India: KPLT Changing Colors In Assam – Analysis
By Nijeesh N.*
On June 29, 2016, the Army claimed that, in a series of joint operations with the Assam Police over the preceding days, 11 militants of the recently-floated militant outfit, Helem Tiger Force (HTF), were arrested from Umrongso in Dima Hasao District and Larkercha village in West Karbi Anglong District along the Assam-Meghalaya border. HTF reportedly has close links with the Karbi People’s Liberation Tiger (KPLT). During the operation, the Security Forces (SFs) recovered two 9mm pistols, three 7.65 pistols, three rifles, one hand grenade and 40 rounds of live ammunition. After the arrest, the Army sources said that the unearthing and apprehension of a majority of cadres of this outfit which has links with KPLT and United People’s Liberation Army (UPLA), has been a major setback to the nexus between the outfits, which have been involved in kidnapping, extortion and ‘tax-collection’. The kingpin of this new outfit is still at large and efforts are on to reach out to him.
On June 11, 2016, a KPLT militant identified as Deven Tisso (22) was killed in the Kolonga Bazar area near Baithalangso in West Karbi Anglong District in an encounter with the Police. According to sources, during the heavy gun fight between the militant group and SFs, Tisso was killed on the spot and others of the group managed to flee. SFs recovered a 7.66mm pistol and four live cartridges from the area.
On April 1, 2016, two top KPLT militants identified as ‘finance secretary’ Sojong Tisso and ‘general secretary’ Mukrang Bey were killed and one of their accomplices was arrested in an encounter with a joint team of Police and the Army at Borpung Terang village in the Kalyani Reserve Forest in Karbi Anglong District, ahead of the April 4 voting (first phase of Assam Assembly Poll 2016) in the area. The Police recovered one HK-36 rifle, two magazines live ammunition, a .22 pistol with live ammunition, a .303 pistol with eight bullets, and two INSAS rifles.
Earlier in the month of April 2016 KPLT, which was opposing the Assembly Election, had issued threats to media persons after journalists at a meeting in Diphu Press Club unanimously decided not to publish the extremist outfit’s Press Releases calling for bandhs (strikes) opposing the voting in the District on April 4, 2016.
The KPLT was formed on January 8, 2011, by the Anti-talks faction of Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF-AT) with the objective of carving an Autonomous Karbi State out of Assam. The KLNLF-ATF was a breakaway faction of the Karbi Longri National Liberation Front (KLNLF), which had laid down arms on February 11, 2010. The KLNLF, a breakaway faction of the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), was formed on May 16, 2004, after a split in the group, when UPDS signed a cease-fire agreement with the Union Government on May 23, 2002. KPLT remains a major agent of violence in the Karbi Anglong region, and also has a base in the Dima Hasao District of Assam and some parts of Arunachal Pradesh.
While most of the local militant groups have come under ceasefire agreements in the recent past, the KPLT continues to pose a threat to security in the region. Further, UPLA, formed in February 2013 mostly by the former members of the UPDS, the Karbi National Liberation Army (KNLA), the Naga Rengma Hills Protection Force (NRHPF), United People’s Liberation Front (UPLF) and the Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA), are also currently active in the area.
The Karbi Anglong region was divided into two administrative Districts in 2015 (East Karbi Anglong and West Karbi Anglong), with a combined area of 10,434 square kilometers. It is situated in the central part of the Assam State and is administered by a 30-member Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) – a unique autonomous council constituted to empower the Karbi tribe and safeguard their political, cultural and linguistic identity – under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Karbis aka Mikir are the major Hill tribal community in the region, constituting around 45 percent of the population. The region borders the Golaghat, Morigaon, Nagaon and Dima Hasao Districts of Assam, as well as the States of Meghalaya and Nagaland.
Militancy in Karbi Anglong started in the 1980s, and peaked in 2005, when 108 fatalities were recorded. There was a sharp decline in 2010, with 10 fatalities, following a Suspension of Operation (SoO) with the principle Karbi outfits – KLNLF (2010) and UPDS (2002). A gradual rise in violence has, however, been recorded over the past years. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), in 2011, KPLT was involved in 15 of 17 recorded fatalities; in 2012, KPLT was linked to 14 of 17 fatalities; in 2013, KPLT was involved in 17 of 23 fatalities; in 2014, KPLT was involved in 17 of 31 fatalities; in 2015, KPLT was involved in 10 of 12 fatalities; and in 2016, KPLT has already been involved in three of five reported fatalities in the Karbi Anglong region (till July 8, 2016). Much of the violence since 2011 has been attributed to the formation of KPLT.
Since the formation of the group in January 2011, according to the SATP database, KPLT-related violence has resulted in 76 fatalities (18 civilians, 4 SF personnel and 54 KPLT cadres) [data till July 8, 2016]. Interestingly, the outfit has not inflicted any civilian fatalities since December 10, 2014, though it has lost several cadre since.
Indeed, relentless operations by SFs have succeeded in controlling KPLT violence, especially after the I.K. Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-IKS) militants massacred over 69 Adivasis (tribals) on December 23, 2014. After the massacre, SFs launched several operations in different parts of the State, including ‘Operation Wipe Out’ to flush out militants, particularly KPLT cadres, from the Karbi Anglong District in central Assam. During the operation, SFs arrested several key militant leaders, including the group’s ‘chairman’, ‘commander-in-chief’, ‘deputy chief’, ’finance secretary’, ‘auditor’ and ‘area commanders’, in separate incidents. In mid-February 2015, the Indian Army claimed that the entire top leadership of KPLT had been arrested. An Army release stated, “The operation has decimated the organisation and almost completely wiped out the dreaded KPLT from West Karbi Anglong District of Assam facilitating return of peace in the poorly developed region.” However, Superintendent of Police (SP) (Karbi Anglong), Mugdha Jyoti Dev Mahanta, on February 1, 2015, observed, “But the KPLT now has been split into five groups – KPLT (Buche group), KPLT (Pratap), KPLT (Donri), KPLT (Symbon) and KPLT (Sojong). Some of these groups have six-seven members.”
In one recent incident, SFs arrested ‘commander-in-chief’ of the KPLT, identified as Arbho Terang, from Balipathar Sencho Bey village under Bokajan Police Station in Karbi Anglong District on May 15, 2016. He had been involved in many extortion cases in different areas of Karbi Anglong. According to SATP, five militants of KPLT have been arrested in 2016, thus far; 58 were arrested in 2015; 41 in 2014; 12 in 2013; 37 in 2012 and 17 in 2011.
KPLT has also been involved in other violent incidents, particularly extortion and abduction, which have contributed to a public outcry against the outfit. Continuing SF operations have combined with resistance from villagers, making it increasingly difficult for militants to operate in Karbi Anglong. KPLT and other militant formations principally rely on extortion and abduction to sustain their activities. On April 26, 2016, locals of the remote Metargaon village in East Karbi Anglong District caught and beat up a link man of a militant outfit who was trying to extort money from the villagers, and handed him over to Police. Several similar cases have been reported earlier, in which villagers confronted the militants and refused to succumb to extortion demands.
Confirming these incidents, an Army source stated, on May 7, 2016, “Locals are fed up with gun-culture here (Karbi Anglong). Relentless operations by Security Forces have decimated rebel outfits like Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers. Because of Army operations, money is drying up for militants and they are now targeting remote villages for extortion”. Ordinary people, who already suffer from acute poverty and unemployment, are fed up with militant atrocities.
SFs have succeeded in suppressing militant formations in Karbi Anglong, including KPLT, in the past, but splinters have emerged to resume disruption and extortion in the region. The surfacing of HTF and its links with KPLT are indications of the fact that militancy is far from over, albeit it is in the character of old wine in a new bottle. SF successes need consolidation through governance initiatives to address the challenge of the extreme backwardness of, and the lack of infrastructure in, the region.
* Nijeesh N.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management