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Multi-force operations in counter terrorism
A view from the Assam theatre
Wasbir Hussain*

The terms, insurgency and counter-insurgency, have been currently imprinted in the popular lexicon of Assam1 as it continues to be one of South Asia’s most virulent theatres of conflict with a plenitude of ‘little wars’ raging. A stagnant economy2, rising unemployment,3 proximity to foreign neighbours across porous borders, like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar, and a growing feeling of alienation from the Indian mainstream are construed to be some of the significant indices that have bred and sustained insurgency in this North Eastern Indian State. Assam, like the other six States in the region, is caught in a vicious cycle – with lack of opportunity breeding insurgency, and insurgency impeding economic growth.4

Successive governments in the State – ever since the mid-eighties when separatist outfits like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and subsequently the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) became active – have recognized insurgency as a ‘political problem’ requiring a ‘political solution.’ However, no regime has ever attempted to, or launched, any resolute political initiative directed at evolving a negotiated settlement to end these armed insurrections. Increasingly, with the separatist outfits beginning to hold the State to ransom – in effect proving that insurgency is the only ‘industry’ in Assam – the government of the day responded with rapid fire-fighting measures, such as deployment of the Army to combat the elusive insurgent cadres. Hiteswar Saikia’s Congress government in 1991 went a step further and brought the Army, Police and Paramilitary forces under a rag-tag structure called the Central Command Coordination Council. Later, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government of Prafulla Kumar Mahanta brought these forces under the ‘Unified Headquarters’ in 1997. Both these structures were constituted with a similar objective: pursuit of the terrorists in a coordinated offensive to weaken their resolve and to undermine their cohesiveness. The continuing violent terrorist activity of potent outfits like the ULFA has renewed the debate concerning the positive and negative aspects of multi-force operations in counter-insurgency.


On November 8, 1990, a chartered aircraft, on a secret mission to evacuate panic stricken executives and family members of the London-based Unilever group of companies that had seven tea estates in the area, landed at an abandoned airfield in Sookerating near Doom Dooma, in eastern Assam’s Tinsukia district.5 The aircraft flew the harried lot to the relative safety of Calcutta (now Kolkata) away from the easy reach of the outlawed ULFA that had slapped a combined extortion demand of Rs. 14 million6 on all the Unilever Group companies with commercial interests in Assam: Doom Dooma India, Brooke Bond and Lipton.

Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta’s Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government was under siege. It was being held to ransom by the ULFA, an armed insurgent group that had been fighting for a ‘sovereign, socialist Assam’ ever since it was formed on April 7, 1979, by six radical Assamese youths at a meeting on the ramparts of the Rang Ghar, the famous amphitheatre of the Ahom royalty7 in Sibsagar, 350 km east of Guwahati. Prior to the ‘chartered mission’, cadres of the outfit had ambushed and killed Surendra Paul, Chairman of the Calcutta-based Apeejay Group, during a visit to the company’s tea plantations in Assam’s Tinsukia district on April 9, 1990. The perilous security situation of the day could be gauged by the remark of the then Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Subodh Kant Sahay, who said, "The whole (state) machinery was with the ULFA."8 Not many were surprised when the Center dismissed the Mahanta government on November 27, 1990, imposed President’s rule and declared the ULFA an unlawful organisation. The Army commenced the trail of the ULFA the very next day, in a counter-insurgency offensive code-named ‘Operation Bajrang.’

As President of the powerful All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Mahanta had successfully led the anti-foreigner (read anti-Bangladeshi infiltrators) uprising in the State during 1979-1985.9 But as a Chief Minister – having transformed himself from a student leader to a politician – he could not keep the law and order situation under control. Consequently, Mahanta failed to complete a full tenure of five years during the very first term of his government. In the ensuing elections of June 1991, the Congress under the leadership of Hiteswar Saikia returned to power with the promise, among other things, of improving the security situation and restoring peace in Assam. On July 1, 1991, hours after Saikia was sworn in as the Chief Minister, the ULFA unsettled the Congress regime as its cadres abducted 14 persons, including a Russian coal mining expert, Sergei Gritshenko, and an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, S. K. Tewari. Two of the hostages, Gritshenko and T.S. Raju, an engineer with the public sector Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), were later killed in ULFA custody.

The ULFA leadership gave the Saikia government a proposal: release of the 24 detained ULFA cadres in exchange for the hostages. On July 12, 1991, in a hostage-for-terrorist swap, the Assam government released – much against the opinion of the Army and the Police top brass – 11 of the 24 terrorists whose names had been forwarded by the ULFA. These detained terrorists were part of the approximately 400 other cadres of the outfit who had earlier been set free by the Assam government as part of the Saikia government’s decision to grant a general amnesty. It was a gamble that was to have dangerous ramifications vis-à-vis the counter-insurgency policy. The ULFA terrorists, released under the general amnesty had been sent to Bangladesh to prevail upon the hardcore ULFA cadres to shun violence and return to the mainstream, never returned. Instead, they issued a statement calling for the renewal of armed struggle in Assam.10 Consequently, the ULFA got an opportunity to regroup and emerge as a more dangerous outfit. The State government was forced to take recourse to the Army once again, resulting in the launch of ‘Operation Rhino’ on September 15, 1991.

Victorious once again at the May 1996 hustings, the AGP, under Mahanta’s leadership, had already steeled its resolve to engage the ULFA in hot pursuit. Its intention was to counter the popular perceptions of the AGP as a weak regime, one that was not adept in statecraft. But the travails of the new regime commenced forthwith, as the Bodos and Adivasi (tribal) Santhals were locked in a violent ethnic clash in Kokrajhar and the adjoining western Assam areas on May 15, 1996,11 even as Mahanta was being sworn in as Chief Minister at Guwahati. The Assam government requested the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to deploy the army in Kokrajhar and the adjoining Bodo-dominated districts to contain the ethnic feud and related actions of Bodo outfits such as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) in support of their community. Consequently, the Army, State police and paramilitary forces in Assam were brought under a Unified Command with a mandate not merely to tackle the situation in the Bodo-dominated areas, but also to counter terrorist outfits, primarily the ULFA, in the entire State.

Unified Headquarters

Acting on a request from the Assam government, the MHA in New Delhi, vide an order dated January 4, 1997,12 accepted the move to bring the Army, State police and the paramilitary forces under a single chain of command. The MHA order, signed by the then Union Home Secretary, K. Padmanabhiah, said: "For operational purposes, a Unified Headquarters would be set up under chairmanship of GOC IV Corps with operational control over all forces, including central paramilitary and State police employed on counter-insurgency duties, for coordinating the entire operations…" Subsequently, on January 24, 1997, the Assam Governor issued a notification on the constitution of the Unified Headquarters, placing the three forces under it. What emerged was a three-tier structure: the Strategy Group, the Operational Group and the District-level Coordination Committee.

The Strategy Group comprises a Committee headed by the State Chief Secretary. The other members of the Strategy Group include the General Officer Commanding (GOC) IV Corps, the Additional Chief Secretary and the State Director General of Police. According to the notification, "the committee (comprising the Strategy Group) will work out the broad strategies and ensure policy coordination and meet as often as necessary, but at least once in 2 months."

The Operational Group of the Unified Headquarters comprises the following: GOC IV Corps (Chairman), Additional Chief Secretary, Assam, State Director General of Police, Brigadier (General Staff) of IV Corps, Inspector General of the Border Security Force (BSF), Inspector General of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Inspector General/Additional Director General of Assam Police (Operations), Inspector General of Police (Special Branch), the senior-most local official of the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau (SIB) and a representative of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW).

The District-level Coordination Committee is headed by the Deputy Commissioner (DC). The other members include the District Superintendent of Police and representatives from the Army, Central paramilitary forces and Intelligence agencies.

The Operational Group was aimed at achieving four broad objectives:

  • To synergise counter-insurgency operations conducted by the Army, Central paramilitary organisations (CPO) and the State Armed Police, including deployment / re-deployment.
  • To decide on modification of the areas of operation between the Army and the CPOs vis-à-vis the projected action plan.
  • To monitor the proceedings of the District-level Coordination Committees.
  • Crisis management.13

The rationale of bringing the Army, police and the paramilitary together was to initiate a ‘direct line of command.’ Thus, practically perceived, it was a Unified Command of security forces that was created in Assam. However, with the announcement of the formation of this new counter-insurgency structure, the media provided enough space to the opinion, which sought to interpret it as a virtual surrender of power by the democratically elected State government to the Army. The AGP regime was forced to clarify that the structure was not a ‘unified command’ but a ‘unified headquarters’, totally under the control of the Assam government. Recalling the clarification, Mahanta in an interview to this author said, "We had managed to set at rest all doubts by clarifying that it was the State Chief Secretary and not the Army who was at the head of the Unified Headquarters."14

The State government was already apprehensive of the virulent campaign unleashed by pro-ULFA intellectuals, media and human rights groups against the concept of a unified force under the operational command of the Army. This could be construed as the reason for Chief Minister Mahanta deciding not to head the Strategy Group himself, as is the practice in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). As a result, the Chief Secretary became the head of the Strategy Group. Mahanta may have been convinced that it would be politically incorrect for him to be seen as the person approving military operations against terrorist outfits, which would naturally involve some, if not immense, inconvenience to the civilian population.

Indeed, such apprehensions turned out to be true. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) issued a call for a Statewide bandh (strike) on January 24, 1997, to protest, what it called, the imposition of "military rule in the name of the Unified Command Structure."15 Furthermore, on January 21, 1997, a group of eight prominent intellectuals in the State signed a joint statement saying, "introduction of the Unified Command Structure when an elected government is in power would lead to a destruction of the democratic system in the State."16

This bitter campaign forced the Chief Minister to launch a counter-offensive. On January 28, 1997, the Assam government placed front page advertisements in several local dailies, including Assam Tribune, pointing out the decision of an all-party meeting held in Guwahati on January 2, 1997, that had authorised the State government to take ‘stern action as found necessary in order to bring an end to the senseless violence and militancy in the state.’ The advertisement, issued in Mahanta’s name, said, "It is regrettable that those who are crying themselves hoarse over the formation of the Unified Headquarters under the new arrangement and making an issue out of it have been maintaining silence though scores of innocent people have either fallen prey to the extremists’ violence or have become crippled for life…"

Politically, the Mahanta government was on a defensive with the inception of the Unified Headquarters. Nevertheless, the AGP government could no longer afford a kid-glove treatment of the proscribed ULFA and the NDFB, since the circumstances leading to its dismissal in the winter of 1990, consequent to a stepped-up offensive by the ULFA, were still fresh in its memory. The Mahanta regime, consequently, launched an intensified counter-insurgency offensive under a Unified Headquarters, despite its attendant risks.

Commenting on the performance of the Unified Headquarters from a ‘militaristic’ point of view, Hare Krishna Deka, the Assam Director General of Police, is of the view that the Unified Command, in which the State police worked in close coordination with the Army and paramilitary forces, achieved immediate success in its operations against the ULFA. He notes that despite desperate attacks on the security forces, the outfit’s activities were contained and its middle-level leaders neutralized.17 Between January 1, 1998, and December 31, 2000, a total of 375 ULFA terrorists were killed in the course of counter-insurgency operations, 2,948 were arrested and an additional 2,385 of them surrendered to the authorities. Furthermore, 468 arms, 5,810 rounds of ammunition and Rs. 17,29,315 in cash were recovered from ULFA terrorists.18 During the same period, 184 terrorists of the NDFB were killed in encounters, 615 arrested and 214 of them surrendered.

The Bitter Truth

Taking note of a gap between statistically perceived operational results and the reality of the counter-insurgency operations under the Unified Headquarters, one analyst observes:

A decade-long military engagement and the thousands of lives that have been lost, has succeeded in containing the growth of the ULFA in the region. But it has not been able to entirely marginalise the group. Indeed, the ULFA continues to strike at will and with apparent impunity and, although reports suggest an internal dissonance in the organisation, the command and control structure of the ULFA seems intact as is its recruitment rate.19

In the weeks leading to the May 10, 2001, State Legislative Assembly elections, Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta consistently pointed that his government had succeeded in restoring peace in Assam. He claimed that the fear psychosis created by terrorism during the term of the earlier regime had been eliminated as a result of "our uncompromising and determined effort against insurgency."20 This statement was meant to suggest that the ULFA, consequent to a large number of its cadres laying down arms and coming over-ground, had lost its sting and was in disarray. This statement was contrary to the State government’s own stand, which emphasized that the security situation in Assam was critical and, therefore, the Election Commission should conduct the polls in three phases. A phased election, according to Mahanta, was necessary for the effective deployment of security forces to counter the ULFA’s threat of disrupting the electoral process. Assam Police officials went on record saying that the ULFA had formed an exclusive 40-member squad to hit out at targets during the polls.21 These apprehensions, to a certain extent, were proved right with the ULFA killing more than 50 AGP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members in the run-up to the elections, including the BJP candidate for the Dibrugarh Assembly seat, Jayanta Dutta.22

A critical question, consequently, and one that elicits no easy answers, is whether the Unified Headquarters has been able to achieve concrete results which the State police, paramilitary and the Army could not have achieved, had they continued to work separately as before? While an official admission can neither be expected nor is necessary, the fact remains that the 50,000 strong Assam Police force was demoralised as soon as the operational command of the Unified Headquarters was vested with the Army. Police officers – particularly from the rank of Deputy Inspector General (DIG) to the District Superintendent of Police (SP) and downward – greatly resented playing second fiddle to the Army.23 Moreover, the move sought to give an official impression that the efficiency of the State police was found wanting. It is difficult to prove statistically the extent to which such resentment may have affected the success rate of the operations on the ground, but it did lead to competitiveness, rather than effective coordination, among the three forces. In most cases, the forces were increasingly mired in insignificant rivalries. At the other end, the Army, on its part, does not appear to have been unhappy with its experience of commanding the operations under the Unified Headquarters. The experiment, Army officials feel, has led to the optimum utilization of all the available forces – the police, paramilitary and the Army. The contended advantage of the Army heading operations appears to be its ability to maintain a safe distance from vested political or other local pressures in the execution of counter-insurgency operations.24

K P S Gill, who as Director General of Punjab Police led the successful campaign against terrorism in that State, experimented with a system he termed ‘Co-operative Command’, as opposed to the ‘Competitive Command’, which conventionally prevails in a situation where a multiplicity of forces are operating.25 Gill, while completely favouring a transfer of this ‘Co-operative Command’ system to other theatres of low-intensity warfare in the country, cautions that without a very high level of ‘maturity’ among those who command the different forces, the system would be rendered ineffective. Indeed, the following observation by Gill applies equally well in the Assam context:

An efficient system of command, control and co-ordination between diverse forces has been one of the greatest lacunae in every theatre of internal strife in India. In J&K, the command and control system has been the weakest element of strategy, pitting force against force in an abrasive and antagonistic context that emphasises the paramountcy of one force over others, and dissipates energies in an unhealthy competition at the operational level. Narrow fiefdoms have been created, and individual commanders feel threatened by the operations and presence of other forces, and consequently adopt an attitude of hostility and contempt towards these.26

There have been innumerable instances in Assam when more than one force has gone on an overdrive to claim credit for the success of a specific counter-insurgency operation, and an unhealthy competition has been the hallmark of inter-force relations.

This paper contends that, with the Army heading all counter-insurgency operations under a Unified Headquarters, or any variant of such an arrangement, the separatists have been able to steel their resolve to fight the Indian state. Such scenarios emerge primarily as a result of the perception of the Army as a symbol of the ultimate might of the government. This image lends itself to the terrorists’ legitimacy-building exercise as well as their propaganda offensive, which cites instances – real or exaggerated – of ‘excesses’ by the security forces. Hence, whenever the Army has been deployed in Assam for internal security duties, the government ends up fighting an equally blistering propaganda war. This, of course, is a tactic employed by insurgents in many theatres of conflicts.

In its efforts to counter such malicious propaganda, the government, at the outset, emphasized, through newspaper advertisements, that a magistrate or a police officer, and in the absence of both, the village head, would accompany the Army on every raid.27 Likewise, the State Chief Secretary reiterated at almost every Strategy Group meeting, that the security forces must take utmost care not to harass or alienate innocent civilians during the counter-insurgency operations.28

There are no suggestions to the effect that the Army has failed in its mission. In fact, the Army has achieved tremendous success in containing ‘little wars’ in theatres like Nagaland, for instance. Nevertheless, the moot point in this context is, the vesting of the command in the Army, not of using force in counter-insurgency operations. As Gill says: "Their (Army’s) successes against terrorists have been exemplary and manifold. Their successes against terrorism, however, have been few."29

The disadvantages of using the Army to intervene in insurgency-hit areas are by now well known and accepted, but ignored, because the situation has gone out of control. It is the police, and not the army, who can comprehend the populace and the area where they are deployed. The Army, inevitably, is considered an ‘outsider’, out to dominate the people. Secondly, the Army’s style of operation, in sharp contrast to that of the police, is to use maximum force and view its adversaries as ‘enemies’. These aspects lead to complexities, especially when they are fighting a band of elusive guerrillas who are otherwise men and women drawn from the very people in the area of intervention. Unlike the police – working among, and drawn from, the locals and located in the interior areas – the army arrives at a certain place abruptly and also finds first-hand intelligence hard to gather. This is primarily because the populace perceives the deployment of the Army purely in terms of neutralising the insurgents in a particular area, as also the fact that such a deployment would end with the accomplishment of the given task. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the Army is perceived as an ‘intruder’, and the rebels fully exploit such a public perception to their advantage.

Army as Samaritans

The Army, battling insurgency in North Eastern India, has from time to time drawn up a number of welfare programmes to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the people, as they call it. Towards the end of 1995, the Army Headquarters operationalised a development programme for Nagaland and Manipur with a sum of Rs. 100 million earmarked for each State. A cell called the Army Development Group was set up to execute the schemes, which included supply of water in the remote villages, construction of playgrounds, roads, etc. High breed cattle were imported from Australia with a view to improving the quality of the local cattle through crossbreeding. Such an image-building exercise was directed towards projecting the Army in these insurgency-ravaged States as a friend to the people, and not as an antagonistic or external ‘Force.’

Similarly, on April 1, 2000, the Army launched the ongoing Operation Samaritan in Assam. Quite significantly, the MHA and not the Defence Ministry allocated funds for this programme. Initially, an amount of Rs 10 million was allocated, with an additional amount of Rs. 7.5 million being sanctioned later. Earmarked funds were utilised by the Army, among other tasks, to construct or repair bridges, build bus shelters, extend school buildings and open computer centres in educational institutions. A notable aspect of the Operation is that these tasks were generally executed by villagers in the areas where counter-insurgency operations were on, under the supervision of Army engineers or other officials.

Operation Samaritan was launched purely to build a people-friendly image of the Army. Such programmes have a necessarily limited impact, as they are widely perceived as mere public relations exercises. Nevertheless, in a State like Assam where doctors do not prefer postings in insurgency affected and remote areas – particularly those that are malaria prone, and those that border Bhutan and where the extortion threats of terrorist outfits act as strong disincentives,30 a medical camp set up by the Army is, indeed, seen as God-sent. Nevertheless, though Army doctors are welcome in such areas, the motives behind such humanitarian services are prone to scrutiny and suspicion. The fault here does not lie with the Army. It is purely structural and goes to the very character of the Force and its interventions in these areas. Consequently, even if the Army goes to extraordinary lengths to execute humanitarian programmes without any apparent ulterior motive, the gesture is accepted with a measure of skepticism, as the people believe that these tasks are essentially within the scope and responsibility of the civil administration. As Gill notes:

These interventions (welfare programmes by the Army), for any given locality or population segment, however, can only be occasional, and the interactions generated, fitful. Such an exercise, moreover, is widely perceived as a public relations exercise and, while it may on occasion assuage injured local pride and provide some relief to the people, it cannot create the necessary network of contacts and connections that make for successful long-term operations in a conflict characterised by high dispersal of terrorist forces and random patterns of attack.31

Attempts to use welfare programmes as image-builders or force multipliers, therefore, and more often than not, are unable to achieve the desired results.

Good Media, Bad Media

The media is a powerful component in conflict situations such as those that prevail in the Northeast. A unique dynamic emerges in the operation of the media in conflict situations, primarily due to two reasons: first, conflict situations the world over are accepted as happenings with a extraordinary news value and, therefore, constitute a major focus of media operations; second, the security implications of conflict imbue such reportage with utmost public importance and interest. Terrorist or insurgent outfits consistently attempt to draw the attention of the media, and through it, of decision-makers and the public at large. Similarly, the government also utilises the media to build public opinion against violence and terrorism. Thus, the media is a significant construct both to the terrorists and the state. Moreover, with the manifold increase in the power of the media, consequent to instant communication technologies, and the rise in the literacy rates of developing countries like India, new challenges have emerged within the contours of the interface of the Forces with the insurgency. Noting that the military must address these challenges if it is not to enter future operations, both in conflict and peace, at a significant disadvantage, one analyst thus writes:

A definite indicator of the new dynamics of change in military-media relationship is the inexorable trend towards discarding the usage of the term 'Media Management' which was till recently being freely bandied about and had become recognised military jargon. It has now dawned upon the military that the usage of this term needs to be curbed as it gives an impression that the media can be 'managed'. The media in general strongly resents this term. At best the media can be understood, trusted, befriended and possibly co-opted. Hence the need to replace this term with 'Media-Military Relations', 'Media Policy' or 'Media Projection' which implies the manner in which the military wishes to deal with and project its image to and via the media. 'Media Projection Plans' though very important in actual war or Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) operations, are equally relevant during peace.32

The security forces, particularly the Army, have attempted to understand and ‘befriend’ the media to a great extent in Assam during the past five years. Channels of communication between the Army and the media opened up during the tenure of Lt. Gen. R.K. Sawhney, General Officer Commanding of the Tezpur-based IV Corps.33 Prior to this, the Army officials were inaccessible and stayed in a cocoon, away from any contact whatsoever with the media. Consequently, exaggerated or distorted reportage of the conflict proliferated. Gen. Sawhney’s policy of providing access to the media to clarify and present the Army’s perspective paid rich dividends. Untruths, half-truths and exaggerated reportage of alleged Army excesses, especially in the vernacular Press, gradually began to decrease. With the operationalisation of the Unified Headquarters, Gen. Sawhney stated through the media that the people should inform the Army authorities regarding reported excesses during counter-insurgency operations. Such actions indicated that the authorities were following a humane approach in counter-insurgency operations.34 Even though Lt. Gen. D.B. Shekatkar, one of Gen. Sawhney’s successors, pursued a policy of easy accessibility, certain Corps Commanders were found to be either media-shy or sought to avoid it by choice.

Having unveiled a media ‘friendly’ policy, the Army began to bombard the print and electronic media with both official and unofficial Press statements that sought to highlight their ‘successes’ or ‘welfare programmes.’ Apart from the official Army channel, i.e. the Defence public relations unit, statements of individual formations engaged in counter-insurgency duties also appeared. Over time, such publicity attempts have proven to be counter-productive. This was particularly the case with photographs of militants killed in ‘encounters’, with their guns lying in order beside the bodies, which were released by the Army to the media on various occasions. These over-zealous attempts at securing publicity effectively negated the gains of the earlier phases of media engagement. As the authorities gradually realised the negative impact of such a publicity blitz, the practice of releasing such ‘visual evidence’ was stopped.

The security forces under the Unified Headquarters may have ‘befriended’ the media and may have even succeeded in preventing rebel outfits like the ULFA from acting as a cohesive force, but they have substantially failed in denying the rebels their much-needed access to the media. This is despite the security forces’ claim of having busted several ‘communication centres’ of the ULFA, as also the death of the proscribed outfit’s ‘assistant publicity secretary’ and ‘central committee’ member, Swadhinata Phukan alias Kabiranjan Saikia, in an encounter on May 26, 2000.35 As the free Press is construed to be a primary conduit connecting terrorists, the public, and governments, violent spectaculars can promote and further the terrorists’ goals only if they are extensively reported.36 In the context of the terrorist incidents carried out by the Irish Republican Army, former British Premier Margaret Thatcher, addressing the American Bar Association, commented that democracies should find ways to starve the terrorists of the ‘oxygen of publicity’ on which they depend."37 Counter-insurgency operations in Assam under the Unified Headquarters have failed to deny outfits like the ULFA or the NDFB the ‘oxygen of publicity’, particularly so, since "it is through the mass media that the terrorist gain access to public and decision-making structures." For instance, the ULFA’s weekly mouthpiece Freedom continued to reach the newspapers through e-mail, a mode of dispatch over which the security forces currently have no control. Of late, rather than separate Press statements,38 the ULFA has preferred to air its views on key issues through Freedom. Towards the end of May 2001, for instance, ULFA’s opposition to the extension of the ongoing cease-fire with the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) to areas in Assam was made known through an edition of Freedom that was e-mailed to newspaper offices in Guwahati.39 The changing modes of information dissemination are discerned from the fact that, in the present context, rarely does one witness the security forces planning to arrest a messenger out on the road to deliver a rebel statement to newspaper offices, as was often the case in the past. Exclusive interviews, too, have been possible through e-mail with top rebel leaders in exile.40 The moot point here is that views of the proscribed outfits could be heard distinctly and without interruption throughout the phase of the coordinated counter-insurgency offensive.

The government has also made vigorous attempts to utilize the media as a force multiplier. The MHA provided funds to Doordarshan, the national television network, to hire private producers to make documentaries highlighting such aspects as rehabilitation of surrendered militants, economic under-development in the State due to the disturbed security situation, etc. Unfortunately, a majority of these documentaries were telecast at odd hours when the viewership is certainly not encouraging. As a result, the efforts have failed to produce the desired impact.

The Political Weapon

Paul Wilkinson is of the view that the general principles of the firm hard-line strategy for liberal democracies in combating terrorism have the best track record in reducing terrorism.41 Wilkinson cites some of the major principles and measures to combat terrorism, which, he believes, are still as relevant to the world’s problems with terrorism at the turn of the century:

  • No surrender to the terrorists, and an absolute determination to defeat terrorism within the framework of the rule of law and the democratic process;
  • No deals and no major concessions, even in the face of the most severe intimidation and blackmail;
  • An intensified effort to bring terrorists to justice by prosecution and conviction before courts of law;
  • Tough measures to penalise the state sponsors who give terrorist movements safe haven, explosives, cash, and moral and diplomatic support.

In the Indian context, such a ‘hard-line strategy’ has not yielded positive results anywhere except in Punjab. In Nagaland, the Army has been in operation since the mid-fifties. Today, the Government of India is engaged in political discussions with the NSCN-IM, and a ceasefire has been in place since 1997. In Mizoram, the Union government managed to end insurgency by signing a peace agreement with Mizo National Front (MNF) leader Laldenga in 1986. As a result of this ‘Accord’, the Congress government of the day resigned to pave the way for fresh elections, which the MNF contested and won. Laldenga then became the Chief Minister of the State. In Tripura, too, the Government of India entered into an agreement with Bijoy Hrangkhawl’s Tribal National Volunteers (TNV) in 1988.

Military intervention has largely failed to douse the fires of insurgency in India, primarily because most of these separatist movements are the result of a feeling of alienation from the mainstream, lack of economic opportunities and exploitation of local resources by the Central government. For instance, Assam produces oil but has to request, cajole or threaten the Centre to pay or hike the rate of oil royalties due to the State. It is also more of a problem of getting a band of angry young men to agree to shun violence and come overground. Of course, for this to happen, space needs to be created for these underground rebels to ‘come out’. Their political or economic rehabilitation is another crucial point that needs to be taken care of. Under such circumstances, the political weapon is very much a force, through a proper application of which, insurgency or terrorism can be countered. Therefore, it is not surprising to find Assam’s new Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi,42 making it clear in no uncertain terms that insurgency is a "political problem, requiring a political solution."43 The Chief Minister has also indicated that he is in favour of a unilateral cease-fire, on the lines of Nagaland, in Assam, to pave the way for possible negotiations between the government and the ULFA.44

The ULFA has reiterated its three pre-conditions for a possible dialogue with the Government of India: talks outside India; talks under the supervision of the United Nations; and the core demand of a ‘sovereign Assam’. The critical question here is not of the conditions but of a political package, which the rebels could hope to secure in lieu of a renunciation of their secessionist demand. Agreeing to negotiate could itself be construed as a clear indication that the rebel group is ready for a compromise. The nuances of such a compromise can be worked out only during the negotiations. But, the ULFA is yet to enunciate its blueprint for a sovereign Assam: the type of government, the source of revenue, and the market for Assam’s resources and so on. Similarly, the government, too, is clueless of what it could possibly offer within the negotiating matrix in the event of the ULFA agreeing to give up its demand for independence and enter into a process of dialogue. The imperative for the government is to commence an exercise of deliberations regarding the nuances of a dialogue with the separatists. It could, for instance, deliberate on: whether one can talk of rendering the provision of dual citizenship being extended to Assam; whether there can be laws to bar purchase of immovable property in the State by outsiders; whether the citizenry should be allowed to retain control over land in the State; and whether the State, and not the Centre, should decide on the amount of royalty it should receive from the Union government on the oil extracted from Assam.

The new Congress government in Assam has given enough indication that it would use intermediaries to establish direct contact with the elusive ULFA and NDFB leadership to try and prepare the ground for a possible process of dialogue between the two sides.45 For such moves to succeed, a modicum of understanding and trust needs to be created. Furthermore, this necessitates appropriate signals. One positive signal that has emerged from the new regime in Assam is its emphasis on the police playing a more ‘dominant role’ in the Unified Command Structure.46 The political weapon in counter-insurgency must necessarily be used with a lot of imagination.

There is no short cut for success in countering or eliminating an insurgency. As Paul Wilkinson says, "so much depends on the quality of the political leaders and their advisers and the moral strength and determination of democratic societies."47 A reading of the current situation, unfortunately, suggests that such quality and moral strength are conspicuous by their absence in theatres of conflict in India.48 There have been widespread public protests in the wake of the killing of the Hindi-speaking people in Assam.49 The authorities were obviously pleased over the fact that a mass upsurge against violence was taking place. Even as the cry for peace was getting louder, with more and more individuals and groups taking out peace marches in Guwahati and elsewhere in the State, counter-killings commenced. Gunmen, who pass off in Assam as ‘secret killers’, began assassinating close relatives of top ULFA leaders.50 Among those killed were the ULFA’s ‘Foreign Secretary’ Shasha Choudhury’s brother and ‘Deputy Commander-in-Chief’ Raju Baruah’s brother-in-law and nephew. Controversy exists on the identity of these ‘secret killers’ The then Chief Minister, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, is on record that there are no ‘secret killers’ in Assam. But, daily situation reports prepared by agencies under the State Home Department (at least some of those during the period of the killings in early January) did allude to ‘secret killers’ assassinating the ULFA leaders’ kin. Between 1998 and January 2001, a total of 21 relatives of ULFA members were killed by unidentified gunmen in Assam.51 It is widely believed that these ‘secret killers’ are none but surrendered militants acting at the behest of some Government functionaries, if not the Government itself. The surrendered rebels on their part insist that they are not involved in any extra-constitutional act. What has put the authorities in Assam in a spot is their inability to arrest any of those behind the killings of the relatives of ULFA leaders.52 This is an indicator of how the government of the day lost the advantage in hand.


Multiple forces have been brought under a Unified Headquarters in Assam, with a direct line of command, for the sole purpose of containing insurgency. But, despite a plethora of security forces under the Unified Headquarters for four years at a stretch, armed rebels could strike at will and kill more than 100 Hindi-speaking people in cold-blooded serial attacks in towns and villages across Assam between October and December 2000.53 Sustained efforts notwithstanding, the multi-force operations have not been able to totally neutralise the insurgents. The government has few options in the current context. It has exhausted its administrative options by welding the police, paramilitary forces and the Army together under a joint command. Moreover, the government by including the Army in this experiment reduced the status of this force to that of any other counter-insurgency outfit. The imperative ought to have been to mark out a well-defined back-up role for the Army’s efficient counter-insurgency units, even as the police and the paramilitary forces were placed under a joint command.

A well-defined back-up role could have provided the Army a clear edge during troop movement, either on a specific raid or a confidence-building action like a flag march. There was a time in Assam – as elsewhere in India – when the very sight of the Army in battle gear, moving in on trucks, was enough to quell a disturbed situation. Today, the Army has lost its psychological edge due to its prolonged use in internal security duties. More significantly, people witness troops being deployed everywhere, in the towns and cities, guarding bridges on the national highways, patrolling rivers, checking vehicles and so on. The Army, without doubt, is not intended for routine policing or counter-insurgency duties among civilian population. Prolonged deployment has affected the Army’s normal unit routine and has consequently become a matter of concern for the force.54 This is not to suggest that the Army should be totally pulled out of counter-insurgency operations. A re-assessment of its role is the necessity.

Before deliberating on the reduction of the Army’s role, one must take a hard look at the state of the Assam Police force. Until recently, the basic weapon of the Assam Police was the obsolete .303 rifle. It is currently being replaced with the self-loading rifles (SLR) and machine carbine, a weapon normally used for close-quarter battle. Some units of the Assam Police are also using assault weapons like AK-47 for the past few years. However, only an estimated 25 per cent of the outdated .303 rifles have been phased out.55 This is primarily due to the resource crunch that the Assam government has been facing for the past several years. Apart from a modernisation programme, the resource crunch has also affected the normal training programme of the State’s police personnel. The present Congress regime has, however, said that it would "try its best to modernize the state police by providing sophisticated weapons, latest communication facilities, and more training to deal with terrorism and insurgency more effectively."56 Another significant area that needs special mention and attention is police housing. In this context, the satisfaction level of the Assam police personnel is less than 15 per cent.57 With a ‘satisfaction level’ below 15 per cent, it is clear that a majority of the police force dwell in rented accommodation, outside the security zone and often vulnerable to reprisals by either insurgents or miscreants. It is quite natural, under these circumstances, that a policeman fighting insurgency on the ground would be concerned about the safety of his family living in such unsecured accommodation.

Multi-force operations in countering insurgency in Assam, moreover, will succeed only when the key development departments are coordinated with anti-insurgency measures, and corruption in these departments is eliminated or checked to keep it at a minimum. The Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, has observed in this context, "While maintenance of law and order would remain the prime concern, we are not to overlook the need of speeding up development activities in the entire state. Rapid economic development and creation of job opportunities would be the antidote to unrest and insurgency."58 The balance will have to be tilted for the masses to support the government’s efforts towards ushering in peace. Furthermore, the Unified Headquarters will have to be re-structured. Political wisdom will have to take precedence over military strategies.


* Wasbir Hussain is a Guwahati-based Consulting Editor for The Newspaper Today, India Today Group online, and Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management. He has been covering insurgency, ethnic strife, and other major political and social developments in the seven North Eastern States of India for the past 17 years. Before his current assignment, Hussain was Editor of The Northeast Daily, Guwahati, Special Correspondent of The Asian Age, Regional Editor of The Telegraph and Special Correspondent of The Telegraph. He bagged the 1996 Sanskriti Foundation National Award for excellence in journalism.

  1. Assam, with an area of 78,438 square kilometers, has a population of 26 million people. Census of 2001 – Provisional figures.
  2. Growth rate in Assam: 1.8 per cent in 1999-2000, Source: North Eastern Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
  3. Registered unemployment: 15,40,123 till March 2001. Source: Directorate of Employment, Government of Assam. No firm estimates are currently available for disguised unemployment and underemployment.
  4. Wasbir Hussain, ed., Contemporary North-East India: Problems & Prospects; Trends in Social Sciences & Humanities in North-East India, 1947-1997, New Delhi: Regency Publications, 1998.
  5. Sanjoy Hazarika, Strangers of the Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India’s Northeast, New Delhi: Viking, 1994, p 197.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The Ahoms ruled Assam for 600 years, beginning 1228, until the Yandaboo Treaty, that ended the Anglo-Burmese war, which was signed in 1826.
  8. Hazarika, Strangers of the Mist, p 190.
  9. A by-election to the Mangoldoi Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Indian Parliament) seat was necessitated in 1979 due to the death of the sitting Member of Parliament (MP), Hiralal Patowary. The Election Commission routinely ordered a revision of the voters’ list. The exercise was almost coming to an end when the local electoral officer started receiving complaints that names of a large number of Bangladeshi nationals had been included in the voters' list. This triggered off the oust-foreigner movement, spearheaded by the AASU. The movement ended with the signing of the Assam Accord on August 15, 1985 that fixed March 25, 1971 as the cut-off date for detection and expulsion of the aliens.
  10. Dinesh Kotwal "Dynamics of Unending Violence in Assam", Strategic Analysis, New Delhi, June 2000, vol. XXIV, no 3.
  11. According to official statistics, approximately 250 persons were killed and 300,000 displaced.
  12. Letter No T-7/HS/97.
  13. Assam Government Notification dated January 24, 1997.
  14. Interview to the author, May 29, 2001.
  15. Assam Tribune, Guwahati, January 23 and 25, 1997.
  16. Assam Tribune, January 22, 1997.
  17. Hare Krishna Deka, Security Scenario in Assam, 2001, Seminar on Development Constraints and Economy of Assam, Panacea, Guwahati, March 17, 2001.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Jaideep Saikia, "Autumn in Springtime: The ULFA battles for survival", Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution, New Delhi, vol. 7, November 2000, p.35.
  20. "AGP has restored peace in state: Mahanta", Assam Tribune, March 16, 2001.
  21. "It’s all about the votes", The Newspaper Today, March 28, 2001, See
  22. Dutta was killed on May 1, 2001. Although the police said he was killed by the ULFA, the latter has not claimed responsibility.
  23. Confidential conversation with the author.
  24. The Sentinel, Guwahati, June 6, 2001.
  25. KPS Gill, "Tackling Terrorism in Kashmir: Some Lessons from Recent History", Paper presented at a Seminar, Terrorism: An Unending Malaise, organised by the Indian Council for Social Sciences Research, New Delhi, March 2-3, 2000.
  26. Gill, "Tackling Terrorism in Kashmir".
  27. Front page advertisement, Assam Tribune, Janasanyog/1745/97, January 28, 1997.
  28. Interview with Assam Chief Secretary Pranab Kumar Bora by the author, May 28, 2001.
  29. Gill, "Tackling Terrorism in Kashmir".
  30. Health Minister, Assam Government, Bhumidhar Barman in, May 29, 2001.
  31. Gill, "Tackling Terrorism in Kashmir".
  32. Ajai K. Rai, "Military-Media Interface: Changing Paradigms, New Challenges", Strategic Analysis, August 2000, vol. XXIV, no 5, p.899.
  33. Gen. Sawhney was the first Corps Commander to head the Operational Group of the Unified Headquarters.
  34. Assam Tribune, January 22, 1997.
  35. He was killed at the Gendheli village of Garumara area under Pulibor police station in Jorhat district. See "Swadhinata Phukon shot dead"
  36. Donna M. Schlagheck., International Terrorism: An Introduction to the Concepts and Actors, Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1998, p 67.
  37. The Media and Terrorism: A Reassessment,
  38. Kanchan L, "Media in Terror: Analysing Reportage from Theatres of Conflict", Faultlines: Writings on Conflict and Resolution, New Delhi, vol.8, April 2001, p.72.
  39. The Telegraph Northeast, June 2, 2001.
  40. See, for instance, e-mail interview with the ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa by the author, February 26, 2001.
  41. Paul Wilkinson, Terrorism and the Liberal State, Basingstoke, 1986; cited in The Strategic Implications of Terrorism, a paper presented at the ICSSR seminar on Terrorism: An Unending Malaise, New Delhi, March 2-3, 2000.
  42. Tarun Gogoi was sworn in as the Chief Minister of Assam on May 18, 2001 after he had led the Congress party to victory in the May 10, 2001 State Legislative Assembly elections, winning 71 seats in the 126-member House.
  43. Interview with the author.
  44. , May 28, 2001.
  45., May 28, 2001.
  46. Minister of State for Home, Assam Government, Pradyut Bordoloi’s address to Superintendents of Police (SP’s) and Deputy Commissioners (DC’S) in Guwahati on May 29, 2001, wherein he said, "…the new government wanted the police force to play the dominant role in the Unified Command Structure, as it is actually the police which should look after the affairs of internal security." Assam Government press release/DIPR, May 29, Release No 779.
  47. Wilkinson: "The Strategic Implications of Terrorism".
  48. ‘Untying the Assam Bind,’ Hindu, Chennai, January 16, 2001.
  49. Approximately 100 Hindi-speaking people were killed between October - December 2000. See "Assam situation",,%2001/otherpubC.htm; Also see Assessment 2001Assam .
  50. See "Gunmen kill relatives of militants in Assam"
  51. The then Chief Minister, Mahanta in reply to a question in the Assam Legislative Assembly, Assam Tribune, February 20, 2001.
  52. "Untying the Assam Bind", Hindu, January 16, 2001, See
  53. "Untying the Assam Bind", Hindu, January 16, 2001.
  54. Former Chief of Army Staff Gen. V P Malik warned against the prolonged deployment of the Army in counter-insurgency operations, as this would affect the Force’s preparedness for future wars. See Times of India, New Delhi, January 26, 2000.
  55. Interviews by the author with Police officers.
  56. Pradyut Bordoloi, DIPR Press Release No 779.
  57. Confidential conversations by the author with officials.
  58. Tarun Gogoi, Address at the conference of DCs and SPs at Guwahati, May 29, 2001.





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