Monday, May 16, 2022

The Old Fox Trot

A step forward and two back. Assam continues to demonstrate conflicting trends towards some of its multiple insurgencies, of which the ULFA seems to have caused the maximum vacillation and uncertainty in the powers that be.

The Old Fox Trot
| AP
The Old Fox Trot

"First, whatever it takes. Talks, yes, but first we have to beat down this challenge." union defence minister A.K. Antony's announcement in Guwahati on January 9, 2007, ended speculations regarding the resumption of the dwindling peace process and signaled the beginning of a major military offensive in upper Assam, hailed as the biggest ever since the early 1990s, against the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). The offensive followed nearly 70 killings within a span of four days, between January 5-8, 2007, in a systematic and xenophobic campaign, by ULFA terrorists, targeting Hindi-speaking people in five districts of Upper Assam: Tinsukia (which accounted for a majority of the deaths) Dibrugarh, Dhemaji, Sivasagar, and Golaghat.

ULFA had provided sufficient indication of an obdurate and violent campaign through a succession of statements preceding the killings. The subsequent military build up entailed the movement of Army and Paramilitary Forces (PMFs) stationed in the Lower Assam districts and from other states, to the violence-torn areas of upper Assam. Some 20 companies of the Army and paramilitary forces, comprising 2,000 personnel, arrived in upper Assam on January 10 to reinforce the already gigantic security force (SF) set up there. Another 3,000 jawaans (soldiers) from the Army's 2nd Mountain Division were sent to Sivasagar and Dhemaji districts. Similarly, reports indicate that six to seven companies of the Border Security Force (BSF), comprising about 500 personnel, will soon be withdrawn from north Bengal areas to be deployed in Assam. The Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, had, in fact, asked for the deployment of 90 companies of personnel, of which 20 were to be deployed to provide security to the National Games to be held in Guwahati from February 9, 2007.

The euphemistically named 'Operation Clear', involved troops aided by helicopters executing simultaneous operations in several areas of Assam, including as Lakhipathar, Saraipung, Namsai, Upper Dihing, Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, and the river islands in the Sadiya sub-division of Dibrugarh district. Operations were also launched in Arunachal Pradesh's Bhismaknagar, Manabhum Reserve Forest and Sonpura in Lohit, the Namchik area in Changlang and Dambuk in Lower Dibang Valley. Army sources also spoke of a similar offensive in the Garo Hills region of Meghalaya, which has traditionally been used by the ULFA as a transit route to and from Bangladesh. On January 9, defence minister A.K. Antony, also stated, rather optimistically, at least given Bangladesh's track record, "We will seek the help of Bangladesh and Myanmar in addressing the issue of ULFA cadres operating from these countries." The BSF has already rushed four of its battalions to Meghalaya and Assam to man the sensitive border between the two states as well as the international border with neighbouring Bangladesh.

The achievements of the relatively massive military mobilization, till January 12, were, however, at best modest. On January 7, 2007, two-days prior to the commencement of the Operation, two ULFA militants were killed in an encounter with SF personnel in the Sivasagar district. Three unidentified ULFA militants were killed and three others arrested during a counter-insurgency operation in the Darrang district on January 12. Earlier, on January 11, an ULFA militant was killed at a village in the Baska district bordering Bhutan, far from the upper Assam districts, where 'Operation Clear' was ongoing. Five ULFA militants/ linkmen were also arrested from the Tinsukia, Karbi Anglong and Udalguri districts.

There has been some euphoria regarding the Army operations in the national media and the decisive dominance these are projected to achieve, vis-a-vis ULFA, but this euphoria is not shared by the Army. The Army Chief, General J.J. Singh, has disclosed himself to be a votary of the 'root causes' thesis, and argues that a 'military solution' to the ULFA problem is not possible. Speaking at a Press Conference at New Delhi on January 12, he said: "All out operations are being undertaken to put the terrorists on the back foot. But there is no purely military solution. There can never be a time when we could task ourselves with finishing off the ULFA entirely, wherever they are." He elaborated, further, "Any counter-terror campaign has to be multi-pronged. There are political and socio-economic dimensions to the problem. If we can compel them to come back to the negotiating table, there can be progress." The fact that the operations to 'smoke out' ULFA cadres wouldn't be easy, had earlier been underlined by an Army official on January 9, who stated: "Practically no intelligence on their movements is available from where they are holed up now, given the fact that there is hardly any human habitation in these places."

The resumption of all-out hostilities in Assam has reversed the achievements of the past four years. Beginning 2003, when 505 terrorism related deaths were reported in Assam, fatalities have registered a steady decline. According to the Institute for Conflict Management database, 174 terrorism related deaths were reported in 2006, a 39 per cent decline from the previous year. With 40 deaths, Kamrup, in which the state capital Dispur is located, remained the most violent district. Three districts, Kamrup, Tinsukia and North Cachar Hills, accounted for 111 deaths. And among multiple terrorist outfits operating in Assam, ULFA remained the most violent accounting for 64 per cent of the total terrorism-related fatalities. ULFA also accounted for 65 per cent of the civilian killings and 51 per cent of SF fatalities registered in 2006.

The Congress Party led by Tarun Gogoi was returned to power in the State Legislative Assembly elections in May 2006. In a statement on December 11, forest and environment minister Rockybul Hussain disclosed in the Assembly that 114 civilians and 27 SF personnel had died in militancy-related violence in Assam since Gogoi took over as Chief Minister for his second term. The civilians killed include 57 persons who were killed in explosions triggered by militants. A total of 1,214 persons, including 1,031 civilians, 121 personnel belonging to Assam Police, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and other para-military forces and 62 Army personnel, were killed by various militant outfits since Gogoi first became Chief Minister in May 2001. Minister Hussain also mentioned that as many as 1,051 cadres of various militant outfits, including the ULFA, had been killed in encounters with the SFs since May 2001.

Peace efforts with the ULFA appeared to have got off the blocks with the August 13, 2006 decision by the union government to announce a unilateral ceasefire, confining the SFs to barracks. Prior to this, in September 2005, after the ULFA formed an 11-member People's Consultative Group (PCG), to prepare the groundwork for dialogue with the government, New Delhi called off a tactically important operation in upper Assam's Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, when the Army had surrounded key ULFA functionaries of the '28th Battalion', the only functioning 'battalion' of the outfit, believed to consist of 350 cadres. Amidst strong objections expressed by the Army, who believed that the group was exploiting the truce to reinforce, no operations of strategic consequence were undertaken by the SFs after September 2005, as New Delhi hoped to wean ULFA away from violence through its 'magnanimity'. ULFA, however, continued to attack, kill and extort without pause.

Subsequently, on September 22, 2006, National Security Advisor M. K. Narayanan conveyed to the ULFA-backed PCG member, Indira Goswami, that the union government would not extend the suspension of counter-insurgency operations against the outfit any further. The subsequent official announcement of September 24 declaring resumption of counter-insurgency operations against the ULFA drew down the curtain on a year-long process in which both the government and the ULFA were, at best, reluctant partners. The tardy and laborious experiment, which at no point of time in its year-long existence, demonstrated any signs of success, did, however, end up revitalizing a dwindling ULFA, much as the Army had warned.

There is significant evidence that ULFA continues to operate under the grip of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Bangladeshi Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI). Investigations into the November 21, 2006, blast in Jalpaiguri in North Bengal, which killed seven persons and injured over 60 others, revealed that ULFA 'commander-in-chief' Paresh Baruah had visited Pakistan in recent months to firm up a training schedule for the outfit's cadres. Subsequently, a team of 15 cadres visited Pakistan in October and received training. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh himself confirmed these ominous linkages in his November 28-statement to a 12- party delegation from Assam led by former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, when he stated that New Delhi was ready for talks with the ULFA as and when it comes out of the clutches of the ISI.

Peace efforts with the ULFA did overshadow the peace process with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) which, since May 25, 2005, has been under a cease-fire agreement with the government. The process of negotiations has, however, been delayed. While the Assam government maintains that the outfit is yet to provide a charter of demands, the NDFB accuses the state government of a lackadaisical attitude towards the outfit. The stalemate, however, has led to an institutionalization of a racket of extortion, abduction and terrorist activities by the NDFB cadres who are, under the cease-fire agreement, supposed to have been confined within the limits of designated camps. On May 27, the first round of talks between the union government and the NDFB was held in New Delhi where both parties agreed to extend their cease-fire beyond May 31, 2005. Further, on November 29, both sides met again to extend the cease-fire beyond December 1, 2005. This, however, appeared to have little impact on the activities of the outfit. The following incidents reported in 2006 provide an index of the NDFB's activities in the state under the 'cease fire agreement'.

January 16: Hindi-speaking villagers, under the banner of the Assam Bhojpuri Yuba Chhatra Parishad, sought the protection of the state government against the extortion drive by NDFB militants who allegedly had distributed demand notes, ranging from Rupees 30,000 to Rupees 50,000, signed by a self-styled "collection-in-charge" 'Lt.' D. Dethsrang, along the border of Nagaon and Karbi Anglong districts.

April 22: Eight NDFB cadres, who were arrested from Guwahati in the Kamrup district, confessed during interrogation of their involvement in extortion from state officials.

April 25: NDFB cadre B. Daithan was killed and five other militants wounded at Sapatgram in the Dhubri district of lower Assam, when the police retaliated against militants who were enforcing closure of shops and other business establishments in the area.

May 22: The dead body of a villager, Babul Kalita, suspected to have been killed by the NDFB, was recovered by the Police from Daudwigami under Harisingha police outpost in the Udalguri district.

May 29: Five SF personnel, who were abducted by suspected NDFB cadres on May 21 from the Udalguri district, were found dead at Belsiri Nala under Bhairabkunda police outpost in the dense jungle of West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh bordering Assam and Bhutan.

June 25: Civilians in the Daranga area of Baska district captured two NDFB extortionists. A branch of the state Bank of India in the same locality had closed down following NDFB threats and extortion notices.

June 26: Two NDFB cadres, while attempting to extort money from a businessman, were killed in an encounter with SF personnel at an unspecified place under Dokmoka Police Outpost in the Karbi Anglong district.

July 5: Suspected NDFB militants killed two cadres of the erstwhile Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), Thanderu Basumatary alias Hargila and Bijoy Basumatary, at Langhing in the Karbi Anglong district.

November 16: Two unidentified NDFB cadres were shot dead by Assam Police at Langkin Manikpur in the Karbi Anglong district.

The January 6 attack by the Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF) in which seven polling personnel were killed and another 10 injured, including four policemen, in the remote Donghap area under Howraghat Police Station, brought back attention to the peripheral insurgencies in Assam, mostly confined to district limits of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills. KLNLF militants exploded an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and opened fire during a bid to influence the elections to the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council. KLNLF is a breakaway faction of the United People's Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), which is under a ceasefire agreement with the union government since May 2002. Both the UPDS and KLNLF accounted for five militancy-related deaths in 2006. Delay in substantive dialogue with the government has frustrated the UPDS which, on September 11, 2006, announced the suspension of peace talks. The outfit, however, maintained that it would honour the cease-fire. Militancy-related incidents involving the UPDS/KLNLF in 2006 included:

January 9: UPDS 'Publicity secretary', Tongeeh Nongloda, was arrested from Dilai in the Karbi Anglong district for reportedly carrying a 9mm pistol.

April 10: The UPDS 'defence secretary', Thong Teron, was killed during an exchange of fire at Satgaon under the Dongkamokam Police Outpost in the Karbi Anglong district, by security personnel guarding Sing Teron, an executive member of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council. Subsequently, the UPDS militants killed two persons in retaliation in the Tongkory area of the district.

June 15: The Bokajan Police recovered the dead body of a KLNLF cadre, Mirjeng Teron alias Bhupen Teron, from an interior village in the Karbi Anglong district. Teron had been abducted by at least six UPDS militants from his residence at Japarajan.

November 13: At least seven suspected UPDS militants were arrested in a counter-insurgency operation at Kaniya Bey Village near Diphu in the Karbi Anglong district, for violating cease-fire rules.

The Dima Halim Daogah (DHD) and its renegade group, the Black Widows, accounted for 31 fatalities in the North Cachar Hills district in 2006. Headed by Jewel Garlossa, the Black Widows remained the most violent peripheral militant outfit in Assam. On October 6, 2006, at least 13 Railway Protection Force personnel were killed in an ambush by Black Widow militants in the North Cachar Hills district. Previously, on July 26, 2006, Black Widow militants triggered a grenade explosion targeting CRPF personnel, killing three civilians and injuring three others at a railway station at Maibong in the North Cachar Hills district. These incidents were a direct fallout of the growing sophistication in the quality of weaponry in the group's possession. On March 28, 2006, the North Cachar Hills district police recovered three rocket launcher shells, two pistols, nine magazines, one revolver and an unspecified amount of ammunition from a married couple, Afhringdaw and Dipali Warisa, linked to the Black Widows. Internecine clashes between the DHD and the Black Widows continued. On April 28, the 'deputy commander-in-chief' of the DHD, Naizing Daulagapu, was shot at and wounded by suspected Black Widow militants at Upper Dibbarai under the Haflong Police Station.

Islamist militancy remained at a low ebb. No fatalities in 2006 were attributed to the groups like the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA). However, periodic intelligence inputs did provide details of a 'silent mobilization' by the Islamists. On July 18, 2006, Guwahati City Police arrested a self-styled 'commander' of the MULTA, Nur Islam alias Lambu, from the Ambari area. He confessed subsequently that 20 MULTA cadres had used Shillong and Lad Rymbai in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya as their routes to escape into Bangladesh in recent past. Similarly, on December 24, an arrested Black Widow militant made revelations about the linkages between the People's United Liberation Front (PULF), a Manipur-based Islamist outfit and the MULTA.

In all, Assam continues to demonstrate conflicting trends towards some of its multiple insurgencies, and of deterioration in others. Such divergence is a natural reflection of the vacillation and uncertainty that has marked government policies and initiatives, both at the centre and in the state.

Bibhu Prasad Routray is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.


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