By Athul M
At least 14 civilians and a militant were killed on August 6, when militants of IK Songbijit faction of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-IKS) opened indiscriminate fire and lobbed grenades on a market at Balajan Tinianli in Kokrajhar district of Assam. The attack occurred in the run up to 15 August, the Independence Day, and is the first major attack in Assam, after the BJP government won the State elections held in April. The August 6 attack was the first high-profile attack conducted by the NDFB-IKS militants, after the December 2014 massacre in Kokrajhar District.
Although the initial reports had hinted at some confusion as to who the perpetrators were, some even pointing to Islamist militants, the government was able to pinpoint NDFB as the perpetrator after recovering the mobile phone of a slain militant, which contained contact number of high ranking NDFB-IKS leaders. The slain militant was identified as Manjoy Islari, a commander of the outfit. Additionally, given that sophisticated weapons, such as AK-series of rifles, were used, which are not known to be available to the Islamist groups operating in the region, the theory proved to be false.
NDFB-IKS: A profile
The NDFB-IKS is one of the three splinter factions of NDFB, besides the pro-talk faction of NDFB (NDFB-PTF) and the Ranjan Daimary faction of NDFB (RB). The group was formed on November 20, 2012, after IK Songbijit, who was the military chief of NDFB (NDFB-RD), formed an interim national council. The NDFB-IKS is the only violent NDFB faction, while NDFB-RD and NDFB-PTF are currently in peace talks with the Government of India and the State government of Assam. The purported aim of NDFB-IKS is to secede from India, and form a separate country for the Bodos, Bodoland. Despite the name, reports state that IK Songbijit is currently not the leader or even the member of the militant group. According to an NDFB press release dated June 27 2015, Songbijit, who is in Myanmar, is no longer the member of central committee. B Saoraigwra and G Bidai, who are based out of the Indo-Bhutan border area, are the President and the Vice-President of the outfit respectively. Moreover, the December massacre of Adivasis was ordered by B Bidai and not IK Songbijit.
After its formation, the faction became the most violent insurgent group in North East India. Some of the significant incidents of NDFB-IKS violence, prior to the August incident, include the May 2014 massacre of about 46 Bodo Muslims in Bodoland Territorial Administration Districts (BTAD), the December 2014 massacre of more than 69 Adivasis also in BTAD. BTAD includes Kokrajhar. Earlier on January 17, 2014, the group killed six people at Serfanguri district in Kokrajhar. Since 2014, the Bodo militant groups have been involved in killing of at least 121 civilians out of 217 (56.7%) civilian fatalities in Assam.
Although the groups have been involved in mass fatality attacks, the August 6 attack was different from the earlier attacks. While the earlier attacks had identified its victims on the basis of ethnicity (December 2014 massacre) or religion (May 2014 massacre), the latest attack was not targeting any specific section. The fatalities include 6 Bodos, four Muslims, and three Nath-Yogi caste. In this light, coupled with the fact that the group was dormant since 2014, the intended aim of the militants is likely to have been to show that the group was still capable of unleashing violence, despite the continued crackdown by security forces. Moreover, the attack also fits in with the pattern of militant groups conducting attacks in Assam, before important events such as Independence Day (August 15) and Republic Day (January 26). Given that no particular group was targeted in the latest attack, it is likely that the attack was hastily planned and not directed by the higher-ups of the militant group.
Operation All Clear
After the December 23 massacre, the government of India launched a military operation, code-named Operation All clear, particularly targeting the Bodo militant group. The operation proved to be fruitful, with the number of cadres of militant group dwindling from about 300-400 to the current strength of 150. Since its launch, at least 36 NDFB-IKS militants have been killed and more than 600 linkmen and members have been arrested, with 12 militants being killed since January this year. Some of the important militants killed during the operation include a platoon commander identified as Uday Narzary, who was wanted for massacre of December 2014. He was killed on February 8, 2016.
On July 17, 2016, two top NDFB-IKS militants were killed in Khalalsi and Saralpara area along the Indo-Bhutan border. Earlier on August 29, 2015, two militants were killed in Chirag district in an encounter with the security forces.
Moreover, around 10 AK-47s, two M16s, seven INSAS rifles, and a large number of explosives and grenades were recovered during the operation. The incidents of violence have come down drastically in Assam since the launch of the operation because of the success of the security forces in decimating the group. The higher leadership of the group continues to be beyond the grasp of the security apparatus, as they are holed up along the hilly and forested Indo-Bhutan border.
Probable course of actions
Given that the leadership is likely to be in Bhutan, the possibility of the Indian Government attempting to pressurize Bhutan to act against the militants in Bhutan cannot be ruled out. Additionally, the possibility of a joint operation by Bhutan and Indian troops, similar to the Operation All Clear in 2003 remains a possibility. The government is also likely to scale up a joint border guard mechanism with Bhutan, which shares 669 km long border with India, of which 267 km is shared with the state of Assam. However, keeping in mind that the Monsoon season is ongoing, which would make it particularly difficult for the security forces to conduct major operations, the likelihood of a major security operation is unlikely in the immediate future. The Indian government is likely to stengthten its security presence by increasing the number of Central Paramilitary forces in the BTAD area in the coming days.
Although the fatalities from insurgency in North East India has seen a huge dip – from 1051 fatalities in 2008 to 273 fatalities in 2015 – with Assam witnessing a drop of fatalities – from 373 to 59 within the same time frame – occasional incidents of attacks by the remnants of hardcore militant groups are likely. Although the security forces have been able to bring down insurgency-related violence, a lasting solution to the ethno-nationalist insurgency in north-eastern region can only be brought by good governance.
Athul M is an Analyst at Max-protection Ltd (Mumbai). He has worked with New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management and has written on issues of internal security in India at the Institute.
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