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#5107, 17 August 2016

Looking East

Rogue NDFB Pushed to the Wall?
Wasbir Hussain
Executive Director, Centre for Development & Peace Studies, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow & Columnist, IPCS

After a two year hiatus, the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S) struck again on 5 August, raiding a crowded roadside market near Kokrajhar, in western Assam, killing 14 civilians and injuring at least 18 others. The police was quick to conclude that the rogue NDFB-S was behind the attack. Their evidence was one of the attackers shot dead by the security forces who arrived at the scene soon after. The police as well as the visiting state Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma identified the slain attacker as Monjoy Islari alias Mwdan, described as a self-styled commanding officer of the NDFB-S’ so-called ‘western command.’ The NDFB-S was equally quick to deny its involvement in the attack.

A fortnight after the raid, security officials seem to suggest it was a lone-wolf attack and that a ‘heavily drunk’ Mwdan might have carried out the raid without the approval of the NDFB-S. The Chief of the Bodo Council (the local administrative body) Hagrama Mahilary even appears to be ready for peace talks with any rebel group keen on shunning violence. That means if the NDFB-S were to offer talks in the future after being cornered, the authorities could well consider playing ball. This stance runs counter to the statement made by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh who had stated after two major NDFB-S massacres in 2014, there is no question of engaging in peace talks with terror outfits like the NDFB-S that indulges in mindless violence.

That it was a random attack was clear because the dead include Bodos (7 of the 14), Bengalis (both Muslims and Hindus) and an Assamese. In the past, particularly during two of the biggest assaults carried out by the NDFB-S in May and December 2014, the targets were migrant Muslim settlers and Adivasis. Significantly, the email that the NDFB-S sent out to the media denying its involvement was dated 19 July, a Tuesday. The Balajan market operates twice a week - Tuesday and Friday (5 August was a Friday). So, the question arises whether the outfit had actually planned to carry out the attack on 19 July but had to abort the plan for some reason.

Why would the NDFB-S kill people at random, deviating from its practice of carrying out targeted attacks? Did the outfit deny its involvement in the attack in a hurry because so many Bodos were among the dead? Answers may not be forthcoming easily, but the fact remains that the NDFB-S has been facing severe reverses since the past year and has actually been pushed to the wall. First, its founder Ingti Kathar Songbijit was sidelined by his colleagues and removed as the outfit’s president after a ‘general Assembly meeting’ on 14 and 15 April 2015. Confirmation of this came from the NDFB-S itself through a press statement on 27 June 2015 where the outfit announced the organisational revamp. The statement was signed by its new president B Saoraigwra, who replaced Songbijit.

Songbijit, actually a Karbi tribal, may be currently cooling his heels somewhere in China’s Yunnan Province, close to the Myanmar border. Even the most powerful NDFB-S leader, G Bidai, who is its vice-president, is said to be cornered by the continuing counter-insurgency operations and forced to confine himself along the Assam-Bhutan border. According to the intelligence community, the NDFB-S has actually been pushed to the wall, and the 5 August attack is seen as a desperate bid by the outfit to divert the attention of the army offensive from the border with Bhutan to create an opportunity for Bidai and other senior leaders to move to a safer location. In fact, the slain NDFB-S commander Monjoy Islari alias Mwdan was apparently operating together with four other experienced sharp-shooters directly under Bidai until May this year. But, the intensified security offensive had forced the group to part company, and eventually three members of this group were killed in shootouts with the security forces. Monjoy Islari, according to the intelligence community, was frustrated over the loss of his colleagues.

No one is surprised at the authorities pointing their needle of suspicion at the NDFB-S because the outfit had carried out several murderous raids in the past, but the question today is whether it did it solo or whether there were other rebel groups and terror elements providing its cadres assistance. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is probing the case and more information may emerge, but there is no doubt that the NDFB-S, like a few other rebel outfits in the region like the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) in Meghalaya, has degenerated into a pure terror group, killing unarmed civilians and indulging in kidnapping for ransom.

This is the first insurgent violence anywhere in Assam after the BJP-led government of Sarbananda Sonowal assumed office on 24 May. One, therefore, will get the opportunity to see whether the new government’s counter-insurgency strategy will be any different. Most importantly, the Narendra Modi government’s stated policy on combating terror has been one of 'zero tolerance'. Whether this comes into application in Assam now remains to be seen. The timing, too, is critical. The attack came ahead of Independence Day and it has been a ritual among insurgent groups in Assam and elsewhere in the Northeast to step up attacks on the symbols of the Indian state ahead of key days on the national calendar or call for boycotts of all functions associated with the occasion. But, whether it was a symbolic show of strength or whether it signals the regrouping of the NDFB-S remains to be seen.

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