By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On April 4, 2019, a United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) militant, identified as Gangadhar Charoh aka Ron aka Karuna Axom, surrendered in the Golaghat District.
On April 2, 2019, a ‘sergeant major’ of ULFA-I, Bargij Gogoi, surrendered before the Security Forces (SFs) in Charaideo District.
On March 31, 2019, two ULFA-I militants surrendered at Pengaree in Tinsukia District. They also deposited at least 28 live rounds of AK-47 ammunition, 92 rounds of M-16, one .9mm pistol, 11 rounds of .9mm ammunition and one grenade.
On March 18, 2019, seven ULFA-I militants surrendered in Tinsukia District. Soon after the April 2, 2019, surrender, Charaideo Superintendent of Police Anand Mishra noted,
|All cadres of ULFA-I are used as bonded labour inside Myanmar. They have no rights to move to any places and they can’t do anything according to their wishes. They are used as daily wage(rs)… After the mountainous pressure (sic) from the Myanmar Army, newly joined cadres are trying to come into the mainstream society with other senior cadres. But due to some problems, they can’t enter India. We hope, all of the cadres will surrender shortly before security forces…|
It is useful to recall that the Tatmadaw (Myanmarese Army) took action against Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) based in Myanmar in the operations launched on January 29, 2019 (and that lasted till the last week of February 2019). Tatmadaw took over control of the Yung Aung led Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) ‘head quarters’ on January 29, 2019. Infrastructure of other IIGs like ULFA-I, the Saoraigwra faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S) and the Kamtapur Liberation Organistaion (KLO) were also targeted. March 31,2019, reports indicate that 20 militants (group affiliation not known) were killed during the crackdown. Among those killed was an ULFA-I militant identified as ‘major’ Jyotirmoy Asom, who was killed on February 2, 2019.
Also, on March 24, 2019, the ‘foreign secretary’ of NDFB-S, Ne Esera Evangel, along with his bodyguard ‘lance corporal’, R. Mwnthwr, surrendered in the Mon District, in neighbouring Nagaland.
At least 11 surrenders (all ULFA-I) have taken place in the current year so far (data till April 7, 2019). During the corresponding period of 2018, only one NDFB-S militant had surrendered. Through 2018, a total of 13 militants surrendered [six ULFA-I, six Kuki Liberation Front (KLF), and one NDFB-S]. 18 militants surrendered in 2016, and eight in 2017.
The recent operations in Myanmar have evidently increased the pressure on the militants, forcing significant numbers to surrender.
Meanwhile, Assam recorded a further decline in insurgency-related violence through 2018. According to partial data compiled by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), through 2018, the State accounted for a total of 20 fatalities (eight civilians, one SF trooper and 11 militants) as against 26 fatalities (five civilians, three SF personnel and 18 militants) recorded in 2017, registering a decline of 23.07 per cent in total fatalities as compared to 2017. No fatalities have been recorded in the State, so far, in 2019.
Significantly, the State registered the lowest ever total insurgency-related fatalities since 1992 [the year from which SATP data is available] on year on year basis. The previous low of 26 fatalities was recorded in 2017. Over the years fatalities have tended to follow a cyclical trend, with a peak of 783 (531 civilians, 72 SF personnel, and 180 militants) in 1998.
Worryingly, there was a slight increase in civilian fatalities, at eight in 2018, as compared to five in 2017. At peak, Assam recorded 531 civilian fatalities in 1998.
SFs suffered a single loss in 2018 as in 2015, the lowest fatality recorded in this category since 1992. In 2017, there were three SF fatalities. The State saw a maximum of 87 SF fatalities in 1996. SFs killed 11 militants in 2018, yielding a kill ratio of 1:11, further improvement on the kill ratio of 1:6 achieved in 2017 (three SF personnel, 18 militants).
SFs arrested 173 militants in 2018 in addition to 198 arrested in 2017. In 2018, the arrested militants belonged to various groups: ULFA-I, 60; NDFB-S, 43;, Garo National Liberation Army, (GNLA), 10; Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, (HM), 9; Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM),8; Karbi People’s Liberation Tiger (KPLT), 8; Kuki Liberation Front (KLF), 6; Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF), 5; Reformation faction of NSCN (NSCN-R), 4; Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA), 4; NSCN-Khaplang (NSCN-K), 3; National Santhal liberation Army (NSLA), 3; KLO, 2; People’s Liberation Army (PLA), 2; Hmar People’s Convention-Democratic (HPC-D), 2; and one each from LTT and Dima Halam Daogah (DHD).
Meanwhile, other indicators also demonstrate a decline in violence. Only one major incident (resulting in three or more fatalities) was reported in 2018, with five civilian fatalities, as compared to two incidents in 2017, resulting in seven fatalities (two SF personnel and five militants).
Further, in 2018, two civilians were killed in seven incidents of explosion, as against five fatalities (two SF personnel and three militants) in 11 such incidents in 2017.
Even though the level of insurgency-linked violence has come down dramatically, the issue of illegal immigration and citizenship kept the State on edge through the year.
Significantly, the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was published on July 30, 2018, tentatively identified four million (40.07 lakh) persons with ‘suspect nationality’. Of this, about 3.12 million have reapplied for inclusion in NRC. 300,000 objections were also filed against people who were included in the final NRC draft. The first NRC draft was published on December 31, 2017, and had left out 14 million people. In 2015, the Supreme Court monitored exercise of updating NRC to identify bona fide residents of Assam was initiated. On July 14, 2004, the then Union Minister of State for Home, Shriprakash Jaiswal, claimed in Parliament that out of 12,053,950 illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators all over India, 5,000,000 were present in Assam alone.
Meanwhile, the the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central Government hurriedly proposed the enactment of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), 2016, (subsequently introduced as the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019), and the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) on January 8, 2019. Though the Bill claimed that it was to intended to safeguard the interest of persecuted illegal migrants belonging to six minority groups in neighbouring countries – Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – in view of its timing it was widely believed that the action was taken to safeguard the interest of the Bengali Hindu Community in Assam, as many of the people of ‘suspect identity’ were from this community. Indeed, the ruling BJP President Amit Shah on February 17, 2019, stated,
|The Bill is required to protect the identity of Assam and prevent demographic change in the State. We will not allow Assam to become another Kashmir… That is why we are updating the NRC [National Register for Citizens]. We will push back each and every infiltrator with the help of NRC. We are committed to that.|
The reference of Kashmir, the only Muslim majority state in the country, gives a clear indication of the real motive of the Government.
Unsurprisingly, the anticipation and subsequent passing of the Bill in the Lok Sabha led to dangerous polarization in the State. While civil society bodies led by All Assam Students Union led the protest against the Bill, several leaders of the Pro-Talks faction of ULFA (ULFA-PTF) also raised their objections, apparently to regain popular legitimacy. There were bandhs (shutdown strike) in protests against the Bill in Assam and in other parts of Northeast.
On November 1, 2018, suspected ULFA-I militants killed five Bengali speaking daily wage labourers in Bisonimukh village of Tinsukia District. Earlier, on October 2018, ULFA-I ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah had warned Bengali Hindus, warned, “Hindu Bengali organisations, who are conspiring against Assam despite living in Assam and are protesting against the NRC.” ULFA-I argues that the demographic invasion by ’Bangladeshi’ immigrants (irrespective of religious affiliation) will lead to the economic social political marginalization of ‘indigenous’ Assamese.
As protests mounted across the Northeast, the Government was forced to bow under the pressure and the Bill was not presented to the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Indian Parliament) and lapses with the term of present Lok Sabha on May 26, 2019. As this became evident, the agitations died down. Most recently, Union Minister of State (MoS) for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju (also a Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh) stated, on March 31, 2019,
|The Centre will not introduce any Bill or law that would harm the interests of the people of the northeast. It’s only to show the party’s respect to the sentiments of the people of the region that BJP did not table the bill in Rajya Sabha. Misinformation is being spread regarding the Bill and the Centre will only take a step after clearing the doubts in consultation with the State Governments. If needed, the bill will exclude the N-E states.|
Earlier, according to a January 8, 2019 report, perturbed by the escalating anti-CAB agitation, the Union Cabinet, approved a Bill to confer Scheduled Tribe (ST) status ib six communities of Assam, the Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia, Tea Tribes, Moran and Matak. Not unexpectedly, the existing ST communities in Assam opposed the move. The Coordination Committee of Tribal Organisations of Assam (CCTOA) enforced a bandh (shutdown strike) in the State on January 11, 2019, in opposition to the move. CCTOA represents the existing tribal groups in the State, the Bodo, Rabha, Tiwa, Karbi, Dimasa, Mising, Sonowal, Hajong, Garo and Deuri. Later, on January 14, 2019, a five-member Cabinet Subcommittee under State Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was formed. Sarma explained the mandate of the subcommittee,
|The Assam government had constituted the Group of Ministers (GoM) to look into the process of ST status for the six indigenous communities while ensuring that the existing tribal communities are not deprived of their rights. The sub-committee will also look at solutions to the allied issues in the process.|
The committee was supposed to submit its report on February 15, 2019. However, no further information is available.
In another ‘balancing act’, on January 5, 2019, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs notified a nine-member high-level committee (headed by a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer M.P. Bezbaruah) to look into the implementation of Clause 6 of the 1985 Assam Accord. Clause 6 assures suitable constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the ethnic Assamese. Five members of the nine-member Committee dropped out later, protesting against CAB-2019, rendering the Committee defunct.
On January 23, 2019, the Union Cabinet also approved a Constitutional Amendment to increase the powers of the Autonomous Councils in Sixth Schedule areas of the Northeast. There are three Sixth Schedule areas in Assam; Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC), Dima Hasao Autonomous Council (DHAC) and Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). The amendment will lead to greater financial devolution and transfer of an additional 30 subjects, including the departments of Public Works, Forests, Public Health Engineering, Health and Family Welfare, Urban Development, and Food and Civil Supplies.
These three ‘balancing acts’, if implemented, are expected to meet the demands and aspirations of ULFA-PTF and the Adivasi groups. Further, the promises made to United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) and DHD would also be met. The ‘balance’, however, is likely to be tenuous, since each of these has the potential to lead to the emergence of new faultiness in a State which long has been facing conflict based on existing ethnic, linguistic and religious fissures.
Assam has recovered a state of relative peace after decades of political and insurgent turmoil, and it is sheer folly to put this into jeopardy as a result of a lackadaisical approach, strategic incoherence or short-term political gambits to secure transient electoral advantage – precisely the attributes of the present regime’s policies in the State, and in the wider Northeast.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management