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Such A Long Journey

The latest arrests are further confirmation of the growing counter-terrorism co-operation between India and Bangladesh, after years of Bangladeshi support to insurgent groups active in Northeast.

Such A Long Journey
PTI
Such A Long Journey
outlookindia.com
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Year 2009 began with the serial bomb blasts on January 1 in three different areas of Guwahati city, which killed five persons and injured 50; it ended with the arrest of the United Liberation Front of Asom's (ULFA's) 'chairman', Arabinda Rajkhowa, and 'deputy commander-in-chief' Raju Baruah, crowning a succession of counter-insurgency successes in the state through the year. Rajkhowa and Baruah were arrested along with the 'chairman's' bodyguard, Raju Bora, in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, long a safe haven for many top ULFA leaders, on December 2, 2009. The latest arrest is a further confirmation of the growing counter-terrorism co-operation between India and Bangladesh, after years of Bangladeshi support to insurgent groups active in India's Northeast.

The movements of Arabinda Rajkhowa aka Rajib Rajkonwar had been under a Security Forces' scanner in Bangladesh since September 2009, before he was arrested with some of his associates. Earlier, Bangladesh's security agencies had arrested ULFA's 'foreign secretary' Sashadhar Choudhury and 'finance secretary' Chitraban Hazarika from a house in Dhaka's up-market Uttara locality on November 1, 2009. The two were also handed over to Indian authorities.

Apart from ULFA's near-decapitation (among its 'executive council', only 'commander-in-chief' Paresh Baruah is still at large, all others are now in Indian custody, or have surrendered to Indian authorities), the arrest of Jewel Gorlosa, 'commander-in-chief' of the Black Widow (BW) outfit, and the mass surrender of BW cadres in September and October 2009, in two phases, as well as the surrender of United People's Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) militants, were the highlights of Assam's counter-insurgency narrative in 2009.

Nevertheless, with at least 371 fatalities in the year, Assam remained the second most violent theatre of conflict in India's Northeast, after its neighbour to the east, Manipur, which recorded 380 fatalities according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal database (till December 6). Data for the year demonstrates a significant increase in militant fatalities and a corresponding decline in civilian deaths, a clear indication that the state was gaining ground. A decline of nearly 32 per cent was recorded in the civilian category, while militant fatalities increased by 45 percent. SF fatalities rose marginally by under 17 per cent. It is, of course, still far too early to speak of a decisive victory, but there is sufficient evidence, including the mass surrender of cadres from two important militant outfits – BW and UPDS – along with significant numbers of cadres from other outfits, that the various insurgencies in Assam are on the wane.

Year

Incidents
Civilians
SFs
Militants
Total

2005

398
173
7
74
254

2006

413
164
32
46
242

2007

500
286
24
129
439

2008

491
244
18
125
387

2009*

728
167
21
183
371

Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal
* Data till December 6, 2009

The substantial increase in number of incidents during the year, with 728 reported till December 6, the highest in the last five years, was predominantly due to the large number of arrests and surrenders recorded.

All 27 districts of the state reported militant activity in 2009, with the Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills districts being the worst affected. In terms of activity, the BW was the most effective outfit in 2009, with ULFA and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) following close behind. The Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front KLNLF and the All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA) remained the principal peripheral militant groups. Further, the ethnic clash between the Zeme Naga (supported by the Nagaland-based NSCN-IM) and Dimasa (backed by the BW) tribes claimed the life of 43 civilians (according to the SATP database) in the North Cachar Hills district in 2009. However, the surrender of a large number of BW militants in the second half of 2009 provided some respite in this troubled district.

At least 28 major incidents (involving deaths of three or more persons) of militant violence, were reported from Assam in 2009. The most significant among these included:

November 22: Suspected ULFA militants triggered two powerful bomb blasts barely 50 meters from the Sadar Police Station in Nalbari town, killing eight people and injuring 53.

October 4: At least 11 persons were killed and ten injured in an attack by suspected militants of the anti-talks faction of the NDFB at Balichand area in the Sonitpur district.

July 1: Unidentified militants shot dead four children and a 25 year-old woman at Semkhor village in the North Cachar Hills district.
Five unidentified militants were shot dead in an encounter between the SFs and militants at Dehikata Reserve Forest in Goalpara district.

June 16: Suspected BW militants shot dead 12 persons, including eight children, and set ablaze 20 houses at Michidui village in the North Cachar Hills district.

June 3: Suspected BW militants shot dead five persons, including two children, and set ablaze 54 houses when they attacked Borchenam Basti, a Zeme Naga inhabited village under Haflong Police Station in the North Cachar Hills district.

May 19: 14 persons, including six NDFB militants, were killed in two separate incidents in the Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills districts.

April 29: Violence between the Zeliangrong community and Cacharis in North Cachar Hills district continued for over two days, claiming 10 lives. The clashes between the two communities, the Zeme sub-tribe of the Zeliangrong tribe and the Cacharis (Dimasas) started after suspected BW militants killed nine Zemes on April 28.

April 20: BW militants shot dead six persons, including five SF personnel, in an ambush on the convoy of a private cement company's vehicles in the North Cachar Hills district.

The Army killed five militants, including an accused in the Dhekiajuli blast of April 15, during an encounter at Aka Basti in the Sonitpur district. Of the five militants, Prabhat Basumatary, Krishna Basumatary and Deithang Basumatary belonged to the NDFB while Babul Ali and Yunis Ali were from the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA).

January 1: ULFA militants triggered serial bomb blasts in three different areas of Guwahati city, killing five persons, including a minor, and injuring 50. The first explosion took place around 2:25 pm (IST) in Birubari, followed by high-intensity explosions in the Bhootnath area (5:25 pm) and Bhangagarh area (5:40 pm).
Escalating violence in the North Cachar Hills district was particularly worrisome. The Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi informed the Legislative Assembly on May 30 that 70 militancy-related incidents had taken place in the North Cachar Hills district in just the preceding four months and at least 20 persons had been killed and more than 1,600 rendered homeless in the attacks.

Attacks on goods trains and the railway establishment by the BW outfit in North Cachar Hills, resulting in a disruption of supplies of essential goods in the area, gave further cause for concern, both to the state and Union government. There were 12 incidents of BW cadres targeting trains and railway property, resulting in four SF fatalities. 16 SF personnel and 18 civilians also sustained injuries in these attacks. 

Some of the significant attacks on Railway infrastructure included:

April 11: Two Special Police Officers, Assistant Sub-Inspector Lalit Borgohain and Constable Biseswar Bora, were killed, and another was injured, when BW militants attacked a goods train at Dijaodra under Langting Police Station.

April 10: One Central Reserve Police Force constable was killed and 17 persons were injured when the BW militants opened indiscriminate fire on the Badarpur-Lumding Barak Express train.

The arrest of 'chairman' and 'chief' of the BW outfit, Jewel Gorlosa, from Bangalore, capital of the south Indian state of Karnataka, and the killing of Frankey Dimasa, the BW 'foreign secretary', in an encounter with the Guwahati Police on June 4, 2009, inflicted irreversible damage on the BW's organizational structure and operational capacity. Reeling under this impact, around 193 BW militants later surrendered, along with their weapons, before the SFs, on September 13. The cadres first gathered at Thanalambra, about 35 kilometres from Haflong, district headquarters of North Cachar Hills, before proceeding to the 5th Assam Police Battalion headquarters at Sontilla, to deposit more than 70 weapons. The second batch of 180 BW militants surrendered arms on September 14, taking the total number of cadres to 373. In a formal surrender ceremony on October 2, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi announced financial assistance worth INR 500 million and promised more when 360 BW cadres formally surrendered at Haflong in North Cachar Hills. However, a splinter faction, led by James Dimasa, has made it clear that they intend to fight on. Jonadon Dimasa, spokesman of the splinter BW faction, reportedly told local media that they would not surrender.

A dangerous nexus between politicians and militants came to light with the arrest of Mohit Hojai, the Chief Executive Member of the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council, on charges of allegedly giving INR 10 million to two persons for purchasing arms for the BW. The case was referred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). On November 17, NIA charge-sheeted Mohit Hojai and 13 others, including the BW's 'chief' Jewel Gorlosa and 'commander-in-chief' Niranjan Hojai in this connection. The NIA also prayed before the court to summon Hojai, who is lodged in a designated camp after surrendering on October 2, 2009, along with other cadres of the outfit.

The ULFA received a succession of its worst setbacks with the arrest of 'chairman' Arabinda Rajkhowa, 'deputy commander-in-chief' Raju Barua, 'foreign secretary' Sashadhar Choudhury and 'finance secretary' Chitraban Hazarika. The ULFA 'chairman' and others are now in the judicial process in Guwahati, after being handed over to the Assam Police. These developments have largely been the consequence of a process orchestrated by the Centre to secure the return of the leadership of militants operating in the Northeast to Indian soil with assistance from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed's friendly regime in Bangladesh.

The succession of arrests in 2009 have occurred after a gradual process of attrition that has decimated the top ULFA leadership over the years. Vice Chairman' Pradip Gogoi was arrested on April 8, 1998, and is currently in judicial custody at Guwahati. 'General Secretary' Anup Chetia is under detention in Dhaka, after being arrested on December 21, 1997. The outfit's founding member and ideologue Bhimakanta Buragohain, 'publicity secretary' Mithinga Daimary and 'assistant secretary' Bolin Das were arrested during the military operations in Bhutan in December 2003. Earlier, 'cultural secretary' Pranati Deka had been arrested at Phulbari in the West Garo Hills district of Meghalaya on October 25, 2003. Crucially, the ULFA received a crippling blow when its '28th Battalion', its most lethal formation in recent years, split down the middle with most top commanders and cadre surrendering, and declaring themselves in favour of a negotiated solution to the 'Assam problem'.

The top leadership of the group has not changed much since its early years, and a second rung of leaders has not visibly evolved. Nevertheless, there is certainly a fair strength of foot-soldiers still available to the group's 'commander-in-chief' Paresh Baruah, both within the Northeast, and in neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Sashadhar Choudhury and Chitraban Hazarika, on November 15, had claimed that Paresh Baruah was the main leader currently running the group. Baruah, they disclosed, was constantly shifting between China, Myanmar and Thailand, and still had strong contacts in China. They further confessed that Paresh Baruah was not just procuring arms from Chinese manufacturers, but also selling them to other militant groups such as the NDFB, National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), All Tripura Tigers Force (ATTF) and the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist). These revelations by two top ULFA leaders corroborate Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai's claims, on November 8, 2008, that "Chinese are big smugglers... suppliers of small arms. I am sure that the CPI-Maoist also gets them."

Curiously, at a time when the ULFA is under its worst existential threat since its formation on April 7, 1979, it is the government – both at the centre and the state – that appears most desperate to push for a negotiated solution. The result has only been to encourage increasing inflexibility on the part of the ULFA leadership – both those in custody and outside. Arrested leaders have been grandstanding – under guard of their benign police escorts – making public declarations of their determination to continue their 'fight for sovereignty', and refusing to accept any talks while any ULFA leader is in jail. Meanwhile, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi declared, on December 3, "I have all along been convinced that the problem of insurgency has to arrive at some sort of political solution…If Paresh Baruah comes that is well and good but my personal view is that a dialogue can begin without him. This is also the desire of the people of Assam who favour a peaceful solution of insurgency."

However, three prominent jailed ULFA leaders — 'vice-chairman' Pradip Gogoi, former 'publicity secretary' Mithinga Daimary and 'cultural secretary' Pranati Deka — reportedly foresee a bleak future for the peace talks if Arabinda Rajkhowa initiates such a move sidelining Paresh Baruah and 'violating' ULFA's 'constitution'. At the moment, the chances of Paresh Baruah joining talks within pre-conditions laid down by the Union government appear remote, and he has released a message through a member of the People's Consultative Group (PCG), Hiranya Saikia, asserting that the struggle for Assam's sovereignty would continue even if some members of the rebel group come forward for talks by giving up the demands and ideology of the ULFA.

Other than the BW and ULFA, another prominent formation that has remained active in Assam is the anti-talks faction (Ranjan Daimary group) of the NDFB. This group killed 16 civilians and three SF personnel in 2009. In one of these incidents, an Army Colonel, S.M. Perumal, and a trooper were killed in an IED blast at Chariduar in the Sonitpur district. A number of abduction and extortion cases have also been registered by the Police against NDFB cadres. SF operations against the group have resulted in 61 militant fatalities in 2009. There has also been a series of surrenders in the recent past, with at least 63 militants from the anti-talks faction laying down arms thus far in 2009. Among these, 42, including a number of 'corporals' and 'lance corporals', mostly from the outfit's "4th battalion", surrendered before the Assam Police at Mushalpur in Baksa district on January 13. "The organisation no longer has the old ideology and we have lost confidence in the leadership. So we decided to surrender," 27-year-old 'corporal' Dino Boro is reported to have confessed. There have also been reports that Ranjan Daimary was arrested by the Bangladesh Security Forces in early November, but these remain officially unconfirmed.

Parliamentary elections in Assam were conducted in two phases on April 16 and April 23, 2009. An estimated 62 per cent votes were cast. Polling was, by and large, peaceful except for some minor incidents of militancy-related violence.

After the serial bomb blasts of October 30, 2008, and January 1, 2009, the state government had tried to strengthen security measures in Assam. On January 10, the Assam Legislative Assembly passed the Assam Preventive Detention (Amendment) Act, 2009, increasing the period of detention without trial of any person hindering the security of the state from six months to two years. The amendment changed section 13 of the existing Assam Preventive Detention Act, 1980. The amendment stated that a state government officer, not below the rank of secretary or district magistrate, if satisfied, could order detention of any person with a view to prevent him from acting in any manner prejudicial to the security of the state, maintenance of law and order and also maintenance of supplies and services essential to the community. Further, on January 18, it was decided to establish four anti-terrorism training schools in Assam. The then Director General of Police (DGP), G.M. Srivastava, stated, "The training schools would certainly add teeth to the anti-terror operations in the state and the implications of the same would be there to be seen in other states of the North East." The Assam Police is also reported to have prepared a list of organisations, including Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs), which are allegedly providing support – including finances – to ULFA, especially its '709th battalion'. A senior Police official disclosed, "Most of these organisations have their operations in lower Assam. They have been paying to the ULFA in recent times. We have the names of a few such agencies and are investigating their credentials. We will go after them once we have a watertight case." The names of these organisations were found in a diary recovered from a spot at Kalagaon in Udalguri district early in April 2009, where ULFA leader Akash Thapa had a narrow escape, he added. The Assam government, on April 28, also initiated action against a leading tea company for aiding a militant outfit and has also taken action against government officials accused of diverting development funds to the rebels.

The big story emerging from Assam in 2009 is the disarray of among the most important militant groups operating in the state. Augmenting counter-terrorism co-operation between India and Bangladesh has created panic among these outfits, who had long taken their safe havens and state support in Bangladesh for granted. With the latest arrests and handing over to Indian authorities of militant leaders like Shashadhar Choudhury, Chitrabhan Hazarika, Arabinda Rajkhowa and Raju Barua, who have led a lethal terrorist campaign for the last 30 years, the arrest of at least 494 militants and 732 surrenders during 2009, along with some of the leading militant groups such as BW and UPDS seeking to enter a negotiation process, there have certainly been watershed changes in the state. It remains to be seen whether the government will display the necessary wisdom to consolidate these advantages, or will waste them through ill-conceived initiatives or a lapse into complacence.


Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy: the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

 

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