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India Finds it Difficult to Stamp out Terrorist Groups in the North-East

By Kumar Amitav Chaliha

MUMBAI (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 beyond recognition.

"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 Assam state.

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.

Editor: Dr. Scott B. MacDonald, Sr. Consultant

Deputy Editors: Dr. Jonathan Lemco, Director and Sr. Consultant and Robert Windorf, Senior Consultant

Associate Editor: Darin Feldman

Publisher: Keith W. Rabin, President

Web Design: Michael Feldman, Sr. Consultant

Contributing Writers to this Edition: Scott B. MacDonald, Darrel Whitten, Sergei Blagov, Kumar Amitav Chaliha, Jonathan Hopfner, Jim Letourneau and Finn Drouet Majlergaard

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© 2004 KWR International, Inc.