Assam: Slippery Slope to Chaos
At a time when Assam was believed to be fast moving toward establishing a lasting peace, the lackadaisical approach of the authorities has once again pushed the State under the shadow of large-scale violence.
By South Asia Intelligence Review/IBNS
2010 and 2011 had seen comprehensive improvements on the security front, but 2012 has already recorded repeated large-scale conflagrations involving Bodos and Muslims. After a first cycle appeared to have died down, violence appears to be escalating once more.
Between July 20 and September 18, 2012, the Assam witnessed bloody clashes in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) areas, between Bodos, the largest plain tribals in the State, and immigrant Muslims, in Lower Assam. The violence according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database left at least 109 dead. According to a State Home Department statement released on September 16, 2012, 5,000 houses were set ablaze in 244 villages and 187,052 persons affected by the violence were still lodged in 206 camps, even two months after the troubles broke out in five Lower Assam Districts. The displaced persons in the camps included 168,875 Muslims, housed in 174 camps; 17,344 Bodos in 29 camps; and 833 belonging to other communities, in three camps. The Dhubri District had the highest number of 101,373 inmates in 129 camps; followed by Kokrajhar District with 55,760 inmates in 43 camps; Chirang with 23,609 inmates in 22 camps; Bongaigaon with 5,554 inmates in nine camps; and 756 people in three camps in Barpeta. The July-September conflagration was the second such clash involving Bodos and Muslims since the formation of the BTC in 2003. The first confrontation occurred in 2008, and claimed 55 lives.
Just as normalcy appeared to be restored, another round of violence started on November 10, 2012, and has already left 11 dead and six injured in nine incidents in Kokrajhar and Baksa Districts (all data till November 23, 2012). Interestingly, the Inspector General of Police (IGP), BTC, S.N. Singh had stated, on September 5, “Peace is gradually returning as there has been no fresh violence in the area." The last of three killings after September 5 (the date on which the statement was made) occurred on September 18, and this was construed as a sign of the return of normalcy. The recent surge, however, demonstrates the fragility of the ‘peace’ that has been restored. The number of people in relief camps has now come down to roughly 36,000. The current conflagration, in fact, occurred as a result of attempts by some of the displaced people to return to their homes at the time of harvest. G.P. Singh, Inspector-General of Police (BTAD) noted: "If a farmer can harvest his crop, he is richer by 15,000-25,000 rupees. If he is stopped from harvesting, those who stop him can enrich themselves in turn." He also noted that the first round of violence had been timed with the sowing season.
While the Bodo-Muslim conflagration has resumed after a four-year hiatus, the levels of militant violence have remained more or less the same in comparison to the preceding year. 83 persons, including 50 militants, 30 civilians and three Security Force (SF) personnel, were killed in 64 incidents of killing in 2012, while total fatalities in 2011 (till November 23) stood at 91, including 45 militants, 31 civilians and 15 SF personnel, in 63 incidents. The number of incidents and civilian deaths remain nearly the same, but a sharp decrease in the number of SF personnel killed reflects some operational successes on the part of the state.
Unfortunately, militancy-related fatalities have been on the rise in the second half of the current year, after registering a decline in the first half. There were 38 fatalities in the first half of 2012, with the rising to 45 in the second half (till November 23). By comparison, January-June fatalities in 2011 stood at 51, declining to 40 between July and November 23.
At least 58 persons were also abducted in 28 incidents through 2012, according to partial data compiled by SATP, as compared to 46 abducted in 26 incidents in 2011. On March 27, 2012, State Forest Minister Rokybul Hussain, however, told the State Assembly that 56 abduction cases had already been registered in the State since January 2012. Hussain further disclosed that, between 2006 and 2011, there had been 456 cases of abduction in the State.
Meanwhile, the SFs arrested 534 militants in 2012, as compared to 407 in 2011. The number stood at 425 in 2010. Of the militants arrested in 2012, the Anti-Talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-ATF) accounted for 112; and the Ranjan Daimari faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-RD), 79. In one of the most prominent incidents, on October 27, 2012, the SFs arrested three United Democratic Liberation Army (UDLA) militants at Churaibari checkgate on the Assam-Tripura border, including Dhanyaram Reang, 'chief' of the UDLA.
Sustained pressure on the militant formations has resulted in the surrender of another 707 militants during the course of the year. On January 24, 2012, 676 militants belonging to seven militant formations surrendered at a function held at the indoor stadium inside the Sarusajai Sports Complex in Guwahati. The surrendered militants were drawn from the Adivasi People’s Army (APA), All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA), Santhal Tiger Force (STF), United Kukigam Defence Army (UKDA), Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA), Kuki Liberation Army (KLA) and Hmar Peoples Convention-Democratic (HPC-D). The militants deposited 202 weapons during the ceremony. The Adivasi outfits had formed a united forum and had informal meetings with representatives of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.
The year also witnessed the signing of peace accords with the major Dimasa outfits in the State. On October 8, 2012, the Central and State Governments signed a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) with both factions of the Dima Halim Daogah – the Dilip Nunisa faction (DHD-N) and the Jewel Garlosa faction [(DHD-J also known as Black Widow (BW) ]. These agreements came eight years after the signing of a ceasefire agreement with the undivided DHD. The MoS was signed by Dilip Nunisa and Jewel Garlosa on behalf of the DHD factions, and by Joint Secretary (North-East), Shambhu Singh and Assam Principal Secretary Home and Political, Sailesh.
Several militant groups still remain in the State, with surviving armed cadres, though many of these are under various processes of negotiation with the Government. The State has already established a ceasefire and is engaged in negotiations with the Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF); the Pro-Talks faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-PTF); as well as the Pro-Talks faction of ULFA (ULFA-PTF).
NDFB-RD has also declared an indefinite ceasefire since August 2011, but SF operations against the outfit continue due to its involvement in several subsequent incidents of violence. The NDFB-RD also appears to be heading for a split. The group led by the ‘chief’ of Bodoland Army (the armed wing of the faction), I.K. Songbijit, on November 20, 2012, announced the formation of a nine member “interim national council”, with Songbijit as its self-proclaimed “interim president”. Other members of the “interim council” include ‘interim vice-president’ B. Naison; ‘interim general secretary’ B. Saoraigwra; ‘deputy military secretary’ B. Jwngshar; ‘assistant finance secretary’ B. Sansula; ‘assistant forest secretary’ B. Sibigiri; ‘assistant organising secretary’ H. Leba; ‘assistant publicity secretary’ C. Rwikha; ‘member’ B. Dwmwilu; and ‘captain’ G. Bidai as the ‘deputy chief of Bodoland Army’. Myanmar-based I.K. Songbijit called off the ‘indefinite ceasefire’ on August 8, 2012. However, the move was later dismissed by NDFB-RD ‘publicity secretary’, B. Naijab.
Meanwhile, ULFA-ATF, Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT) and the State unit of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist), remain outside the purview of any ceasefire agreement or negotiations, and continue to be involved in violent activities.
ULFA-ATF, with an estimated cadre-strength of 225-250 militants, has escalated its involvement in violent incidents. The group was involved in at least 19 killings (in 16 incidents) in 2012. It was also responsible for 15 bomb blasts, out of a total of 29 recorded across the State in the year. In 2011, the group had been responsible for four explosions out of a total of 11 recorded in the State. ULFA-ATF is also part of the Northeast United Front (NUF) and carries out its activities in collaboration with outfits such as the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA). ULFA-ATF is now reported to have secured some support from China.
KPLT has an estimated strength of 60-70 cadres, and was involved in 15 recorded incidents of violence, including eight incidents of killing, resulting in 15 fatalities, in 2012. Reports also suggest that KPLT has established links with the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and Kanglei Yowel Kanna Lup (KYKL), operating in the neighbouring Manipur State, for training new cadres. Significantly, these two Manipuri outfits are part of the Coordination Committee (CorCom) of seven Imphal Valley-based militant formations. KPLT is also reported to have established links with the NDFB. There are indications that some former United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) militants have also started helping KPLT.
Several smaller outfits continue to operate in certain pockets in the Assam. They include the Liberation Democratic Council of Mising Land (LDCMS), a militant group in Lakhimpur and Jorhat Districts; United Tribal Liberation Front (UTLF), operating in the hills of Jiribam [Imphal East District] and adjoining areas in Assam; the United Tribal Revolutionary Army (UTRA), operating from Manipur and Cachar District of Assam; Dimasa National Liberation Front (DNLF), operating in NC hills and Karbi Anglong District of Assam; Bodoland Royal Tigers Force (BRTF), present in Bodoland area; National Dimasa Protection Army (NDPA), operating in Dima Hasao District; and Gorkha Liberation Army (GLA), operating in Upper Assam and Karbi Anglong District.
Two Muslim militant formations also remain active in the State: Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) and Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM). MULTA has an estimated 60 cadres while HuM is reported to have 40 cadres. The Central Government has also prepared a list of Muslim fundamentalist groups operating in the State, which includes the Muslim Security Council of Assam (MSCA); United Liberation Militia of Assam (ULMA); Islamic Liberation Army of Assam (ILAA); Muslim Volunteer Force; Muslim Liberation Army (MLA); Muslim Security Force (MSF); Islamic Sevak Sangh (ISS); Islamic United Reformation Protest of India (URPI); Revolutionary Muslim Commandos (RMC); Muslim Tiger Force (MTF); Muslim Liberation Front (MLF); Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam (MLTA); and Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULFA) .
Meanwhile, Maoist activity in the State also appears to be on a rise. At least seven Districts, especially in the Upper Assam area, have reported significant Maoist mobilisation. The Maoists have been involved in at least 10 incidents this year, as compared to three in 2011 and just one in 2010. In one of the incidents on May 9, 2012, four CPI-Maoist cadres were killed and one Police commando was injured in an encounter at Deupani Borgura Mising Baskati gaon (Village) in Sadiya Sub-division in Tinsukia District. The slain Maoists were identified as Siddhartha Buragohain, Rajeev Gogoi alias Medang, Arup Chetia alias Iyan and Kamala Gogoi. Siddhartha Buragohain was the 'second-in-command' of the armed wing of the CPI-Maoist in the State.
An unnamed senior Police Official stated, on February 21, 2012, that the Maoists had established three ‘command centres’ in the State – near the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh, Assam-Nagaland and Assam-West Bengal borders. He further disclosed that the Maoist had been sending newly recruited cadres from Assam to some central Indian States for training. On March 16, 2012, moreover, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Jitendra Singh, observed that the CPI-Maoist was establishing separate channels in the Northeast, particularly in Nagaland, for procurement of arms and ammunition. CPI-Maoist has raised its armed wing in Assam under the banner of the Revolutionary People's Guerrilla Army, and has developed close ties with insurgent groups such as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of Manipur.
Former Union Home Minister of Home Affairs P. Chidambaram, during his two-day visit to the State in the aftermath of the Bodo-Muslim clashes, on July 30, 2012, had noted: "Assam is perhaps the most complex State administered in the country because people of various ethnicity lives together. People of the country must learn to live together as India is a plural society."
Crucially, for a State facing such grave security issues, the maintenance of law and order is under tremendous strain, and the situation is exacerbated by the lack of sufficient capacities and capabilities in the Police. Admitting the shortage of personnel in the State Police force, State Director General of Police (DGP) Jayanta Narayan Chowdhury disclosed, on November 17, 2012, “The present manpower strength of the Assam Police is very low compared to the population of the State. With the present manpower strength, the State Police is facing immense difficulties in maintaining the law and order. Most of the Police Stations in the State are also facing manpower shortage.” Significantly, National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for the year 2011 shows that the number of Policemen per 100,000 population in Assam stands at 173, far below 661 in Tripura – which is now one of the most peaceful States in the entire Northeast. There are 68.9 Policemen per 100 square kilometres of area in Assam, while Tripura has 231.3. The DGP has announcement that 10,000 constables would be recruited in the State Police, in a phased manner, within the next year, but this measure, even if implemented, would result in at best marginal changes on the ground.
Assam’s hard-earned peace remains in constant jeopardy, as issues such as illegal immigration, tribal land alienation, ethnic polarization and the territorial autonomy granted to divergent tribal groups in this multi-ethnic, multi-lingual State, provoke resentment and cycles of violence. Though many militant formations have been brought into peace processes or under ceasefire agreements, the implementation of ground rules remains deeply problematic, with criminal operations and extortion by these ‘peaceful’ groups remaining a chronic problem, even as many of these splinter into renegade organisations that continue with violence. The conflagration in the BTC areas has come as a sharp reminder to state authorities and enforcement agencies that the relative counter-insurgency successes of the recent past provide little grounds for the kind of complacency and neglect that seems to be creeping into the administration. Assam is still located on a very slippery slope, within a wider environment of instability, mis-governance and chronic disorder that afflicts much of the Northeast, and even a momentary loss of attention could prove disastrous.
(The writer Giriraj Bhattacharjee is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)