Militants have once again struck Assam after a brief lull. Last Friday, at least 14 civilians were killed after militants indiscriminately opened fire at a busy market area near Assam’s Kokrajhar town. One militant was reportedly shot dead during the gun battle with security forces, while the others are on the run. Soon after the incident, a team from the National Investigating Agency inspected the marketplace, where the horrific incident had occurred. “The slain militant has been identified as Monjoy Islahary, a self-styled commander of the 16th battalion of NDFB-S (National Democratic Front of Bodoland- Songbijit faction),” said Assam’s Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. “We will do a DNA test of the slain militant.” This is an important and timely revelation by the Assam government. Questions had been raised over the possible involvement of Jihadi elements in the attack. However, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal announced that the direct involvement of NDFB-S in the Kokrajhar violence had been unearthed. The militant group has been known to target mostly Muslims and Adivasis in the Bodo areas, including the bloody December 2014 attacks on Santhals in which over 75 people were killed. But this time, the group took to indiscriminate firing on a crowd reminiscent of recent lone-wolf attacks across Western Europe. Also, the casualties in this attack included six Bodos. This column will seek to answer some questions that have been raised after Friday’s attack.
What were the possible motives behind this attack? Security experts in the region contend that the answer is two-fold. On the one hand, these killings are being viewed as the NDFB-S’s attempt to retaliate against a sustained crackdown by the Indian security forces since 2014. The group seeks to open a new front and deflect focus from an ongoing operation against them on the Assam-Bhutan border. Moreover, attacks in the run-up to Independence Day are part of a time-honored tradition of these militant groups to remind the Indian security establishment that their insurgency isn’t going to end anytime soon. However, on the other hand, it is the group’s modus operandi that should really worry the Assam government and the Centre. Friday’s attack was a three-man operation. All three assailants had operated independent of each other and had covered their faces resembling a jihadist attack in an area, which has witnessed numerous arrests of people suspected of links with the Islamic terrorist group Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. The attempt by certain elements to shift the blame for Friday’s attack on jihadists is most condemnable, especially in an area where the wounds of the recent spate of violence between the Bodo and Muslim communities are yet to fully heal. Back in July 2012, a series of violent clashes between the two communities had resulted in the death of 77 people. To their credit, the Assam government had swiftly disseminated information that the NDFB-S was behind Friday’s attack, thereby preventing a possible flare-up between the two communities. It was in May 2014 that the NDFB-S orchestrated the death of 32 Muslims in the region. The challenge before the BJP-led state government and its allies in the Bodoland Territorial Council is to prevent such insidious attempts at polarisation. Friday’s attacks are also a reminder to the Indian establishment of the challenges that lie ahead in bringing peace and stability to the Northeast. Groups like the NDFB-S, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang) and the anti-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom remain steadfast in their resistance to any form of constructive and peaceful engagement with the Indian government.
In the larger scheme of things, these groups are outliers, since the others have arrived at or are in the process of striking a peace deal with the Centre. With little possibility of any constructive engagement, the Indian establishment should maintain its offensive against these outliers. Meanwhile, a lot of energy should be expended to arrive at an amicable understanding or deal with those groups that have chosen the path of peaceful engagement.