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Shock of Assam

Print edition : Dec 05, 2008 T+T-
MOURNING THE DEATH of his father and brother in the blasts in Guwahati.-PTI

MOURNING THE DEATH of his father and brother in the blasts in Guwahati.-PTI

The October 30 serial blasts point to the collusion between local and outside terrorist agencies.

A NEW face of home-grown terror unveiled itself on the streets of Guwahati, Kokrajhar, Barpeta Road and Bongaigaon, all in Lower Assam, on October 30 when nine bombs, including three car bombs, exploded, killing 86 people and leaving 826 injured. The youngest of the blast victims was a five-year-old girl who suffered 80 per cent burns. Her father, who had come to pick her up from school, was killed on the spot.

The terror attacks, carried out with arithmetical precision, was perhaps the worst-ever the country has witnessed. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil, senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders Brinda Karat and Basudev Acharya, and Communist Party of India leader D. Raja rushed to the blasts sites.

After the initial shock and panic, the entire State erupted in protest against the terror strikes. For 11 days, people took to the streets under different banners, both political and non-political, to express their anguish. Bandhs were called by the BJP, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal and the All Assam Students Union (AASU).

In Ganeshguri locality, close to the State capital, a mob torched ambulances, police vehicles and other public property to vent their anger against the failure of the security apparatus to prevent the blasts and the loss of lives.

Twelve days after the blasts, the State government claimed that the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) were involved in the explosions. An official release stated that the involvement of some active members of the NDFB and ULFA had come to light during the course of investigation by the Special Investigation Team (SIT). The SIT claimed that it had identified the main culprits. The police have so far arrested eight persons in connection with the serial blasts and related cases. The release further stated that the probable involvement of other agencies and organisations was also under investigation. The State government, however, refrained from naming them, leaving room for speculation about the identity of the agencies and organisations involved.

Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said that it was unclear if the NDFB as an organisation was involved or only some of its cadre were involved. He maintained that the possibility of outside forces providing support to carry out the terror attacks could not be ruled out but added that no force from outside would be able to carry out any major strike without the help of local militant groups. Bangladesh, he said, had become the biggest problem in fighting terrorism in Assam and that Myanmar had become a safe haven for insurgent groups.

Advani, who visited the blasts sites, went on record that the terror attacks had confirmed once again that Bangladeshi soil was used for anti-India activities. He exhorted the Union government to exert pressure, preferably diplomatic, on Bangladesh to ensure that its territory was not used as a base for anti-India activities. Without naming the organisation behind the blasts, the senior BJP leader pointed to newspaper reports based on police sources that the blasts were the handiwork of the Harkat-ul-Jehadi Islami (HUJI) based in Bangladesh, the Lashkar-e-Taiba based in Pakistan and ULFA. He said that although ULFA had denied its involvement he would not exonerate the outfit, going by its past history of targeting innocent Hindi-speaking people. He alleged that ULFA, whose leaders had received shelter in Bangladesh, had transformed itself from an insurgent group into a terrorist outfit.

The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the main Opposition party in the State, and the BJP demanded the dismissal of the Gogoi government for its failure to protect lives and for being soft towards Islamic fundamentalists.

Brinda Karat and D. Raja cautioned against the Sangh Parivars attempts to communalise the terror attacks. They said terrorists had no religion, language, caste or creed and must be punished.

The precision with which the terrorists triggered nine synchronised blasts in four districts within half an hour has baffled the Assam Police and security agencies alike. Inspector-General of Police (Special Branch) Khagen Sarma said that while the needle of suspicion pointed to jehadi elements, ULFA might have provided the logistic support to them.

Ballistic experts from the Forensic Sciences Department are under the impression that local outfits lacked the expertise to make such highly sophisticated bombs. It was difficult to gather the huge quantity of explosives used (as much as 80 kg of RDX, or Research Department Explosive), as it was not readily available within the State and the country, they opined.

Forensic investigations revealed that about 25-30 kg of RDX was used in each of the car bombs in Guwahati; ammonium nitrate with plasticisers were used as propellants. Such a huge quantity of explosives was never used in the State in the past the maximum that was used in a single blast was about 10 kg in the Dhemaji blast by ULFA on August 15, 2004, when 13 people, including 10 children, were killed.

Remnants of a Programmable Time Delay Device, which is often used by ULFA to trigger serial blasts, obtained from the Ganeshguri blast site has led investigators to suspect that ULFA could have provided the logistic support.

The NDFBs name cropped up after the SIT arrested a few Bodo youth in connection with the blasts near the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) and at Fancy Bazaar in Guwahati and at Ganeshguri. Police sources said that the arrested youth had either owned the three cars in which the explosives were kept or provided other forms of logistic support.

On November 10, a day before the State government officially announced the complicity of the NDFB and ULFA in the blasts, contingents of the Assam Police and paramilitary forces were rushed to cordon off the designated camps of the NDFB in Baksa, Udalguri and Kokrajhar. The decision to send the troops to confine the NDFB cadre in the camps came after a meeting of the Strategy Group of the three-tier Unified Command Structure headed by the Chief Minister. Gogoi decided to enforce the ceasefire ground rules strictly.

(The NDFB had entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Centre on May 24, 2005. The extended ceasefire is due to expire on December 31, but if the blasts probe establishes the involvement of the NDFB, New Delhi is likely to call off the ceasefire.)

Cadre of the NDFB, however, refused entry to police officials who wanted to carry out a search inside the camp. The police claimed that 12 blast suspects had taken shelter at the camp.

The NDFB denied its involvement in the blasts and described the allegation as false and baseless. In a statement issued by its information and publicity secretary S. Sanjarang, it stated that all persons who have been arrested from different places so far on allegations of being involved in the blasts are civilians and they are neither members of the NDFB nor had any relationship with the NDFB.

The NDFB is working for peace of the entire region and is on the peace process with the Government of India at present to solve the long-cherished political problem of the Boro people through a peaceful negotiation. Our cadre are huddled in the designated camps and are complying with the ceasefire ground rules at their level best, the statement added. The outfit pointed out the NDFB could not be held responsible simply because vehicles suspected to be used in the blasts belonged to Boro people.

Meanwhile, ULFA has alleged that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh was behind the blasts. In an earlier statement, Anjan Barthakur of ULFAs central publicity unit said the blasts were the handiwork of the Indian occupational force.

The police also arrested Naziruddin Ahmed from Moirabari in Morigaon district. The arrest related to an SMS purportedly sent by a little-known outfit, the Islamic Security Force (Indian Mujahideen), to a television news channel claiming responsibility for the blasts. A senior Home Department official, however, said that the SMS could have been a tactic to confuse the investigators.

Nani Gopal Mahanta, Coordinator, Peace and Conflict Studies, Gauhati University, says that the government has failed on four fronts anticipation, political strategy, policing, and response to terrorism. Terrorism or insurgency has become part of Assams polity ever since the emergence of ULFA in 1979.

The areas where the serial bomb blasts took place in Guwahati are perhaps the most bombed places in South Asia. Nineteen bomb blasts have taken place in Ganeshguri in the past 12 years. The blasts in Tripura and Manipur which occurred a few days before the Assam blasts should have alerted the Gogoi government, he remarked.

In the past 13 years, 788 blasts have rocked the State, while security forces have seized about 5,600 live bombs.

There is no political strategy to tackle terrorism although it has engulfed the State for more than 29 years. The strategies adopted by the government to tackle terrorism have been rag-tag, piecemeal, divide-and-rule, Mahanta said. He pointed out that the State, which had a population of three crore, had fewer than 60,000 police personnel (the majority of whom are assigned to government offices and VIP security).

This was perhaps one of the lowest police-people ratio in the world, he noted, and said that an insurgency-prone State like Assam should have better disaster management strategies. In this connection, he mentioned the late arrival of ambulances at the blasts sites.

Faced with the accusation of intelligence failure, the Unified Command the three-tier command structure of the Army, the Assam Police and Central paramilitary forces for counter-insurgency operations has decided to set up a joint control room at the Assam Police headquarters to ensure quick sharing of hard intelligence. The State Cabinet has decided to set up a research and analysis wing within the Special Branch of the Assam Police for sustained research on the activities of terrorist groups so that primary intelligence can be converted into actionable intelligence.