First blood

46Indiansecurity On guard: An Indian security personnel near the Balajan market in Kokrajhar | AFP

Sonowal faces first case of insurgent violence in Assam

On August 5, a few men entered the busy Balajan weekly market in western Assam’s Kokrajhar district. One of them was tall and wore a raincoat. It was a hot day and his outfit attracted stares. He surveyed the area while young boys pulled out their phones and started clicking photos. Minutes later, he flung aside his raincoat to reveal an AK-47 assault rifle and started firing. His accomplices, too, joined him. They killed 14 people and injured many others.

The tall man who was later identified as Monjoy Islari, the self-styled commanding officer of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit). The police killed him, but the others escaped. They had shattered a two-year calm in the Bodo belt. Said Kiren Rijiju, minister of state for home: “This incident ...has given us a shock.”

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who was in Delhi during the attack, rushed back to Guwahati in a special plane. “The government will not bow to any pressure while tackling terrorist groups,” Sonowal said. “We have instructed our security forces to go all out against the militants and have also requested the NIA [National Investigation Agency] to step in.” He asked the district administration to be on high alert and urged the people of Assam to maintain peace and harmony.

On August 8, a joint team of the Assam Police and Army arrested a NDFB-S militant suspected to be associated with those involved in the attack. The police now await a DNA report of Islari as his parents failed to recognise him—he had left home nine years back. His neighbours said he once aspired to be an Army man and fight for the nation. But he did not clear the medical tests and could not bear unemployment. Out of desperation, he joined the NDFB-S.

A section of the media termed it a ‘jihadi attack’. The Assam Police and the team of ministers led by Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who visited the site, dismissed such rumours. It was clear that the attackers didn't target a particular community—the dead included Bodos (seven of the 14), Bengalis (Muslims as well as Hindus) and an Assamese. In the past, particularly during two of its biggest assaults in 2014, the NDFB-S had targeted migrant Muslim settlers and tribals.

The NDFB-S, however, released an email to the media that said: “We condemn the allegations by the Assam Police against the NDFB-S of being involved in the attack at Balajan Tiniali. Our organisation is not at all involved in this.” Interestingly, the email was dated July 19. The Balajan market operates on Tuesdays and Fridays (August 5 was a Friday). So, the question is whether the outfit had planned to carry out the attack on July 19 (Tuesday) but had to abort the plan for some reason.

The outfit has been facing severe reverses in the past one year. In April 2015, its founder Ingti Kathar Songbijit was sidelined and removed as president. B. Saoraigwra replaced him. Songbijit, a Karbi tribal, is said to be somewhere in China’s Yunnan province, close to the Myanmar border. NDFB-S vice president G. Bidai, its most powerful leader, is said to be cornered by the continuing counter-insurgency operations and is somewhere along the Assam-Bhutan border. Islari was apparently operating with four other experienced sharp-shooters directly under Bidai until May. But, intensified security operations had forced the group to split and, eventually, three members were killed in shootouts. Islari, said intelligence officers, was frustrated with the death of his colleagues.

The NDFB-S has been pushed to the wall, said intelligence officers, and the August 5 attack was seen as a desperate bid to divert the attention of the Army from the Bhutan border to create an opportunity for Bidai and others to move to a safer location.

Sonowal and Sarma have stated that the NDFB-S, despite the outfit’s denial, was behind the attack. The question, however, was whether it did it alone or with the assistance of other rebel groups and terror elements. The NIA is investigating the case, but there is no doubt that the NDFB-S, like a few other rebel outfits in the region, has degenerated into a pure terror group, killing civilians and kidnapping people for ransom.

This is the first insurgent violence in Assam after the BJP-led government came to power on May 24. The Narendra Modi government’s stated policy on combating terror has been one of 'zero tolerance'. Whether this is so in application remains to be seen.

The timing, too, is critical. Independence Day is round the corner and it has been a ritual among insurgent groups in the northeast to step up attacks ahead of key days on the national calendar or call for boycott of all functions associated with such occasions. But, whether it was a symbolic show of strength or whether it signals that the NDFB-S will regroup remains to be seen.

The attack has once again put the spotlight on India’s peace policy. New Delhi has engaged in peace talks with two factions of the NDFB, one of them headed by Ranjan Daimary, who was accused by the CBI for involvement in the October 2008 serial blasts in Assam. The NDFB-S was involved in the 2014 Christmas-eve serial attacks in Assam, which killed more than 80 people, including infants. The NDFB-S also gunned down 46 people in Baksa and Kokrajhar districts in May 2014. So, the question is, will New Delhi come forward to hold peace talks with the NDFB-S as well? Can there be more than one peace agreement with different factions of the same rebel group? Can’t the government declare a moratorium on peace talks with newer rebel groups or factions while carrying the ongoing talks to their logical conclusions?

Peace talks with terror groups amount to according legitimacy to such outfits and their actions and encourages newer militant groups to increase violence. It is this policy of the Centre, which, among other reasons, is keeping insurgency alive and kicking in the northeast. The rebels know they only have to agree to sit for talks if the going gets tough for them.

In the wake of the NDFB-S attack in 2014, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had gone to Assam. He said there was no question of engaging in talks with the ruthless killers and ruled out any political solution to the issues of groups like the NDFB–S. Singh talked of a “time–bound” security offensive to neutralise the rebels. The Centre must now make a policy statement and announce a moratorium on peace talks with newer militant groups in the northeast. This will send out a clear message to new insurgent outfits that they would henceforth be dealt with as nothing more than a law and order problem.

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