India: Faint Rumblings In Assam – Analysis
By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On January 27, 2022, 246 militants of the Tiwa Liberation Army (TLA) and United Gorkha People’s Organisation (UGPO) surrendered before Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in Guwahati. The militants deposited 277 weapons, 720 rounds of ammunition, and grenades. The TLA, reportedly formed in 2014 with a demand for greater autonomy for the Tiwa community, was active in Morigaon, Nagaon and West Karbi Anglong Districts. The UGPO was active in Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Tinsukia Districts since its formation in 2007.“
Hiren Chandra Nath, Additional Director General of Police-Special Branch (ADGP-SB), noted,
All the main operatives of both the outfits, including their ‘chairmen’, ‘commanders-in-chief’, ‘general secretaries’ have surrendered today. A few of their cadres, who are in jail or absconding, may have remained. We will deal with them later.
Chief Minister Sarma claimed,
Today, two militant outfits TLA and UGPO formally surrendered and laid down their arms. After this, each and every tribal militant group has joined the mainstream and the era of tribal insurgency in the state is finally over.
Indeed, according to reports since the formation of the Bodo militant group, National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) in 1986, a total of 20 prominent tribal militant groups has emerged in Assam, and all of them have joined the mainstream over time. Some of the most significant of these groups to accept a negotiated pace include the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), 2003, United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), 2011, Dima Halam Daogah (DHD), 2012; NDFB, 2020, Karbi Peoples’ Liberation Tigers (KPLT) and Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), both in 2021.
Meanwhile, according to South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) a total of 13,028 terrorists have surrendered since March 6, 2000.These include 1,355 in 2021 and 2,324 in 2020
Significantly, on February 23, 2021, around 1,040 militants belonging to five different Karbi militant groups surrendered before the then Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal at Guwahati in the Kamrup Metropolitan District. The militant formations that surrendered included the Peoples’ Democratic Council of Karbi Longri (PDCK), KLNLF, United People’s Liberation Army (UPLA), KPLT and Kuki Liberation Front (KLF).
Later, on September 4, 2021, the Union Government and the State Government of Assam signed a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) in New Delhi with six Karbi militant formations: KLNLF, PDCK, UPLA, KPLT-Mensing Kramsa (KPLT-M), KPLT-Ceasefire (KPLT-C) and KPLT-Run Rongpi (KPLT-R).
On October 28, 2021, an agreement for a six-month-long ceasefire was signed between the Union and State Government, on the one hand, and the Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA), on the other.
On November 14, 2021, the United Liberation Front of Asom – Independent (ULFA-I) extended its unilateral ceasefire for another three months. Paresh Baruah, ‘president’ of ULFA-I’s ‘Supreme Council,’ had stated that the outfit would not engage in any kind of ‘military operations’ during these three months. ULFA-I had first declared a unilateral ceasefire on May 15, 2021, which was again extended for three months in view of the COVID-19 situation in Assam. Then, on August 14, 2021, the ceasefire was extended for another three months by ULFA-I. During this entire period, no ULFA-I linked violence has been reported.
Further, the Security Forces (SFs) kept up their pressure and arrested 80 militants in 2021, adding to 129 arrested in 2020.
All these developments during 2021 and earlier years, have helped keep the insurgency under control, though there was a small increase in overall fatalities in 2021, as compared to 2020. According to the SATP database, 29 fatalities (10 civilians and 19 militants) were recorded in 2021, as against eight in 2020, including three civilians and five militants were recorded.
The rise in fatalities was driven primarily by the violence unleashed by DNLA, a militant group active in the Hill Districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao. Eight civilians were killed by DNLA, which also lost eight of its cadres, accounting for 55.17 percent of total fatalities and 80 percent of total civilian fatalities in the State. Further, Karbi Anglong District – part of DNLA’s operating area – was the most violent District, with 12 fatalities in 2021. Three persons, including two civilians and one militant[on December 5-6, 2021], have been killed after the signing of the agreement.
Nevertheless, even as the insurgency was contained and localized, the decades old inter-state boundary issue between Assam and neighboring States led to violent outbursts. During 2021, at least seven persons (six policemen and one civilian) were killed in clashes between the Police forces of Assam and Mizoram along the interstate boundary. On July 26, 2021, five Assam Police personnel, including Sub Inspector Swapan Roy, and a civilian were killed along the Assam-Mizoram inter-state boundary in Kolasib District (Mizoram) – Cachar District (Assam) region. Another, 50 policemen, including Superintendent of Police Cachar Nimbalkar Vaibhav Chandrakant, and nine civilians, were injured. On July 27, 2021, one of the injured Policeman succumbed to his injuries, taking fatalities up to six.
Despite several rounds of talks, between Chief Ministers of the concerned states and the intervention of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, most of these issues remain unresolved. However, on November 26, 2021, Assam and Mizoram agreed to maintain peace and tranquility, and set up committees to address the border disputes.
There are strong apprehensions that these issues may be exploited by the insurgent groups. The disputed portions of the Assam-Nagaland boundary are claimed by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah under its Nagalim (Greater Nagaland) map and marked by the outfit as one of the important agendas of the “Indo-Naga political talks” pending final decision. In the latest instance, prior to the signing of 2021 Karbi accord, NSCN-IM had warned that Rengma Nagas of Karbi Anglong should not be ‘deprived,’ arguing,
Land alienation is the major point of conflict in the Northeast, particularly Assam and Nagaland… The issue in focus is Karbi Anglong, earlier known as Rengma Hills. Their [Rengma Nagas’] historical status as the true sons of the soil cannot be questioned.
Meanwhile, over the years, the region and the State have seen the consolidation of peace due to security cooperation between India and neighboring Bhutan, and Bangladesh 8.22 in the 2000s and most recently with Myanmar.
The deteriorating situation in the Myanmar following February 1, 2021, coup, however, appears to have helped the Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) based in that country, including ULFA-I, to regroup. Moreover, ULFA-I continues to attract recruits to its ranks. According to a November 13, 2021, report at least two promising kickboxers, Nayanmoni Chetia and Sabita Chetia, and three other girls from Assam, had joined ULFA-I. In a video that surfaced on November 12, they were seen entering dense forests with the purpose of joining ULFA-I. ULFA-I is trying to bank on local sentiments for economic empowerment based on native rights over resources. On May 14, 2021, ULFA-I demanded that 95 per cent jobs in energy companies, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) and Oil India Limited (OIL), be reserved for Assam locals. It also demanded that INR 50 million from each of these companies be used for infrastructure development in the State, and that these companies provide LPG to the rural areas through pipelines.
Apart from culture and employment, ownership of land is also central to the conflict in the State. The State Government is now seeking to amend the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation Act, 1866, to prohibit transfer of land to non-indigenous residents. According to a September 11, 2021, report, Chief Minister Sarma had formed a Cabinet Sub-Committee headed by Revenue and Disaster Management Minister Jogen Mohan, to submit a report within 30 days. No further details are available. Far from resolving issues, such initiatives might activate new fault lines. Indeed, Professor Moinrul Hussian, a noted political commentator, fears that the move might end up targeting religious minorities, “It would be a disaster if such a decision is taken; the land map already exists, so how do you change it? The amended law should not discriminate against any specific community.”
On September 23, 2021, an eviction drive led by administration had led to the death of two ‘encroachers’ (both Muslims) resisting eviction in the Sipajhar area of Darang District. The polarizing political discourse, is further undermining genuine administrative action.
The Neo-Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (Neo-JMB) remains active in the State and is likely to exploit insecurity amongst Muslim minorities. On April 30, 2021, Director General of Police Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, while appealing to the State’s Muslim community to help the police in locating Neo-JMB module in the State, reveled, that police investigations had found some Bangladeshi mullahs who had taken Indian visas for the purpose of treatment in Chennai, but had violated visa rules and visited different parts of Assam to radicalize people.
According to SATP data, between 2014 and 2021, 57 JMB/Neo-JMB militants have been arrested in Assam, including two in 2021.
The insurgency in Assam was initially powered by the resentment against the presence of ‘foreigners’ and the fear of cultural oblivion among the indigenous residents. While the insurgency is in visible decline, managing a range of pressing issues, including the ‘foreigners’ issue, autonomy to tribal groups, as well as safeguarding and preserving the cultural heritage and land rights, remains tricky. Moreover, the economic crisis affecting the livelihood opportunities of residents is being turned into communal flashpoints by political messaging with vested interests trying to create trouble in the State, preying on the insecurities of the people.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management