Assam: Troubling Remnants
By Giriraj Bhattacharjee
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
On June 23, 2012, Security Forces (SFs) killed four militants, including three Dimasa National Revolutionary Front (DNRF) and one Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) cadres, in an encounter at Milubra village, 16 kilometers from Lungting in north of the Dima Hasao District and 51 kilometers from its administrative headquarters, Haflong. A cache of arms, including four AK-47 rifles, 236 rounds of ammunition and two Chinese grenades; mobile handsets and a number of NSCN-IM receipt books meant for extortion were recovered. SFs also arrested one NSCN-IM militant following the encounter.
The incident occurred after the Seven Sister’s Post reported, on June 22, that the Police, based on concrete reports of NSCN-IM activities in Dima Hasao, had registered a case and started an operation to flush out the militants. Significantly, the last major incident (involving three or more fatalities) in the District took place on February 15, 2011, when the Dimasa National Democratic Front (DNDF) 'commander-in-chief', Bihari Dimasa, and another two militants of the group, were killed in an encounter with the SFs.
NSCN-IM & NSCN-Khaplang (NSCN-K) appear to be attempting to revive the insurgency in the District, following the decimation of smaller groups, as well as the engagement of larger Dimasa formations in peace talks. The NSCN-IM was known to supply of arms and ammunition and provide training to Dima Hasao based militant outfits over the years, commencing with the initiators of the Dimasa rebellion, the Dimasa National Security Force (DNSF). DNSF ‘chairman’ Bharat Langthasa and a large number of cadres, however, surrendered on November 17, 1994. However, remnants of the group formed the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD), which was also supported by the NSCN-IM. Relations between DHD and NSCN-IM subsequently soured as a result of NSCN’s efforts to consolidate ‘Greater Nagalim’ and DHD’s demand to incorporate Nagaland’s commercial capital, Dimapur, into its proposed ‘Dimaraji State’. The NSCN-IM subsequently shifted support to the breakaway Black Widow (BW) aka Jewel Garlosa faction of the DHD (DHD-J). The truncated DHD was thereafter known as DHD-Nunisa (DHD-N).
2009 had seen a renewal of the active involvement of both Naga factions – NSCN-IM and NSCN-K – in the State after a gap of many years, even as it witnessed the polarization of the majority Dimasa and other tribesmen in the District. In early 2009, the Zemi Naga-Dimasa ethnic clashes resulted in the loss of at least 70 lives, with more than 37 persons sustaining injuries, while 614 houses were set ablaze in clashes that began on March 19 that year. The immediate provocation was apparently the killing of four Zemi Naga tribals in the Mahur Sub-division of the District between March 19 and 23, 2009. The NSCN factions and BW/ DHD-J were thought to be responsible for the clashes.
Another controversial move that added fuel to the fire was the constitution of a Group of Ministers (GoM) Committee under D.P. Goala on September 9, 2009, to look into the renaming of the then North Cachar (NC) Hills District, as demanded by DHD-J. The GoM Committee submitted its recommendations on February 5, 2010, giving approval, in principal, to the change in nomenclature. The District was renamed Dima Hasao on April 1, 2010. The decision aggrieved the non-Dimasa tribesmen in the District.
This polarization over the renaming of the District and the Zemi-Dimasa clashes led to the formation of the NSCN-IM – backed Hills Tiger Force (HTF). HTF opposed the renaming and took up the cause of bifurcation of the Autonomous Council. HTF, an outfit mainly drawn from Zemi, Kuki and Hmar tribesman, also carried out two attacks against Dimasa villagers and several attacks on the railway infrastructure in the District. The group, however, suffered major reverses following SF operations, and has since maintained a low profile. HTF denied its collaboration with NSCN-IM, though recent reports have demonstrated that it received support from both the NSCN-IM and its rival NSCN-K. HTF has been involved in just two incidents [including one allegedly carried out jointly with NSCN-K] since the arrest of its top leaders in 2011.
Meanwhile, a number of small Dimasa militant formations, created by deserters of the parent outfits [According to a February 8, 2012, report, 27 militants from DHD-J and seven from DHD-N had fled their ‘designated camps’ since 2010.], in many cases supported by Naga militants, have emerged in the District, after the en masse surrender of DHD-J in 2009, to occupy the vacated space. The short lived- DHD-James was the first to emerge and to surrender, followed by DNDF, the latter led Janata Maramsa alias Bihari Dimasa, earlier a member of DHD-J. Sustained SF operations led the group to give up arms on August 3, 2011.
A little-known National Dimasa Protection Army (NDPA), formed on December 2011, is currently present in the District. Curiously, the NDPA ‘headquarters’ are located at Dimapur. The NSCN-IM – backed DNRF was also formed when fifteen former militants of the DHD-N reportedly joined hands with the Naga militant outfit in 2010, with both groups agreeing to carry out a joint extortion drive in the District, while NSCN-IM provided arms training and support to DNRF cadres and shelter to the DNRF militant leadership.
The DNRF with an estimated cadre strength of 30, is led by R.J. Dimasa alias Arje Dimasa, Soten Dimasa and Jensingh Dimasa. Both DHD-N and DHD-J have clarified that they have never heard of this leading trio, though an unnamed DHD-N source suggested that they could have adopted new names. Some news reports suggest that the group was formed in 2011 and was led by its 'chairman' Hasong Dimasa and 'finance secretary' Diamond Dimasa. According to 'publicity secretary' Black Dimasa, the aim of the outfit is to "ensure safety and security of the Dimasa people living in the region, and all-round development of Dima Hasao District." He also claimed that DNRF was concerned about the demand raised by the NC Hills Indigenous Students Forum (NCHISF) to bifurcate the Dima Hasao District: "We oppose the demand for bifurcation at all costs. We can't allow the district to weaken geographically by dividing it further in the name of any community or group of people."
However, DNRF on July 4, 2012, suffered a major setback when SFs arrested its top leaders, identified as ‘deputy commander-in-chief’, Manjit Phanglo alias Main Dimasa and ‘vice-chairman’ Nilesh Thousen alias Thairing Dimasa. SFs have also arrested eight DNRF cadres since the formation of the group.
Dima Hasao District is a sparsely populated area of 4,890 square kilometers, and a population of 213,529. It is home to as many as 18 Hill tribes, and has extensive unguarded borders with the insurgency-affected States of Manipur and Nagaland. In the absence of any inter-state border outposts, the border has turned into a free corridor for militants.
Joint Secretary (Northeast), Shambhu Singh, of the Union Ministry for Home Affairs (UMHA), on January 8, 2012, expressed his concern over the extortion activities in various Assam Districts and conceded that, according to information available with his Ministry, rampant extortion was ongoing in areas such as Kokrajhar, Udalguri, Baksa [all three are in Bodoland Territorial Council], Darrang, Dima Hasao, Karbi Anglong, etc.
According to Police sources, NSCN-IM militants recently started issuing notices to villages of Khetra, Didamora, Tivik, Prasademik, and Khepre in Dima Hasao District, lying along the Assam-Nagaland border, asking them to pay ‘taxes’ at the rate of INR 200 per household. Additional Superintendent of Police (ASP) SS Panesar stated that the Police were aware of the problem, and had filed cases of extortion. He asserted that the issue of demand notes in the Hill District would soon be stopped. Recent forays into the District by the NSCN factions could also be linked to two National projects there, the INR 4073.50-crore Lumding-Silchar Jiribam-Badarpur-Kumarghat broad gauge conversion project, and the multi-million Mahasadak (East West corridor) Project, which could be potentially lucrative extortion targets.
The extortion networks extend well into the District Headquarters, Haflong, with NSCN-IM rebels demanding substantial amounts from businesspersons in the town.
The revival of militant activities in the District is visible in the continuous of arrests of cadres. According to the South Asian Terrorism Portal database, since 2009, the SFs have arrested 16 NSCN-IM militants and 3 NSCN-K militants in the District, though there were no arrests in the preceding few years. The two DHD factions – Nunisa and Jewel groups – were also the biggest violators of ceasefire rules in the State, with 462 militants from these groups arrested on charges of extortion, abduction and other crimes. 82 weapons were also seized from them.
Despite continuing troubles in the District, on June 12, 2012, the Union Government signed a draft Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) with the DHD-N, while an agreement with the rival DHD-J had also reportedly been prepared. The draft MoS has been sent to the State Government for approval by the State Cabinet. The draft MoS was signed following a prolonged deadlock over incorporation of over 90 villages spread across the neighbouring Karbi Anglong, Cachar and Nagaon Districts, into the existing Dima Hasao District. The important points of the proposed draft MoS include the incorporation of a few contiguous Dimasa inhabited villages with the existing Dima Hasao District, a financial package worth some INR 2 billion to INR 2.5 billion for the next five years, and recruitment of about 1,500 surrendered militants and other able bodied youth from the District into the State Police, Central Paramilitary Forces, Assam Rifles and the Army. On the issue of Dimasa living in Nagaland, DHD-N has reportedly demanded that the Central Government should include a special provision for them as and when it signed any agreement with the NSCN-IM leadership.
The signing of an interim accord between the DHD-N and Central Government is a step towards the possible mellowing of the Dimasa insurgency. However, the sentiments and interests of non-Dimasa tribals living in the District may act as a drag on the peace process, even as continuous violation of ceasefire rules and the spillover of militant (principally extortion) activities from and into the neighbouring districts, continue to undermine the prospects of an enduring and comprehensive peace. Crucially, as long as the NSCN factions in neighbouring Nagaland continue to breach ceasefire rules with impunity, simmering difficulties in the contiguous areas of Assam will persist.