By Afsara Shaheen
On November 6, 2023, the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation–Koch Nationalism (KLO-KN) demanded that all charges against the outfit’s ‘president’ Jeevan Singha alias Jeevan Koch Timir Das and other cadres should be dropped, and they should be formally pardoned. It also demanded that steps must be taken for the formation of a separate state of Kamatapur, carved out of portions of Assam and West Bengal. Other demands were to include the Kamatapuri language into the Eight Schedule and give it due recognition, and that the Koch Rajbanshi community be brought under the ambit of reservations under the Scheduled Tribes (Plains) category. These demands were a precondition to facilitate the peace talks between the government and the outfit, and bring these to a conclusion.
Significantly, on October 3, 2023, the Kamtapur State Demand Committee (KSDC) — an umbrella organisation of 28 organisations of Rajbanshis — demanded that the Union government immediately hold talks with Jeevan Singha. Jyotsna Roy, a surrendered KLO cadre and a KSDC member stated, “The Centre should include Kamtapuri (Rajbanshi) language in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.”
A day earlier, on November 5, 2023, KLO-KN ‘convener’ Daosar Langham Koch issued a threat about launching insurgency operations after the forthcoming Diwali festival on November 12, 2023.
Earlier, on October 17, 2023, KLO-KN refused to engage further in peace talks with the government, declaring,
On January 17, 2023 although Jeevan Singh Koch, the president of Kamtapur Liberation Organization has returned to India for peace talks with Indian government, we all the leaders and commanders did not join the talks because the talk is not based on sovereignty. According to the Constitution of KLO independent Kamatapur is the aim of the Organisation mentioned in para II, section [a]. Therefore, instead of joining in the so-called peace talk we have decided to continue our struggle until the sovereignty of Kamatapur be restored. We have determined to fight against Indian colonial rule in Kamatapur till our last breath and so we will fight. At the same time, we all the existing leaders and officers of the Organisation unanimously decided to add [KN] in the last of KLO. Now KLO became KLO[KN] and continuing their struggle.
Significantly, tensions had flared between the two sides – the government and the outfit – in September 2023, when Jeevan Singha accused the Government of India of betraying the people of Kamtapur. In a video message to the media, Singha urged the people of Kamtapur to protest against the perceived injustice and to reclaim their rights.
It is pertinent to recall that, on January 13, 2023, Jeevan Singha surrendered before the Assam Rifles in the Longwa area, along the Indo-Myanmar border, of Nagaland. The surrender came within five months after two top KLO militants – Kailash Koch, the second-most important leader of the outfit and his wife Jugli – surrendered before the West Bengal Director General of Police (DGP) Manoj Malaviya in Kolkata, and days after Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had invited the outfit for peace talks. Earlier, in December 2021, the KLO had expressed its willingness to join the peace process, in a letter by Jeevan Singha sent to the Assam Government.
Subsequently, on January 17, 2023, Biswajit Ray, who is part of a five-member committee formed by the KLO to facilitate talks between the Union Government and the group, announced that he was “hopeful” of a peace accord with the Union Government by January 26, 2023. However, it was not clear how the accord could be reached when the West Bengal government, a major stakeholder, remained out of the loop. Indeed, the January 26 ‘deadline’ passed with no such accord. Nevertheless, according to a January 22, 2023, report, an unnamed senior official of Assam police stated, “The government has initiated talks with KLO”. In between, on January 18, 2023, Assam Chief Minister (CM) Himanta Biswa Sarma stated, “It’s good news that KLO chief Jeevan Singha has returned to the mainstream after shunning violence. He will take rest and slowly peace talks will be held between the centre and the KLO chief.” Indeed, Jeevan Singha had also announced in January that the talks between KLO and the Indian government about the welfare and rights of the Koch-Kamtapur population had progressed to a more advanced level. After that on March 5, 2023, Ray stated that there had been progress in the peace talks between the KLO and the central government, and further discussions would be held through the peace committee. He also claimed that a special delegation from the Prime Minister’s and Home Minister’s office was in talks with the surrendered KLO leader, Jeevan Singha, to further the peace process.
KLO, which primarily operates in western Assam and the northern Bengal region, was formed on December 28, 1995, by a section of the West Bengal-based All Kamtapur Students’ Union (AKSU), with the objective of establishing a separate Kamtapur State, comprising six Districts of West Bengal (Cooch Behar, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, North and South Dinajpur, and Malda) and four Districts of Assam (Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Dhubri and Goalpara). KLO militants were initially trained by the then undivided United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). The organization later maintained close ties with the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) and it was one of the enduring insurgent groups that had refused negotiations with the government. The KLO was declared a banned organisation by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) on November 12, 2014, and has now taken the title of KLO-KN.
According to partial data compiled by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), between March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on conflicts in India, and January 13, 2023, KLO activities led to 52 fatalities in the two States (Assam and West Bengal): 10 fatalities in Assam (two civilians and eight terrorists) and 42 fatalities in West Bengal (31 civilians, 10 terrorists and one trooper). Total KLO-linked incidents stood at 142 (67 in Assam, 66 in West Bengal, three in Manipur, two in Nagaland, one each in Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Meghalaya and one incident of surrender at an unidentified location).
The worst incident in terms of civilian fatalities, during this period, was the explosion at Belakobo Station in a passenger train between Jalpaiguri and Siliguri of West Bengal on November 20, 2006 in which at least 10 civilians were killed and 50 injured. KLO and ULFA were suspected to be behind this attack.. The last KLO-linked civilian fatality was recorded on January 21, 2014, when suspected KLO militants shot dead a businessman, Sudhangshu Sarkar (52), at Khukshi Bao Bazaar under the Fakiragram Police Station in the Kokrajhar District of Assam. However, the last fatality was reported on April 24, 2023, when two KLO militants, Abhijit Deka and Nipon Roy, were killed in an encounter with the Assam Police at Chakraxila Hills area in Kokrajhar District of Assam.
The most recent fatal incident before this was reported on March 4, 2016, when the ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ of KLO, Dibankar Barman aka Anupal aka Jabarjung aka Raghav, was killed by Security Forces (SFs) in the Siljan Kakrikola area of Kokrajhar District in Assam.
Meanwhile, between January 14, 2023 and November 12, 2023, six KLO-linked incidents were recorded (four in Assam, one in Nagaland and one in Kerala), prominently including:
September 20: Assam Police arrested a KLO cadre, Mamen Rai, from Kerala.
August 21: Assam Police arrested three KLO cadres, Pranab Rai (21), Mandeep Rai (19), and Nabayjyoti Rai (22), from the Kashibari area of Kokrajhar District of Assam. The trio was arrested after a letter in the name of the KLO demanding INR 50,00,000 from certain individuals surfaced, following which a Police team launched an operation.
April 24: Two KLO militants, Abhijit Deka and Nipon Roy, were killed in an encounter with the Assam Police at Chakraxila Hills area in Kokrajhar District of Assam.
Moreover, there have been reports which suggest that KLO has been sending threatening letters to local businessmen in North Bengal, demanding hefty ransoms. On October 23, 2023, for instance, Binay Kumar Das, a businessman in the Alipurduar District of West Bengal, received an extortion notice reportedly sent by KLO, demanding INR 10,000,00.
Although efforts have been made to initiate a peace process between the KLO and the central government, the distrust shown by the outfit in recent months may jeopardise the whole process. Delays in the talks have likely contributed to the growing misgivings, and it is urgent that the talks make some progress soon. Absent a consolidation of the gains of the past, peace and stability in the Kamtapur region in particular, and the larger areas of northeast, will come under renewed threat, particularly in the shadow of the eruption of ethnic violence in Manipur.
- Afsara Shaheen
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management