Terrorism

Kokrajhar bleeds again

Print edition : September 02, 2016

Tiniali Market in Kokrajhar, which was attacked by militants wielding guns and grenades on August 5. Photo: AP

After the attack, which claimed 15 lives. Among the dead was one of the assailants, who was killed by security forces. Photo: BIJU BORO/AFP

Suspected Bodo militants strike in Assam for the first time after the BJP government took over earlier in the year.

IN the first major militant attack since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Sarbananda Sonowal assumed office in Assam with a massive mandate, a handful of militants drove up to a Friday market in Kokrajhar district around 11:40 a.m. on August 5 and started shooting and lobbing hand grenades at the buyers and sellers. The attack, believed to have been carried out by a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland led by I.K. Songbijit, left 15 people dead, including one suspected militant, and 20 people seriously injured. At least two shops at the Balajan Tiniali Market, located some 220 kilometres away from Guwahati, were charred. The Chief Minister, who was in New Delhi that day, asked Himanta Biswa Sarma, his Minister for Finance, Education and Health, to rush to the spot and review the situation. He himself met with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval before returning to Guwahati late at night.

Security forces reacted promptly. One of the militants was killed while two managed to escape. Police sources said the insurgents drove up in a tempo bearing the number AS-16C-6540. Additional Director General of Police L.R. Bishnoi told journalists: “The attack is definitely the handiwork of the NDFB (Songbijit) faction, and we have enough information to support that.” He added that one “AK-56 rifle, a Chinese hand grenade, one mobile with two SIM cards and three bags have been recovered from the site”.

Kamal Musahary, who lives close to the market, was on his way there when the attack started. “I had no idea why people were running here and there. Only when I heard a loud thumping sound did I realise that an attack was taking place,” he said. He added that people of diverse ethnicities thronged the market. He said he had never seen anything like it. “There was blood splattered everywhere and black smoke was rising from the shops,” he said.

The day after the attack, Himanta Biswa Sarma declared on his Twitter handle that the dead militant had been identified as Monjoy Islary aka Mwdan, a self-styled commanding officer of the 16 BN/Western Command of the dreaded NDFB (Songbijit). According to sources, Mwdan left home nine years ago, and hence it took some time for the police and even his own parents to identify him. Director General of Police Mukesh Sahay said: “The mobile phone recovered from the militant has provided us vital information, and we found that it was connected with a high-ranking leader of the faction. A full magazine of ammunition was used in the firing.”

On August 10, he said that a DNA analysis of the slain militant was under way in Kolkata and that the involvement of the NDFB(S) could be confirmed only after its results were received.

However, B.R. Ferrenga, general secretary of the NDFB(S), issued a press release denying any role in the attack. Curiously enough, the release was dated July 19. Himanta Biswa Sarma commented: “Back in 1990s, when insurgency was at its peak, the Ulfa [United Liberation Front of Asom] used to take responsibility for any militant attacks they perpetrated. These days, no group will take the responsibility of any attacks.”

Among those who died in the attack were Hasa Ali Sheikh, Mazhar Ali, Salam Ali, Danda Basumatary, Moniram Basumatary, Parmeswar Basumatary, Tapan Chakraborty, Dwraw Basumatary, Pusi Nath, Nibarong Basumatary, Saurang Basumatary, Doithang Basumatary and Kobila Brahma. Tijen Haujwary succumbed to his injuries the next day. A six-year-old girl, Hothai Narzary, who was taken to Gauhati Medical College, is seriously injured. The Chief Minister has announced an ex gratia payment of Rs.5 lakh for the next of kin of those who died and Rs.1 lakh for the injured. The Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) has announced an ex gratia payment of Rs.1 lakh for the families of those who were killed. Sonowal visited the site on August 7 and ordered a probe. He also demanded intensified operations against militants along the India-Bhutan border.

Kokrajhar has always been caught in conflicts between civilians and insurgents. Thirty-six companies of paramilitary forces were posted in the district ahead of the Assam election earlier this year. After the election, 27 were withdrawn. Only nine companies, comprising 360 personnel, are left in Kokrajhar. Himanta Biswa Sarma said: “It’s unfair to comment on the issue as a State needs more forces during an election, but one must praise the policemen posted [in Kokrajhar], who responded [to the attack] in just seven minutes and prevented a far greater massacre.” According to informed sources, seven companies have been directed to reach Kokrajhar by August 15. Two companies have been asked to proceed to Chirang district.

Background

In August 2015, the NDFB(S) brutally murdered 16-year-old Priya Basumatary because the group suspected her to be a police informer and believed that she was responsible for the arrest of five of its cadres. She was dragged out of her home in Laimati-Dwimuguri village and was shot dead in front of her parents.

In 2014, the NDFB(S) led a series of attacks, on Bengali Muslims in May and on Adivasis in December, leading to riots that claimed many lives. The internal displacements caused by the violence became a humanitarian crisis that was difficult to handle. In late December 2014, the Union government launched Operation All Out to flush out Bodo militants in the State. Police sources said 31 militants were killed and over 766 were arrested in 2015 under Operation All Out. During the run-up to the Assembly election this year, BJP leaders from the Centre and the State repeatedly spoke on the problem of insurgency.

Explaining why the August 5 attack could take place despite the arrests made last year, DGP Mukesh Sahay said: “The number of cadres in the NDFB(S) has greatly reduced, but new recruitment constantly takes place.” He added: “Security personnel carried out an operation on the morning of August 6 along the border with Bhutan. But we cannot just walk into the periphery of any sovereign nation. We know, however, that Songbijit is somewhere in Myanmar and two of the high-ranking leaders of his faction, G. Bidai and K. Batha, have crossed over into Bhutan with at least seven or eight other members.”

Songbijit’s track record

Songbijit belongs to the influential Kathar sub-clan of the powerful Engti clan in Sonitpur district. He joined the NDFB at the peak of its armed struggle. An outfit called the Bodo Security Force was formed on October 3, 1986, under the leadership of Ranjan Daimary, with the objective of carving out a separate land for the Bodo people in Assam. In 1994, the group rechristened itself the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. Subsequently, the NDFB split into many factions, one of which agreed to peace talks with the government. A crucial factor in this was the way in which the Royal Bhutan Army’s ruthless Operation All Clear in December in 2003 reduced the NDFB’s cadre strength to a mere 2,000 from the earlier 3,500 and broke its backbone.

Also, the NDFB’s closest rival group, the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF), started peace talks with the government, which led to a surrender of all arms and ammunition in its possession in 2003. The group went on to form the crucial BTC under the leadership of Hagrama Mohilary. The area under the BTC’s jurisdiction, which came to be known as Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD), comprises Kokrajhar, Udalguri, Chirang and Baksa districts. The formation of the BTC made the NDFB’s fight for sovereignty through armed struggle much harder.

Unfazed by these developments, Songbijit joined Ranjan Daimary’s faction of the NDFB, which opposed peace talks with the government. After Daimary’s arrest a few years ago, he moved into a leadership position and the faction headed by him came to be known as the NDFB (Songbijit).

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