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Year of the small rebel outfits

POSTED ON 7 JANUARY 2014

Bibhu Prasad Routray
Senior Research Consultant, centre for development and peace studies

Most of the violence in Indian conflict theatres, including the northeast, is being perpetrated by militant outfits with very small cadre strength.

As 2013 drew close, Assam’s hilly Karbi Anglong district showed signs of lapsing into yet another bout of instability. On 27 December, militants of the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT) opened indiscriminate fire in villages inhabited by Rengma Naga tribals, killing four persons, three of them women. A retaliatory attack followed with cadres of the Naga Rengma Hills Protection Force (NRHPF) militant group, representing the Rangma Nagas, killing two KPLT militants inside a dense forest the next day. In counter-retaliations, KPLT militants, on 28 December, torched seven houses belonging to Rengma tribals, forcing the district administration to impose a curfew. A day later, another nine houses were torched. The toll of dead reached eight after two more dead bodies were recovered. By 31 December, over 1500 people had fled their homes and were being housed in three relief camps set up by the administration. The Nagaland Chief minister has written to the Prime Minister and his counterpart in Assam warning that “continuance of violence, intimidation, threats and exodus of people from Karbi Anglong may snowball into a situation with very grave consequences.”

There are several ways of interpreting the incident- an acrimonious ethnic divide between the Karbis and the Rengmas, livelihood issues, land encroachment, and the insecurity created by the Nagas among the non-Nagas. Irrespective of the interpretation influenced by one’s intellectual inclination, it is undeniable that violence of this nature gets a life and subsequent escalation by the militant formations thriving under the benign neglect of the state.

The KPLT was formed in January 2011. A disgruntled faction of the Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), which laid down arms in February 2010, KPLT itself has undergone several splits. Initially formed with a cadre strength of 25 cadres, the KPLT, in three years, has added only 15 members to its army and boasts a cadre strength of 40. With a number of sophisticated arsenals, its finances have been sourced from rampant extortion activities. In the latest instance, the tax imposed by the KPLT on orange cultivation by the Rengma villagers and the latter’s refusal to abide by the diktats led to the violence. KPLT had warned that the non-complying villagers would have to vacate the area. Within its short history, KPLT has emerged as one of the most violent outfits in the state recording over 30 violent incidents in 2013.

On the other hand, little information is available regarding the NRHPF with the Assam Home department. The outfit sprung almost from no where with significant capacities of violent retribution underlining the far too familiar trend of mushrooming of insurgent outfits harping on ethnic rights and their swift transformation, vide the availability of easy money and small arms, into efficient violence orchestrating units. Several examples of this trend are available in other states of the region.

In neighbouring Meghalaya, the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), is one of the five militant groups fighting for a separate Garoland state in the state’s western part. The outfit was formed in 2009 by a former Meghalaya Police Service (MPS) officer, Champion R. Sangma. Sangma was posted as an Assistant Commandant of a police battalion when he disappeared and surfaced as the chief of GNLA. Although he was arrested in July 2012 by Bangladeshi authorities and handed over to India, a new set of leaders took over GNLA. In the last three years, over 40 people, including security personnel, have been killed while more than 10 people were abducted for ransom by the GNLA, catapulting the state to be one of the worst violence affected conflict theatres in the north-eastern region. GNLA alone counts for almost fifty percent of the civilian and security force fatalities in Meghalaya.

Miniaturisation of armed factions is becoming a rule in most of the conflict theatres. Term it the withering away of insurgencies due to external pressures, or a conscious decision on part of the outfits to keep things small and manageable, a significant proportion of the violence in Indian conflict theatres including the northeast is being perpetrated by outfits with cadre strength of less than 100.

Close to 900 fatalities were recorded in terrorism/ insurgency related violence in the country in 2013. About one third of the toll are civilians and about 200 are security forces. The ‘small’ outfits are responsible for more than half of these fatalities. In the Northeast, 89 civilians and 21 security forces were among the dead in insurgency related violence in 2013. Over 80 percent of those fatalities can be attributed to outfits with less than 100 cadres.

The age of insurgent outfits flaunting strengths in thousands are effectively over. In the northeast, barring the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), which has over 2500 cadres, many of whom have been recruited in the post-1997 years of negotiation with the government, older outfits in the region are now a crowd of few hundred insurgents. According to Assam government’s estimate, the most violent outfit in the state, the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Faction of Bodoland (NDFB) has 300 members and the Paresh Baruah faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) has 240 members. In addition, recent times have witnessed the birth of six small outfits. In Manipur, the prominent outfits like the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) have all trimmed down to the level of newer formations like the United Tribal Liberation Army (UTLA).

For the outfits, smallness is operationally convenient. The absence of numerically imposing outfits gives the state a false sense of triumph. As a result, the miniaturised outfits thrive, away from the focus of the counter-insurgency grid, indulging in acts of extortion, killing and taking over small tracts of territory, as long as they keep such nibbling away of state authority, less prominent. Till the latest bout of violence in the Karbi Anglong district, Assam’s strategy with deal with the insurgency threat veered around using a numerically deficient, operationally weak and visionless district police force. The fact that the district has witnessed several acts of ethnic turbulence in the past years does not seem to have brought about much change in the state response.

Dangers posed by such constant nibbling at the state’s authority by the small outfits are by no means lesser than the challenge posed by terrorist formations with wider reach and greater military power. In fact, both form parts of the wider arc of destablisation. The counter-insurgency approach pursued in large parts of the northeast, largely adhoc and unfocussed in its character, would have to develop a response to the challenges of the smaller formations, both the new and the old, as they raise a toast to the annihilation of the big.

(courtesy: Pragati The Indian National Interest Review, http://pragati.nationalinterest.in/2014/01/year-of-the-small/)