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An Ethnic Militia Rattles Assam

POSTED ON April 29, 2009

Research Associate, Centre for Development and Peace Studies

A small ethnic militia is keeping Assam on tenterhooks. The rag-tag tribal militant group known as Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel Garlossa faction) or DHD(J) is creating havoc in the North Cachar Hills district of Assam, spread over an area of 4,890 sq. kms with a population of 1,86,189 (as per 2001 Census). Most of the attacks have been on trains and security personnel. The hilly terrain of this area—bordering Manipur and parts of Nagaland in the east, Meghalaya and parts of Karbi Anglong in the west, Karbi Anglong and parts of Nagaon in the north and Cachar in the south—is making it difficult for security forces to fight the rebels. Counter-insurgency efforts are met with mixed success because the geographical boundaries and terrain of the area is extremely familiar to the militants unlike that of the security personnel.

Between April 8 and April 26, 2009, DHD (J) hit-squads killed 10 security personnel and a civilian, besides injuring 9 security men and 17 civilians in fourteen separate attacks. But, two days before the Lok Sabha polls in the area on April 16, the group announced that it would let the elections pass peacefully thus raising speculations as to whether the authorities had reached any understanding with the rebel group. But the rebel group’s renewed attacks immediately after polling day has further complicated the picture.

What is the DHD (J)? It is a breakaway faction of the Dimasa outfit DHD, which had entered with a ceasefire with the Central Government on January 1, 2003. Opposed to the truce of the parent group, the DHD, rebel commander Jewel Garlossa broke away to float the DHD (J) and has since been engaged in extortion and abduction for ransom, targeting the tea gardens owners, Government servants, and contractors executing various development projects.

The DHD (J) also is known to have links with the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM). In the past also, the group has been indulging in killings and abductions. Since 2005, DHD (J) rebels have killed about 85 civilians and 30 security persons, abducted more than 17 people, besides injuring many in different acts of violence.

Last year however, the DHD (J) showed signs of mellowing down and appeared as if it was also interested in a peaceful solution of its insurgency like its parent group, the DHD. The DHD (J) wrote a letter to the Assam Chief Minister declaring a ceasefire between March 25 and June 25, 2008. Soon, however, the rebels accused the Government of not reciprocating to the ceasefire and of taking tough action by killing 13 of its cadres during this period. Talks to formalize an official ceasefire with the DHD (J) in New Delhi also failed because the group insisted on retaining its weapons.

After lying low for a while, the DHD (J) has intensified its violence starting April 2009. Some of the latest incidents of violence by cadres of the DHD (J) include:

  • April 8: DHD militants ambush a convoy of Election Commission’s observers in N.C. Hills district
  • April 10: One CRPF constable is killed and 17 persons are injured in bullet attack by DHD(Jewel Garlossa) militants in a passenger train in North Cachar Hills district
  • April 11: Two special police officers (SPO) are killed and another is injured as DHD (Jewel) militants attack a goods train at Dijaodra under Langting PS in NC Hills
  • April 18: DHD militants open fire on a goods train between Lumding and Haflong near Migrendisa station on the metre gaudge rail track of NF Railways
  • April 19: Suspected DHD militants attack Railway Protection Special Force (RPSF) at Harangajao, 40 kms from Haflong and injure Constable Atul Kumar and porter Anil Kumar critically. Atul Kumar dies later
  • April 20: Six people, including five security persons and a civilian are killed in attacks by the DHD(J) militants in NC Hills district
  • April 23: Sanjay Singh, an Army Jawan is killed and two others are seriously injured in a gun battle with suspected DHD(J) militants in NC hills district.
  • April 26: DHD(J) attacks two relief trains injuring three security personnel.

Question arises as to whether the DHD (J) has any base in its claim to fight for safeguarding the identity of the Dimasa tribe and its objective to create a separate homeland for the tribe. Do they have any public support? But it appears that the Government’s lack of a sense of urgency in pushing ahead with the peace process with the parent group, the DHD, is encouraging the recalcitrant DHD faction headed by Garlossa to pursue its violent campaign on the premise that the Government hardly pays attention to groups on a truce mode. Now, the small ethnic rebel groups hogging the limelight, creating pockets of turmoil in the State has become a serious matter of concern. The Government should adopt a policy to mobilizing public opinion about neutralizing the rebels.

The main group, the DHD, operating in Cachar, N C Hills, Karbi Anglong and Nagaon districts of Assam, was formed following the 1995 mass surrender of the Dimasa National Security Force (DNSF) with the objective of establishing a separate State for the Damasa tribe in the North Cachar Hills (NC Hills) and Karbi Anglong districts of Assam and parts of Dimapur district in Nagaland. In 2003, the group’s Commander-in-Chief Jewel Garlossa left the DHD for his opposition to the outfit’s ceasefire agreement with the government and formed another outfit, the DHD (J), also called the Black Widow.

Recently, around 40 to 50 cadres of the DHD (J) are reported to have deserted the outfit which is followed by several attacks on the family members of the ‘deserters’. At present, the militant group has around 150 cadres with enough funds and weapons. Though more than 50 companies of forces including 21 companies of Central paramilitary forces, Army and Assam Police battalion personnel are currently deployed in the NC Hills district, the success rate of the forces in the counter-insurgency operations has been remarkably limited. The outfit’s chairman Jewel Garlossa and the Commander in Chief Niranjan Hojai are believed to be in Nepal controlling the operations from there.

The mayhem created by the outfit has severely affected the implementation of mega projects like railway gauge conversion project and the National Highway. Nearly a week ago, two dozen Railway staff vacated their stations in NC Hills and moved to Badarpur following the recurrent terror strikes on trains and railway tracks. Train services in the hills section had been suspended since last January because of the attacks.