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Assam: Renewed Challenge

By South Asia Intelligence Review : At least six persons, including five women, were shot dead by Karbi Peoples' Liberation Tigers (KPLT) militants who attacked a Rengma village in the Khowanigaon area of Karbi Anglong District on December 27, 2013.


Subsequently, two KPLT militants were reportedly killed in an exchange of fire with the Naga Rengma Hills Protection Force (NRHPF), a Rengma Naga militant formation. Apart from these killings, incidents of arson were also reported from the area. State Parliamentary Secretary for Home, Atuwa Munda, disclosed on December 30, 2013, that preliminary investigations had indicated that the imposition of a "tax" by the KPLT on orange cultivation, and the Rengma villagers' refusal to pay, could be a reason for the violence. Two KPLT militants surrendered on January 1, 2014, and confessed of their involvement in the disturbances.

Earlier, a schoolgirl, identified as Purnima Rajak (14), was killed, and 17 others were injured in a bomb explosion near the Amolapatty railway crossing along National Highway 37 in Dibrugarh Town on December 17, 2013. The Assam Police blamed the Independent faction of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I) for the attack.

These incidents are not in isolation. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 101 persons, including 60 militants, 35 civilians and six Security Force (SF) personnel, were killed in 71 incidents of killing through 2013. Four of the 70 incidents of killing were major incidents (each involving three or more fatalities). In comparison, 2012 had witnessed 91 killings, including 45 militants, 31 civilians and 15 SF personnel, in 64 incidents of killing. The number of major incidents through 2012 was also four. Thus, while there was an increase in fatalities, it was not steep. However, the continuously declining trend since 2009, when fatalities were 392, to 158 in 2010, 94 in 2011, and down to 91 in 2012. Further, the number of districts from where fatalities were reported stood at 14 in 2013 as compared to 16 in 2012. Nevertheless, the current scale of violence is far below its peak in 1998, when the State recorded 783 terrorism-related fatalities. In 2014, the State has already recorded two civilian fatalities [data till January 5, 2014]

The number of abduction cases in the State has also seen a recent spike. On December 29, 2013, media report quoted a Police official as saying, "In 2010, the state registered a total of 3,250 abductions, which was followed by 3,785 cases in 2011. Subsequently in 2012, the numbers went up to 3,812.Though the total figures for 2013 are yet to be compiled officially, it is estimated that almost 4,113 abductions occurred this year. On an average, some 350 abductions have been registered per month in Assam in 2013." Most of the abductions are for ransom. In one such incident, KPLT militants abducted a trader, Maqbool Hussain (50), along with nine labourers from Bhalukjuri area of Karbi Anglong District on November 23, 2013. They were released a day later, against an undisclosed ransom allegedly paid to the outfit.

2013 also witnessed the arrest of 341 militants, in addition to 534 militants arrested in 2012 and 407 in 2011. In one of the major arrests, the Dima Hasao Police on December 11, 2013, arrested David Kemprai aka Action Dimasa, who joined militancy a decade ago as a cadre of the Dima Halam Daogah and later floated its Action faction DHD (DHD-A) with support from the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM). The DHD-A was floated after Action Dimasa escaped from Haflong jail on June 12, 2013. He had launched a massive extortion drive across the sprawling Dima Hasao District (4,890 square kilometres). Sustained pressure on the various rebel formations had resulted in the surrender of another 2,055 militants during 2013. Of these, 2,009 were cadres of the Dilip Nunisa faction of DHD (DHD-N), who surrendered en masse on March 9, 2013. The outfit had signed Memorandum of Settlement [MoS] with the Government on October 8, 2012.

In another positive development, a six months long tripartite Suspension of Operations (SoO) was signed between the Ranjan Daimary faction of NDFB (NDFB-RD), the Central Government and the State Government, on November 29, 2013. With this, the total number of insurgent outfits in Assam with which the Government is in talks has reached 13. At least 4,158 cadres of these groups are staying at designated camps at various places across the State. Worryingly, however, 33 militants of the Pro-Talks faction of NDFB (NDFB-PTF), nine militants of Pro-Talks faction of ULFA (ULFA-PTF) and 116 of the Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF) are 'missing' from their designated camps.

Amidst these positives, several concerns remain. Summing up the situation, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, while speaking at the Chief Ministers' Conference at New Delhi on April 15, 2013, observed, "In the past few years, there has been a declining trend of militant violence and talks are on with several militant outfits. However, it would be over-optimistic to declare that the nightmare of militant violence is over."

Indeed, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, while extending the term of the 'disturbed area' tag for the State for another year from December 4, 2013, stated, on November 23, that the "law and order situation in the State continued to be a matter of concern." Assam was first declared a 'disturbed area' on November 27, 1990.

On December 16, 2013, State Forest and Environment Minister Rockybul Hussain informed the State Assembly that six new militant outfits had emerged in the State in the preceding two years. These included the Karbi National Liberation Army (KNLA), United Peoples Liberation Front (UPLF), Dima Halim Daogah-Action (DHD-A), Dima Jadi Naiso Army (DJNA), National Liberation Front of Bengalis (NLFB) and United Dimasa Kachari Liberation Front (UDKLF). Five of the six new outfits were from the two Autonomous Hill Districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao, while the sixth is a Bengali outfit based in the Bodo Territorial Council area. The emergence of these six new groups took the total number of active outfits in Assam to 12. The six prominent active insurgent groups include the ULFA-I, I. K. Songbijit faction of NDFB (NDFB-IKS), KPLT, Kamatapur Liberation Organization (KLO), Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM, Assam unit). While the Government did not spell out the cadre strength of the new outfits, it disclosed that the six other prominent active groups have a total cadre strength of 760. Among these, the NDFB-IKS, with a cadre strength of 300, was the biggest, followed by ULFA-I with a strength of about 240 members.

While NDFB-IKS emerged as the most lethal group, with a confirmed involvement in 19 killing incidents, resulting in 25 deaths; this was followed by KPLT, involved in 11 confirmed incidents of killing, resulting in 16 fatalities. The Anti-Talks faction of ULFA (ULFA-ATF), which rechristened itself ULFA-I following its 'central executive committee' meeting between April 2 and 5, 2013, continued to maintain its strike capability, and was found to be involved in 12 killing incidents resulting in 14 deaths. Among these was a desperate attempt to retain his hold on the outfit by the outfit's 'commander-in-chief' Paresh Baruah, who ordered the execution of seven of the outfit's cadres as they were trying to flee their base in Myanmar. Two others in the group, who managed to cross over to India, surrendered to Police in Assam on November 20, 2013.

Meanwhile, ethnic turbulence continued to haunt the State. The year witnessed the emergence of a new ethnic faultline in the South Bank of River Brahmaputra. On February 12, 2013, at least 20 persons were killed in the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council (RHAC) areas in Goalpara District, as violence engulfed the region during the third and final phase of Panchayat (village level local self Government institution) elections in Assam.

Referring to the ethnic and communal situation in the State, Union Minister of Home Affairs Sushilkumar Shinde, on November 21, 2013, noted that agitation for separate States by various groups had made lower Assam and Karbi Anglong "vulnerable to ethnic and communal" tensions. Unfortunately, the ethnic mistrust increased dramatically after the July 30, 2013, Congress Working Committee (CWC) declaration supporting the formation of a separate Telangana State, to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh, and its subsequent endorsement by the Union Cabinet on October 3, 2013. The earlier position taken by the Government was that no new States could, in principle, be established unless a new State Reorganisation Commission (SRC) had defined the fundamental criteria for such division. The reversal of Government's earlier and principled stand resulted in the renewal of demands for various separate Tribal States to be carved out of Assam, including Bodoland, a Hill State comprising Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong, and Kamatapur. On the other hand, the State Government has ruled out any division of Assam.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) remained a worry. MHA Joint Secretary (Northeast) Shambhu Singh noted, on November 22, 2013, "Maoist presence in Assam and border areas of Arunachal Pradesh has been noticed and hence their activities were noticed in Golaghat, Dhemaji, Lakhimpur and Tinsukia Districts of Assam and Namsai area of Lohit District in Arunachal Pradesh." At least seven Districts, especially in the Upper Assam area, have reported significant mobilisation of the outfit, with an estimated strength of 114 in the State. Though the Maoists were not found to be involved in any single fatality in the current year, at least seven Maoist-related incidents were reported in 2013, in addition to 10 incidents in 2012, three in 2011 and just one in 2010. In one such incident in 2013, a three-member group of the CPI-Maoist raided a Police guest house at Borguri on the outskirts of Tinsukia town (Tinsukia District), and escaped with an INSAS rifle and 20 rounds of ammunition after injuring the sentry, Bipul Sonowal, in the night of October 1, 2013.

Managing the complex security challenges in the State has become the more difficult, given the depleted Police strength. On March 14, 2013, Minister Rockybul Hussain disclosed that the State Police was facing a manpower shortage; against a sanctioned strength of 72,461 posts, Assam Police had just 64,642 personnel. However, Assam has a better Police Population ratio, at 188 policemen per hundred thousand population, as against the national average of 138, though it still lags far behind the UN standard for peace time policing, at 220 per 100,000.

(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)

--IBNS (Posted on 07-01-2014)

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