Suspected Bodo rebels killed 13 people at a crowded marketplace in Assam’s Kokrajhar district on Friday, police said, potentially throwing up the first major militancy-related challenge for the new BJP-led government in the northeastern state.
Sixteen people were injured in the attack at Balajan Tiniali, nearly 220 km west of Guwahati.
Police said the two militants suspected to be from a breakaway faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) arrived at the spot on an autorickshaw along with civilian passengers.
One of the militants was shot dead by security forces who responded within minutes to the attack. The other managed to escape in the melee.
“The style of operation also points to NDFB-Songbijit. We have launched counter-operations to nab the militant(s). Situation in the area is under control,” said Assam director general of police Mukesh Sahay from Kokrajhar.
The outfit, however, denied its involvement in the incident. In a statement issued in Kokrajhar, NDFB-S ‘general secretary’ BR Ferenga condemned the police for “tarnishing” its image. HT could not verify the authenticity of the statement.
The incident is the first major militant strike in the state since the BJP government led by chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal assumed power in May.
Though most of the militant groups in Assam are in talks with the Centre, the NDFB-S and the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent led by Paresh Barua have repeatedly turned down peace overtures from the government.
The NDFB faction suspected to be involved in Friday’s attack is led by IK Songbijit who split from the parent group in 2012 to carry on the armed rebellion for an ‘independent Bodoland’, the NDFB’s original goal.
Though Songbijit was reportedly thrown out of the outfit last year, he still commands a small group of loyal followers, police said. Sources said that he was trying to float a new outfit with a separate identity.
Officials said two women were among the dead which include six members of the Bodo community. The condition of two among the injured is stated to be serious.
Television footage showed gun-toting security personnel guiding people out of their shops towards safety and smoke billowing out of damaged tin-roofed shanties where the grenade might have exploded.
One unused grenade was recovered from the area while security forces found an AK- assault rifle on the slain militant.
CM Sonowal, who is in Delhi, denounced the attack and said militants would be dealt with “very sternly”.
He also announced an ex-gratia payment of Rs 5 lakh to the next of kin of the dead, Rs one lakh to the seriously injured and Rs 20,000 to those who sustained minor injuries.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi too condemned the attack and said the home ministry was in touch with the Assam government.
“Saddened by the attack in Kokrajhar. We strongly condemn it. Thoughts & prayers with the bereaved families & those injured,” he tweeted.
Union home minister Rajnath Singh met National Security Adviser Ajit Doval over the Kokrajhar incident. Sources said both Modi and Singh spoke to Sonowal separately. Later, Doval also met Sonowal.
Spoke to Assam CM Shri @sarbanandsonwal who apprised me of the situation in Kokrajhar. MHA is closely monitoring the situation.— Rajnath Singh (@rajnathsingh) August 5, 2016
Kokrajhar is the headquarters of the Bodoland Territiorial Area District (BTAD), formed in 2003 to grant more autonomy to the Bodos.
The ruling party in BTAD – the Bodo Peoples Front – is part of the BJP-led government in Assam.
In 2012 and 2014, large scale communal riots and violence had rocked the BTAD areas, where the Bodos are in a minority despite making up 10% of the state’s 33 million population.
Bodo leaders say the frequent friction between Bodos and other communities is largely due to the dispute over land rights.
(With inputs from Rajesh Ahuja in Delhi)