Assam: Witches Brew in BTAD
By Giriraj Bhattacharjee
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
On September 1, 2012, the Army launched what has been described as “one of its biggest search operations ever”, covering six Districts – Kokrajhar, Dhubri, Bongaigaon, Chirang, Baksa and Nalbari – of Lower Assam, to unearth and confiscate illegal arms and explosives in the aftermath of ethnic clashes in the State. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi declared, "The Army is out and is helping us. It has been given full powers to seize illegal arms and ammunition and I believe we will get results very soon".
Unnamed Defence sources observed, in this regard, "The Army's focus has now been shifted to seizing all the illegal weapons out in the open. There are explosives too out there, and the Army's job is to push its intelligence gathering and get hold of all these weapons and explosives. There are reports that even normal people who have no links with rebel outfits may possess arms."
The recoveries following the launch of this ‘biggest search operation’ have, at best, been modest, with four incidents of recovery and arrest presently recorded:
September 23: Security Forces (SFs) neutralized an extremist hideout in the Guma Forest in Gossaigaon sub-division of Kokrajhar District and recovered 17 gelatin sticks, 28 detonators and circuit boards. SFs suspect the hideout to be of either a breakaway Adivasi factions or elements of the Rabha Viper Army (RVA).
September 20: SFs recovered two AK-56 rifles, two magazines and 20 rounds of ammunition at Sonajuli village under Dhimakuchi Police Station in Udalguri District. However, no one was arrested in this context.
September 19: SFs recovered two AK-47 rifles along with three magazines and 23 rounds of live ammunition from an arms dealer at Samtaibari in Chirang District.
September 18: SFs arrested four suspected cadres of the Ranjan Daimari faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-RD) and four other linkmen from a house in Simaluguri village under the Paneri Police Station in Udalguri District. SFs found four AK-56 rifles, four magazines and 65 rounds of ammunition in their possession.
September 17: Two hand grenades and as many detonators were recovered from the house of a former NDFB insurgent identified as Rakesh Bodo at Kotabari village, under the Tamulpur Police Station in Baksa District. During interrogation, Rakesh told the Police that the Bodoland Peoples Front (BPF) party’s Darangajuli vice-president, Sanatan Sarania, had asked him to keep the explosives in his house. Both Rakesh and Sarania were arrested.
The Army was deployed on July 25, 2012, to assist the civil administration in subduing the ethnic clashes in Lower Assam, primarily in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) and the adjoining District of Dhubri. The clashes commenced on July 20, 2012, when bodies of four Bodo tribes-people [ex-Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT)] militants] were recovered in the Joypur Namapara locality in Kokrajhar. Earlier, unidentified gunman on July 19 shot at and injured suspended Police constable Mohibur Islam alias Ratul and All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) leader Siddique Ali.
The ethnic clashes, according to Union Minister of Home Affairs (UMHA) Sushil Kumar Shinde’s statement on August 9, 2012, left 77 persons dead. Partial data collected by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) puts the number of civilian killed at 109 until October 1. Further, according to the State Home Department, 5,000 houses were set ablaze in 244 villages. 187,052 persons affected by the violence between Bodos and Muslims were still lodged in 206 camps even after nearly two months since trouble broke out in five Lower Assam Districts. These included 168,875 Muslims, housed in 174 camps; 17,344 Bodos in 29 camps; and 833 belonging to other communities, in three camps, official sources disclosed, on September 16. Dhubri has the highest number of 101,373 inmates in 129 camps, followed by Kokrajhar with 55,760 inmates in 43 camps, Chirang with 23,609 inmates in 22 camps, Bongaigaon with 5,554 inmates in nine camps and 756 people in three camps in Barpeta. This is the second such clash involving Bodos and Muslims.
Bodo areas also have witnessed ethnic clashes earlier as well, between Bodos and Adivasis, and Bodos and Koch-Rajbongshi in the late 1980’s and mid 1990’s.
The BTAD extends over an area of 8,970 square kilometres in the four Districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri, and is administered by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), which was created following the accord with the BLT in 2003. The largest Plains’ tribal movement has seen many peaks and lows, from the call of the Plain Tribals Council of Assam (PTCA) in 1967 for a separate union territory of Udayachal, to the All Bodo Students’ Union’s (ABSU) demand for a “50-50 division” of Assam in 1987. The earlier agitations included all the plains’ tribal populations, such as the Mishing, Rabha, Mech, Deori and Sonowal, among others, in addition to the Bodos. The first phase of the Bodo agitation, in the late 1980’s, culminated in the first Bodo Accord of 1993, which led to the formation of Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC). The accord failed to meet the aspirations of the agitating groups, and led to the formation of the militant BLT.
The first Bodo Accord collapsed due to the failure to demarcate the boundary of the Council’s jurisdiction. The second Bodo Accord, signed in 2003, led to the formation of a Territorial Council under the sixth schedule of the Indian Constitution, and at the same time preserved the rights of non-tribal landowners in the tribal area. According to the BTC Act, 2003, "the existing rights and privileges of any citizen in respect of his land at the date of commencement of the act" are retained. Further, the provisions of the BTC Act do not "disallow any citizen from acquiring land either by way of inheritance, allotment, settlement, or by any other way of transfer, if such citizen is otherwise eligible for such acquisition". Many Bodo leaders have questioned the logic behind these provisions.
After the signing of the 2003 Bodo Accord and surrender of the BLT militants, the united National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) remained the active militant outfit operating in the Bodo-inhabitated areas of Assam. However, the united NDFB also entered into a cease-fire agreement (CFA) with the Central and State Governments in 2005. This was followed by 855 NDFB cadres moving into designated camps. However, following the October 30, 2008, serial blasts in Guwahati, the organization suffered a vertical split, and now has two factions, the Pro-Talks Faction led by B. Sungthagra alias Dhiren Boro (NDFB-PTF), and an Anti-talks faction, led by the now jailed Ranjan Daimari alias D.R. Nabla (NDFB-RD). Ranjan Daimari declared a unilateral ceasefire, effective from August 1, 2011, though SFs have continued operations against the group in the absence of a formal commitment from military commanders of the outfit.
Even after several rounds of informal talks between NDFB-PTF and the ‘central interlocutor’ P.C Halder, little visible progress is evident. The failure to secure a substantive breakthrough had led to indiscipline in the outfit, and NDFB-PTF members are frequently found to be involved in acts of extortion and abduction, despite the ceasefire.
According to a February 11, 2012, report, the SFs had arrested 46 NDFB-PTF militants on charges of kidnapping and extortion, recovering 37 weapons from them. Further, a February 8, 2012, report claimed that 108 NDFB-PTF militant had fled their designated camps since 2010. However, a clarification issued by NDFB-PTF on February 9, 2012, declared that none of its 1,027 cadres had left their designated camps.
On February 17, 2012, NDFB-PTF had asked then UMHA P. Chidambaram to immediately relieve former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief P.C. Haldar of his charge as interlocutor, not just for peace talks with the group, but from any exercise undertaken by the Centre to resolve the Bodo issue. Haldar is also the interlocutor for talks with the rival NDFB-RD. Haldar last met NDFB-RD leader, Daimary, in Guwahati Central Jail on August 28, 2012. He has held five rounds of informal talks with Daimari.
The failure to secure any substantive settlement with NDFB-PTF has reportedly led the Government to intensify parleys with Daimary’s NDFB-RD. Civil society groups, including the Bodo National Council (BNC), appear to be backing this move. NDFB-PTF was, earlier, part of BNC; it withdrew from the council on November 5, 2011, due to difference with BNC ‘chairman’ Hagrama Mohilary.
The NDFB-RD leadership consists of its ‘president’ Ranjan Daimari, arrested from Bangladesh in 2010; ‘vice president’, G. Rifikhang, taken into custody by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on April 20, 2011; ‘deputy chief of army staff’ of the ‘Bodoland army’; and Jwngkhang Boro, arrested on December 10, 2010 .The leaders still at large include ‘chief of NDFB army staff’ I.K. Songbijit; ‘information and publicity secretary’ Ohnjalu Basumatary; and 'finance secretary’ Rifikhang Goyar. The group’s ‘general secretary’, Dinthi Gwra Narzary, was killed on January 18, 2011, in Meghalaya. The group has an estimated cadre-strength of around 350.
With most of the leadership in jail, reports suggest that the outfit’s central command leadership is weak. Bedai, NDFB-RD’s ‘western Assam commander’, and his group are reported to be hiding in the Chirang Reserved Forest and engage in extortion and kidnapping. There are also signs of rank dissatisfaction. A reshuffle of the middle rung leaders of the outfit was reportedly carried out in December 2011 to avert any showdown between armed factions within the outfit. The weakness in the chain of command became manifest when Myanmar-based I.K. Songbijit, the chief of the NDFB-RD's armed wing called off the ceasefire on August 8, 2012. The move was later dismissed by NDFB-RD publicity secretary.
The group is also suspected to be behind at least one incident of killing in the ongoing Bodo-Muslim clashes, the August 13, 2012 incident in which a Muslim labourer from West Bengal was shot dead, and three others were injured, in Chirang District, on the Indo-Bhutan border. All four were returning from Bhutan, and planned to take a train to their hometown of Malda in West Bengal. The NDFB-RD has, however, denied involvement in any violence, including the August 13 killing.
Despite the group’s unilateral declaration of an indefinite ceasefire sinc August 2011, several instances of extortion and abduction, involving NDFB-RD cadres, have come to light. Partial data compiled by SATP has recorded at least seven cases of extortion by NDFB-RD militants in 2012, though the number may well be greater, with a large proportion of such cases going unreported. The BTC leadership has admitted to the rampant extortion prevalent in BTAD areas. BTC 'chairperson' Hagrama Mohilary, on January 6, 2012, conceded, "In the BTAD area, the situation has reached such an alarming level that even the poor villagers are not being spared. We have reports that in some areas the extortionists are collecting anything between INR 50 and INR 100 from each village household." A July 30, 2012, report quotes an unnamed ‘Bodo leader’ as stating that ‘volunteers’ could be hired for INR 2,000-3,000 a month”, and, “in these difficult times, a firearm is a prized possession.”
Unsurprisingly, the SFs continue their offensive against the NDFB-RD, despite the outfit’s unilateral ceasefire.
The demographic structure of the Bodo areas constitutes a potent danger to peace and public security in the region. A secret report of the Assam Police provides a demographic break-up of the Kokrajhar District, indicating that Bodos, at 310,000, constitute 30 per cent of the population, and Muslims, at 236,000, 25.15 per cent, something the tribals have been repeatedly pointing out as a cause for worry and evidence that illegal migration from Bangladesh into Bodo areas continues. Of the nearly 1,050,000- people in the District, the Rajbongshis account for 165,000, the Adivasis 186,000, and others, mainly Nepalis and Bengalis, another 133,000. This tenuous demographic ‘balance’ is further complicated by the substantial availability of illegal arms.
Crucially, the Bodo demand for Bodoland also overlaps with the Adivasi groups’ demand for a separate Kamtapur. On July 10, 2012, Adivasi militant outfits, during their talks with the Joint Secretary (North-east) of the UMHA, Shambhu Singh, and Assam’s Additional Director General of Police – Special Branch (ADGP-SB), Khagen Sarma, reiterated their demand for the creation of an Adivasi land to be carved out of the BTC area. The Adivasi groups include the All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA), Adivasi Cobra Military of Assam (ACMA), Adivasi Peoples’ Army (APA), Birsa Commando Force (BCF) and Santhal Tiger Force (STF). The other major demand of the five outfits is Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for the Adivasi community. The All Koch Rajbongshi Students’ Union (AKRSU) has also revived the Kamtapur State movement in 2011.
The administration argues that a leadership deficit within the Police Force, thin presence on the ground, lack of mobility, the difficulty of the terrain and a complex and volatile ethnic mix, make it difficult to maintain law and order in the area. The overlapping and irreconcilable demands of divergent ethnic and religious groups make the situation nearly impossible to resolve, even as the administration chooses to bury its head in the sand with regard to the most significant elements of the demographic destabilization of the area. With growing land alienation among the tribals and continuing illegal migration, and with no principled effort to distinguish illegal migrants from legitimate citizens in the State at large, there is little possibility of an enduring peace in the BTA Districts, even is the augmented presence of SFs and the deployment of the Army are able to put a lid on immediate violence for the time being.