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Assam Backgrounder

The problem of militancy in Assam has its origin in the large-scale migration of refugees from East Pakistan – what is now Bangladesh – since India’s Partition in 1947. A continuous flow of illegal migrants across the borders has disturbed the local demography and brought much of India’s Northeast to the knife-edge of violence. In July 1979, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) launched a mass movement for the detection of illegal immigrants, their deletion from the voters’ list and their deportation to Bangladesh. The agitators demanded that the process of detection should cover all migrants who had entered India since 1951. The Central government agreed to the policy of deportation, but insisted on a ‘cut-off’ date of 1971 for the identification of illegal aliens. Irrespective of the cut-off date, it is a fact that a minute fraction of the illegal migrants has actually faced deportation and the processes of identification have, even now, barely begun. However, talks between the Central government and the AASU-AAGSP agitators broke down on this point, and the agitation gathered momentum towards the end of November 1979, when the entire State administration was brought to a halt as government employees joined the movement. In December 1979, Assam was brought under President’s rule.

The anti-foreigners agitation soon took a violent turn and began to display secessionist tendencies. A militant organisation, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), was established on April 7, 1979, under the leadership of Paresh Barua. While secession from India was the declared goal, the organisation adopted an anti-foreigner plank since this was the popular issue gripping the masses in Assam. Pushing its objective of secession to the background, the ULFA operated within the AASU-AAGSP's agitation.

On March 28, 1980, the army was deployed in the State to restore law and order. The entire State, with the exception of Cachar and the North Cachar Hills districts, was declared a disturbed area and was brought under the Assam Disturbed Areas Act, 1955, and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, on April 6, 1980.

Several rounds of talks were held between the Central government and the leaders of the Assam agitation over the period 1980-83, but they failed to make any headway. Despite a call for a boycott by the agitators, the Central government decided to hold elections to the State Legislature in February 1983. On February 18, over 600 Bangladeshi settlers, including women and children, were massacred in Nellie, Nagaon district. Nevertheless, elections were held. The Congress (I) under Hiteshwar Saikia, came to power, and, while the agitation continued, a measure of order was restored in the State.

Talks between the Centre and the leaders of the agitation were resumed when the Rajiv Gandhi government came to power in Delhi, and on August 15, 1985, the Assam Accord was signed. According to the terms of the Accord, all foreigners who entered Assam on or after March 25, 1971, were to be detected and deported.

After the Accord, a new regional party, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) was created, bringing together many of the prominent leaders of the agitation. Elections to the State Legislature were held in December 1985, and the AGP was swept to power, with Prafulla Kumar Mahanta as the Chief Minister.

At this stage, the ULFA, emphasised its basic objective i.e., to ‘liberate Assam from Indian colonial rule’ and to form a ‘sovereign, socialist Assam’ through an armed struggle. As the Assam Accord and the subsequent political settlement were inimical to this objective, the ULFA continued with its violent activities even after the AGP assumed power in the State. By 1986, the ULFA had established contacts with agents of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), as well as with militants from the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Its strength then was estimated at 3,000 militants with access to some 2,000 weapons of various makes. The ULFA created terror in the State, disrupting communications and hitting various economic targets, kidnapping prominent businessmen for ransom and killing government officials. Its activities escalated, reaching unprecedented heights in 1990. As the AGP government lost control of the situation, the State was, once again, brought under President’s rule on November 28, 1990 and the ULFA was banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. The army had been re-inducted in the State and Operation Bajrang was conducted between September 1990 and April 1991. 209 hardcore militants were arrested during this operation and a large quantity of arms, along with Rs. 48 million in cash – the proceeds of extortion – were also recovered.

Operation Bajrang succeeded in restoring a measure of normalcy in Assam, and elections were held in June 1991 to the State Legislature. The Congress (I) defeated the AGP and Hiteshwar Saikia was, once again, sworn in as Chief Minister on July 1. ULFA resumed its violent campaign almost at once, and the army launched Operation Rhino in September 1991. Over the succeeding four months, 2,578 hardcore militants were nabbed, along with large quantities of arms and Rs. 780,000 in cash. The army also destroyed 15 ULFA camps. However, in January 1992, the Saikia government suspended army operations and announced an amnesty for all militants who were willing to surrender. By March 1992, some 4,000 ULFA militants had surrendered to the authorities.

The ULFA, however, proved extremely resilient and restored its strength and activities, acquiring new military hardware and establishing a chain of training camps across the border in Myanmar, and later in Bhutan. In April-May 1995, the Indian and Myanmarese armed forces jointly launched Operation Golden Bird along their border. 50 militants were killed during this operation and huge quantities of arms and ammunition were recovered.

The AGP returned to power in the State Legislature elections of May 1996. Counter-insurgency operations continued, and on January 20, 1997, a Unified Command structure was set up to co-ordinate the functioning of the various forces carrying out operations against the terrorists. Since then, continuous military and para-military operations have considerably weakened the ULFA, driving its senior leadership into exile. A disturbing trend, however, is the widening network of extortion, criminal and quasi-legal operations that this leadership-in-exile now commands in Assam, which not only fuels and finances militancy, but, more significantly, has had an extremely corrosive impact on democratic institutions and structures in the State and a deeply corrupting influence on increasingly collusive government officials and political leaders. With this, there has also been a continuous process of ‘lumpenisation’ among the rank and file of the ULFA cadres, as increasing numbers of criminals join in the extortionary and other illegal activities of the organisation.

The emergence of a Bodo insurgency in the State has become another major problem. The Bodos, a major tribe of plainsmen, are one of the earliest settlers in Assam. They have been demanding better social, political and economic conditions since independence. There has been a long history of tensions between the Bodos and the Assamese. The former feel that they have been neglected and exploited by the latter. The All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) was formed in 1967 to represent the Bodo cause. In the early 1980s, the ABSU emerged as a potent force under the leadership of Upendranath Brahma.

A militant organisation, the Bodo Security Force (BSF) came into being in 1989 under the leadership of Ranjan Daimari. The BSF, later renamed the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), resorted to terrorism in order to secure an ‘independent Bodo nation’ north of the river Brahmaputra. A very large proportion of violent activities in the State, including killings, explosions, arson, and attacks on police stations, have been carried out by the NDFB. This is an organised and well-trained militant group with a strength of about 900. It has established a ‘working arrangement’ with the NSCN – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM).

Another terrorist group, the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF), headed by Prem Singh Brahma, has been fighting for a separate State of Bodoland within the Indian Union.

An accord was signed on February 20, 1993, between the Government of India, the Government of Assam and Bodo leaders, creating the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) within Assam. However, since Bodo villages are not contiguous, the demarcation of the jurisdiction of the BAC has remained a problem. Both the NDFB and the BLTF have condemned the Bodo Accord, and have, since the mid-1990s, been engaged in a campaign of violence directed against other ethnic groups within ‘Bodo areas’. Large scale attacks were carried out against Santhal tribals in May 1996, displacing tens of thousands of people. A second wave of attacks in May 1998 displaced another couple of thousand Santhals. The Santhals and other non-Bodo communities have also begun to arm themselves and fight back. This has resulted in significant displacement of the Bodo population from areas where they are a minority.

These trends in retaliatory violence are not restricted to the Bodos. Muslim migrants in Assam have also shown signs of incipient militancy. The Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam has been constituted. A demand for a separate State bringing together the five border districts in Assam, which now have a Muslim majority, has been already voiced.

The recent history of the fissionary trend in which every tribal, linguistic, religious or cultural sub-group demands separation from the others, compounded by the rhetoric of ethnic sub-nationalism, radical demographic shifts and a long history of poor governance, make this State, perhaps more than any other region in the country, a potential source of increasing mass strife over the coming decades.






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