Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Assam: Analysis - NDFB Terror, Truce, Talks

[ On October 2, 2004, however, all hell broke loose. The NDFB and the ULFA - the Assam Police say they acted in tandem - carried out a string of bombings and shooting attacks killing more than 40 people in a span of just about 72 hours. The NDFB had its own reasons to do so, since October 3, 2004, was its 18th 'raising day', and this is traditionally been an occasion for its cadres to prove their existence. Thereafter, the NDFB issued a statement to the media, claiming responsibility for some of the attacks, including the one at Makrijhora, in the western district of Dhubri on the Bangladesh border, in which NDFB cadres gunned down at least 15 innocent villagers in a local market area.]

Terror, Truce, Talks
WASBIR HUSSAIN

Absurd as it might seem on first reading, NDFB first wished to prove that it could still kill, while simultaneously getting ready to call a truce and talk peace with New Delhi, which remains on a slippery slope.


The vicious cycle continues in India's insurgency-ravaged Northeast. Separatist rebels armed to the teeth indulge in macabre killings, instilling terror and cornering authorities, before accepting the government's olive branch and the offer to engage in 'peace talks'. The violent prelude to offers of peace is essentially intended to extract their pound of flesh at the negotiating table. This is what the outlawed National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) - which has engaged in an armed campaign for an independent Bodo homeland in Assam since its formation on October 3, 1986 - did when it issued a statement on October 8, 2004, declaring a unilateral ceasefire for six months with effect from October 15, 2004.

The sequence of events that preceded the NDFB's truce offer is interesting: After the December 2003 Bhutanese military assault on the bases of the NDFB and other Northeast Indian insurgent groups inside the Himalayan kingdom, these tribal guerrillas were lying low, most of them cooling their heels on the Meghalaya-Bangladesh border. By August-September 2004, the NDFB started flexing its muscles, and carried out a few isolated attacks in western Assam, but still went largely unnoticed. They were, of course, pushing ahead with a strategy that is common in the region's theatre of insurgency, but one that has always succeeded in making the government sit up and take notice - stepping up violence like never before.

On September 30, 2004, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi called a news conference in Guwahati, the state capital, primarily to brief journalists on the forthcoming cross-country ASEAN car rally that is to be flagged off from the city in November. In reply to a question from a journalist, Gogoi said his government was ready for a ceasefire with the NDFB and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), provided the rebel groups come up with a positive response by October 15, 2004. If anything, it was a usual 'our doors are open for peace negotiations' kind of a statement from a government leader. The state and central government have always taken this line, arguing that, while they were ready for peace talks, it was not possible to let insurgents have a field day, and was consequently necessary to continue with counter-insurgency offensives.

On October 2, 2004, however, all hell broke loose. The NDFB and the ULFA - the Assam Police say they acted in tandem - carried out a string of bombings and shooting attacks killing more than 40 people in a span of just about 72 hours. The NDFB had its own reasons to do so, since October 3, 2004, was its 18th 'raising day', and this is traditionally been an occasion for its cadres to prove their existence. Thereafter, the NDFB issued a statement to the media, claiming responsibility for some of the attacks, including the one at Makrijhora, in the western district of Dhubri on the Bangladesh border, in which NDFB cadres gunned down at least 15 innocent villagers in a local market area.

While owning responsibility for some of these cold-blooded murders was the NDFB's way of making the point that it could still kill, the group was simultaneously getting ready to call a truce and talk peace with New Delhi. At its 18th 'raising day' function on October 3, 2004, NDFB president Ranjan Daimari alias D.R. Nabla told his cadres that his group was 'ready for talks' with the Indian government and asked them, as well as the Bodo people, to 'get ready' for peace talks. The NDFB issued a statement to this effect to the media the next day.

Then on October 8, true to the indications, the NDFB came out with a statement signed by its president Nabla and 'Boroland Army' chief 'Lt.

Col' B. Susranggra: "In response to the offer of the ceasefire by the Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, the National Democratic Front of Boroland has declared ceasefire with effect from the 15th October 2004 for a period of six months to create a congenial atmosphere and initiate talks with the government of India. Therefore all the Commanders of the Boroland Army are asked immediately to suspend hostilities against India."

The NDFB's position contrasts with that of the ULFA, which had also claimed responsibility for some of the attacks between October 2 and 5, 2004, but snubbed the Chief Minister saying 'it (the attacks) is our answer to Gogoi's offer.'

The Bodo insurgent group's greater acquiescence can be understood in view of the fact that most of its top leaders have either been captured by the security forces or have surrendered to the authorities. In fact, it is believed that a former NDFB 'finance and home secretary' Nileshwar Basumatary, who had surrendered to the Assam Police in August 2004, may have played a role in bringing the group to the offer of truce.

That the NDFB has been preparing to join the peace process has been evident in its statements over the past two years. In fact, several of its top leaders had apparently fallen into the security net while they were on the way for meetings to discuss just this - the modalities of opening negotiations with New Delhi. Another significant development that indicates that the group was almost in a hurry to begin peace talks was the setting up of the All Bodo Peace Forum (ABPF) on July 5, 2004. On October 10, 2004, within less than 48 hours of the NDFB truce offer becoming public, members of the ABPF addressed a news conference at Guwahati and offered their services as facilitators to get the NDFB and the government to sit at face-to-face in talks. ABPF members also met Chief Minister Gogoi on September 10, 2004, to make a direct offer of mediation. Forum leaders claimed Gogoi had asked them to go ahead. These developments cannot be ignored if the broad picture of the region's murky insurgent politics is to be understood.

Now that the NDFB has responded favourably to the truce call, the Assam government appears to be somewhat in a fix. First, Chief Minister Gogoi responded, saying his government would comment soon. Then, he said no written communication had yet been received from the NDFB and that they would wait for one. A senior Home department official was quoted as saying it was up to the centre to hold talks with the NDFB and that the state government could act only as a facilitator. Finally, news came that the Assam government has formally informed the centre about the NDFB's offer for a ceasefire through the media. It was not surprising, therefore, to find the NDFB subsequently stating that it could be 'forced to reconsider' its truce offer if the government did not respond favourably by October 15, 2004. The NDFB perhaps realized that the Assam government had not held any specific discussions with New Delhi before the Chief Minister made his off the cuff offer of truce.

Clearly, neither the centre nor the Assam government, as also other state governments in the Northeast, have any clear policy on dealing with the insurgencies in the region. It is true that New Delhi is currently engaged in formal and informal dialogues with several Northeast Indian rebel groups, but it has no set road map on how to proceed when a new insurgent group offers a truce or proclaims a readiness to enter into negotiations. There is, nevertheless, a quality of desperation in all this, and, in all probability, the next course of action will be an offer of 'safe passage' to the NDFB leadership to allow its representatives to emerge from hiding and contact the authorities. From this point onwards, steps would be taken to formalize a ceasefire before talks could begin.The road is slippery, and the chances of bungling by the government, extremely high.

Wasbir Hussain is Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi; Consulting Editor, The Sentinel, Guwahati. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal


OUTLOOK 11/102/2004