The growing activities of the Maoists in key North Eastern state Assam, which goes to polls early next year, are a matter of serious concern for the government and security establishment. Amid waning of United Liberation Front of Asom’s (ULFA) influence, the CPI (Maoist) is trying to gain a foothold in the state. This constitutes a new security challenge for the government that has been confronting various ethnic and a low-level Islamic militancy for the past several years.
The Maoists in their bids to build a “red corridor” in Assam are operating in as many as nine districts: Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Sivsagar, Golaghat, Dhemaji, Lakhimpur, Cachar and Karimganj. About two years ago their cadre strength was reported to be 300. They were able to form armed units only in Tinsukia district and adjoining areas in Arunachal Pradesh. State Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi noted that the Maoist movement is at its embryonic stage but could soon emerge as a potent threat to peace, security and stability as contacts had already been established with the left-wing insurgency-infested states like Odisha and Jharkhand.
In 2013, the union Ministry of Home Affairs for the first time formally declared Assam as a Maoist-hit state. The Maoists are mostly active in Upper Assam district which are home to several ethnic groups. The law enforcement agencies are worried about the Maoists’ current recruitment drives and endeavour to spread radical left ideology in Assam. Reports suggest that they had been organising “political classes” in some areas to mobilise people belonging to various communities.
The Maoists also floated Upper Assam Leading Committee (UALC) consisting of five districts. They held a number of training camps in this region. Besides, police claims the Maoists in Assam have “explosive experts” who are trained in handling improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
All these developments assume significance as the Maoists are making repeated forays into the polity of Assam to expand their sphere of influence. What draws the left extremists towards problem-ridden North East is not far to seek. The radical lefts have been closely monitoring the turn of events in one of the most underdeveloped regions of the country having serious discontentment among some deprived and marginalised ethnic groups.
The Maoist leaders operating in Assam are aware of the local ground realities. In the absence of a “class war” as exists in central parts of the country, they rely on “rebellious instinct” of some communities. The Maoist cadres are mainly recruited from among the tea tribes or Adivashis. A vast majority of the Adivashis, whose forefathers were brought to Assam from the Chotanagpur plateau in the early 19Th Century by the British as plantation labourers, still live in abject poverty due to the indifferent attitude of the successive state governments. The Maoists are making concerted efforts to take full advantage of the precarious situation prevailing in resource-rich Assam.
To boost their acceptability in the local milieu, the Maoists portray them as pro-people and refrain from extortion. They also avoid confrontation with the active militant groups of the state, including ULFA—the dominant separatist outfit of Assam. The Maoists even absorbed some former cadres and sympathisers of ULFA into their ranks to consolidate their support base in peripheral Tinsukia district.
The Maoists often try to cash in popular grievances. They generally target the segments of the population which are disenchanted with the moribund policies and actions of the government and offer full support to their causes. The Maoists are known to make use of burning issues such as unemployment, poverty and land conflict. Underdeveloped Assam provides much needed space for them to radicalise the peasantry. Assam’s farmers are facing existential crisis due to chronic soil erosion and recurrent floods caused by the mighty Brahmaputra and its numerous tributaries.
Added to their woes are the hydro-electric projects undertaken by the government in neighbouring Arunachal without any assurance of rehabilitation for the affected people. Under such circumstances, it was no wonder that the Maoists infiltrated into the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity-led anti-Subansiri lower mega dam movement. Union Minister of State for Home Affairs HP Chaudhary informed the Rajya Sabha on April 29, 2015, that cadres of UALC of the CPI (Maoist) had been actively participating in anti-dam propaganda campaign.
They have adopted a multi-pronged strategy to consolidate their position in restive North East. The Maoists forged ties with some ethnic insurgent groups of the region which are fighting against a common perceived enemy—the Indian state. In 2008, the CPI (Maoist) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Meitei militant outfit of Manipur People’s Liberation Army. Both the proscribed outfits pledged to assist each other in the areas of “training, funding, supply of arms and ammunition.”
The Maoists also reached an “understanding” with the ULFA (Independent) supremo Paresh Baruah and the separatist outfit supplied a small quantity of arms to the ultra leftists. Moreover, the hardline Naga militant faction National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang) trained a batch of fresh Maoist recruits in neighbouring Myanmar.
The Maoists had also reportedly established links in Nagaland for procuring arms and ammunition. They developed working relationships with the North Eastern militant groups primarily to meet their military requirements. Such inter-militant linkages continue to worry the government which has so far achieved only limited success in bringing the insurgents to the mainstream.
The Maoists seem determined to open their North East chapter of armed struggle at the earliest. Some of their senior leaders had reportedly been camping in Assam for the last two years to motivate youths of aggrieved ethnic groups. They were making preparations for launching activities in Bengali-speaking Barak valley in southern Assam. The security forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations uncovered the Maoist activities in the valley after their leaders started coming to the sensitive border region from Upper Assam and West Bengal.
In a major breakthrough on August 20, Assam police arrested six Maoists from Cachar district. In the last two years, the security forces detained several Maoists, including politburo member and party manager of five eastern states, Anukul Chandra Naskar from the same district. However, such temporary setbacks could not dampen the spirits of the radical leftists whose following among the Adivashis has been steadily rising over the years.
There is no denying the fact that a deep sense of deprivation persist among the rural population. But it remains to be seen how the Maoists co-opts the local issues in their programmes and priorities having far reaching implications. They are trying to make inroads into a state where politics had always been influenced by ethno-nationalism. It will be interesting to watch if Assam as a whole has any appetite for the Maoists whose agenda is basically ideology-driven.
There is another contradiction as well. It is not known if their ideologues have examined the economy of terrorism and its fallout. The Maoists’ attempts to radicalise the polity with the larger objective of establishing an egalitarian society run the risk of generating clash of interests with the surrendered militants who had procured state largesse in opulence for their rehabilitation.
The people of Assam are familiar with the fact that once trigger-happy combatants after donning civilian cloth are now honing their money making skills so much so that a section of them has developed considerable stakes in sectors like agro-based industry and infrastructure. Any attempt to disturb the status quo will be firmly resisted.
The Maoist leaders are still searching for a viable modus operandi for North East. They know that their tactics adopted elsewhere could not be made fully functional especially in Assam given the complexities and peculiarities of the polity. It seems the Maoists are preparing for a protracted struggle in North East—a region that has witnessed mass mobilisation only on ethnic parameters.
Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst based in New Delhi, India, and focuses on issues related to India-Bangladesh relations, insurgency, infrastructure development, and regional connectivity in North-East India.