songbijit) on December 23, 2014, in Assam had led to an operation which was carried out jointly by the State and Central forces. We also got support of the Government of Bhutan. Therefore, there is no question of talks with the NDFB (Songbijit) because it has carried out mass killing of innocent people.” – Kiren Rijiju, Minister of State for Home Affairs, on 27 July 2016.
Both (NDFB-S and ULFA) “have not been able to carry out any major attack in the past several months, as a result of which they are now desperate to strike in a big way to prove their existence.” – Assam Police, on 29 July 2016
Actionable inputs preceded the 5 August 2016 attack by the suspected National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Songbijit (NDFB-S) militants. On 29 July, a source in Assam Police had told, “The ULFA and the NDFB have not been able to carry out any major attack in the past several months, as a result of which they are now desperate to strike in a big way to prove their existence.” An intelligence led operation had been carried out in neighbouring Chirang district leading to the arrest of a 30-year old NDFB-S cadre and recovery of an INSAS rifle, which had been looted from a Territorial Army personnel in 2014. Two days later, another 22-year old militant belonging to the outfit was arrested in Kokrajhar district. A pistol with live ammunition were recovered. And yet, the attack by a two member team who came in a shared auto-rickshaw wearing blue raincoats, on a busy market could not be prevented. 13 civilians were killed and 20 others were injured. The death toll rose to 14 with a civilian succumbing to his injuries on 6 August. The chance presence of security force personnel who happened to pass by the market, prevented what could have been a far worse massacre. In the encounter, one of the militants was killed while another managed to escape. The slain militant was identified as Monjoy Isliary alias Maudang, ‘commanding officer’ of the 16th battalion of the NDFB-S.
Not only has the NDFB-S been involved in some of the worst massacres in Assam’s recent history of militancy, it also has a precedence of returning to relevance by orchestrating big-toll attacks targeting the state’s Bodo heartland, after being ruled out as weak and desperate by the state’s security establishment. Not surprisingly, even an anticipated attack has ‘surprised’ the political and security establishment in Assam. In December 2014, the outfit had massacred 31 people in the Sonitpur district, the home district of the outfit’s chief Ingi Kathar Songbijit. In May 2014, 43 people, most of whom were Muslim settlers, were killed in twin attacks in Kokrajhar and Baska districts. The NDFB-S denied its involvement in the May attack. Yet, the Assam government appeared certain that the outfit played a role. Nevertheless, prior to these attacks, few in Assam attached much importance to the outfit’s fire power.
Security operations have killed 113 NDFB-S militants and arrested more than 1400 of the outfit’s cadres including its overground workers since December 2014 reducing the outfit’s strength to about 20-25 cadres, says the MHA.
While Songbijit, believed to be based in Myanmar, provides broad directions, operations of the outfit are managed by its ‘army chief’ Bishnu Goyari alias Bidai and his deputy Binod Mushahary alias Batha. Assam Police intelligence inputs suggest that both are based in the dense forested areas along the Indo-Bhutan border. Military operations, both of the area clear and area domination varieties, for past one year include “Operation All Out” launched by the Army, Police, SSB and CRPF in September 2015. Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) sources have indicated 113 militants have been killed and more than 1400 including overground workers of the outfit have been arrested since the December 2014 attacks. Among the militants killed in 2016 are Bidai’s confidants- his personal security officer Biron Narzary and Birbal Islary, who worked closely with him. This reportedly reduced the outfit’s strength to only “20-25 cadres”. The ministry sources, however, indicate a possible “slackness” which might have affected the operations allowing the outfit to recover some of its strength. Assam government’s new assessment indicates that the outfit has “30-40 militants holed up in the State, while another 100 are in hiding in Myanmar”.
On 27 July, Kiren Rijiju, Minister of state for Home Affairs ruled out peace talks with the NDFB-S citing the outfit’s penchant for killing innocent civilians. He also hinted that the “successful” operation against the outfit launched by the state and the central forces along with ‘cooperation’ from Bhutan. The official assessment, as the 5 August attack demonstrated, was off track. By early 2016, the security force operations had lost steam allowing the cadres who had retreated to Myanmar to return. In the past six months, not only has the outfit remained active in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Sonitput districts, it seems to have adapted to the technique of carrying out attacks with small action teams. In case the SAT flounders and is neutralised, the damage to the outfit is minimal in terms of foot soldiers and weapons lost.
NDFB-S has been able to continue recruiting young men from the area promising them a decent pay, cut from the extorted amount, and a gun to brandish. All these constitute a liberating experience for a lot of young men who either were deprived of opportunities by bad governance or have grown up in area where easy way of life is a norm.
Several factors work in favour of insurgent outfits in the Bodo heartland, apart from facilitating conditions like challenging topography and a weak police force. Bodos, Adivasis, Muslims, and other tribes compete among each other for scarce land and livelihood sources making the region an ethnic tinderbox unless administered well. Governance in the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD), however, is in shambles. The insurgent outfits such as the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) who gave up arms and elevated themselves to be political masters in the region have proved to be only self-aggrandizing leaders. Unemployment is high and so is poverty. That explains why outfits like the NDFB-S are able to continue recruiting young men from the area promising them a decent pay, cut from the extorted amount, and a gun to brandish. All these constitute a liberating experience for a lot of young men who either were deprived of opportunities by bad governance or have grown up in area where easy way of life is a norm. A large number of them also work as overground linkmen- providing intelligence, arranging logistics, and extorting from local businessmen and contractors. A secure network of routes from Assam through Arunachal Pradesh to the outfit’s training facilities in Myanmar is used to by the outfit’s cadres to egress and ingress.
Past incidents and present trends suggest that the 5 August attack will not be the last by the NDFB-S. Amid political promises that the killers would be taken to task and security assessments that swear on the outfit’s weakness, facilitating conditions will preserve the outfit’s fire power- to hit and to shock.
*Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is Director, Mantraya.org. This brief is a part of Mantraya’s ongoing Mapping Terror and Insurgent Networks project.