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Web Of Reprisals

As Bengalis strike back, Mahanta banks on Gill to end the crisis

Web Of Reprisals

FOR the villagers of Nabingaon, a tiny hamlet in Assam's Nalbari district bordering Bhutan, the discovery of six bodies on the morning of August 18 came as a rude shock. All the six killed were Bodos. In a state where violence is a part of the daily grind, the deaths would have been counted as another piece of statistic but for the fact that the attack came from the most unexpected quarter—Bengali Hindus. Irked with the successive attacks on them over the past fortnight, the Bengalis living under Tamulpur police station area in Nalbari district decided that offence is the best defence. Taking the lead in this revenge is a nascent armed outfit which calls itself the Bengali Tiger Force (BTF).

Perhaps for the first time in the state's troubled history, a minority group has retaliated against the belligerent Bodos, who have their own agenda in unleashing the violence. Says a senior police offi-cial in the district: "Earlier, the Bodos targeted the immigrant Muslims and now it is the turn of the Bengali Hindus. By this logic, the Assamese people living in the area will face the wrath of the Bodos next." The reason for this is obvious. The Bodos, who have settled in the 10 km belt along the Indo-Bhutan border, want to drive out other communities so that this area could be included in the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC), envisaged under the February 1992 accord.

Last week's killing of at least 20 Bengalis by the banned Bodo Security Force, which now calls itself the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), sent alarm bells ringing. What added fuel to the fire is the decision of the Bengalis to stay put and fight back wherever they can. The BTF, formed a couple of years ago, has a tacit understanding with the NDFB's rival, the Bodoland Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF). Although the authorities have rushed security forces to the area, senior commanders fret about the simmering tension. Says a senior commander in the area: "There is such a volatile mix of population in this sector that a small incident can trigger a chain reaction." 

Elsewhere in the state, the BLTF has kept up its campaign to disrupt the communication network. On August 19, for instance, another blast under a wooden bridge disrupted rail communication between the Northeast and the rest of the country for three days, sending prices of essential commodities skyrocketing. The army interprets these attacks as a sign of desperation on the part of the militants. Says Lt Gen. R.K. Sawhney, commander of the 4 Corps and chief of the United Command: "Six months of operations under the unified command has made the militant groups desperate. That is why you see attacks on soft targets and vulnerable spots. After all, it is not easy to guard the entire railway line." The Northeast Frontier Railway is coping admirably with the constant disruption but the frequent attacks on railway property has the authorities worried  since most essential commodities are ferried from outside the region.

A besieged chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta effected a host of administrative changes to stem the crisis. First, he inducted V.S. Jaffa, a senior officer, as chief secretary; then announced that supercop K.P.S. Gill—who had a long stint in the Northeast early in his career—was coming as security advisor to the state government. "While Gill's exact post will be decided later, what is sure is that he is coming," Mahanta told Outlook. In what he termed as the "final offensive," Mahanta is determined not to leave anything to chance. On August 20, the Centre replaced Assam governor Lok Nath Misra with former vice chief of Army staff, Lt Gen. S.K. Sinha, apparently with the state government's consent.

A clutch of top officials, including home secretary K. Padmana-bhaiah, Eastern Army commander Lt Gen. Ravi Eipe, Gen. Sawhney, director generals of military operations and military intelligence, decided to further streamline the Unified Command structure in the state. Union home minister Indrajit Gupta is likely to visit the state. Mahanta has sent a clear signal: there will be no letup in counterinsurgency operations now. 

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