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Can Assam be immune to red terror?


wasbir hussain
director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies

Union Home Minister P Chidambaram said recently (September 1, 2010) that there was no ‘definite information’ about the spread of Naxalism into Assam under the banner of the CPI-Maoist. In fact, this view is shared by the Assam Police top brass that has informed the Centre recently that there was no Naxalite activity in the State. This is certainly good news but there is no scope for complacency because the Maoists already have good contacts with several insurgent groups in the Northeast with top Naxal leaders having come over to the region in the past and have held meetings with rebel leaders in States like Manipur.

Assam was witness to a security alert against Naxalism in the seventies with top Naxal leaders from West Bengal having taken shelter in the State. Decades later, with Naxalism emerging as the country’s ‘biggest internal security challenge’, the Maoists did try to extend the ‘red corridor’ to Assam. In 2005-2006, the threat from the Naxals seemed real in Assam with the Maoists setting up base in Goalpara and Sonitpur districts. At least eleven Naxals were killed by security forces in these two districts although those eliminated passed off as cadres of local militant groups. The Police did a great job, managing to identify at least two dozen overground sympathizers of the Maoists, people with Leftist leanings. They were kept under surveillance.

Aside from the alertness of the security establishment in Assam, the Maoists did face resistance from local insurgent groups like the ULFA, indicating that ethnic aspirations of local militant outfits clashed with the pan-India game plan and character of the Naxals. The military chief of the CPI-Maoist, Mallojula Koteswara Rao, popularly known as Kishenji, is reported to have visited Thoubal in Manipur, nearly two years ago. He is said to have held a meeting with the frontline Meitei insurgent group, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), with which the Maoists are very close. Reports with security agencies say Kishenji identified himself as Pradip at the meeting that was attended by a team from the ULFA, led apparently by Partha Gogoi. Partha Gogoi was believed to have attended the Manipur meeting under express orders of ULFA military chief Paresh Baruah.

What transpired at the meeting (if reports shared by security officials are true) was indeed significant. Kishenji apparently wanted groups like the ULFA to stop attacking the ‘proletariat’ or people belonging to the working class (wage earners etc.). The Maoist leader must have had the serial killing of migrant Bihari workers and settlers by the ULFA in Assam in mind while calling for a halt in attacks on the ‘proletariat’. The ULFA refused to pay any heed to Kishenji’s call. After all, the ULFA is not a pan-India outfit unlike the CPI-Maoist and it draws its sustenance from targeting symbols of the Indian state or people from the mainland who are soft targets but identified with the Hindi-speaking ruling class.

So, the ULFA refused to be drawn into an alliance with the CPI-Maoist as the Naxals’ ideology clashed with the former’s ethnic aspirations. However, reports with the security establishment say that Paresh Baruah, the ULFA’s exiled military chief, has been a key supplier of arms and ammunition to the Maoists in India. The question arises: where exactly could Paresh Baruah (currently said to have made China’s Yunnan province his key base), be sourcing these weapons? Well, if reports are to be believed, the China North Industries Corporation or Norinco, a shady Chinese arms manufacturing company, which is a key supplier of unauthorized weaponry to insurgent groups and street gangs across the world, is also selling weapons to the Maoists through intermediaries. Importations of most Norinco firearms and ammunition into the United States were blocked during the Clinton Administration in 1993 under new trade rules when China’s Most Favored Nation status was renewed. Concern about their use by criminals in inner cities was the reason put forward for the prohibition. In 1994, some employees of Norinco came under federal investigation from both the FBI as well as the ATF after a successful sting dubbed “Operation Dragon Fire”.

Another source for arms purchase by rebel groups in the Northeast, which could eventually be resold to the Maoists, is the notorious United Wa State Army (UWSA), a rebel ethnic minority army of about 20,000 soldiers in Myanmar. The UWSA is the military wing of the United Wa State Party (UWSP), and was formed after the collapse of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1989. The United States government labelled the UWSA as a narcotic trafficking organization on May 29, 2003. On November 3, 2005, The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control listed 11 individuals and 16 companies that were “part of the financial and commercial network of designated significant foreign narcotics trafficker Wei Hsueh-kang and the United Wa State Army (UWSA).” The UWSA is said to be the largest drug-producing organization in Southeast Asia.

Linkages such as these can be ominous and one cannot rule out the Maoists extending the red corridor to a state like Assam. Simply hoping that ethnic aspirations of groups like the ULFA or the NDFB can act as a deterrent against the Naxals’ entry into Assam forever would be foolish. What is dangerous is the adoption of ‘Naxal-type’ sabotage styles by groups like the NDFB. The abduction of two train drivers from a running train in Sonitpur is an example. The bottom line is that there is no scope for complacency on the part of the authorities. The Naxals may indeed spring a surprise.

(courtesy: The Sentinel)