Monday, October 04, 2004

Assam: A Tempest of Terror

[Apart from a demonstration of their striking capacities to dispel impressions that their cadres were 'on the run' after the Bhutanese military operations in December 2003, the ULFA and the NDFB have perhaps sought to send out a clear message that they cannot be drawn to give up their intractable postures and to engage in protracted peace negotiations on the lines of New Delhi's dialogue with the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM). ULFA 'c-in-c' Paresh Barua made it clear when he telephoned The Sentinel, an English daily from Guwahati, on the night of October 3, 2004, and said, "The explosions are an answer to Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi's ceasefire call.]

A Tempest Of Terror

Terror struck with a vengeance in the insurgency-wracked Northeast beginning on October 2, 2004, killing at least 60 people and injuring more than 200 others over three consecutive days of serial bombings and gunfire, mostly on unsuspecting civilians.
WASBIR HUSSAIN

Terror struck with a vengeance in India's insurgency-wracked Northeast beginning on October 2, 2004, the birth anniversary of India's apostle of peace, Mahatma Gandhi, killing at least 60 people and injuring more than 200 others over three consecutive days of serial bombings and gunfire, mostly on unsuspecting civilians. The powerful bomb explosions at a jam-packed Railway station and the popular Hong Kong market in Dimapur, the commercial hub in the state of Nagaland, on the morning of October 2, 2004, took 26 lives, and injured another 104.

Rebels also carried out a string of attacks in neighbouring Assam, killing at least 34 people over a span of 36 hours (October 2-4, 2004), in 17 separate incidents. Clearly, India's strategic northeastern frontier - a vast stretch that is home to nearly 40 million people, wedged between Bangladesh, Bhutan and China's Tibet region - was bleeding profusely in some of the biggest terror attacks in its long history of armed insurrections, which dates back to 1951, shortly after the country attained independence from the British.

Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, rushed to the region on October 3, 2004, to take stock of the security situation, but said it was too early to establish a link or a pattern in the bloody raids in Nagaland and Assam. It is not, however, particularly difficult to establish such a pattern in the serial attacks. The timing of the terror raids is itself significant: the attacks began on October 2, an important day in the Indian national calendar, when the country remembers Mahatma Gandhi, the 'father of the nation' and a champion of peace and non-violence. Moreover, October 3, 2004, was the 'Raising Day' of the outlawed National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB), marking the group's 18th anniversary (NDFB was formed in 1986). Lastly, the attacks in Assam, carried out by the proscribed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the NDFB, came within 48-hours of Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi's offer of a conditional ceasefire to both these insurgent groups.

There are no prizes for guessing who could be responsible for the attacks in Assam. Both the ULFA and the NDFB have separately claimed responsibility for different incidents. The ULFA's elusive 'commander-in-chief', Paresh Barua, telephoned newspapers in Guwahati on the night of October 3, 2004, and claimed responsibility for five of the attacks (on October 2 and 3). Significantly, the ULFA's military chief owned up only those attacks where there were no civilian casualties: the attacks at the police stations in Baihata Chariali (three policemen were injured), near Guwahati, and at Jagiroad (two civilians were wounded), in central Assam's Morigaon district; the gas pipeline blast at Borhat in eastern Assam and the landmine blast near Talap, also in eastern Assam, where a vehicle carrying Army soldiers narrowly missed the impact. On its part, the NDFB issued a statement saying their attacks 'demonstrated their strength.' The NDFB killed more than 20 people in four incidents of indiscriminate gunfire on civilians at market places and by calling out sleeping villagers.

Apart from a demonstration of their striking capacities to dispel impressions that their cadres were 'on the run' after the Bhutanese military operations in December 2003, the ULFA and the NDFB have perhaps sought to send out a clear message that they cannot be drawn to give up their intractable postures and to engage in protracted peace negotiations on the lines of New Delhi's dialogue with the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM). ULFA 'c-in-c' Paresh Barua made it clear when he telephoned The Sentinel, an English daily from Guwahati, on the night of October 3, 2004, and said, "The explosions are an answer to Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi's ceasefire call.

Gogoi had told journalists in Guwahati on September 30, 2004, that his government was ready to call a ceasefire with the ULFA and the NDFB provided the rebel groups responded positively to the offer by October 15.

The attacks in Assam may be part of a pattern, with rebels often snubbing the government's peace overtures by stepping up violence or striking on days of national significance or of importance within the narrative of rebellion, but the explosions in Dimapur, in Nagaland, clearly targeted at civilians, has certainly been surprising. A theory that has gained significant weight over the past 48-hours, is that the blasts in Nagaland, aimed at inflicting civilian casualties and provoking public outrage thereafter, were meant to derail the Naga peace process, underway since August 1997, when the NSCN-IM entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Indian government.

In fact, a top NSCN-IM leader told this writer in a telephone interview on October 3, 2004, that the blasts in Dimapur were a clear attempt to 'sabotage' the Naga peace process. "An anti-Naga militant group is behind the blast. We are close to solving the case," Kraibo Chawang, NSCN-IM's 'Deputy Minister' for information and publicity, said from Dimapur. The NSCN-IM has set up a 'special investigating team' to probe the attacks and identify the culprits, a decision approved by the group's topmost duo, 'chairman' Isak Chishi Swu and 'general secretary' Thuingaleng Muivah. The fact that the NSCN-IM sees the blasts as an attempt to scuttle the Naga peace process and is bent on identifying the forces behind the incidents, indicates that the group has taken the matter extremely seriously.

Could the ULFA be the 'anti-Naga rebel group' of NSCN-IM's allegations? Assam's Inspector General of Police (Special Branch), Khagen Sharma, was noncommital: "The attacks in Assam were coordinated strikes by the ULFA and the NDFB. About the blasts in Nagaland, every possibility needs to be probed." Highly placed intelligence sources, however, told this writer that, on October 1, 2004, a day before the serial attacks, the Assam Police captured two front-ranking ULFA activists, Arup Terang and Nirob Chetia, from a bus near Hahchora, in the eastern district of Sivasagar. Upon interrogation, Arup Terang said he was an explosive expert and had been based for some time at Dimapur. The police had, in fact, recovered a live bomb weighing 7 kilograms from a house at a village following disclosures made by Terang.

There are at least two reasons that back up the thesis that the ULFA was behind the Dimapur blasts: the group may actually wish to derail the Naga peace process to widen the sphere of violence in the region and to get the pressure to enter into negotiations with New Delhi off its back. Further, the ULFA is an ally of the Khaplang faction of the NSCN (NSCN-K), and could, therefore, be trying to shift the focus from the peace talks (between the Indian government and the NSCN-IM) to the law and order issue. The NSCN-K is a bitter rival of the NSCN-IM, but has gone on record saying it could be an ally of the ULFA, but would not support any attacks on innocent civilians.

Home Minister Patil, after visiting Nagaland and Assam, stressed on the need for coordinated counter-insurgency measures, including intelligence sharing, between the states in the Northeast. But, that is easier said than done. For instance, in Assam, the Army, police and the paramilitary forces operate under a Unified Headquarters, with the Army heading the operational command. Of late, a loose unified security set up has come up in Manipur. But, there is no formal mechanism for a coordinated security structure in Nagaland or Tripura. This makes any attempt at a broad coordinated counter-insurgency campaign in the region difficult.Besides, in different states, the authorities have their own channels open with certain rebel groups, who are either fence sitters or are keen on talking peace. Such a situation makes a generalised attempt to rein in all the rebel groups difficult. Things remain murky in the Northeast, to say the least.

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 INDIA 04/10/2004