The Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) organised a seminar On “Militancy in Assam: Prospects for Peace” on 16 September 2008 at the CLAWS seminar hall. The seminar was attended by a large number of serving officers and members of the strategic community.
The seminar was chaired by Dr. Sanjoy Hazarika. Lt Col Anil Bhat, (Retd) presented a Paper based on his monograph for CLAWS. Maj Gen AJB Jaini AVSM (Retd) was the discussant.
Brig Gurmeet Kanwal, Director CLAWS, mentioned that the Roundtable was a part of the CLAWS Project on the North-east. He highlighted the emerging situation. Surrender by two United Liberation Front of ASSAM (ULFA) companies in June this year surprised many and there were reports that the top ULFA leadership was not a part of this deal. People want change because security today is a multifaceted issue and it includes development as well. There has been migration from Bangladesh into Assam and substantial increase in Muslim population in recent times. The local populace has come to see this as a bigger challenge. The situation has changed from the early 1990s when the Assam issue began and today’s situation is a product of inconsistent policy on the use of armed forces and the lack of a comprehensive strategy to fight militancy as well as develop the region.
• The North-east signifies the regional imbalance seen in India. It has seen only half the growth rate as compared to other parts of India.
• Given proper infrastructure, the North-east can take the growth rate up to 14 per cent given the region’s resources.
Lt Col Anil Bhat
• The North-east has largely been ignored by the establishment. It has been out of sight and out of mind. The British developed this region only for three natural resources; tea, oil and timber. Thereafter, the Indian State has only added roads in the region. There is a need to overhaul the police organisation in the region.
• Early 1990s was a honeymoon period for ULFA with a great appeal and mass support and effective penetration of all the government departments. Consequently, the commencement of Op Bajarang was known to the ULFA leadership and they left Assam before the Army came in. Only single barrel weapons were found in the first captures. The operation continued till 1991 followed by President’s rule that ended the AGP rule. Very few ULFA leaders were captured and violence continued despite ULFA’s promise of not interfering in the election. Hiteshwar Saikia became the Chief Minister following the elections.
• ULFA relaunched its operations around mid-1991 with many kidnappings. This led to the Op Rhino. Better intelligence sharing helped in the capture of many ULFA leaders. After Bajrang, many ULFA leaders escaped to Bangladesh. Surrendered ULFA (SULFA) became another problem; it gave the organisation time to recuperate, arms remained intact. During this period, ISI used ULFA to enter the North-east and AK 47s entered the conflict. The army was never allowed to conclude its operations. Surrenders have to be handled with extreme caution and must include proper rehabilitation facilities. Some of the SULFA cadres went back to militancy. Such Actions prevent the army from finishing the insurgency.
• The prelude to the 2006 Operation was the mobilisation by ULFA of the civil society to speak for them. There were targeted killings of Bihari migrant workers in 2007 and this time the operation was strong enough to cause damage to ULFA.
• ULFA began as an insurgent organisation but it took up terror activities, which caused the erosion of social support for it. The encouragement of immigration by ULFA and local politicians is resented by the people. This is already making a visible impact in the electoral politics. There is a nexus between the militant organisation and the political leadership in the region to prolong the problem as it serves everybody’s interests.
• Assam policy has been hallmarked by double standards. It is exemplified by Illegal Migration Tribunal Act (1983) which was later turned down by the Supreme Court. Global procedures need the immigrants and not the complainant to prove their legality. The above-mentioned law was the other way round.
• Government brought it in by the backdoor by amending the Foreigners Tribunal Act for Assam. Thus, there was discrimination in law. The Supreme Court overruled it when the peace talks with ULFA were beginning. There was a tactical failure in the talks with ULFA.
Maj Gen A J B Jaini
• Col Bhat’s Paper puts the blame for the present scenario on the people in the region but there are more reasons to blame the rest of the country than the region for the alienation that it faces. There is a lack of knowledge and perception about the region. Although things are improving, progress is very slow. Ignorance causes dissatisfaction as well as frustration and politics makes it volatile.
• ULFA was very aggressive on the issue of Bangladeshi migrations but the leadership became complacent over a period of time and with this the movement lost its cause. The recent surrender should be seen in this framework. Bangladesh has played host to the ULFA leadership, even denying their presence in Bangladesh.
• There is a need to look at the role of the church in the conflict in the region. The idea of no man’s land between the two countries is an impossible and impractical solution to the problem of immigration.
• Politically the North-east is ignored because the number of members that it sends to Parliament is insignificant even compared to some of the large states of the country.
• The Prime Minister’s statement that the North-east poses a bigger problem than Jammu and Kashmir is recognition of the seriousness of the issue.
Lt Col Bhat
• The entire blame certainly cannot be put on the local masses but the Centre cannot be blamed all the time for all the problems.
• The situation is now improving. The large number of North-eastern students in Delhi is an indication of a gradual move towards better integration.
• No man’s land is recommended along with better fencing and better border management. Redrawing of borders in certain sectors to facilitate economic activities is necessary.
• Ordinary people in the conflict zones have shown enormous courage. Journalists in the region regularly face death threats.
• This is a complex problem and military solution alone is not going to be sufficient. Ceasefires have limited outcomes but if the militants spend more time in the civil society then they are more tempted to be a part of it.
• In Nagaland, IM faction of NSCN has kept the movement going because of its diplomatic and negotiation skills and this is exactly where ULFA has failed.
• The fear of the Chinese has led to lack of development in the region. There is a need to ensure proper development of the region as lower Assam faces many serious development issues. It is a dated policy to keep the border areas underdeveloped. Development and integration must go hand in hand.
• The migration from Bangladesh has been taking place for economic reasons and thus fences will not help. There is a need to separate migration from infiltration. Better management of migration and issuing ID cards and work permits can be important solutions. However, violence against migrants is not acceptable under any circumstances.
• BSF’s responsibility to complete the fencing and the role of gun in controlling immigration is limited. North-east cannot close its doors to Bangladesh. In fact, certain steps can benefit both the regions. Meghalaya is more interested in looking South, to Bangladesh than East as per the Centre’s policy.
• The army should not be used in domestic conflicts but when it is deployed, it should be allowed to take the things to their conclusive end.
• In Punjab, the society did not support extremism where as conflict in the North-east has enjoyed support from society at some point or the other.
• The region has always received less investment than promised. No money has come to the region from foreign investments in India. Issue of alienation is critical and there is need for a dialogue involving civil society, state and militant groups. Alienation among the victims is a serious issue. Role of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is important in the context of the Assam issue.
• Development in the border regions of Bangladesh is the only long-term solution.
• The situation in North-east shows political failure on part of the mainstream. Local politicians were equally to be blamed for the migration issues.
• Fences are not the ultimate solution and India needs to consider proactive measures, even across the borders if the need be. There is a threshold for national security, beyond which there can be no tolerance and India must convey it to the neighbours in clear terms.
(Compiled by Avinash Godbole, Research Assistant, CLAWS)