Assam: Sustained Peace
On January 13, 2023, Jiban Singha alias Jiban Koch Timir Das, ‘chief’ of the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), surrendered before the Assam Rifles in the Longwa area along the Indo-Myanmar border in Nagaland.
Jiban Singha was involved in several KLO operations in Assam and West Bengal and had reportedly imparted arms training to hundreds of youth who had joined the outfit.
The surrender came within five months after two top KLO militants – Kailash Koch, the second-most important leader of the outfit and his wife Jugli – surrendered before the West Bengal Director General of Police (DGP) Manoj Malaviya in Kolkata, and days after Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had invited the outfit for peace talks. Earlier, in December 2021, the KLO had expressed its willingness to join the peace process, in a letter by Jiban Singha sent to the Assam Government.
Subsequently, on January 17, 2023, Biswajit Ray, who is part of a five-member committee formed by the KLO to facilitate talks between the Union Government and the group, announced that he was “hopeful” of a peace accord with the Union Government by January 26, 2023. However, it was not clear how the accord could be reached when the West Bengal government, a major stakeholder, is out of the loop. Indeed, the January 26 ‘deadline’ passed with no such accord.
KLO, which primarily operates in western Assam and the northern Bengal region was formed on December 28, 1995, by a section of the West Bengal-based All Kamtapur Students' Union (AKSU), with the objective of establishing a separate Kamtapur State, comprising six Districts of West Bengal (Cooch Behar, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, North and South Dinajpur, and Malda) and four Districts of Assam (Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Dhubri and Goalpara). KLO militants were initially trained by the then undivided United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). The organization later maintained close ties with the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) and it was one of the enduring insurgent groups that had refused negotiations with the government.
Partial data compiled by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) indicates that, between March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on conflicts in the Northeast, and January 27, 2023, KLO activities led to 11 fatalities in Assam (three civilians and eight terrorists). The KLO was last found involved in a killing on January 21, 2014, when suspected KLO militants shot dead a businessman, Sudhangshu Sarkar, at Khukshi Bao Bazaar under the Fakiragram Police Station in the Kokrajhar District of Assam.
The KLO will be the latest among militant groups active in Assam, to engage in talks with the Government.
On September 15, 2022, a tripartite agreement was signed among the central and state governments and five Assam-based Adivasi insurgent groups, including the All-Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA), the Adivasi Cobra Militants of Assam (ACMA), the Birsa Commando Force (BCF), the Santhal Tiger Force (STF) and the Adivasi People's Army (APA), in the presence of the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah and Assam Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma.
On October 26, 2005, the Pro-Talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-PTF) became the first major Assam-based militant group to enter into peace talks with the Government of India. Several other groups have also joined the talks. Thus, in 2003, the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT); in 2011, the United People's Democratic Solidarity (UPDS); in 2012, the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD); in 2020, all the factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB); and in 2021, the Karbi Peoples' Liberation Tigers (KPLT) and Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), joined the peace process.
According to the SATP database, a total of 14,269 terrorists have surrendered in the state since March 6, 2000 (data till January 27, 2023), including 1,435 in 2022 and 1,355 in 2021.
Further, the Security Forces (SFs) have arrested 7,960 terrorists since March 6, 2020 (data till January 27, 2023), including 102 in 2022, adding to 80 in 2021.
SFs have killed 2,357 terrorists in the state since March 6, 2020 (data till January 27, 2023), including three in 2022, adding to 19 in 2021.
All these developments over the years have helped keep the state’s multiple insurgencies under control. Civilian fatalities, which peaked at 531 in 1998, came down to one in 2022, the lowest till date. 2019 also recorded just one fatality in this category. Since 2010, civilian fatalities have touched three digits only once (184 in 2014) and have remained within single digits four times: 2017 (6), 2019 (1), 2020 (3) and 2022 (1). Between 1992 and 2009, civilian fatalities remained repeatedly in the triple-digits, barring 1992 (80 fatalities), 1993 (74 fatalities) and 2006 (86 fatalities).
SF fatalities peaked at 87 in 1996, and always remained in double digits between 1992 and 2011, barring 2005, when there were eight fatalities in this category. Since 2012, however, fatalities in this category remained in single-digits, till 2018, when the last fatality in this category was recorded. On May 5, 2018, a Policeman was killed in an encounter with ULFA-I militants at Bordumsa in Tinsukia District. There were no SF fatalities thereafter.
Even as the state’s insurgencies have largely been contained and localized, several concerns persist.
Among them are the decades-old inter-state boundary issues between Assam and her neighboring states. Indeed, the contentious border issue led to several clashes during 2022. In the most violent of these, on November 22, 2022, six people died in police firing at Mukroh, along the Assam-Meghalaya border. There are strong apprehensions that these border issues may be exploited by the insurgent groups. Significantly, the disputed portions of the Assam-Nagaland boundary are claimed by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) under its ‘Nagalim (Greater Nagaland) map’, and are marked by the outfit as one of the important agendas of the "Indo-Naga political talks", pending a final decision since the signing of the ‘Framework Agreement’ in 2015.
Meanwhile, the ULFA-I, which had declared a unilateral ceasefire on May 15, 2021, decided on March 4, 2022, not to extend the ceasefire further and has refused the offer of peace talks by the Government, and is insisting on "Swadhin Asom" or independent Assam, as a key plank for the peace talks, and remains defiant and belligerent. On November 14, 2022, an Indian Army patrol party was attacked by ULFA-I in Tinsukia District, though there were no casualties on the Army’s side. Further, though it has been weakened and no longer commands the same hold over the region as it did earlier, the ULFA-I is still actively recruiting young men and women, who blame government inaction, corruption, and a lack of opportunities for choosing the other side. ULFA-I recruiting efforts, which are said to have resulted in 234 people leaving their homes and families to join the outfit in 2022, are a trend that raises concerns about a possible ULFA-I resurrection.
Some trans-border and global Islamist terrorist organizations also continue with their efforts to gain traction in the state. On December 24, 2022, the Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, informed the Assam Legislative Assembly that 53 suspected jihadis, including one from Bangladesh, had been arrested in Assam since March 2022. Another five suspected jihadis from Bangladesh were absconding, he added. Additionally, nine cases of suspected activities by fundamentalist elements had been registered in the state since March 2022. These cases were registered in Barpeta, Bongaigaon, Morigaon, Dhubri, Goalpara, Tamulpur and Nalbari Districts, which, the Chief Minister asserted, were "hubs of fundamentalist forces".
Moreover, the recently banned Popular Front of India (PFI) has reportedly been making efforts to spread its network in Assam, where 39 PFI cadres were arrested in 2022. Most recently, on September 27, 2022, the Police arrested at least 25 PFI leaders from eight Districts in Assam, including 10 from Goalpara, five from Kamrup, three from Dhubri, two each from Barpeta and Baksa, and one each from Karimganj, Udalguri and Darrang.
Over the years, the state and the region have seen a steady consolidation of peace due to security cooperation between India and neighboring Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. However, there are apprehensions that the deteriorating situation in Myanmar following the February 1, 2021, coup may be exploited by Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) based in that country, including ULFA-I, possibly providing them the necessary spaces for regrouping.
The insurgencies in Assam are in visible decline. While there is only a marginal potential for a reversal of this trend, it remains imperative for the Governments – State and Union – to ensure that residual issues are adequately addressed in a time bound manner, so that peace in the state is sustained.