By M.A. Athul*
On May 16, 2019, the Myanmar Army launched a fresh offensive targeting Indian Insurgent Groups’ (IIGs’) camps in Myanmar, the second such offensive within a span of three months. The latest offensive is focused in the vicinity of Lahe and Nayun townships in Sagaing region near the Indo-Myanmar border. Details of the offensive are still awaited.
Earlier, on February 17, 2019, the Myanmar Army had launched a crackdown on IIGs. The offensive lasted till March 2, 2019, and resulted in the dismantling of IIG infrastructure in the Sagaing Region, and the arrest of at least 24 IIG militants.
The February-March operation created commotion in the cadres of several IIGs sheltering in Myanmar, and also provoked surrenders en masse. The targeted groups included the Independent-faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Saraigowra (NDFB-S). As noted earlier the impact of the February-March operations on ULFA-I were crippling. According to a May 9, 2019, report, more than 500 militants, including those of ULFA-I and NDFB-S (specific numbers not available) reportedly approached Security Forces (SFs) in separate groups to surrender. Unidentified senior leaders of NDFB-S were also reportedly in touch with Police officers to work out the modalities of surrender.
In a significant incident demonstrating the impact of the clamp down in Myanmar, on March 24, 2019, NDFB-S ‘foreign secretary’ Ne Esera Evangel, along with his body guard ‘lance corporal’ R. Mwnthwr, surrendered in the Mon District of Nagaland. Evangel is the highest ranking leader of NDFB-S to surrender till date. He joined NDFB-S in 2013 and was appointed as ‘publicity secretary’ some time in 2014-15. On April 15, 2015, he was appointed ‘foreign secretary’. Esera was also a ‘drafting committee’ member of the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWESEA), a conglomerate of northeast militant groups formed in April 2014, of which NDFB-S is a part.
Since its formation in November 20, 2012, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 39 NDFB-S cadres have surrendered, including two confirmed in 2019 (data till May 26, 2019). One NDFB-S cadre surrendered in 2018, 27 in 2014 and nine in 2013. There were no incidents of surrender in 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Details of significant numbers of surrenders subsequent to the crackdown in Myanmar would substantially increase these figures.
SFs have also been successful in arresting at least 750 NDFB-S cadres since November 20, 2012, including two in 2019 (data till May 26, 2019). The number of arrests stood at 48 in 2018, 53 in 2017, 163 in 2016, 273 in 2015, 107 in 2014, 103 in 2013 and one in 2012. In a significant arrest, on March 7, 2019, a female cadre, wife of NDFB-S ‘home secretary’ D. Rebgon, was arrested from the Changlang District of Arunachal Pradesh. Earlier, on December 2, 2018, nine NDFB-S militants who had completed training in Myanmar and were attempting to enter Assam, were arrested from Jagun in Assam’s Tinsukia District.
Since its formation, NDFB-S has also lost at least 126 cadres (data till May 26, 2019) in encounters with Indian Security Forces (SFs). The outfit suffered its last such fatality on August 3, 2018, when one NDFB-S militant, identified as Koma Boro, was killed in an encounter with the Meghalaya Police at Tarasin village in East Garo Hills District in Meghalaya. The areas is used as a transit point from Myanmar by the group.
NDFB-S was considered one of the most lethal outfits in Assam from the time of its formation on November 20, 2012 till December 2014. Between these dates, out of 236 fatalities (223 civilians and 13 SF) recorded in Assam, NDFB-S’ principal area of operation, the group was involved in the killing of 151 persons (146 civilians and five SF personnel, i.e. 61.8 per cent of killings in the State.
In the worst incident, on December 23, 2014, NDFB-S cadres killed 69 Adivasis in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) (consisting of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang), and in Sonitpur District. The December 23 incident had followed the massacre in April 2014 by the NDFB-S in BTAD, in which 46 civilians were slaughtered.
AS NDFB-S excesses mounted, the Central Government directed the Army to launch Operation All Out on December 26, 2014, against the outfit in BTAD areas. On July 13, 2018, a Defence Spokesperson stated that 18 terrorists had been killed while 539 terrorists and Over Ground Workers (OGWs) were arrested in the Operation. Some 175 weapons, 180 hand grenades and seven IEDs were recovered during the operation. There is no further update and also no clarity about the status of the Operation.
The military action largely succeeded in dramatically reducing the rank and file of NDFB-S. According to a 2016 estimate, NDFB-S cadre strength declined from an estimated 300 to 400 in 2014, to 150 in 2016. The current cadre strength is not known.
Not surprisingly, since the launch of the operation, NDFB-S has only been involved in one major incident (resulting in more than three fatalities) of violence. On August 5, 2016, at least 14 people were shot dead when NDFB-S militants opened fire in a market in the Kokrajhar District of Assam. The outfit has not inflicted a single civilian fatality thereafter. The last SF fatality was reported on May 9, 2017, when a Sub Inspector (SI) of Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) was killed in an encounter at Manas National Park in Chirag District.
On November 20, 2012, the then ‘army chief’ of the Ranjan Diamary faction of the NDFB (NDFB-RD), IK Songbijit aka Songbijit Ingti Kathar announced the formation of a nine member ‘interim national council’, which came to be known as NDFB-IK Songbijit. According to reports, IK Songbijit was removed from NDFB-IKS during a ‘general assembly’ held on April 14-15, 2015. The ‘interim council’ was dissolved during the meeting and a ‘national council’ was formed under the leadership of B. Saoraigwra, and the group thereafter came to be known as NDFB-S. Currently, B. Saoraigwra is the NDFB-S ‘president’, while G. Bidai is ‘vice president’ and ‘army chief’ and his deputy is Batha aka Binod Mushahary. Ranjit Basumatary aka B.R Ferrenga is the ‘general secretary’. D. Rebgon is ‘home secretary’, I. Sulung ‘publicity secretary’ and B. Dwmwilu, ‘finance secretary’.
NDFB-S operates in Assam has a stated objective of securing a ‘sovereign Bodoland’. According to a National Investigation Agency (NIA) charge sheet filed on July 3, 2015,
|NDFB espouses irredentist and chauvinist goals which include the liberation of ‘Bodoland’ from Indian expansion and exploitation and the establishment of a sovereign ‘Bodoland’. To achieve its goals, the NDFB has carried out relentless terrorist campaign against Indian security forces and groups of persons it deems as ‘outsiders’, particularly Muslims and Adibashis resulting in so-called ‘Bodoland’. The migration of these communities will facilitate the establishment of a sovereign ‘Bodoland’, as per the stated goal of NDFB.|
Despite the visible SF successes, the NDFB-S top leadership continues to survive and evade the Forces. In May 2018, 400 SFs conducted operations along the Indo-Bhutan border, particularly in the Manas National Park, to neutralise 20 NDFB-S cadres, including G. Bidai, the ‘vice president’ and ‘army chief’. The two-week long operation, however, was unsuccessful and the militants were able to escape.
Meanwhile, ousted leader, I. K. Songbijit, who is an ethnic Karbi, now heads another militant group, the People’s Democratic Council of Karbi-Longri (PDCK), formed in Myanmar in October 27, 2016. According to intelligence officials, the group is patronized by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) and ULFA-I. During its formation PDCK strength was estimated at about 60. The current strength is unknown.
NDFB-S’ ability to regroup has been significantly reduced due to concerted SF efforts. With fresh operations by the Myanmar Army, the possibility of further surrenders becomes more likely. However, the fact that much of the top leadership remains intact remains a concern. The residual capacity of the group to execute attacks on soft civilian targets remains significant.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management