The Troubled Eastern Front

The attack in Bullut only underlines, ULFA's tactical shift of not engaging the security forces but carrying out furtive bomb attacks in public places. New Delhi has its task cut out in engaging with Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh to deny safe havens

The Troubled Eastern Front

Today's news: after this article had been written -- A powerful bomb explosion triggered by suspected ULFA militants killed two persons and injured 42, including four children, at the weekly wholesale market inBullut town near Guwahati. Daily updates

Manabhum, a 1,500 square kilometre wilderness in Arunachal Pradesh's Lohitdistrict, has emerged as the main staging area of rebels belonging to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), after cadres of the group were expelled by the Bhutanese military blitzkrieg from the Himalayan kingdom in December 2003. The border with Myanmar, where ULFA's dreaded 28th Battalion is located, is barely 25 kilometres from the outer periphery of this heavily wooded reserve forest, making it the rebels' preferred hub for the coordination and launch of operations. 

It isn't surprising, therefore, that soldiers of the Army's 2nd Mountain Division, based near the eastern Assamdistrict town of Dibrugarh, make regular forays into this dense jungle in adjoining Arunachal Pradesh. Army troopers have given rather interesting code names to their successive offensives inside Manabhum: it was'Operation Blazing Khukri' on the fringes of this forest between April 5 and 10, 2007, in which soldiers of the 7/11 Gorkha Rifles killed eight ULFA cadres, including two women. The troops followed this up with'Operation Blooming Orchid', this time in Manabhum proper, between April 27 and May 1, 2007. Two ULFA camps were destroyed and the area was'successfully sanitized' during the operations by nearly 500 soldiers.

Things, however, are not quite as good as the preceding narrative may suggest. The ULFA continues to dominate the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border and persists with its depredations into Assam from this safe haven. The Army Operations have limited impact, with the bulk of cadres simply retreating further inside Arunachal Pradesh, or crossing the international border into Myanmar, only to return the moment troops have vacated their forest sanctuary.

This pattern could be prevented, and the ULFA sanctuary in Manabhum substantially neutralized, by an adequate deployment of Central Para-military Forces (CPMFs), backed by the Arunachal Pradesh State Police, along the borders with both Assam and Myanmar. It does not require great strategic depth or foresight to understand and plan such deployment, at least along a semi-permanent counter-insurgency grid to check the cross border movements of the rebels. 

There is, however, no such deployment of men from the CPMFs in Manabhum, and only a thin presence of personnel from the State Police. By way of'security cover' inside Arunachal Pradesh, along the border stretch with the eastern Assamdistricts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivasagar, extending across more than 400 kilometres, there is a lone company of the India Reserve Battalion. The story is more or less similar in the Tirap and Changlangdistricts of Arunachal Pradesh, areas in the grip of an assortment of Naga and other rebel groups. 

Interestingly, the media, covering the meeting of the Police Chiefs of four northeastern states (Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland) in Guwahati on June 4, 2007, talked of plans for'coordinated' operations by the Security Forces (SFs) in the fourstates, even while participants pointed out several loopholes in counter-insurgency strategies.

There is, regrettably, much more in evidence of a deeply flawed counter-insurgency strategy in the region. Assam currently has in excess of 140 CPMF companies, a majority from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). What comes as a rather disturbing disclosure by some top security officials is that battalionheadquarters of many of these CRPF companies are located in distant states, including, for instance, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. In most cases, the companies deployed in Assam to battle potent rebel groups like the ULFA are headed by officers of the rank of sub-inspectors or inspectors, and are loose formations with serious flaws in the command and control structure so very essential for effective counter-insurgency. This may, in fact, well be the situation with respect to CPMF deployment in several parts of the country. Commanders of such battalions, whose companies are located in states such as Assam, make only occasional visits to see their boys'in action'.

Union home ministry mandarins appear to have concluded that the ULFA is a spent force, and may find no fault with prevailing counter-insurgency tactics in Assam. But Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have become major theatres of the ULFA insurgency in the sense that the rebels use thesestates as transit stops on their way to Myanmar or as staging areas close to eastern Assam, and a quick look at the rising fatalities inflicted by the ULFA in Assam puts a question-mark on the'spent force' thesis. Data for the current year, released by theministry of home affairs, indicates that there were a total of 156 insurgency-related incidents in Assam between January 1, 2007, and March 31, 2007, a number approaching that for Jammu and Kashmir, at 211 incidents, over the same period. The ULFA, between January 1, 2007, and June 10, 2007, carried out 68 attacks in eastern Assam, and also inside Manabhum in Arunachal Pradesh (31 incidents of firing, six grenade attacks and 31 bomb explosions), killing 81 civilians, 11 police and paramilitary troopers and two Army soldiers. Close to 100 people, including 84 civilians, were injured in these attacks in the area.

A look at the Army's actions along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border gives further indications of how active the ULFA remains in the area: since September 24, 2006, the Army has killed 19 ULFA militants along this stretch, and captured another 14, and has also apprehended 31'overground workers' of the group. The Army is, however, handicapped by the fact that it can operate only 20 kilometres inside Arunachal Pradesh, from the border with Assam(Tinsukia district), as this is the extent of the proclaimed 'Disturbed Area' where the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958, applies. With the Army's hands tied, there is the more pressing reason for heavy deployment of the CPMFs deeper within and beyond the Manabhum forests.

Effective policing of densely wooded stretches such as Manabhum is all the more urgent in view of credible intelligence inputs that Chakma refugees settled since decades in Arunachal Pradesh have started providing logistic support to the ULFA. There are also reports of Chakma settlers being enrolled by the ULFA, and also being recruited by other rebels groups active in the Tirap-Changlang-Lohit belt in Arunachal Pradesh, mainly the National Socialist Council of Nagaland -Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) and Khaplang (NSCN-K) factions. If all these inputs are pieced together, it becomes clear that there is enough potential for escalation of the insurgency in Arunachal Pradesh itself, led by visiting rebels and their local allies.

Crucially, the ULFA's changed strategy over the past few years of not engaging in direct gun battles with the security forces and the group's reliance on carrying out furtive bomb attacks in public places should not be viewed as a conclusive sign of the group's weakness, but as a tactical shift. By all accounts, the ULFA is making definite bids at regrouping. Reports with Indian security agencies suggest that, at present, up to 100 women cadres are being trained by the ULFA in fresh camps set up by the group inside Bhutan. New Delhi has received information on the emergence of new insurgent camps in Bhutanese territory, though Bhutan remains in a denial mode, at least in its public pronouncements. ULFA is also said to be carrying on with its recruitment drive, though the training of cadres has been constrained by the lack of permanent bases such as the ones the group had inside Bhutan prior to the 2003 military action against them.

The Army's own operations in the eastern Assam districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sivasagar and some other nearby stretches between January 1, 2007, and end May 2007, give further indications of significant ULFA activity: the soldiers have killed 28 ULFA cadres, and apprehended 40 cadres and 106'overground workers' of the group in this five-month period. 103 automatic weapons have been seized from the rebels. 

There is clearly an urgent need to revamp the Unified Headquarters structure, and the patterns of deployment of, and coordination with, CPMFs and the State Police, both in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, to blunt the continued insurgent offensive. There is evident need for augmented deployment in Arunachal Pradesh, particularly along the border with Assam, for the continued surveillance of the dense reserve forest in Manabhum, and a strong check on the inter-state movement of insurgents. The existing systems of superintendence and command of the CPMFs also need review, and there is a clear need for higher command structures to be located in the areas of operation to ensure the optimal utilization of the Force. The residual threat of ULFA activity, moreover, will always persist as long as New Delhi is not able to effectively engage with Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh to deny safe haven to the insurgents on foreign soil. 

Wasbir Hussain is a Guwahati-based political analyst and Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management.Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal