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Finds it Difficult to Stamp out Terrorist
Groups in the North-East
Kumar Amitav Chaliha
(KWR) In the clearest sign yet that last
December’s Bhutanese army offensive
against the United Liberation Front of
Asom (ULFA) failed to destroy the militant
group, on August 14 a bomb in the central
Assam town of Dhemaji killed 22 people,
mostly children. They had been taking part
in a parade to mark India’s independence
day when the powerful explosion tore apart
the ceremony. Many of the bodies were burnt
"It was a most cowardly thing to do," Assam’s chief minister
Tarun Gogoi told local media. He had no hesitation in attributing the attack
to the ULFA. The bombing was followed by a further six attacks within a one-week
period, which killed five and wounded more than 50. A grenade attack by ULFA
militants outside a movie theatre in Dibrugarh in upper Assam; the rebels have
repeatedly threatened attacks against cinemas carrying Bollywood films, which
they describe as examples of Indian cultural imperialism.
The ULFA, along with two rival factions of the National Socialist Council of
Nagaland, is the largest and most powerful of the many rebel groups operating
in India’s northeast region. Since its inception in 1979, the outfit
has been waging a violent struggle to create a separate country comprising
One of the key difficulties facing New Delhi in its attempts to stamp out the
various northeastern insurgencies has been the groups’ tendency to base
themselves in neighboring countries. The rebel organizations, which fight for
a variety of different but interlinked causes along ethnic and religious lines,
first began operating from Bhutan in the early 1990s after being driven out
of their encampments in India by New Delhi’s first coordinated offensive
against the groups, 1990-91’s Operation Bajrang.
After years of diplomatic pressure in December last year India finally managed
to persuade Bhutan to launch a military operation against rebel camps in that
country. In a two-week long assault, the Royal Bhutanese Army cleared some
30 rebel encampments, not only those operated by ULFA but also those of the
Kamtapur Liberation Organization (KLO), and the National Democratic Front of
Bodoland (NDFB). The operation was hailed as a massive success and a body blow
to the rebels, and for six months the insurgencies went into remission.
However, India failed to prevent the rebels from regrouping, partly because
the diplomatic pressure that was successful in encouraging Bhutan to expel
the militants has so far failed to sway Bangladesh, which provides safe-haven
for an estimated 100 camps (although Dhaka vehemently denies this). The groups
have also set up camps in Myanmar, and their ability to rebuild beyond the
reach of India’s armed forces meant that last year’s offensive
was always unlikely to spell the end of the insurgencies.
The failure of neighboring countries to help India in cracking down on the
groups is not the only security problem facing the northeastern state governments.
In August, a campaign by civil-rights activists in Manipur for the repeal of
the Armed Forces Special Powers Act erupted into severe rioting. The 27-year-old
federal law provides for soldiers to open fire on suspected rebels, arrest
them, or search their homes without warrants from civil authorities.
The armed forces say they require the Act to effectively combat the insurgents,
but a series of heavy-handed blunders by the military under the Act’s
auspices have generated massive popular anger. State politicians have come
out in support of the protestors, with many threatening to resign unless the
federal government makes moves towards repealing the legislation.
Despite the brutal tactics of the ULFA and similar insurgent groups, there
remains an undercurrent of popular support for their goals. Many native inhabitants
of the northeastern states fear what they see as the exploitation and usurpation
of their region by outsiders – immigrants from mainland India and neighboring
Bangladesh and Nepal. While this remains the case, and neighboring countries
continue to refuse India help in driving out the militants, the rebels are
likely to continue their violent campaigns.