India’s North East has been witnessing heightened militant activities over the past few weeks with some of the main terror outfits unleashing attacks on security personnel engaged in counter-insurgency operations in the region especially Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. Militant outfits like United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) or ULFA (I) and SS Khaplang-led National Socialist Council of Nagalim or NSCN (K) have successfully carried out a number of attacks targeting the security forces by taking advantage of the region’s inhospitable terrain and porous international borders.
Recent terror attacks
In a major incident on December 3, an Assam Rifles (AR) jawan was killed and nine others were seriously injured when suspected ULFA (I) and NSCN (K) militants jointly attacked an AR convoy near Wakka village in Longding district of Arunachal. The newly-created Longding district is a stronghold of NSCN (K) and the attack site is only 20 km from the international border with Myanmar where several North Eastern militant groups have their camps. This was the third ambush by the militants on the security forces in the recent weeks.
In another untoward incident on November 26, militants from United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW), a joint platform of some North Eastern militant groups like ULFA (I) and NSCN (K), and Coordination Committee, the umbrella organisation of a few Meitei rebel groups, ambushed security personnel’s vehicles in Chandel district of Manipur injuring five soldiers. Manipur is one of the worst militancy affected state of North East and the recent terror attack has further complicated the security scenario particularly in the hill districts.
The ULFA (I) and other militant outfits have stepped up their activities in the recent months and been making concerted efforts to realign themselves in their fight against the Indian state. Earlier on November 19, about 15 militants belonging to ULFA (I) and CorCom jointly ambushed an Army convoy, killing 3 soldiers and critically injuring 4 others near the Pengeri reserve forest in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district. The incident took place just three days after the cash van of a tea estate was attacked near Pengeri in which one person was killed and three others, including two Assam Industrial Security Force (AISF) jawans were wounded. According to local reports, 20-25 heavily armed militants had been involved in the attack.
Security implications of the terror strikes
Relentless counter-insurgency operations in Assam and parts of Arunachal have restored a semblance of normalcy in the region during last few years, but the scale of attack on the Army convoy near Pengeri, which is adjacent to Digboi’s historical oil refinery, has become a matter of concern for the security establishment.
The Army reportedly admitted that the violent assault came as a surprise and has necessitated a fresh look at its standard operating procedures. The proximity of the two ULFA (I) attack sites and the reported movement of several heavily-armed militants in the area have also raised questions regarding the preparedness of the security forces. The repeated militant strikes in the Pengeri-Bordumsa region, which has always been a bastion of the ULFA, amply demonstrated the failure of the intelligence gathering in the area.
Assam’s major militant outfit ULFA (I) headed by Paresh Baruah has also streamlined its public relations, calling Guwahati-based media outlets frequently to make its presence felt in the state. While observing its “protest day” on November 28, the ULFA (I) said it is prepared to respond to the “atrocities” against the indigenous people by the security forces. The ULFA (I) and CorCom took credit for the Pengeri attack, which was codenamed “Operation Barak” against the Army describing it as a “common enemy”.
The naming of a terror strike by any North Eastern militant outfit for the first time has puzzled the higher security officials involved in counter-insurgency operations in the region. While they were trying to figure out the relevance of the word “Barak”, ULFA (I) commander-in-chief(c-in-c) Baruah said that it was named after “the Barak river that flows from Manipur to Assam, is a symbol of friendship between the two states”.
The UNLFW and CorCom claimed responsibility for both the November 19 and 26 attacks in Assam and Manipur, respectively. It is for the first time that the Meitei militant groups have participated in a terror strike in Assam and the ULFA (I) has jointly carried out an attack in Manipur. Meanwhile, the security forces launched massive combing operations in the terror-hit areas of Assam. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal strongly condemned the Pengeri attack and vowed to punish the perpetrators.
Resurgence of ULFA (I)
The militancy unleashed by the ULFA (I) during the last six months has raised fears about the banned outfit’s revival in the state. The security experts said the ULFA (I) has come back with vengeance after remaining dormant for years. The repeated attacks triggered by ULFA (I) are seen as desperate attempts to prove its relevance in the changing political scenario of the state. Assam Police Director General Mukesh Sahay recently noted that the ULFA (I) is not a spent force which is still active in some pockets of the state.
The militant group has been involved in extortion, kidnapping and other subversive activities in the Upper Assam districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sivsagar and Charaideo. The armed cadres of ULFA (I) abducted Kuldeep Moran, son of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionary in Tinsukia district, from Arunachal’s Changlang district, which shares border with Myanmar, and was released on September 9, 2016 after 39 days. The outfit’s chief Baruah earlier said the boy would “stand trial” for allegedly being an Army informer.
Again on the eve of the Independence Day this year, the ULFA (I) militants had forced a few high school students to plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Tinsukia district. The militant group reportedly triggered 5 IED blasts in Tinsukia and Charaideo districts on the Independence Day. The proscribed militant outfit also unleashed attacks targeting innocent civilians in remote areas. In a bizarre incident on August 12 this year, some heavily-armed ULFA (I) militants sneaked into the state from neighbouring Arunachal and gunned down three Hindi-speaking people in Tinsukia district. During the same period, an all-women ULFA (I) team was pushed into Assam’s Sivsagar district through Nagaland’s Mon district to carry out subversive acts in the area.
The ULFA (I)’s activities had so long been confined to Upper Assam districts that share borders with Arunachal and Nagaland, but the involvement of the militant outfit in some recent terror strikes outside the state amply demonstrated the expansion of its area of operation and activities. Intelligence inputs suggest that the militant group has recruited several youths in Upper Assam districts in the recent months. Most of them were reportedly inducted for carrying out abductions, extortion and work as couriers. The banned outfit has also been using social networking sites to attract educated youths in the age group of 18 to 30 years. Reports say a Facebook page titled “Swadhinata Axom” regularly posts pictures of the outfit’s top leaders especially Baruah. The security forces’ cyber branch is closely monitoring such sites.
The ULFA (I)’s elusive c-in-c Baruah is now reportedly operating from Rulili town in the Dehong autonomous region of China’s Yunnan province. The outfit split into two factions in August 2012 when Baruah expelled Arabinda Rajkhawa as chairman. He headed the anti-talk group rechristened as ULFA (Independent), while Rajkhawa became the leader of the pro-talk faction. It is estimated that more than 10,000 people, mainly civilians, have lost their lives in the three-decade old insurgency in Assam.
Realignment of the militant groups
The ULFA (I) is currently getting crucial support from the NSCN (K) in Nagaland and Arunachal. The use of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) in the recent attacks on the security forces personnel shows that the outfit has up graded its arsenal with the aid of other rebel groups. The top brass of Assam police believe that the formation of the UNLFW, a joint platform of four militant groups, namely, ULFA (I), NSCN (K), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbojit) or NDFB (S) and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), in April 2015 has facilitated Baruah-led ULFA faction’s resurgence in the region.
The UNLFW was floated after NSCN (K) abrogated its ceasefire with the union government. It is headed by SS Khaplang, a Hemi Naga from Myanmar. ULFA (I) chief Baruah is also an important leader of the joint platform. The NSCN (K) is active in Arunachal’s Changlang, Tirap and Longding districts and its participation in the UNLFW has added impetus to militancy in the region. Since the formation of this umbrella organisation, the NSCN (K) has stepped up terror activities in Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal. With the Pengeri attack, the UNLFW made an entry into Assam for the first time.
According to recent reports, all the militant groups of North East barring Garo National Liberation Front (GNLF) of Meghalaya have decided to join the UNLFW next year to jointly fight for the “sovereignty” of their states. The formation of joint command by CorCom and ULFA (I), which carried out the Pengeri attack, is a step in that direction. NN Ngouba, chief of Meitei militant outfit People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is the chairman of the joint military commission and Baruah is the vice-chairman of the joint body.
The initiative to bring all the militant groups under one platform has taken by Baruah. The plan to expand the UNLFW indicates the possibility of heightened militant activities in the region in the coming days. In such a scenario, the security forces have no choice but to recalibrate their counter-insurgency to ensure peace and stability in North East.
The realignment of the Meitei militant groups in the form of CorCom has worsened the problem of insurgency in Manipur. The CorCom is the umbrella organisation comprising five powerful Meitei militant groups, namely, PLA, Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), United National Liberation Front (UNLF), People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) and PREPAK (Progressive). Two other Meitei insurgent groups—Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP)—recently pulled out of CorCom due to “internal problems”.
Manipur’s deep-seated insurgency problem
Manipur’s insurgency problem is much complex and maintaining peace and stability in the state that shares border with Myanmar has been a challenging task for the successive governments. In addition to the Meitei militant outfits, other ethnic rebel groups representing mainly Nagas and Kukis have been fighting for their own causes in Manipur. While the Meitei militants seek to secede from India citing historical reasons, the ethnic insurgent groups active in the hill districts want autonomy for their respective areas.
Various factions of NSCN operating in the Naga-inhabited districts of Manipur are pushing hard for their inclusion in the “Greater Nagalim” encompassing Naga-dominated areas of North East—a demand that triggered vociferous protest from the Meitei organisations across the state. The issue of the unification of the Naga-inhabited districts poses direct threat to the territorial integrity of Manipur and the Meiteis are vehemently opposed to it. The Naga unification activists are at loggerheads with the state government which seems determined to maintain the status quo.
The progress of the peace process in Assam
The peace process in North East’s key state Assam is preceding at snail’s pace even though the ULFA issue at the present context is not so complicated like Manipur. The peace dialogue between the pro-talk faction of ULFA and the Centre has been stalled for more than a year. The formation of a BJP government under the leadership of Sonowal, a former leader of the state’s one of the most influential student organisation All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), had raised hopes of an early solution of the vexed insurgency problem plaguing Assam since the late 1980s.
Immediately after assuming office, the Sonowal government and the local court dropped three major Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) cases against ULFA’s founding general secretary Anup Chetia. On November 11, 2015, Chetia was extradited from Bangladesh where he had been serving a jail term since 1997. Following Chetia’s return to home, he was soon made the leader of the pro-talk ULFA team which has been engaged in the peace-talks with the officials of the union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
The Centre began peace dialogue with the ULFA in 2011 after the outfit’s top 9 leaders, excluding Baruah, were arrested by Bangladesh authorities in 2009 in a nationwide crackdown on the North Eastern insurgents taking shelter there and handed them over to India. The ULFA, which was established in 1979 with the aim of realising a “sovereign Asom”, has dropped the demand for granting constitutional safeguards to Assamese identity and culture.
Heightened militancy in Assam in the current political context
The recent surge in ULFA (I) attacks has to be viewed against the backdrop of the present political dynamics. Some quarters in Assam maintain that the Pengeri attack and the abduction of a BJP functionary’s son were ULFA (I)’s attempts to cause unease to the BJP-ruled governments in both the state and the Centre. The BJP government has been trying to grant citizenship to religious minorities especially from Bangladesh.
However, the ULFA (I) along with the indigenous organisations, student bodies and regional political parties are totally opposed to the Centre’s move. Rehabilitating more Bangladeshis is seen by many in Assam as a step detrimental to the state and the ULFA (I)’s opposition to it has received support from some indigenous communities. This development assumes significance as it indicates the regaining of a measure of popular support by the state’s most potent militant group after losing considerable ground in the face of intensive counter-insurgency operations across the state over the last few years. Therefore, it is important that Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government realises the urgency of addressing Assam’s lingering ULFA question and soon initiates step towards resumption of peace talks.