Assam: Cyclical Butchery
By K.P.S. Gill
Publisher: SAIR; President, Institute for Conflict Management
Every few months, one or other community in Assam is put in danger. Bloody slaughters are inflicted again and again, and Governments quickly trot out their usual alibis for failure, announce a range of knee jerk responses - principally the injection of more Central Forces and escalation of 'counterinsurgency operations' - and return as quickly to their default setting of indifference and ineptitude once the media storm and the brunt of public ire has waned. The fundamental issues that create spaces for this recurrent violence have stubbornly been ignored for decades and have, in fact, been exacerbated by a range of state policies.
In the latest bloodbath on December 23, 2014, militants of the I. K. Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-IKS), gunned downed 69 Adivasis (tribal communities originally drawn from outside the State, principally as labour for tea plantations, also referred to as 'tea tribals') in near-simultaneous multiple attacks in Chirang, Sonitpur and Kokrajhar Districts. 40 Santhals were killed in Sonitpur, 25 in Kokrajhar and four in Chirang.
On December 24, eight Bodos were killed by Santhal mobs, in retaliation to the December 23 killings, including two in Chirang and three in Kokrajhar District. The location of the remaining three fatalities is unclear - either in Sonitpur or in Kokrajhar.
Again, on December 24, another three Santhals were killed in Police firing, after thousands of Adivasis, took out a procession and engaged in violence, defying the indefinite curfew at Dhekiajuli in Sonitpur District.
At the time of writing, a total of 81 people have died in these incidents out of which 72 are Adivasis and eight are Bodos. The identity of one victim has not yet been confirmed.
NDFB-IKS is a splinter group of the Ranjan Daimary-led NDFB, and is led by its ‘chairman’ and ‘commander-in-chief ‘ Songbijit Ingti Kathar aka I. K. Songbijit aka Sarsingh Ingti aka Sangbijoy, a Karbi tribal. NDFB-IKS claims to be fighting for a ‘sovereign Bodoland’.
It is significant that the same group was responsible for the slaughter of 46 Muslim settlers between May 1 and 3, 2014. On May 1, NDFB-IKS militants entered a house and shot dead three members of a family, including two women, and injured an infant, near the Ananda Bazar area in Baksa District. On May 2, another eight people were killed in Balapara-I village of Kokrajhar District, followed by the recovery of 12 bullet-riddled bodies, including those of five women and a child, the same night, at Nankekhadrabari and Nayanguri villages in Baksa District, where nearly 100 houses and a wooden bridge had also been set ablaze by the militants. Another nine bodies were recovered from a village in Baksa District in the morning of May 3, taking the toll to 32. Dead bodies continued to be recovered till May 12, and the final count stood at 46.
Before this, clashes occurred between the Bodos and Muslims in July 2012. On July 19, an unidentified gunman shot at and injured suspended Police constable Mohibur Islam alias Ratul and All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) leader Siddique Ali. On July 20, 2012, bodies of four Bodo tribes-people [ex-Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) cadres] were recovered in the Joypur Namapara locality in Kokrajhar District. The final death toll as a result of subsequent and widespread violence was 109.
A trickle of militancy-linked fatalities in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) has also been continuous. 14 fatalities were recorded in BTAD areas during 2013 as compared to 24 in 2014, prior to the violence commencing on December 23. Since December 23, another 29 killings have been recorded in the BTAD areas. BTAD is governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), an autonomous administrative unit constituted under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, covering an area of 8,795 square kilometres, and including the four contiguous districts of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang.
The latest round of violence is said to have been in retaliation to the sustained losses suffered by the NDFB-IKS in ongoing counter-insurgency (CI) operations, and there were ample warnings that such a strike was imminent - though, as is obviously to be expected, the exact timing and location of the attacks was not advertised by the militants. Significantly, NDFB-IKS has suffered major setbacks in CI operations launched this year, with 43 NDFB-IKS cadres killed in 26 separate incidents in 2014 [data till December 28, 2014].
Significantly, on December 22, NDFB-IKS had warned the Government of retaliatory attacks if the Security Forces (SFs) did not stop operations against its cadres. These warnings were brushed aside by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who declared, on December 23, “I don't care for such warnings. The situation in the Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD) is not conducive and corrective measures have to be taken." The attacks commenced just hours after the Chief Minister's statement.
CI operations had been launched against the backdrop of the increasing threat from NDFB-IKS. Out of 189 insurgency linked fatalities in the State among civilians and SFs through 2014 (184 civilians and five SF personnel), 137 (136 civilians and one SF trooper) were attributed to the NDFB-IKS. NDFB-IKS has been involved in at least seven major incidents (each involving three or more fatalities) out of 15 major incidents recorded in the State in 2014. On January 19, 2014, the Assam Government had announced that it was intensifying action against the NDFB-IKS in BTAD by carrying out Joint Army-Police CI operations in the aftermath of a sudden spree of killings in the Bodo belt.
Nevertheless, the State Government was found completely unprepared for the December 2014 incidents. As in the past, a smoke and mirrors effort to misdirect the public and media commenced immediately. While the earlier hoax of 'intelligence failure' and efforts to blame the Centre were not employed on this occasion, the State Police sought to claim that the NDFB-IKS was taking advantage of the 'porous border' and was sheltering in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), however, quickly dismissed this deception, clarifying that the architect of the current carnage, Bidai, was known to be operating from western Assam, and it was the Assam Polices' own failures that were to blame for this new cycle butchery.
The deficiencies of the Assam Police and administration have repeatedly been examined elsewhere and do not bear repetition here, beyond the broadest contours of these deficiencies. Specifically, Assam has a Police-population ratio of 173 to 100,000 [NCRB data for end-2013], well above the Indian average of 141, though still significantly below the levels required for law and order management in a State riddled by a decades-long insurgency and a long history of ethnic strife and political mismanagement. Further, there are critical deficits at all levels of the State's Force. State Environment and Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain, speaking on the behalf of Chief Minister Gogoi who also holds the Home portfolio, on August 4, 2014, indicated that 14,356 posts were vacant out of the 75,559 sanctioned posts in the Police. Of these vacancies, four at the level of Inspector General of Police (IGP) could not be filled as "there is no eligible officer completing 18 years of service in the Indian Police Service (IPS) cadre for promotion to the rank of Inspector General of Police (IGP)." Further, the current vacancy for SP/Commandant, Assistant Superintendent of Police and Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) ranks was at 14, 11, and 163 respectively. The force has 2,499 posts of constables, 300 posts of head constables, 138 posts of Assistant Sub-Inspectors, and 420 posts of Sub-Inspectors, lying vacant. In the Special Branch, 407 posts were vacant out of a total strength of 3,538 personnel. Qualitative and capacity elements, in terms of technical, technological and infrastructural backup also remain abysmally inadequate.
Unsurprisingly, the UMHA has emphasised an augmented role for the Army in the immediate response to the NDFB-IKS challenge, and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh told Army Chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag that the Army's presence should be increased in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, where NDFB militants were operating. This, however, can be no solution in the long run. In the wake of the Sukma incident in Chhattisgarh on December 2, 2014, where 14 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were killed by Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres, UMHA is reported to have told Chhattisgarh "that the experience of previous counter-insurgency campaigns in India in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Tripura, shows that State Police should take the lead in the campaign with support from central forces." Police led responses have been the necessary template of successful CI campaigns in India, and this must be the guiding strategy of response. While an escalation of the Army's role may be a transient expedient, the reality is that too much Central 'assistance' gives the States an alibi for abdication of their own responsibility, and leaves the Police Force progressively emasculated.
The containment or neutralization of particular insurgent formations, however, do not promise an enduring solution to the multiple conflicts of Assam. The most enduring basis of these conflicts is the attritional confrontation between low consumption and relatively unresponsive tribal societies and cultures, and the aggressive, market driven economy of illegal migrants. It is clear that tribal communities have been at the losing end of this unrelenting and unequal competition over the decades. Land has been a crucial element of this competition, with large swathes of private, tribal and public land being cornered by illegal migrants, through a range of devices, including outright purchase, simple squatting or forcible possession. Established political parties in Assam have overwhelmingly sought the creeping ‘regularization’ of the status of the vast illegal migrant population in order to herd them into, and hold them as, captive vote banks.
This incendiary mix has been compounded further by a very assertive, even aggressive, Islamist politics, with political formations purportedly representing ‘Muslim interests’ seeking to mobilize the principal illegal migrant community in Assam, the Bangladeshi Muslim. This mobilization raises the very real possibility of an attempt by communal formations, allied to unfriendly regimes and countries in India’s neighbourhood, acting to provoke the destabilization and even possible disintegration, of the territory of Assam. It has become impossible for any political party in Assam to form a Government without the support of communal Islamist parties. Consequently, corrective action from the political leaderships in the State is unlikely in the foreseeable future.
A long process of policy reversal, as well as legal and legislative action will be required to stem the harm that is even now being done. However, immediate measures are necessary to halt the accelerating processes of the alienation of tribal lands and marginalization of indigenous populations in Assam. These must include and an immediate freeze on all land transactions and ownership in the State; an immediate and comprehensive Survey of land and the creation of detailed land records - vast tracts of land across the State remain un-surveyed and are not reflected in the Government’s land and revenue records, and these are the prime targets of creeping illegal occupation; such a survey must identify all incidence of occupation of lands by illegal migrants – all such occupation is illegal, as their very presence on Indian soil is illegal; strong legislation to prevent illegal occupation, and to reverse illegal possession, of currently un-surveyed and public lands, must also be drafted and urgently brought onto the statute books; and finally, constitutional and legislative protection of all tribal lands is necessary against acquisition or permanent occupation by outsiders.
In the absence of these necessary initiatives, while some insurgent formations may be neutralized and others may succumb to exhaustion, the conflict potential in the State cannot diminish and will find expression in new disorders and movements. Purely knee-jerk responses have been initiated in the past, and in the present case, and these are very easy - the routine injection of more Central Forces and escalation of CI Operations. Unless there is a comprehensive look at the twin issues of the transformation of land ownership and demographic destabilization in Assam, however, there can be no enduring cure for this festering wound.