The Indian state of Assam was on the boil again when a group of masked terrorists shot dead 14 innocent shoppers at a weekly Friday market in restive Kokrajhar on Aug 5. The militant group behind this bloodbath is fighting for an independent Bodoland for indigenous Bodos. The attack may be a signal to state authorities that despite its demoralized cadres and recent losses, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit group) remains a potent force, able to carry out major strikes. The federal and state governments, while taking tougher measures to eliminate such separatist elements, should also make Bodos feel secure in their own homeland where they have been reduced to a minority by migrants. Also the state should sever links between the armed outfits and politicians.
Terror reared its head again in the Northeast Indian state of Assam on August 5 when suspected militants of the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S) opened fire at a crowded market near Kokrajhar town, killing 14 people and injuring 20 others.
This was the deadliest attack by the NDFB-S in 19 months. Led by Ingi Kathar Songbijit, the NDFB-S is fiercely opposed to talks. Its goal is an independent Bodoland for indigenous Bodos, which it wants carved out of Assam.
The origins of the movement for a Bodo homeland – with the majority of Bodos viewing it as an autonomous territory or state within India and a small section favoring full sovereignty – can be traced back to the 1930s.
It gathered momentum in the late 1980s with the formation of the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) and the emergence of militant outfits such as the Ranjan Daimary-led Bodo Security Force (BdSF), later renamed the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).
Accords to end the violence were signed in 1993 and 2003. These went some way to address Bodo political aspirations.
The 2003 accord provided for a Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) comprising the contiguous districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri. A Bodo Territorial Council with some autonomy governs the BTAD. While it did bring key actors into the political process, some armed groups, including the bulk of the NDFB, remained outside the peace process.
The NDFB has repeatedly split on the question of participating in the peace process and engaging in talks with the government. In 2010, Daimary was arrested and in custody, he was brought on board the negotiations. However, Songbijit stayed out, going on to set up the NDFB-S two years later.
The NDFB-S was not taken seriously initially. Then in 2014, it carried out several attacks that made Indian authorities sit up. In May that year, it killed 43 people, mainly Muslims in attacks in the Kokrajhar and Baksa districts. In December, it slaughtered around 30 Adivasis, plains tribals who were brought to Assam during colonial times to work on tea plantations as indentured labor, in Sonitpur district.
A key grievance of Bodos is that they have been reduced to a minority in ‘their homeland’ by ‘outsiders’ migrating there. Indeed, they constitute just 29% of the local population with the remaining comprising ‘outsiders’ like the Adivasis, Bengali Hindus, Bengali Muslims and Assamese Hindus.
Violence between Bodos and Muslims, and Bodos and Santhals has been a recurring feature of the recent history of the Bodo areas, with terror groups like the NDFB-S among the main perpetrators of the ethnically targeted killings.
However, unlike its massacres in the past that targeted ‘outsiders’ living in Bodo areas – Bodos who were killed by the NDFB-S in the past were either members of rival militant groups, traitors or informers – the August 5 incident saw NDFB-S militants spray bullets randomly into the crowd. Most of the victims were Bodos. Of those killed in the incident, only four were Muslims and none Adivasi.
Security analysts believe that the NDFB-S attack in Kokrajhar was aimed at asserting its relevance, signaling to state authorities and its own demoralized cadres that despite the recent losses, it remains a potent force, able and willing to carry out major attacks.
Since 2014, the NDFB-S has been under pressure from the Indian security forces’ counter-insurgency operations. Around 200 of its fighters were killed in these operations.
According to reports, today it has just a score or so cadres active in Assam and around a hundred others operating from neighboring Myanmar and Bhutan.
Songbijit is said to be based in Myanmar while military commander Bidai and his deputy Binod Mushahary aka Batha are among those holed up in forests along the India-Bhutan border.
Analysts point out that the security forces may have over-estimated the impact of their operations on the NDFB-S. While these did weaken the NDFB-S, pressure on the rebels reportedly eased somewhat this year. This may have facilitated the regrouping of the outfit.
In March this year, the Bhutan Army launched a major operation against anti-India rebels on its soil, prompting NDFB-S militants to slip out of sanctuaries in Bhutan to bases in Myanmar. Was the recent attack at Kokrajhar aimed at deflecting the attention of the security forces away from the India-Bhutan border, so that militants could relocate easily?
In the wake of the August 5 attack, Indian authorities have announced stepping up military operations against the rebel group. More troops are being deployed and all security forces have been ordered “to go all out against the NDFB(S),” Assam’s Chief Secretary V K Pipersenia said.
However, heightened military operations alone will not defeat the NDFB(S).
Bodo grievances continue to fester. ‘Bodoland’ continues to be lost to ‘outsiders’ as more migrants flow to Bodo areas. While the 2003 accord makes grand promises on these issues of concern, little has been done on the ground to address this source of Bodo insecurity.
Importantly, support for militancy needs to be addressed and this will be possible only if the government ensures that democratic institutions in the BTAD function better.
The Bodo Territorial Council is controlled by the Bodoland People’s Front but the governance it provides is poor, bringing little benefit to the Bodo people at large. Unemployment is widespread, making militancy and crime attractive career options for Bodo youth.
Bodo militancy, especially that targeting ‘outsiders’, has spawned an array of armed groups claiming to represent the interests of the ‘outsiders.’ Tit-for-tat violence has escalated over the years.
Importantly, the Indian state will have to sever links between the armed outfits and politicians. Without breaking this nexus, heightened operations against the NDFB-S will be an exercise in futility.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org