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#4792, 5 January 2015

Looking East

India’s Northeast: Need for a New Anti-Terror Policy
Wasbir Hussain
Executive Director, CDPS, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS

The Christmas-eve massacre in Assam of more than 75 Adivasi men, women and children by rebels belonging to the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB-S) has made two things clear - that it was a pure act of terrorism, not a routine incident of insurgency, and that an assortment of rebel leaders are still remote-controlling their trigger-happy foot soldiers from safe hideouts in India’s neighbourhood. By way of a response to this continuing bloodbath in Assam (46 people were gunned down by the same outfit in Baksa and Kokrajhar districts in May 2014), the new Government in New Delhi is expected to demonstrate on the ground its ‘zero tolerance’ policy on terror, besides coming up with a new anti-terror strategy that factors in the firm commitment of support from Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

The Narendra Modi Government must put its ‘zero tolerance’ policy against terrorism into immediate operation in Assam because the NDFB-S men, during their raids in Sonitpur and Kokrajhar districts on the evening of 23 December 2014, did not hesitate to kill infants by putting their gun barrels into their mouths. This explains the brutality of their crime and the commitment of this armed group to indulge in terror. The same group had killed an Additional Superintendent of Police in January 2014, shot dead 46 people in May, and killed a school girl in August because they suspected her of being a ‘police informer.’ The question that arises is obvious: what is the Unified Command of the Army, police and the paramilitary, headed by the Chief Minister, doing by way of measures to neutralise the rebels?

That the Government of India’s peace policy is flawed has been proved yet again by the latest carnage. New Delhi is already ‘talking peace’ with two other NDFB factions: the NDFB (Progressive) and the NDFB (Ranjan Daimary). For the record, the NDFB (Ranjan Daimary) group - and Daimary himself - has been clearly accused by the security establishment, including the CBI, for involvement in the October 2008 serial blasts in Assam that had killed 100 people. Now, despite the year-long killing and extortion spree by the NDFB-S gunmen, some Assam Police officers are reported to have been engaged in ‘talks’ with some leaders of the outfit. Such actions - talking peace with killer gangs - amounts to according legitimacy to such groups and their actions and only encourage newer militant groups to upscale their violent acts. It is this policy of the Centre that which among other reasons is keeping insurgency alive and kicking in the Northeast. The rebels by now know they only have to agree to sit for talks if the going gets tough for them!

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh did talk sense when he visited Assam in the wake of the latest massacre. He said there is no question of engaging in talks with killers who have shot dead even infants and ruled out any political solution to the issues of groups like the NDFB-S. Singh talked of a ‘time-bound’ security offensive to neutralise the rebels. The Centre must now make a policy statement and announce a moratorium on peace talks with newer militant groups in Assam and elsewhere in the Northeast. This will go a long way in sending out a clear message to new insurgent outfits who would realise that they are henceforth going to be dealt with as nothing but a law and order problem. After all, the Government cannot be expected to sign fresh Bodo accords with the two NDFB factions it is currently talking to. Again, for those uninitiated, the Centre had signed a Bodo Accord with the rebel Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) in 2003. The BLT thereafter transformed itself into a political party, contested local elections, and has been ruling the area for the past decade.

As usual, there have been claims and counter-claims in the wake of the carnage - central intelligence agencies have said they had intercepted radio conversations in which NDFB-S leaders were instructing their hit-squads to target Adivasis and that they had forwarded these to the Assam Police. If this is true, the Assam Government owes the people of the state an explanation as to the action taken on the information. But, killings by insurgents have become so commonplace in Assam and other Northeastern states like Manipur and Meghalaya that the local governments can afford to be complacent and unaccountable. Of course, the ongoing peace talks with a plethora of rebel groups only add to the confusion, surely even among the security forces on how to respond to a situation. Therefore, the need for a new anti-terror strategy.

The fact that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was quick to speak to Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay seeking his Government’s assistance in tackling the NDFB-S militants indicates the rebels may have once again opened shop inside the Himalayan nation or are sneaking in and out of its dense jungles. This is not surprising because the ULFA, NDFB and the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) were flushed out of Bhutan by a joint Bhutan-India military assault in 2003. The External Affairs Ministry has also confirmed that Sushma Swaraj was in touch with other ‘friendly neighbouring’ countries as part of India’s bid to tame the Northeast rebels. This means that New Delhi is in touch with Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The Modi Government’s neighbourhood push is indeed notable, but commerce aside, New Delhi must also work out institutional mechanisms with Thimphu, Naypyidaw and Dhaka to deal with insurgents who operate sans borders in their trasnational criminal journey. The question now is this: can India work out an anti-terror strategy that transcends its borders and work together with the security establishments in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan? There has been cooperation on this front but one is talking of something with standard protocols in place. One hopes Prime Minister Modi, Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj will be able to devise an India-Myanmar-Bangladesh-Bhutan security umbrella to fight terror in the Northeastern frontier, and include Nepal too in the endeavour.

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