By Afsara Shaheen*
On July 6, 2023, around 1,182 cadres, belonging to as many as eight Adivasi militant groups from Assam, laid down 304 sophisticated arms and 1,460 rounds of ammunition, at a ceremony held at the Srimanata Shankardeva Kalakshetra at Guwahati in the Kamrup (Metro) District of Assam (The tribal groups indigenous to other states, who were brought into Assam by the British as plantation workers in the early 19thCentury).
The militants who surrendered belonged to the All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA), the Amrit Beck faction of AANLA (AANLA-AB), Birsa Commando Force (BCF), Badal Tudu faction of BCF (BCF-BT), Santhal Tiger Force (STF), Adivasi Cobra Force (ACF)/Adivasi Cobra Military of Assam (ACMA), Chunka Tudu faction of ACMA (ACMA-CT), and the Adivasi People’s Army (APA).
During the event, Assam Chief Minister (CM) Himanta Bishwa Sharma stated, “Our efforts to bring all disgruntled elements to the peace process have yielded dividends as eight Adivasi extremist groups laid down their arms to come to the mainstream of the society. It is an important day for strengthening peace in Assam and taking along everybody on board towards the forward march of the state.”
Sharma also appealed to the Independent faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam-Independent (ULFA-I), which has long remained outside the peace process, asserting, “In Assam when all militant groups have come over ground, ULFA should also come for talks in the interest of all sections of the people of the state.”
The CM also announced a rehabilitation package of INR 400,000 each for the surrendered cadres, and INR 6,000 every month for three years to each of them, to enable them to achieve their goal of self-employment. The CM asked the cadres not to get carried away by any external stimulus and urged them to work with the government for the upliftment of the Adivasi community.
On the same day, July 6, 2023, ACMA held a disbanding ceremony in Gossaigaon in the Kokrajhar District of Assam. Cadres of ACMA, STF and APA gathered to bid farewell to their ‘military’ operations.
Significantly, on September 15, 2022, a tripartite agreement was signed between the Union Government, Assam Government and representatives of the above-mentioned eight Adivasi groups, to end the decades old crisis of Adivasis and tea garden workers in Assam. The July 6, 2023, surrender has resulted out of this agreement. ACMA had signed a Suspension of Operations (SoOs) agreement in 2001; followed by BCF, in 2004; APA, on July 16, 2011, and AANLA, on September 1, 2011. Later, 557 cadres of BCF, 453 cadres of ACMA, 134 cadres of STF, 90 cadres of AANLA, and 70 cadres of APA surrendered at Sarusajai Sports Complex in Guwahati on January 24, 2012. Since then, they had been holding talks without reaching a final agreement.
Later, in May 2023, the Assam Government constituted a 16-member Adivasi Welfare and Development Council in line with the agreement signed between the three sides.
Since the September 15, 2022, agreement, apart from the 1,182 cadres who surrendered on July 6, 2023, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), another 85 cadres of various Adivasi militant groups in Assam have surrendered (data till July 9, 2023). These included 46 cadres of AANLA and 39 of APA. The prominent incidents of surrender include:
June 2, 2023: 39 leaders/cadres of the newly formed Adivasi People’s Liberation Army (APLA), including its ‘commander-in-chief’, Sahil Munda, laid down arms before the Security Forces (SFs) in Karbi Anglong District in Assam under ‘Operation Samarpan’. According to an official statement, APLA cadres laid down a total of 31 weapons, including three AK series Rifles, five other rifles, 19 pistols, two grenades and assorted live ammunition. Sahil Munda said his group was a break-away faction of AANLA, with about 125 members, adding, “We moved away from AANLA for personal reasons. After seeing the development in the State under the Himanta Biswa Sarma–led government and how problems of the Adivasi community are being addressed, we have decided to return to the mainstream.”
January 22, 2023: 46 AANLA cadres laid down arms in the Sonitpur District of Assam, including eight pistols, six rifles and ammunition. Former AANLA ‘president’ D. Nayak stated they surrendered in the belief that the government would protect the rights of the tribals in tea estates, and ensure their development in line with the peace agreement signed on September 15, 2022.
During this period (September 15, 2022-July 7, 2023) SFs arrested 16 cadres of various Adivasi militant groups. The arrested cadres belonged to APLA (14) and AANLA (two). The arrests included:
November 16, 2022: Police arrested nine APLA cadres from the Golaghat and Karbi Anglong Districts of Assam. G.P. Singh, Special Director General of Police (DGP), Assam, disclosed, “Assam police has neutralised a newly formed insurgent group APLA from Golaghat and Karbi Anglong area in less than four days. Nine cadres have been detained and weapons seized.”
Significantly, the Government of India has signed several agreements over the past three years to end extremism and bring lasting peace to the northeastern states. The principal agreements with Assam-based groups include:
To resolve the five-decade-old Bodo issue in Assam, the Bodo Accord was signed on January 27, 2020, resulting in the surrender of 1,615 cadres, with a huge cache of arms and ammunition, at Guwahati, on January 30, 2020.To resolve the long-running dispute in the Karbi regions of Assam, the Karbi Anglong Agreement was signed on September 4, 2021, and more than 1,000 armed cadres renounced violence and joined the mainstream of society.An agreement was signed on March 29, 2022, to settle the dispute over six areas out of a total of twelve, where an interstate boundary dispute between the states of Assam and Meghalaya existed.On April 27, 2023, a tripartite Memorandum of Settlement was signed between Centre, Assam Government and representatives of the Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA) in Delhi. With this, 168 DNLA cadres laid down arms. Under the agreement, DNLA agreed to abjure violence, surrender all arms and ammunition, disband their armed groups, vacate all camps occupied by DNLA cadres and join the mainstream.
During the signing of the September 15, 2022, agreement, Union Home Minister (UHM) Amit Shah had stated that the Central Government had “decided that, before 2024, all border disputes between the North Eastern states and all disputes related to armed groups will be resolved.” Further, he observed, “this Adivasi agreement will prove to be another important milestone in the direction of making North-East extremism-free by 2025.”
While the UHM is hopeful, concerns remain.
On February 1, 2023, a new militant outfit, the Boro Liberation Army (BLA), emerged in the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) of Assam, demanding a separate ‘Bodoland’ state. The core members of the outfit include B. Dwidengra (‘president’), B. Rwngwra (‘vice president’), B. Ankhlai (‘army chief’) and B. Bwkhangsa (‘general secretary’). This development demonstrated that the long-standing demands of a separate State of Bodoland and an autonomous state in the Hill Districts, which was supposed to have been finally resolved by the Bodo and Karbi Accords, linger on.
Similarly, another Adivasi outfit, APLA, had also emerged even before the agreements with the eight Adivasi outfits were implemented on ground.
The overall security situation in Assam has improved considerably over the years, and these agreements have played an important role in this recovery. However, the trend of government signing agreements with known groups and the subsequent emergence of new or splinter groups is yet to be tackled, and needs to be addressed effectively.
- Afsara Shaheen
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management