By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On November 1, 2018, at least five Hindu Bengali daily-wage workers, including three of a family, were killed by suspected United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) militants in Bisonimukh village, in Tinsukia District. The victims were identified as Shyamal Biswas (60), Ananta Biswas (18), Abhinash Biswas (23), Subal Das (60), and Dhananjay Namasudra (23). Following the attack, Pallab Bhattacharyya, Special Director General of Police (DGP-Special Branch) of the Assam Police, told the media, “We suspect the hand of ULFA-I or some combined militant group. Seven days back, there was an intelligence input about attacks in Bengali-dominated areas, but there was nothing specific.”
As SAIR has repeatedly noted earlier, while general intelligence inputs regarding possible attacks are rife, specific and actionable intelligence is rarely available to Security Forces (SFs) on the ground.
On November 2, 2018, however, ULFA-I denied responsibility for the attack, declaring, “We, the United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) would like to make it clear that our organisation does not have any involvement in the firing incident that occurred on 1st November 2018 at Sadiya Saikhowaghat in Tinsukia District.”
The November 1 incident was the worst single incident, in terms of civilian killings, recorded in Assam since August 5, 2016. Fourteen civilians were killed when suspected National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-IKS) militants opened fire at a weekly market at Balajan Tiniali in Kokrajhar District in the 2016 incident. Seventeen civilians were also injured in the incident. Later, SF personnel deployed in the area killed one of the attackers.
In the interim, the State recorded just one major incident (involving three or more killings) with civilian fatalities in the State, resulting in the death of three civilians. On August 12, 2016, three Hindi speaking civilians were killed by suspected ULFA-I militants in Bamunbari village under Philobari Police Station in Tinsukia District. Since 2010, at least 200 civilians have been killed in at least 19 major incidents in Assam.
On October 13, 2018, four people were injured when a low-intensity blast took place in the Sukleshwar Ghat area near Pan Bazar, a prime commercial hub, in capital city Guwahati. ULFA-I ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah claimed responsibility:
We apologize to the four people who got injured. Our objective is to resist all groups who are trying to give shelter to Hindu Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and the NRC.
Significantly, polarization on religious and linguistic lines has sharpened in the State ever since the Supreme Court monitored exercise of updating the National Register fors Citizen (NRC) was initiated in 2015, to identify bona fide residents of Assam. The final draft NRC published on July 30, 2018, has tentatively identified four million (40.07 lakh) persons whose nationality is suspect. Earlier, the first draft NRC Published on December 31, 2017, had left out 14 million people.
In 2005, under a tripartite agreement between the All Assam Students Union (AASU), and the State and Union Governments, it was decided that the National Register for Citizens (NRC) would be updated towards the implementation of the 1985 Assam Accord. The Assam Accord was signed after a six-year long ‘anti-foreigners’ agitation led by AASU and other regional bodies, between 1979-1985.
The Union Government had assured citizenship to ‘persecuted minorities’ from neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who had entered India (including Assam) before December 31, 2014, through a proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. The organizations representing Assamese and other ‘indigenous’ groups fear that the passing of the Bill would encourage more illegal immigration and legitimize the illegal immigrants already present, reducing the ‘son of the soil’ to a minority. The organisations representing Bengali Hindus, however, support the Bill, seen as a ‘savior’ of ‘persecuted’ Hindus. The Bill has also led to divided opinion in the predominantly Assamese speaking Brahmaputra and Bengali speaking Barak Valleys. As a result, some Barak Valley-based organizations have revived an old demand of granting Union Territory status to the Valley.
Apparently some ‘leaders’ of both the Pro-Talks faction of ULFA (ULFA-PTF) and ULFA-I have seized the opportunity created by anxieties over the NRC, in an attempt to regain lost legitimacy. ULFA-PTF led by Arabinda Rajkhowa entered into talks with Union Government on September 3, 2011. Reports indicate that the peace talks with ULFA-PTF are ‘nearing completion’ and hence taking a pro-Assamese position can bolster their diminished credentials.
According to media reports of October 24, 2018, ULFA-PTF leader Mrinal Hazarika had declared, “We will never allow the passing of the Bill. If the Bill is passed, Assam must be ready to revisit the era of 1983. The government must be ready to face massacre-like situations.”
Earlier, on May 9, 2018, Hazarika’s comrade from undivided ULFA’s ‘28th battalion’ Jiten Dutta had also threatened to withdraw from the ceasefire and take up arms if the Union Government passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. “If the Centre passes the bill, the Kakopathar Camp will withdraw from ceasefire”. He had added that they “won’t refrain from taking up arms if the people so desire”. He claimed that Anup Chetia and other senior ULFA-PTF leaders like Prabal Neog and Antu Choudang were with him.
Similarly, ULFA-PTF ‘general secretary’ Anup Chetia on May 9, 2018 stated,
I have already opposed the Bill at the JPC [Joint Parliamentary Committee] hearing as the chief convener of the North East Indigenous People’s Forum. I told them that if the Bill is passed, Assam will burn and the situation will be similar to that in the 1980s and 1990s.
Not surprisingly, two ULFA-PTF, leaders Mrinal Hazarika and Jiten Dutta, were detained for questioning in Guwahati in (Kamrup Metro) and Sivasagar District, respectively, on November 2, 2018, for making provocative speeches.
Additionally, the detection of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM-Assam module), and sleeper cells tied to Pakistan’s external intelligence agency Inter-Services-Intelligence, as well as other extremist Islamist organisation; such as the Popular Front of India (PFI), indicates that several actors are poised to fish in Assam’s troubled waters. According to a report dated December 24, 2017, intelligence agencies had intercepted messages by PFI sent to West Asian countries, linked to a campaign launched against the updating of the NRC. In the public eye ‘illegal immigration’ has become synonymous with Bengali (Bangladeshi) Muslims, the political rhetoric also differentiates between Bangladeshi Hindus as ‘persecuted victims’ and Muslims as ‘infiltrators’. Further, the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 will take care of Hindus not included in the updated NRC. However, those Muslims not included in the NRC list will become ‘stateless’, as Bangladesh has refused to accept them as citizens. Bangladeshi Information and Broadcasting Minister Hasanul Haq Inu, in an interview to Indian media, on July 31, 2018, stated,
Everyone knows it is a century-old ethnic conflict in the State of Assam. In the last 48 years, no Indian government has raised the issue of illegal immigration with Bangladesh; the situation needs to be dealt by the (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi government in New Delhi, which is capable of handling it judiciously. It has no relation to Bangladesh.
Indeed, NRC and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 are two sensitive issues which have the potential to derail the relative peace of recent times. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the State has recorded 17 fatalities (six civilians, one SF trooper, 10 militants) in 2018 (data till November 4). This is the lowest fatality figure recorded, on year on year basis, since 1992, with under two months left in the current year. The lowest fatalities prior to this, 26, were recorded in 2017.
State Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma after the November 1 incident, however, argued, “ULFA [undivided] has been attacking Bengali- and Hindi-speaking people for the last 20-25 years, long before the NRC exercise. Such attacks happened even during the Congress regime when there was no discussion on NRC.”
Indeed, according to the SATP database, since 2007, at least 142 non-locals have been killed in Assam.
Insurgent violence in the State, founded on the anti-‘foreigner’ movement, claimed 8,302 lives between 1992-2018. The situation in the State is once again becoming volatile, and the active destabilization and provocation of various political formations, including elements of the ruling party as well as surviving constituents of the insurgency – both active and those engaged in a peace process – are adding fuel to the fire. Extraordinary sagacity will be required to avert another conflagration in Assam – and this is a resource in acute deficit at both the national and State level.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management