DATELINE Guwahati /Wasbir Hussain
Gunshots shattered the two-year lull in Assam’s Bodo heartland on 5 August. A daylight attack with gredes and AK 56 assault rifle at the Balajan weekly market, near Kokrajhar, led to the death of 14 civilians and injuries to around 18 others. The police was quick to conclude that the rogue Songbijit faction of the tiol Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S) was behind the attack. Their evidence—one of the attackers shot dead by the security forces who arrived at the scene soon after. The police as well as the visiting State Fince Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma identified the slain attacker as Monjoy Islari alias Mwdan, described as a self-styled commanding officer of the NDFB-S’ so-called ‘western command.’ The NDFB-S was equally quick to send out an email to jourlists denying its involvement in the attack.
A week after the raid, security officials appear to be telling a slightly different story. They seem to suggest it was a lone-wolf attack and that a ‘heavily drunk’ Mwdan might have carried out the raid without the approval of the NDFB-S. The Chief of the Bodo Council (the local administrative body) Hagrama Mahilary even appears to be ready for peace talks with any rebel group keen on shunning violence. That means if the NDFB-S were to offer talks in the future after being cornered, the authorities could well consider playing ball. This stance runs counter to the statement made by Union Home Minister Rajth Singh who had stated after two major NDFB-S massacres in 2014 that there is no question of engaging in peace talks with terror outfits like the NDFB-S that indulges in mindless violence.
What is important to note is that the attack was carried out by an NDFB-S cadre and that it was a random attack because the dead include Bodos (seven of the 14), Bengalis (both Muslims and Hindus) and an Assamese. In the past, particularly during two of the biggest assaults carried out by the NDFB-S in May and December 2014, the targets were migrant Muslim settlers and Adivasis. Significantly, the NDFB-S e-mail denying its hand in the attack was dated 19 July, a Tuesday. The Balajan market operates twice a week—Tuesday and Friday (5 August was a Friday). So, the question arises whether the outfit had actually planned to carry out the attack on 19 July but had to abort the plan for some reason.
The tiol Investigation Agency (NIS) that is probing the case will come up with more details, but it is a fact that the NDFB-S has been facing severe reverses since the past year and has actually been pushed to the wall. First, its founder Ingti Kathar Songbijit was sidelined by his colleagues and removed as the outfit’s president after a ‘general Assembly meeting’ on 14 and 15 April 2015. Confirmation of this came from the NDFB-S itself through a press statement on 27 June 2015 where the outfit announced the organisatiol revamp. The statement was signed by its new president B Saoraigwra, who replaced Songbijit.
Songbijit, actually a Karbi tribal, may be currently cooling his heels somewhere in Chi’s Yunn province, close to the Myanmar border, but even the most powerful NDFB-S leader, G. Bidai, who is its vice president, is said to be cornered by the continuing counter-insurgency operations and forced to confine himself along the Assam-Bhutan border. According to the intelligence community, the NDFB-S has actually been cornered, and the 5 August attack is seen as a desperate bid by the outfit to divert the attention of the army offensive from the border with Bhutan to create an opportunity for Bidai and other senior leaders to move to a safer location. In fact, the slain NDFB-S commander Monjoy Islari alias Mwdan was apparently operating together with four other experienced sharp-shooters directly under Bidai until May this year. But, intensified security offensive had forced the group to part company, and eventually three members of this group were killed in shootouts with the security forces. Monjoy Islari, according to the intelligence community, was frustrated over the loss of his colleagues.
This is the first insurgent violence anywhere in Assam after the BJP-led government of Sarbanda Sonowal assumed office on 24 May. One, therefore, will get the opportunity to see whether the new government’s counter-insurgency strategy will be any different from the previous Congress dispensation. Most importantly, the rendra Modi government’s stated policy on combating terror has been one of ‘zero tolerance.’ Whether this comes into application in Assam now 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 Assam and elsewhere in the Northeast to step up attacks on the symbols of the Indian state ahead of key days in the tiol calendar or call boycott of all functions associated with the occasion. But, whether it was a symbolic show of strength or whether it sigls the regrouping of the NDFB-S remains to be seen.
The latest attack has once again put the spotlight on the Government of India’s peace policy. Already, New Delhi is engaged in peace talks with two factions of the NDFB, one of them being the faction headed by Ranjan Daimary. This despite Daimary himself being accused by the security establishment, including the CBI, for involvement in the October 2008 serial blasts in Assam that had killed 100 people. The NDFB-S was involved in the 2014 Christmas-eve serial attacks in the state that killed more than 80 people, including infants. Prior to this, 46 people were gunned down by the same outfit in Baksa and Kokrajhar districts in May 2014. Will New Delhi at some point in the future come forward to hold so-called 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, like the one with the NSCN-IM, NDFB etc, to their logical conclusions?
One is talking about a moratorium on peace talks with pure terror groups because it amounts to according legitimacy to such outfits and their actions and only encourage newer militant groups to upscale their violent acts. It is this policy of the Centre, which among other reasons, is keeping insurgency alive and kicking in the Northeast. The rebels by now know they only have to agree to sit for talks if the going gets tough for them!
The Centre must now make a policy statement and announce a moratorium on peace talks with newer militant groups in Assam and elsewhere in the Northeast. This will go a long way in sending out a clear message to new insurgent outfits who would realize they are henceforth going to be dealt with as nothing but a law and order problem.