By Giriraj Bhattacharjee
On November 13, 2011, Security Forces (SFs) arrested nine Hill Tiger Force (HTF) militants, including its ‘commander-in-chief’ Benjamin Jaolin Zaute, ‘finance secretary’ Alex Thiek, from the deep jungles at the Hmar village of Arda under Harangajao Police Station in Dima Hasao District (formerly the North Cachar Hills District) of Central Assam. 15 gelatine sticks, seven single barrel guns, two pistols and two grenades were recovered from the militants.
The HTF has now ‘elected’ N. Gamlien Hmar as its ‘commander-in-chief’ and Nicky as ‘finance secretary’.
Subsequent investigations exposed the outfit’s plans to attack Government properties and abduct senior officials on a large scale in the Dima Hasao District. During interrogation, the arrested militants told the SFs that the group planned to attack Railway and Telecom projects and the East-West transport corridor in the District, and to expand its activities to its bordering areas. They further said that five senior cadres, after completing training in neighbouring Manipur, were training recruits to plant Improvised Explosive Device (IEDs) on railway tracks and ambush convoys.
According to Zaute’s disclosures, the HTF, a militant outfit of the non-Dimasa hill tribes in Dima Hasao District, was formed following the ethnic clashes among the Dimasas and the Zeme Nagas in the NC Hills District in 2009. Significantly, these clashes between Dimasas and Zeme Nagas in what was then the North Cachar (NC) Hills District had claimed at least 70 lives. More than 37 persons had sustained injuries, while 614 houses were set ablaze in the clashes, which began on March 19, 2009. The violence continued till July that year. Zeme Council President S. Zeme, on July 31, 2009, stated, “We have told the Union Home Secretary that the move by the Dimasas to change of nomenclature of NC Hills District and the subsequent opposition by us and other communities was the main cause of the unrest.” Subsequently, on September 9, 2009, the Government of Assam constituted a Group of Ministers (GoM) Committee under D.P. Goala to look into the renaming of the NC Hills District and to make appropriate recommendations. The GoM Committee submitted its recommendations on February 5, 2010, giving approval, in principal, to the change in nomenclature.
Other reports, however, suggest that HTF was formed in 2010, following the renaming, on April 1, 2010, of the NC Hills District as Dima Hasao District. The State Government took this decision to pacify the Black Widows (BW) group, which had put forward this particular demand, arguing that the new name would counter the Naga claim over the hill District. Large areas of NC Hills fall into the projected Greater Nagaland map that Naga militants seek to realize. The renaming of the District was followed by protest by various non-Dimasa tribes, who feared that the step would lead to ‘Dimasa hegemony’, and that non-Dimasas would be denied of jobs and other basic facilities. The primary demand of HTF, consequently, was the bifurcation of the North Cachar Hills into two separate Autonomous Districts.
HTF is led by its ‘chairman’ Kapchy Naga. Other prominent leaders include ‘commander-in-chief’ Benjamin Jaolin Zaute, ‘Publicity Secretary’ Lunneh Kuki, and’ ‘finance secretary’ Alex Thiek. With an estimated cadre strength of 150 the outfit is based at Hempeupet in the Dima Hasao District. An unnamed Police official asserted, further, “We think the outfit has cadres hailing from neighbouring Nagaland and Manipur.” Youth from the Hmar, Kuki and Naga communities have also joined the outfit to ‘protect’ their respective tribes, as well as the District, from the Dimasas.
The HTF has been involved in two recorded incidents of killing:
October 16, 2011: Suspected HTF militants killed a civilian, identified as Thaisiring Daolagupu, and injured another three, in an attack at Gaijen village under the Haflong Police Station in the Dima Hasao District.
October 13, 2011: HTF militants killed James Dimasa alias Pronit Haflongbar, leader of the James faction of the Dima Halim Daogah (DHD-J), at Topodisa in Dima Hasao District. Dimasa, former ‘home secretary’ of BW, had formed DHD-J after breaking away from BW in 2009, and later surrendered in the same year.
HTF has been involved in another seven recorded incidents of violence. Significantly, the outfit has carried out three attacks targeting the state infrastructure. On November 3, 2011, the HTF exploded a bomb on a railway bridge near Dittockchera Railway Station. On, October 26, 2011, tracks near the Mahur Railway Station suffered minor damage in a crude bomb blast. And on October 5, 2011, HTF militants fired at a goods train, injuring the driver, at Tularambasti between Lower Haflong and Mahur. The militants also set ablaze the train’s engine. Meanwhile, on October 14, 2011, HTF militants set ablaze eight huts in the Dimasa village of Chota Langren, located 10 kilometers from Haflong.
At least another two attacks have been thwarted by the SFs. On November 8, 2011, SFs recovered and defused three IEDs planted by HTF cadres on railway tracks between the Mahur and Paiding Stations. On October 19, 2011, SFs recovered a hand grenade, left behind by HTF militants, from a fuel station in Haflong town.
The Dima Hasao District is a sparsely populated area extending across 4,890 square kilometers, with a population listed at 213,529. It has extensive unguarded borders with the insurgency-affected States of Manipur and Nagaland, making HTF operations easier. The thin spread of SFs in the area has further emboldened the HTF. Indeed, Northeastern Frontier Railway Workers Union organizing secretary Bhajan Dey, on October 11, 2011, commented that SF contingents withdrawn during the last Assembly Election [April 4 & 11, 2011] from the Dima Hasao areas, had not been redeployed, and this had led to a rise in militant activities in the area. He claimed that extremists were perpetrating terror among railway employees and workers by demanding extortion money and threatening their lives.
The HTF is linked to the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) in Nagaland. On October 20, 2011, Vinod Kumar, the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police (Southern Range), disclosed that confessional statements of persons arrested following the arson and killing (between October 13-16, 2011) indicated that cadres of the NSCN-IM came to Dima Hasao District on the eve of the clashes and instigated the non-Dimasa people and cadres of the HTF. He further asserted that the NSCN-IM helped in the formation of HTF and provided its cadres both weapons and training.
Police have also found evidence suggesting links of some activists of the Indigenous Students’ Forum (ISF), the student wing of the Indigenous People’s Forum (IPF)/ NC Hills Indigenous People’s Forum (NCHIPF), with the HTF. Indeed, the IPF/ NCHIPF, an organisation of non-Dimasa tribesmen, along with the Zeme Council [apex body of Zeme Naga tribe in Assam] jointly opposed the renaming of the NC Hills District and demanded the bifurcation of NC Hills. IPF has, since then, been spearheading a movement for the bifurcation of the District, leading to several bandhs (general strikes/ shut-downs). IPF/NCHIPF general secretary Ngaidam Puruolte has declared that, in any new compromise settlement on the nomenclature issue, the Haflong subdivision, where the bulk of non-Dimasa tribals are concentrated, will continue to be known as NC Hills District, while the Maibong subdivision, the granary of the District in the northeastern flank and a bastion of the Dimasa population, would be named Dima Hasao District.
However, arrested ‘commander-in-chief’ Benjamin Jaolin Zaute, during interrogation, claimed that HTF had no links with NSCN, and had no firearms in its possession. Further, he asserted that HTF had no links with IPF and ISF.
The arrest of top leaders of HTF is bound to impact adversely impact on the group’s operational capacities. The District Police is already scouting out some 50 to 60 ‘boys’, mostly hailing from areas like Mahur, Nadi Basti, Laichung and other backward places of the District, who have been engaged by the HTF over the past months. An unnamed senior Police official stated, “These boys are in the age group of 14 to 20. They are mostly unemployed and school dropouts. Some have even planted crude bombs on railway tracks, while others have delivered demand notes (for extortion).” HTF reportedly pays these youth on assignment basis.
With Assam on the path to normalcy, neutralizing emerging threats, such as Karbi Peoples Liberation Tigers [KPLT] earlier, and now the HTF, will have far reaching impact in dealing with residual militancy, and will go a long way in containing the trend of mushrooming terror groups in the entire northeast.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management