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Assam: Terror Cocktail

POSTED ON NOVEMBER 10, 2008

WASBIR HUSSAIN
Director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati

There is no doubt now that the nine coordinated RDX-based blasts that rocked Assam on October 30 is, by far, the worst terror attack that India has seen in the past decade. The severity of the attacks is explained by the fact that 86 people have lost their lives and more than 800 others were injured, 260 of them admitted to various hospitals. Three of the explosions took place in capital Guwahati, one of them less than a kilometer from the seat of power, the Assam secretariat.

What is significant is the timing of the attack. It came when the region’s frontline separatist group, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), has been at the receiving end, jolted by severe reverses, particularly after the June ceasefire of the outfit’s most potent strike force, the ‘28 th battalion’. Two of the three companies of the ‘28 th battalion’, fancifully called the Kashmir Camp, entered into a truce with the authorities, defying the group’s elusive leadership, saying they would resolve their problem through peaceful dialogue with New Delhi. Besides, there were reports that both the State as well as the pro-peace ULFA faction were in touch with the only active ULFA unit, the ‘709 th battalion’, based in western Assam. It was suggested that the ‘709 th battalion’ was likely to soon join their pro-peace comrades in the ‘28 th battalion’. That would have meant the virtual end of the ULFA’s military prowess.

It is plain common sense to have expected some retaliation by the ULFA to demonstrate that it was alive and kicking and that it was not waiting to be smoked out by the counter-insurgency apparatus comprising the Army, police and the paramilitary. Was the ULFA, therefore, behind the bomb raids? If yes, the ULFA, that calls itself a ‘nationalist organization of Assam,’ has indulged in cold-blooded acts of terror against the very people from whom it has been drawing its strength. Again, is the in-cohesive and militarily weakened ULFA in a position to have carried out such a well coordinated attack, including the three devastating car bomb explosions in Guwahati? The general refrain is that it was unlikely that the ULFA did it on its own. Therefore, the question arises as to who may have done it, or who may have collaborated with the ULFA. For the record though, the ULFA has denied its hand in the blasts.

Central intelligence agencies have narrowed down the suspects. They say the ULFA collaborated with the Bangladesh-based Harkatul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) in carrying out the attacks. If that is so, the blasts in Assam may have been part of the pattern of similar terror attacks elsewhere in the country. What is puzzling is this question: can a supposedly secular insurgent outfit like the ULFA team up with a radical Islamist group like the HuJI? If the ULFA-HuJI collaboration in the latest Assam attacks turns out to be a reality, it would mean that the rebel group from Northeast India, whose leaders are known to be operating from Bangladesh, may have agreed to a tie-up, perhaps as a quid pro quo for being allowed to work out of that country or in return for the possible logistic support provided by the Islamist forces.

Things are fluid and investigators are nowhere near solving the jigsaw puzzle. The detention and arrest of several people belonging to the Bodo ethnic group, a week after the blasts, has lent a new dimension to the case. They were picked up after the police traced the cars used in the bombings in Guwahati to them. Who are these people? The only Bodo militant group that exists now is the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). The NDFB, fighting since 1986 for an independent Bodo homeland, has been on a ceasefire with the Government since March 2005 although its cadres have been indulging in violent activities in violation of the ceasefire ground rules. Was it an ULFA-Bodo militant operation, or was it an ULFA-HuJI-Bodo militant job? The Union Home Ministry, according to a report by the Press Trust of India on November 9, 2008, thinks the blasts were carried out by the ULFA and the NDFB with support from the HuJI. Anything is possible really. How should one then see the claim made by the unheard of Islamic Security Force (Indian Mujahideen) that it had carried out the attacks? Well, that claim is generally seen as a red herring used by the perpetrators of the attack to deflect attention.

The very suspicion that radical Islamist groups could have joined hands with a local militant outfit to carry out one of the worst terror attacks in the nation’s history have led to undercurrents of tension across the State, immune to polarizations on religious lines so far despite provocations by usual political suspects. But Assam is actually sitting on a communal cauldron because the issue of citizenship of a large number of people who trace their origins to erstwhile East Bengal, East Pakistan, and now Bangladesh, has not been resolved yet.

Migration of people to Assam is a reality. What is not a reality, however, is that all those who had migrated to this northeastern state are illegal migrants. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) led independent India’s biggest ever mass uprising between 1979 and 1985. The agitation was against illegal Bangladeshi migration to the state, fuelled by the fear that indigenous people were going to be outnumbered by the aliens in their own land. The agitation ended with the signing of the Assam Accord between the AASU and the Centre in 1985 that fixed March 25, 1971 as the cut off date for detection and expulsion of illegal migrants. Simply speaking, all those migrants who arrived Assam before March 25, 1971 is to be regarded as Indian citizens.

It is because of the murky politics of citizenship that Assam has been witness to, particularly since 1985, that a distinction is not sought to be made among the migrants. Vote bank politics have led to such polarization in Assam’s otherwise cohesive society that even indigenous Assamese Muslims, who arrived the region in the 13 th century, are not sought to be put in a different bracket by certain parties and groups. The unresolved citizenship issue of a large number of migrant Muslim settlers have led to the following result: development programmes have hardly reached these people, leaving them poor and uneducated. This is actually a big national security issue because the migrant settlers are vulnerable and are waiting to be exploited by anti-India forces in the neighbourhood.

Statistics on the Muslim population in Assam has also contributed to politics over the issue. According to the 2001 Census, the Muslim population in Assam is 30.9 per cent out of a total of 26.6 million. The Census shows that six of Assam's 27 districts have a majority Muslim population. They are Barpeta, Dhubri, Goalpara, Nagaon, Karimganj and Hailakandi. The issue of Muslim population growth in Assam has a disturbing resonance because of the migration issue and the fact that the state shares a 262 kilometre long border with Bangladesh.

The particular significance of the 2001 Census data is the fact that the rates of growth of Muslim populations are the highest precisely in the districts that share a border with, or lie close to the border with, Bangladesh - particularly Dhubri, Barpeta, Karimganj and Hailakandi - giving credence to the widely held belief that illegal migration from Bangladesh was the source of these demographic trends.

What Assam is witness to is a heady cocktail of insurgent politics, demographic jitters, a geography that makes cross-border human traffic, that includes insurgents, all that more easy, and poor governance. The result is there for every one to see—unrest and more unrest.