By Oyindrila Chattopadhyay*
On December 17, 2021, Jackson Ronghang, the ‘chairman’ of the newly floated militant Karbi Democratic Liberation Front (KDLF), was killed in an encounter in the Rongmongve area of Karbi Anglong District, Assam. A search operation was launched on December 17 after receiving leads about Ronghang being present in Rongmongve. During the operation, a gunfight ensued, leading to Ronghang’s killing, while others fled the spot. A pistol, ammunition and several incriminating documents were recovered from the possession of the slain militant. Jackson Ronghang was a former Karbi People’s Liberation Tiger (KPLT) cadre, who floated KDLF in 2021.
Earlier, on December 10, three workers from a construction site in Rongmongwe block of Karbi Anglong District were abducted. Subsequently, one person, identified as Amarjyoti Terang, was arrested in connection with the kidnapping. Following his interrogation, the involvement of the KDLF ‘chairman’ and others was disclosed and one of the kidnapped workers was rescued on December 13. The others are yet to be traced. The SFs had been after Ronghang since Terang’s disclosures.
On October 1, 2021, five suspected militants, identified as Akhui Kashung, Ngmpoi, Wungreingam, Ashang Chithung and Lanchungrei Kamei were arrested along with a huge cache of arms and ammunition from the Naharjan area along the Assam-Nagaland border in Karbi Anglong District. Three AK- 56 rifles with 75 rounds of ammunition and a pistol with eight rounds was recovered from them.
On August 27, 2021, four suspected militants were arrested at Gharialdubi village of Bokajan town in Karbi Anglong District. The arrestees, identified as Raju Ghatowar, Krishna Orang, Lokesh Kangari and Robert, were detained along with a rifle, three pistols, a Chinese grenade, and ammunition.
On March 2, 2021, a militant belonging to the Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA) was arrested along with a Chinese grenade from Diphu in Karbi Anglong District. The arrestee identified as Pinak Sutradhar aka Biju Sutradhar had planned to attack the Diphu Railway Station with the grenade.
Since March 6, 2020, when South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), started compiling data on insurgencies in the Northeast, 268 terrorists of various outfits have been killed in Karbi Anglong District. 12 of these fatalities were reported in 2021 (data till December 19, 2021). During this period, another 828 terrorists of various outfits have been arrested, including 12 in 2021. The mounting pressure has resulted in the surrender of 716 terrorists, including 30 in 2021.
In less than five years, between March 6, 2000, and December 31, 2005, 339 civilians were killed in district, including an all-time high of 99 in 2005. On the other hand, in the next almost 16 years, the district has recorded 108 fatalities, including 51 in 2007 alone. However, three civilian fatalities have bene recorded in the current year, as against no fatality in 2020.
The district has recorded no fatality in the Security Force (SF) category since July 20, 2014, when one Assam Police Constable was killed in the Doldoli Reserve Forest area of Karbi Anglong District.
Karbi Anglong is situated in the central part of Assam, considered to be the melting pot of ethnicities and tribal groups — Karbi, Dimasa, Bodo, Kuki, Hmar, Tiwa, Garo, Man (Tai speakers), and Rengma Naga. Due to these diverse ethnicities, the district has a long history of ethnic tensions, and this has been exploited by insurgent groups of which several started operating in the district. But due to incessant SF pressure, the insurgent formations have gradually weakened.
As on date, 12 insurgent outfits which in the district and around it, have been brought into ceasefire agreements/peace talks and/or have been disbanded. Most recently, on September 4, 2021, the Government of India (GoI) signed the Karbi Accord with six Karbi militant formations: Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), People’s Democratic Council of Karbi-Longri (PDCK), United People’s Liberation Army (UPLA), Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers-Mensing-Kramsa (KPLT-M), KPLT-Ceasefire (KPLT-C) and KPLT-Run Rongpi (KPLT-R).
On September 7, 2021, following this agreement, DNLA declared a unilateral ceasefire “as a goodwill gesture and a positive response to the call for peace” by Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Later, on September 24, 2021, the ‘chairman’ of DNLA, Edika Diphusa aka Kharmindao Dimasa, his deputy Juddychan Haflongbar, and ‘general secretary’ Prithamjit Jidongsa aka Galao Dimasa, came overground. Assam Education Minister Ranoj Pegu in a Tweeted,
Peace is not illusive (sic) when we walk the extra mile. Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA), an armed outfit of Assam’s hill districts, came out from jungle today. We welcome them to a dialogue and hope for permanent solution and peace.
Further, on September 12, UPLA disbanded after eight years of armed struggle, and 378 UPLA cadres are all set to return to their homes.
Nevertheless, problems persist. Three civilians have been killed in the current year. In contrast, between 2015 and 2020, only two civilians were killed, one each in 2016 and 2019. On May 19, 2021, DNLA militants killed Sanjoy Ronghang, a priest, in the Dhansiri Police outpost area of Karbi Anglong District, adding to ethnic tensions in the area.
Karbi Anglong District has emerged as one of the major supply routes for the cross-border drug trade. According to Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, drugs worth 1.63 billion were seized in the district in two months (May and June) of 2021 alone. In one recent seizure, for instance, on November 16, Police recovered 1.77 kilograms of Heroin and arrested two drug peddlers in Karbi Anglong District. Significantly, the drug trade in India’s Northeast has established terrorist linkages. Indeed, on October 26, 2021, ‘deputy kilonser (deputy minister)’ of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), R.K. Hopingson, was injured in a gunfight between the Police and drug traffickers in the Nagaon District of Assam. 303 grams of Heroin was seized from him. During interrogation, he revealed that he had been involved in the drug trade since 2012. Confirming the nexus, the Director-General of Assam Police Bhaskarjyoti Mahanta, noted, “non-state actors in Dimapur, the commercial hub of Nagaland, are a major part of the problem of drug trafficking and abuse in Assam.”
Moreover, soon after the signing of the Peace Accord between Karbi militant groups and GoI, which was heralded as an historic step to usher in peace, protests erupted in Karbi Anglong District. The Accord stated that GoI and the Government of Assam would take necessary steps to reserve 34 seats for the Scheduled Tribes (ST) and 10 seats under the Open category for all communities, out of 44 elected seats in KAAC. It seems that, by dividing the seats between Karbi [including other STs] on one hand, and 10 general seats, on the other, in the KAATC to be formed, the Government sought to balance the interests of both the groups. However, the decision to create 10 general seats upset some civil society groups based in the districts, who feared a loss of political dominance. Indeed, on September 5, 2021, protestors from 24 civil society groups, also known as 24+, demonstrated along the Diphu-Manja Road, shouting slogans and burning tyres in front of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party-East Karbi Anglong District Council. Their principal objection was to the addition of 10 seats that would be open for all communities. Further, on September 8, 2021, the Autonomous State Demand Committee, a political party, and two civil groups – Karbi Nimso Chingthur Asong (Karbi Women’s Association) and Karbi Students’ Association – expressed disappointment with the Accord in the absence of the implementation of Article 244, which envisages the creation of an ‘autonomous state’ within Assam with a local legislature or Council of Ministers. The main and long-standing demand for an autonomous state within Assam under Article 244 of the Constitution, has not been conceded in the Accord. Further, on September 12, 2021, UPLA ‘chairman’ Sorjon Lo-eh, reacting to the protests by 24+, declared, “we are not putting a full stop to the Autonomous State demand by signing the Peace Accord,” as was being propagated by 24+ in Karbi Anglong. He added, “we have kept the door open for negotiating the statehood demand” as “we have realised that we cannot attain statehood by means of armed revolution.” The implementation of the Accord, consequently, is likely to remain an uphill task and may well open a Pandora’s box leading to new security threats.
With concern growing over these challenges, the State Government has sanctioned the deployment of five new Assam Commando Battalions under the Assam Police, including the 3rd Assam Commando Battalion (Operations) at Doldoli in Karbi Anglong. After the approval of Chief Minister Sarma and the State Finance Department, the Home Department issued five notifications in this regard to strengthen the overall security network across Assam. Accordingly, 800 posts, including both gazetted and non-gazetted posts, have been created in the five new Battalions – 2nd Assam Commando Battalion (Operations) at Birsima in Hailakandi District of Barak Valley; 3rd Assam Commando Battalion (Operations) at Doldoli in Karbi Anglong; 4th Assam Commando Battalion (Operations) at Geleki, Kalabari in Sivasagar; 5th Assam Commando Battalion (Urban Operations and Law & Order) at Pabhoi at Biswanath; and the 6th Assam Commando Battalion (Urban Operations and Law & Order) at Ambikapur in Sadiya under Tinsukia District.
Karbi Anglong District is an amalgam of varied ethnic and tribal groups. Due to its diversity, the district has been marred by ethnic conflicts and militancy. The Government has taken numerous initiatives to contain violence and bring the militants back into the mainstream, including several peace accords This has helped dramatically reduce militant activities. The increase in anti-insurgent operations has impacted on the rebels’ capacities and will to sustain violence. However, security challenges persist, and the district’s emergence as a transit route for the thriving narco-terrorism trade, along with the emergence of newly formed outfits like KDLF, demands urgent monitoring. Taking the peace accord to its logical conclusion would also address some of the drivers of alienation and violence in the region.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management