By Giriraj Bhattacharjee and M. A. Athul*
On May 20, 2020, the Dimasa Students Union (DSU), All Dimasa Students Union (ADSU), and Dimasa Mothers Association (DMA) began a three-day sit-in demonstration in front of the Dima Hasao Deputy Commissioner’s Office, demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into the abduction and murder of former Dima Halim Daogah-Nunisa (DHD-N) leader Santosh Hojai by unidentified assailants on April 24, 2020. The sit-in-demonstration concluded on May 22, 2020, with the submission of a memorandum of demands to Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal through Deputy Commissioner Paul Baruah. Apart from the CBI enquiry, other demands included the immediate arrest of the culprits, compensation to the family of the deceased and justice.
Earlier, on May 14, 2020, a 36-hour-long Dima Hasao bandh (shutdown strike)called by the Halali Progressive Welfare Society (HPWS)against the abduction and murder of Santosh Hojai led to deserted streets in the District. HPWS’ formationwas initially announced in the form of Halali Progressive Group and formally launched at the official disbanding ceremony of DHD-N. Dilip Nunisa, former ‘chairman’of DHD-N has been the ‘president of the HPWS since its inception. DHD-N was dissolved on March 9, 2013.
Significantly, unidentified persons abducted Santosh Hojai from his house in Damadi Hawar village under Harangajao Police Station in Dima Hasao District on April 24, 2020. His body was later recovered from the Langting area of the District on April 30.
The ongoing protest in the District can disrupt the peace established in the District established since 2010. DSU ‘general secretary’ Pramith Sengyung,warned, on May 1, 2020,
Kidnapping and killing of an innocent person like Hojai, who was a businessman, a father of three and a former DHD leader, can destabilise peace in the district.
Meanwhile, former DHD-N militants as well as the family members of the deceased blame a local Police official for the killing. The HPWS’ president’, Dilip Nunisa, asserted,
It (the bandh) is in protest against the kidnapping and killing of Santosh Hojai former DHD cadre, businessman, and social worker. What happened to him is condemnable. His wife registered a case at the Harangajao Police Station but the accused Surya Kanta Morang [Deputy Superintendent of Police posted in the District] has not been arrested.
Two officials of the Dima Hasao District – Superintendent of Police (SP) Bir Bikram Gogoi, and Deputy SP (DySP) Surya Kanta Morang -have since been transferred by the Government to other units outside the District. On May 4, 2020, the Gauhati High Court, while hearing the petition of Santosh Hojai’s wife Jayanta Hojai, constituted a Special Investigating Team (SIT) headed by the Deputy Inspector General-Southern Range (DIG-SR) Dilip Kumar Dey to probe the incident.
In the meantime, Police have questioned Kanchan Naiding, a militant of Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA), a nascent militant outfit active in Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong Districts, in connection with the case. No further update on DNLA’s involvement in the killing is available.
Previously, on April 24, 2020, a joint team of the Assam Police and Indian Army units (Military Intelligence and Para Special Forces) killed two DNLA militants, identified as ‘2nd Lieutenant’ Gadayeng Dimasa aka Rupson Thousan (32) and ‘Area commander’ Elwin Jidung (31), at Dugoidisa village in Misibailam under the Dhansiri Police Outpost in the Karbi Anglong District. An M-16 and an AK-47 assault rifle were recovered from the slain cadres. Another DNLA cadre, Devlin Hojai, managed to escape from the encounter site, according to sources.
On April 23, 2020, DNLA threatened to stop coal mining in Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao Districts. In a release to the media, DNLA warned, “if anyone defies, there will be no mercy and action will be taken.”
On February 27, 2020, suspected DNLA militants opened fire at a vehicle belonging to a road construction company in the Mailoo area under Langting Police Station in Dima Hasao District. However, there was no report of any casualty in the incident. A worker of the road construction company said that the armed militants took them to a jungle area and told them to ask the owner of the company to give ransom money.
On January 25, 2020, DNLA called a 24-hour bandh in the Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong District of Assam to commemorate ‘Dimasa Martyrs Day’. On January 25, 2018, two protestors belonging to the Dimasa community, Probanta Hakmaosa and Mithun Dibragede, were killed at Maibang Railway Station in Dima Hasao Districtwhile protesting against the Naga Framework Agreement .
DNLA announced its formation on April 15, 2019. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since its formation, DNLA has been found involved in six incidents of terrorism (data till May 24, 2020). These include one incident of killing which resulted in the death of two DNLA militants.
DNLA is led by its ‘chairman’ Naisodao Dimasa. Other prominent leaders include ‘army chief’, Gajaw Dimasa; ‘information Secretary’, Ringsmai Dimasa; and ‘home secretary’, Kharmindao Dimasa. A militant, Babu Hojai, who surrendered on September 17, 2019, claimed that DNLA had a cadre strength of 90 militants.
Though the DNLA calls itself an armed organisation of the Dimasa tribe fighting to establish a ‘sovereign Dimasa Homeland’ in areas supposedly comprising the Dimasa inhabited areas of Karbi Anglong, and Dima Hasao Districts, it is widely believed that it is a creation of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) with the objective of establishing a ‘proxy insurgency’ in the Hill Districts of Assam. DNLA’s creation helps fill the vacuum in local insurgent activities in the Hill Districts created by the disbanding of various factions of DHD.
Reports also point out that a section of the NSCN-IM leadership led by Phungting Shimrang (the former ‘commander-in-chief’ of the Naga army) and ‘Brigadier’ Chiphemi Shimrang had helped in the formation of DNLA. Both these Naga insurgent leaders are now believed to be in China.
DNLA has also admitted the role of NSCN-IM. DNLA’s ‘training instructor’ Betsing Jidung aka Master Dimasa aka John Dimasa disclosed, after his arrest on August 13, 2019, that NSCN-IM had raised, trained, armed and sheltered their cadres, but that it did not do this for free. DNLA had to buy their weapons: INR 150,000 per AK-47 type rifle and between INR 250,000 to INR 300,000 each for a US-made M16, M4 rifle. Also, DNLA ‘army chief’ Minom Phonglosa aka Gajaw Dimasa, revealed that he had a meeting with NSCN-IM ‘Brigadier’ Chiphemi Shimrang near the outfit’s Hebron Camp in Dimapur District, Nagaland. Shimrang asked Phonglosa to target Security Forces (SFs) using high grade explosives like Research and Development Explosives (RDX) and Tri-Nitro-Toluene (TNT).
In fact, reports indicate that NSCN-IM and DNLA have operated together at least once. The then Dima Hasao, SP, Bir Bikram Gogoi, had disclosed that, according to inputs, a joint team of DNLA and NSCN-IM was behind the February 26, 2020attack (above).
An immediate reason for NSCN-IM’s help for setting up of a Dimasa militant formation is likely to put pressure on the Government to restart the stalled Naga peace talks .Although, the NSCN-IM and the Government of India (GoI) on October 30, 2019 had agreed to sign a peace agreement within the parameters of the 2015 Framework Agreement , issues of a separate constitution and flag have not been resolved.
NSCN-IM’s cold calculations from a military strategic point of view will be to fan a possible rise in violence and ethnic tensions in the sparsely populated Hill Districts of Assam with new armed groups, giving the Naga insurgent group more room to manoeuvre. It is pertinent to recall here that all the major militant formations that were once active in Assam’s tribal dominated Hill Districts have signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) or Suspension of Operation (SoO) Agreements with the Government.
NSCN-IM had earlier also facilitated the emergence of new militant groups in this region. These included the Rengma Naga Hills Protection Force (RNHPF). RNHPF was formed with the help of NSCN-IM to protect the ‘interests’ of the Rengma Naga people living in Karbi Anglong. The formation of several other groups that operated in the region was also supported by NSCN-IM. Prominent among these were Black Widow (BW), Hill Tiger Force (HTF), and Dimasa National Revolutionary Front (DNRF).
SFs have proactively tracked the DNLA since its formation. In a significant achievement, on January 30, 2020, SFs arrestedDNLA ‘army chief’ Minom Phonglosa from Hatuka Forest in the Karbi Anglong District. However, other major figures of the group -‘chairman’ Naisodao Dimasa and ‘home secretary’Kharmindao Dimasa,remain elusive.
The containment of DNLA activities in the Hill Districts is crucial to ensure that the peace established as a result of the disbanding of DHD factions is not derailed. Further, the peace talks with Naga groups, including NSCN-IM, need to be expedited, even as strict action against errant elements is taken, so that the new armed formations are not incubated, and incipient groups do not get logistical and material support once formed.
- Giriraj Bhattacharjee, Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management
- M. A. Athul, Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management