At 8.55 in the morning on August 15, 2004, five minutes before the national flag was to have been unfurled
at the main Independence Day parade venue at a district town in Assam, a powerful bomb went off. According to
Khagen Sharma, Assam Inspector General of Police (Special Branch), 13 people, including six school children,
died and twenty-one others were injured.
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, and the insurgency-wracked State's security establishment, held the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) responsible for the attack at Dhemaji, a perennially flood-ravaged town, 462 KM east of Guwahati, Assam's capital. The ULFA has been fighting for a 'sovereign, socialist Assam' since the group came into existence in 1979.
"It appears to have been a time device buried on the ground, and going by the modus operandi of the attack, we are convinced that it was the handiwork of the ULFA," Rockybul Hussain, Minister of State for Home, told this writer after he flew back from Dhemaji late on August 15, 2004, along with the Assam Police chief, P.V. Sumant.
Chief Minister Gogoi quickly admitted what was obvious - that it was a clear case of a major security lapse on the part of the police and the administration that led to the explosion. The blast, after all, took place at the main parade venue which was expected to have been sanitized by the security forces. The six children who died were from the local Christian missionary-run Don Bosco School, and the other seven killed were women, all spectators who had gathered to watch the parade.
That the State Government was quick to own up responsibility for the security lapse was evident by the speed with which the district Superintendent of Police (SP) and the Additional SP were placed under suspension and the District Magistrate transferred out. The same day, Chief Minister Gogoi announced ex-gratia payment of Rs 300,000 each to the kin of those killed and Rs 50,000 to those injured. A high-level probe into the incident is likely, if top Assam Government leaders are to be believed.
The blast at Dhemaji was by far the biggest attack carried out by the ULFA on Independence Day so far. On August 10, 2004, eight separatist groups, fighting for 'sovereignty' in India's Northeast, including the ULFA, had called for a boycott of the country's Independence Day, in keeping with a practice that has become the annual routine each year. In recent years, however, security forces have, by and large, been fairly successful in preventing a major terrorist incident from occurring on Independence Day and other national holidays.
This time around, eight insurgent groups had e-mailed a joint statement to journalists, declaring a 24-hour general strike commencing midnight of August 14, 2004, primarily to try and keep the general public indoors, away from Independence Day celebrations. But, in the statement the ULFA had categorically declared that, so far as Assam was concerned, the general strike would be confined only to Guwahati in view of the devastating floods that has hit millions of people.
Strikes called by insurgents in Northeast India, coinciding with important dates in the country's national calendar have been a routine affair for nearly two decades now, and a similar call by the militants earlier this month did not surprise anyone. Groups like the ULFA would attack symbols of governmental authority like railway stations, rail tracks, oil pipelines, police stations or a security patrol around such important dates.
Consequently, when suspected ULFA militants blew up a natural gas pipeline shortly before midnight on August 13, 2004, at village Dighaligaon, near the eastern town of Duliajan, headquarters of the public sector Oil India Limited (OIL), it was thought to be part of the 'established' pattern. The first surprise came on August 14, 2004, when suspected ULFA rebels threw Chinese grenades at a cinema hall in Gauripur, 270 kilometres west of Guwahati, killing one person and injuring 22 others.
The ULFA had clamped a ban on the screening of Hindi films from India's 'film capital' in Mumbai - Bollywood, as it is loosely called - beginning November 15, 2003, and had since carried out four earlier bomb and grenade attacks at theatres showing such films. But, the attack at the Urvi Theatre on August 14, 2004, came as a surprise because a Bengali movie was being shown.
The incident has been projected in some quarters as a demonstration that the ULFA was bent on creating general terror in the State, and had given up its earlier strategy of hitting out at select targets alone.
The fact that latest bomb attack occurred at Dhemaji, although the place did not fall under purview of the ULFA's strike call in view of the floods, is also being interpreted by security agencies as a sign that the group is currently desperate to raise the tally of deaths in attacks carried out by its cadres.
Such a tendency to dismiss these attacks as 'acts of desperation' by the ULFA is far too simplistic. The Dhemaji blast has exposed the fact that the State Police, Army and paramilitary forces which are engaged in counter-insurgency operations under a Unified Headquarters, have become complacent. There is also evidence that cooperation between these forces leaves a great deal to be desired.
The result is that entirely different sets of security measures are adopted in different districts across Assam. Authoritative sources told this writer that in some districts, ahead of Independence Day, police officers had taken note of the manner in which Chechen rebels had killed that country's President, Akhmad Kadyrov, on May 9, 2004, by apparently planting a bomb at capital Grozny's Dynamo Stadium, months in advance. As a result, the police had sanitised many Independence Day parade venues by checking for explosives and then called in the Army to use their deep-search metal detectors as a foolproof measure. Not only that, some of the district police authorities had even obtained written certificates from the Army declaring such venues fully sanitized. Clearly, however, this procedure had not been followed uniformly in all districts, with tragic consequences in Dhemaji.
That aside, there was hard intelligence available with the security establishment that the ULFA's Myanmar-based '28th Battallion', also called the 'Kashmir Camp,' was hell-bent on stepping up violence around Independence Day. Members of the intelligence community told this writer that self-styled Lieutenant Partho Gogoi, a hardcore ULFA militant, was placed in charge of operations in the three eastern Assam districts, Dhemaji, Jorhat and Sivasagar. They also disclosed that Bijoy Chinese, 'camp commander' of the '28th Battallion', who was in charge of operations, had specially instructed Partho Gogoi to try and carry out as many as 15 bomb attacks in Jorhat and Sivasagar districts, coinciding with Independence Day, a task which the group failed to fulfil.
By all indications, the ULFA's crack Myanmar-based unit has actually been bolstered after the Bhutanese military assault on the group inside the Himalayan kingdom in December 2003. Intelligence officials had earlier indicated that this was the case, and Assam Chief Minister Gogoi confirmed on August 15, 2004, that ULFA cadres who managed to flee their camps inside Bhutan in the wake of the Bhutanese offensive in December 2003 had headed for its camps in Myanmar, Bangladesh and in the Northeast Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh, which has a porous border with Myanmar.
The Bhutanese Government, at the beginning of the military assault on the Indian rebels in December 2003, had officially stated that its troops were battling 'in excess of 3,000 militants.' Later, by the time the offensive came to a halt, only about 600 Indian militants could be accounted for after all those killed, captured or those who had surrendered, were taken into account. The question regarding the whereabouts of the remaining 2,000-plus cadres was never satisfactorily answered, but the answers appear to be emerging now. And, it can be safely concluded that, contrary to what was sought to be projected, the ULFA's back is yet to be broken.
Wasbir Hussain is Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi; Consulting Editor, The Sentinel, Guwahati. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal