By B. Raman
On November 20, 2006, an explosion (some reports say two) in a compartment of the Haldibari-Siliguri passenger train at the Belakoba railway station in West Bengal resulted in the death of seven innocent civilians. Fifty persons were injured, 20 of them seriously. While no organisation has claimed responsibility for the explosion, the local police officials seem to suspect the hand of either the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), some of whose leaders and cadres operate from sanctuaries in Bangladesh, or the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), which is believed to have close links with the ULFA.
2. Media reports have stated as follows: "Police and intelligence officials believe the attack was carried out by the banned ULFA as the site of the blast is not far from the border with Assam. The finger of suspicion has also been pointed at the KLO, an insurgent group propped up by the ULFA that is active in north Bengal. Intelligence officials in Siliguri said the Darjeeling Mail, to which two bogies of the Haldibari-Siliguri train were to be attached, could have been the target. The Mail, coming from the Coochbehar district bordering Assam, was 30 minutes behind schedule when the blast occurred. The casualties would have been higher if the explosion had occurred at New Jalpaiguri Railway station near Siliguri, they said. The officials said it was likely that the explosives went off at Belakoba while being carried to New Jalpaiguri."
3. The explosion in West Bengal has come in the wake of a series of explosions in Assam since the security forces called off the cessation of operations against the ULFA on September 23, 2006, following the ULFA's reluctance to engage in serious peace talks with the Government. There were two serious explosions in Guwahati itself on November 5, 2006, resulting in the death of 14 innocent civilians. One of these had taken place in an area where a large number of Hindi-speaking persons from other parts of India live and work.
4. In its issue for August,2006, the "Herald", the monthly journal published by the "Dawn" group of publications of Karachi, had quoted an unidentified cadre of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) of Pakistan as saying that the LET has changed its modus operandi (MO) in India as follows: (a). Direct confrontations with the security forces to be avoided unless there is a 100 per cent chance of success; (2). greater emphasis on operations involving the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), using explosive material commonly available in India; and (c) more attacks on installations (economic and other strategic targets).
5. A similar change in the MO of the ULFA can be seen in Assam. There has been a disturbing increase in the number of terrorist strikes involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and hand-grenades, while incidents involving hand-held weapons and direct confrontations with the security forces have not gone up. Compared to the number of explosions, the number of civilian casualties had not registered a corresponding increase, because the ULFA was largely concentrating on economic targets such as oil installations, power transmission lines etc. But since November 1, 2006, it has been targeting civilians increasingly. Available police statistics of incidents involving explosions and civilian casualties are given below:
YEAR NUMBER OF EXPLOSIONS CIVILIANS KILLED
2002 18 218
2003 19 260
2004 103 202
2005 121 65
2006 100 (upto October-end) 92
NOTE: The number of civilians killed is in all acts of terrorism involving the ULFA, including explosions. The figures are not exclusive for explosions.
6. According to the Assam Police, the following jihadi organisations are also active in Assam: The Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA); the Independent Liberation Army of Assam (ILAA); the People United Liberation Front (PULF); the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), whose Pakistani counterpart is a founding member of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF); and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), whose Pakistani counterpart is also a member of the IIF. According to them, the activities of all these organisations are co-ordinated by the Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen (JUM) of Bangladesh, which organised hundreds of simultaneous explosions of crude devices all over Bangladesh on August 17, 2005.
7. Some HUM cadres, along with two Pakistani nationals, were arrested in August, 1999. Forty-two HUM cadres, including some trained in the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), have surrendered so far. Four HUJI cadres trained in Bangladesh surrendered in August, 2004. One HUJI cadre was arrested in February, 2004. So far, 370 jihadis have been arrested and 128 have surrendered.
8. The Security Forces in Assam have been putting up a determined fight against the ULFA killing 1,128 cadres since 1991 and arresting 11,173 during the same period. 8,465 others surrendered. As a result, they say, there have been some positive factors: Decrease in cadre strength; erosion of its support base in the population; decrease in recruitment and fund collection; and shortage of arms and ammunition. In view of these developments, the new MO of the ULFA has the following features: Decrease in specific targeted violence; increase in indiscriminate violence directed at soft targets; targeting of vital installations in remote areas; attacks on security forces when and where possible; and use of unconscious third persons not suspected by the Police for having the IEDs planted in public places.
9. However, the ULFA still has a hardcore of 800 trained cadres and another 1,500 untrained cadres. There are no signs of any weakening of its morale and motivation. Its command and control orchestrated from Bangladesh is intact.
10. In an editorial on November 9, 2006, the "Sentinel", a daily newspaper published from Guwahati, wrote as follows while commenting on the targeting of Hindi-speaking civilians from other parts of India living and working in Assam:: " Striking terror in the hearts of Hindi-speaking people of Asom is precisely what the jihadi elements of Bangladesh and the ISI (Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence) want for two reasons. In the first place, their identification with India is stronger than many others disillusioned by the Centre's neglect of Asom. Secondly, the Hindi-speaking people control the economy of Asom both as businessmen and as skilled manual workers. The forces inimical to the State want the economic vaccum that has stoked the illegal influx from Bangladesh to be intensified. However, none of this is unexpected. For over two decades, the "Sentinel" has constantly harped on the fact that it does not take long for a silent, unarmed invasion (My comment: of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh) to turn into a violent armed invasion. We are beginning to see this happening. Over the years, the Asom Government and the Centre chose to pay no attention. They are now about to reap as they have sown."
11. The same issue of the "Sentinel" carried the following report on its front page under the heading: " NE Rebels Still Getting Arms From China": "State Inspector-General of Police (Special Branch) Khagen Sarma said today (November
that arms consignments continue to come to the North-East from China. A huge consignment of such arms was caught along the Bhutan border way back in 1997 and the supply of arms from China to the rebel groups of this region has been going on since 2003, he said. "The arms consignments are coming through a strong smuggling network, and there is no evidence of the direct involvement of the Chinese Government in the illegal arms trade even though some sort of support from the Government to the activities cannot be ruled out," he said.
12. The newspaper, which was quoting from a presentation made by the IGP (Special Branch) at a seminar on terrorism organised by the Assam Police, added that the IGP also made the following points in his presentation:
(a). Terrorism is now not confined to a particular location.
(b). Bangladesh has become the hub of ISI and Al Qaeda activists, who are providing logistics and other support to the terrorist organisations in the North-East.
(c). The ULFA has been in an agreement with the ISI since 2004. After the set-back they suffered in Bhutan, the ULFA sent 25 of its cadres to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) for arms and explosive training. The terrorists are using a route from Guwahati to Karachi via Dhaka to go to the POK.
(d). The activities of the ULFA have increased in the last 13 months, particularly after the constitution of the People's Consultative Group (PCG), an overground front organisation. To make its presence felt, it has started to hit soft targets. Its modus operandi has changed. It has been using children and other innocent people to plant the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) assembled by it in public places.
(e). Although its support base has been weakened considerably, one of the main sources of its strength is the support from human rights organisations and a section of the local media, which tries to glorify its activities. There is a need to strengthen the psychological operations against the ULFA.
13. Many non-governmental organisations have refrained from condemning the ULFA's targeted killings of innocent civilians. Instead, the focus of their campaign has been against the Security Forces. After the two explosions in Guwahati on November 5, 2006, these NGOs remained conspicuously silent on the brutal killing of the civilians, but instead blamed the Government and the security forces for calling off the cessation of operations against the ULFA on September 23, 2006. The cessation had been announced on August 13, 2006, to facilitate peace talks with the ULFA. Since there were indications that the ULFA was exploiting this cessation to step up its fund collection drive through extortions and other activities and did not respond seriously to the Government's offer of peace talks, the cessation was called off.
14. Some of these NGOs had organised a public meeting at Jorhat on November 7, 2006, under the auspices of the People's Committee for Peace Initiatives in Asom. At this meeting, there was hardly any criticism of the brutal murder of the civilians by the ULFA on November 5. Instead, allegations were made that the security forces were committing atrocities against the civilians.
15. Some of the points made by the Hindi-speaking residents of Assam in their letters to the local newspapers are disturbing. One such letter published by the "Assam Tribune" on November 7, 2006, said: "Some people (in the PCG) even acted as co-ordinators in the ULFA dictat that all "Indians" living in Asom must pay tax, an euphemism for extortion. But the same ULFA never utters a word about the millions of Bangladeshis illegally living in Asom in fear of displeasing their foreign masters. In other words, "Indians" living in Asom must pay "tax" or face bullets, but Bangladeshis can stay without any such fear."
16. Any effective counter-terrorism strategy in Assam has to have the conventional components such as improving intelligence collection, analysis and assessment and co-ordinated follow-up action; improving the capability and resources of the police; strengthened physical security; and a well-tested crisis management drill. In addition, it must have a strong anti-illegal immigration component---to prevent any further illegal immigration from Bangladesh and the identification, arrests and deportation of those, who have already illegally entered India. Obviously for electoral reasons, there is a reluctance on the part of the Government to deal effectively with illegal immigration. This is likely to prove suicidal. Muslims constitute about 32 per cent of the population of Assam today. If the problem of illegal immigration from Bangladesh is not tackled, there is a real danger that in another 50 years, Assam might turn into a Muslim majority State.
17. Pakistan, Bangladesh and China have an interest in keeping Assam destabilised---each for its own reason. The interest of Pakistan and Bangladesh is in facilitating the emergence of a Muslim majority State and its ultimate secession from India. The interest of China is in weakening the Indian capability to protect Arunachal Pradesh in the likelihood of the unresolved border dispute over Arunachal Pradesh one day leading to a confrontation between India and China.
18. The previous Government headed by Shri A. B. Vajpayee was strong in rhetoric relating to terrorism, but weak in action. The present Govt. is weak in rhetoric as well as action. It seems to believe that confidence-building measures with neighbours who are sponsoring terrorism against India and the peace process would pay dividends in improving the terrorism situation on the ground. This is unlikely to happen. Lack of determination to act strongly and in time is already costing us heavily and will cost even more heavily in future.
The writer had visited Guwahati from November 6 to 9, 2006.