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A botched Assam Police operation in Karbi hills?


wasbir hussain
Executive director,
cDPS & visiting fellow, ipcs

In what clearly seems like a botched operation against insurgents near Hamren in southern Assam’s Karbi Anglong district on June 5, 2014, a senior Assam Police Superintendent Nityananda Goswami and one of his young personal security officers Ratul Nunisa lost their lives. The ambush by suspected Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT) rebels took place at Rongphu Hanse, a remote village, around 250 km south of Guwahati. Well, wait a minute – the Assam Police on June 10 sprung a surprise by announcing the arrest of ten militants belonging to the United People’s Liberation Army (UPLA), including, what it said, the ‘mastermind’ of the ambush that killed Goswami and his PSO. The ‘mastermind’ has been identified by the police as the UPLA ‘commander-in-chief’ Nikunja Kathar.

Formed on 8 January 2011, the KPLT has been wreaking havoc in parts of Karbi Anglong. In the first week of June, the SP of the Hamren police district Nityananda Goswami had apparently visited the Assam Police headquarters in Guwahati and apprised the concerned police top brass of the prevailing situation. He had apparently sought 20 additional companies of security forces. The response from the police higher-ups were in the negative and Goswami was asked to tackle the KPLT and other Karbi rebel outfits with the existing forces. The Assam Police has not contested these accounts till the time of writing.

Therefore, when Goswami decided to move into the area, around 25 km outside Hamren, to tackle the rebels on June 5 with just 17 other policemen, including an Additional SP, he had no clue of what was in the offing. He had split his 18-member force into three units of six members and moved in three different directions in the area. Dusk had already settled in and the area was forested. Soon, his unit of six-members was ambushed, obviously by rebels lying in wait. Four of his unit members escaped the scene to safety and he and his PSO Nunisa were outnumbered by rebels firing from assault rifles. They were not only killed but tortured too and their bodies buried in the area. If the Assam Police’s latest accounts are to be believed, it was the UPLA and not the KPLT that was behind the ambush that led to Goswami’s killing, along with his PSO. In fact, the arrested UPLA cadres are said to have told the police they were not aware the target they ambushed on June 5 was the police team led by Goswami. The UPLA was formed in 2013 and was a bitter rival of the KPLT. Facts are obviously expected to emerge and become clearer if the Government concedes the family’s demand for a CBI probe.

Several questions now arise: Was the operation a botched one? Obviously yes. Who had given the go ahead to Goswami to enter the forest at night to deal with the rebels? Did he go on his own? If so, did he have any inputs at all on what to expect, like the strength of the rebels or the nature of their fire-power? Did anyone in the local police make a recce of the place? What was the level of training Goswami himself or the other 17 members of his team had in counter-insurgency operations? What were the weapons in possession of the police team in this case? Goswami apparently was only carrying a revolver. And were they geared up to face any eventuality, like, were they wearing bullet-proof jackets and head gear?

The incident has raised serious questions about leadership of the Assam Police top brass, particularly those responsible for law and order. What is the standard operating procedure to be followed by police heads in a district while dealing with insurgents? Has the Assam Police become complacent after some rebel groups have entered into a ceasefire, followed by so-called peace talks? Some estimates now say the KPLT, which is a breakaway faction of the Karbi Longri National Liberation Front (KLNLF) that had laid down arms on 11 February 2010, has a strength of just 50. The UPLA, too, is believed to be just about 50-member strong! If this is correct, why has the Assam Police not been able to neutralize the rag-tag rebel faction for so long? After all, the KPLT has been in the news in recent weeks, having called and then calling off an indefinite bandh in the area during the just concluded Lok Sabha polls. The state BJP had complained about the poor law and order scene in the Karbi Anglong area during the poll campaign period.

Serious questions have also arisen about the level of training of the Assam Police rank and file. What about the nature of the force’s weaponry? After all, for two decades now, we have been hearing about crores being spent in the name of Assam Police modernization! Well, we are often being told of some of Assam Police’s show-piece units like the all-women Virangana squad. Yes, it is a fine unit of young ladies, quite smart in their get up and perhaps even training. But, what about the Assam Police’s real anti-terror fighting machine? Where are its commandos? Where are they being deployed? What has been the accomplishment of such commando units in recent times? And, are questions being raised now about the very ‘commitment’ of the Assam Police rank and file without any substance? Why did some of the men flee the scene leaving the SP to deal with the rebels with just one young PSO? Well, one is not expecting any answers from the Assam Police or the political and government leader in charge of home affairs in Assam!