By Ajit Kumar Singh*
Three Army personnel were killed and another four were injured when militants ambushed an Army convoy at Pengaree near Digboi in Tinsukia District on November 19, 2016. According to Defence Public Relations Officer (PRO) Lieutenant Colonel Suneet Newton, “They (the militants) had planted an improvised explosive device (IED) on the road. When the IED exploded, the convoy stopped. Then the militants fired indiscriminately.” On November 20, the Independent faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I) claimed that this was a “joint operation” carried out by the outfit and four members of the Manipur-based Coordination Committee (CorCom) – Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF, the political wing of the People’s Liberation Army, PLA), United National Liberation Front (UNLF), People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), and progressive faction of PREPAK (PREPAK-Pro). The other two members of the CorCom, a conglomerate of six Manipur Valley-based militant outfits are the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) and the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL).
On November 16, 2016, a civilian was killed while two others, including one Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) trooper, were critically injured in an attack by suspected ULFA-I militants on a commercial vehicle belonging to the Pengaree Tea Estate in Tinsukia District. The vehicle was fired upon when it was passing through a thick forested area alongside the Pengaree-Digboi road under the Digboi Police Station. Tinsukia Superintendent of Police Mugdhajyoti Dev Mahanta stated, “Though it is yet to be confirmed, the attack could have been carried out by the banned United Liberation Front of Assam (Independent).”
On August 12, 2016, suspected militants of the Independent faction of the ULFA-I killed two persons, identified as Kishori Shah and Rajen Shah, and injured eight, at Bahbon village in the Philobari area of Tinsukia District. Police said that a group of five militants came on foot and opened fire at the two households at around 7.30 pm, killing two persons and injuring the others.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 11 persons, including three civilians, three Security Force (SF) personnel and five militants have been killed in the Tinsukia District in the current year (data till November 25, 2016). During the corresponding period of 2015, the District had recorded just two fatalities (both civilians), and there were no further fatalities in 2015. There was only one fatality (civilian) through 2014. In terms of total insurgency-linked fatalities, the 2016 total of 11 is the highest since 2008, when such fatalities stood at 26. The three SF fatalities are the highest recorded in this category since 2006, when 10 SF personnel were killed. There were no fatalities among SFs in the District in 2014 and 2015. Similarly, with an aberration of 2013 which recorded four civilian fatalities, the three fatalities recorded in this category are highest recorded since 2008, when nine civilians were killed.
While there was only one incident of killing through 2015, the number of such incidents has already risen to five in the current year. Two of these five incidents were major (involving three or more fatalities), including the November 19 incident. In another major incident this year, SFs killed four militants in Na Kathalguri village under Bordumsa Police Station in Tinsukia District on February 16, 2016. The District had previously recorded its last major incident on April 19, 2013, when an Inspector of a commando unit of Assam Police, identified as Lohit Sonowal, two militants of ULFA-I (then known as ULFA-ATF, Anti Talk Faction) and a civilian, were killed in an encounter at Kordoiguri village in Tinsukia District.
There were nine incidents of explosion in 2016 as against just two recorded through 2015. This is the highest number of such incidents recorded in the District since 2007, when there were such 13. In 2016, SFs recovered arms and ammunition on at least 13 occasions from militants active in the District. There were eight such incidents through 2015.
Tinsukia District covers an area of 3,790 square kilometers in the eastern part of Assam. It shares borders with five Districts of Arunachal Pradesh (East Siang, Lower Dibang Valley, Lohit Changlang, and Tirap) and two Districts of Assam (Dibrugarh and Dhemaji). All these Districts are insurgency infested. Two of these – Changlang and Tirap – share borders with Myanmar, which has for long served as a safe haven for major insurgent groups operating in the Northeastern region. Adjoined to the areas with thick rain forests, such as Dibru-Saikhowa, Naamsang and other hilly forest areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Tinsukia provides a safe sanctuary to insurgents and its strategic location is used by the militants as a transit route. Significantly, according to an August 22, 2016, report, an arrested militant of the Isak-Muivah faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), Phoren Ramwaone, revealed during interrogations that Tinsukia District was being used as a transit route and corridor by NSCN-IM militants, from their Headquarters at Hebron in Dimapur (Nagaland) to the Lohit District of Arunachal Pradesh, over the past several years.
Tinsukia District has recorded at least 297 fatalities, including 147 civilians, 120 militants and 30 SF personnel, since March 2000, according to the SATP database (when the database commenced recording insurgency-related incidents in the region). At the peak of insurgency, the District recorded 74 fatalities (50 civilians and 24 militants) in 2007. Though fatalities in the District have reduced considerably since then, the recent upsurge in insurgent activities is worrisome.
Since the insurgents have suffered losses across the Northeast over the last several years, they are trying to regain footholds in areas which they once dominated. Because of its strategic location, Tinsukia is one among these. To recover some operational presence here, as SAIR has noted earlier , the major terror outfits operating in region have reportedly joined hands. Significantly, claiming responsibility for the November 19, 2016, incident, ‘Captain’ Arunudoy Asom of ULFA-I in an e-mail statement claimed that ’Operation Barak’ was carried out jointly by cadres of the ULFA [ULFA-I] and four CorCom members.
Perturbed by increasing insurgency-related incidents in Tinsukia, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal held a review meeting on September 14, 2016, and urged the Police and other security agencies to work in tandem to prevent such violence. He also announced that the Police would be provided modern equipment. Similarly, during a meeting of the Unified Command chaired by Vinod Kumar Pipersenia, Chief Secretary to the Assam Government, in the aftermath of the November 19 attack, it was decided to step up operations in the Upper Assam Districts, particularly the Districts bordering Arunachal Pradesh (Tinsukia lies in this region) and Nagaland, as the rebels have reportedly been sneaking into the Assam through those States.
The relatively deteriorating security scenario in Tinsukia reflects the overall security situation in Assam. The State has recorded increases in insurgency-linked fatalities – 82 in 2016 so far as, against 58 during the corresponding period of 2015. It is crucial, consequently, that the State and Union Governments work together with other bordering States, to contain the insurgent groups operating in the region. Implementation of an effective border management policy is another critical need, as most of the infrastructure of terrorism used by these groups is located in areas which lie beyond Indian territory.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management