By Nijeesh N.*
On October 5, 2016, Police arrested an extortionist, identified as Safiqul Ali alias Sahidul Islam (28), from his rented residence in the Bagorbori area in Guwahati in the Kamrup District. He had reportedly sent an extortion text message to N. Sarma, Personal Secretary to the State’s Health and Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, on October 2, asking him to pay INR 50 million. In the SMS the extortionist had reportedly told N. Sarma to tell the Minister to pay the cash as demanded, and that the money be handed over to him at a tea estate in Biswanath District.
On September 28, 2016, Silapathar Press Club Secretary, Gunadhar Doley filed a complaint that he had received several extortion calls from two different cellphone numbers. No further detailsare available about the incident.
On September 25, 2016, Dipak Basumatari (32) was arrested while collecting extortion money in the name of the I.K. Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-IKS) in the Rupakhat area, on the outskirts of Tangla town,Udalguri District. One .32 pistol, three rounds of live ammunition and an unregistered scooter were recovered from his possession. According to reports, Basumatari threatened a businessman of the town and demanded INR 200,000, but agreed on INR 10,000 after negotiations.
On September 17, 2016, Police arrested two contractors, identified as Sujit Sen and Biren Tamuli, for their alleged involvement in extortion in the name of the Independent faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I), from Guwahati in Kamrup District. According to reports, they were in touch with senior leaders of ULFA-I, especially the outfit’s ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Drishti Rajkhowa. Further investigations revealed that the duowas allegedly involved in providing phone numbers of local businessmen in the region to Rajkhowa, following which several businessmen received calls from ULFA-I ‘chief’Paresh Baruah and Rajkhowa, with demands for money.
Earlier, in a sensational incident, on September 9, 2016, ULFA-I released Kuldeep Moran, the son of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, at Nampong along the Indo-Myanmar border in Arunachal Pradesh, after over a month long abduction drama. Kuldeep, son of Ratneswar Moran, the vice-chairman of the Tinsukia zilla parishad (District Council) in Assam,was abducted by ULFA-I militants from Nampong in the Changlang District of Arunachal Pradesh on August 1, 2016, and the militants had demanded an INR 10 million ransom for his safe release. However, Kuldeep was eventually released, reportedly without paying the ransom.
Interestingly, on August 22, 2016, for the first time in its history, ULFA-I released video footage of the abducted Kuldeep Moran, demanding the ransom from his parents. In the video, Kuldeep was shown making an appeal to his parents, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and BJP MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) from Sadiya Assembly Constituency in Tinsukia District, Bolin Chetia, to help him secure his release. Sources suggest that releasing the video was aimed at creating pressure on the persons concerned and panic among the people.
Reported incidents of abduction and extortion by militants in the State haveseen a sharp increase. According to Assam Police records, there were 3,146 cases of abductions registered in the State in the first half of 2016 (data till June 30). A total of 6,103 cases were registered in the year 2015; as against 5,378 cases in 2014; 4,831 cases in 2013 and 3,812 cases in 2012. The data further indicates that there were 595 extortion-related cases registered in the first half of 2016; as against 1,361 cases in 2015; 1,357 in 2014; 1,214 cases in 2013 and 1,074 cases in 2012. The Home Department record did not rule out the role of militant outfits of the region in these incidents, though most of the abductions, according to it,were carried out by ‘criminals’. Many incidents of abduction and extortion go unreported, and these numbers are likely a gross underestimate.
According to theSouth Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a total of 417militants, belonging to different outfits, were arrested during 2016 from across the State (data till October 9, 2016), of which 57 were arrested in cases related to extortion and abduction.
As militancy-related violence in the region has come down drastically due to several factors, most prominently including sustained operations by the Security Forces (SFs), insurgent groups have started feeling the heat. Consequently, the major militant groups in the State, ULFA-I and the NBFB-IKS, have accelerated abductions and extortions to regroup and revive their activities.
According to a September 18, 2016, report,ULFA-I has started using social media such as WhatsApp to send extortion demands to soft targets, besides engaging linkmen or over ground agents to collect funds on their behalf. An unnamed senior Police officialdisclosed that ULFA-I was specially targeting tea estates in eastern Assam, where tea executives live in remote, vulnerable areas.
Reports indicate that ULFA-I served extortion demands to many noted Punjabi businessmen of the Jorhat District, besides regular demands to other businessmen of the Marwari and Bihari community, tea garden owners and State Government officers. Notably, the demand has come from the ‘chairman’ of the outfit, Abhijit Asom, and is made in the name of the ‘party fund’ towards the cause of the ‘ULFA movement’. Some other demands have come from Jibon Asom, a lesser known ULFA-I leader. The demands range from INR 500,000 to INR 5 million, are made directly in the name ofthe ULFA-I ‘chairman’ and have created terror and sensation in the community. Reports indicate that security agencies have traced the whereabouts of elusive ULFA-I ‘chief’ Paresh Baruah in China and confirmed that the outfit’s fresh extortion drive was started following a directive from Baruah.
ULFA-I has a strong base in neighbouring Myanmar, which can be accessed through Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, and is using human carries to transfer extorted money to its Myanmarese camps. For this, the ULFA-I militants are suspected to be operating in close coordination with the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) to reach Myanmar though Nagaland, and the Changlang, Tirap and Longding Districts of Arunachal Pradesh.
In addition, ULFA-I has started a fresh move to recruit youth from Upper Assam Districts (Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivasagar).This came to light after five militants, including four new recruits,all in their twenties,were arrested on September 15, 2016, from Sonitpur, Tinsukia and Udalguri Districts. According to the Police, they were on their way to Myanmar for arms training. Sources disclosed that one of the arrested militants, Anil Borah alias Utpal Asom (31), was entrusted with the responsibility of recruiting youth to increase the strength of the outfit and he managed to rope in around 25 to 30 youngsters.Most of the newly recruited cadres are believed to have been mobilised in to carry out abductions and extortions, and to act as carriers.
It is significant that ULFA-I suffered repeated and major jolts due to splits, arrests and killings in recent counter-insurgency operations. According to the Assam Police, the current strength of the organisation is between 240 and 300, down from an estimated peak of 5,000 for the undivided ULFA in late 1990s.
NDFB-IKS mirrors many of ULFA-I’s activities. The outfit also uses bank accounts of some persons in Nagaland to route extortion money to their Myanmar camps. Sources claimed, “Certain percentage of the money is given to the bank account holder as commission.” In order to avoid detection by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the funds are transferred in small amounts not exceeding INR 100,000.
Chirang Police recently foiled an attempt by NDFB-IKS militants and their sympathisers to remit money obtained through extortion to their camps in Myanmar and arrested five suspects in connection with this case in a series of incidents on September 7 – 8, 2016. Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), Chirang, Tabu Ram Pegu, disclosed that the accused had planned to transfer INR 40,000 to a bank account in Nagaland, and from there human couriers would have been used to ship the money to the outfit’s camps in the forests of Myanmar. According to sources, NDFB-IKS has stepped up its extortion drive in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) and adjoining areas through their cadres and linkmen, mostly local youths belonging to poor families, including girls.
Not surprisingly, resentment is brewing among civilians who receive frequent extortion demand letters from militant groups. Worse, the victims are exposed to harassment from both the militants and the Police. Failure to pay ransom to the outfits, according to reports, attracts ‘severe punishment’ from the militants, including loss of life. On the other hand, caught in the act of paying ransom secretly ensures jail terms under different sections of Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Unlawful Activities [Prevention] Act (UAPA).
Indeed, though the level of militancy-related violence has come down considerably in the State over the last several years, the general law and order situation in the State remains troubling, as the security system is yet to develop to cope up with new threats. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, there were as many as 103,616 cases registered at the different Police Stations of the State in 2015, under the provisions of the IPC, adding to 113,086 cases in the previous year (2014), which had not been disposed of. Out of these, the Assam Police was able to file charge-sheets only in respect of 48,612 cases, leaving an overwhelming proportion of the cases in limbo.Further, due to non–filing of charge–sheets, the persons involved in a majority of the cases get bail easily and often abscond or return to their criminal activities. Significantly, the (actual) police population ratio in the State stands at 163 per 100,000 population,well above the national average of 139, but much lower than the 222 United Nations (UN) benchmark for peacetime policing, and also well below all the other militancy infected Northeastern States:thus, the ratio in Manipur is 984/100,000, Nagaland 939/100,000 and Meghalaya 457/100,000 (Bureau of Police Research & Development 2015 data).
Meanwhile, in the wake of the increasing extortion activities by the militants in the eastern Assam Districts, which have borders with Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, Chief Minister Sonowal, who also retains the Home portfolio, reviewed the law and order situation in the region, in the meetings with Police chiefs of the eastern Assam Districts at Dibrugarh and Tinsukiaon September 12, 2016.At the meetings, the Chief Minister expressed concern over the sudden rise in such incidents in the Districts. He stated that all insurgent elements would be dealt with firmly, and urged the Police and other security agencies to work in tandem to prevent such incidents.
The crisis of enveloping insurgency that long afflicted Assam has been marginalized, but its fallout in terms of persistent and disruptive criminal activities continues to bedevil civilian populations. A significant tightening of the intelligence-security net, and initiatives to address the problem of surviving safe havens for militant leaderships abroad – particularly in Myanmar – will be necessary before more acceptable conditions can be imposed, and a normalisation of the political and social order can be achieved.
* Nijeesh N.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management