New in the Northeast | Is Assam facing a new kind of terror threat?

Updated on Aug 08, 2022 09:43 PM IST

Even as several insurgent groups have laid down arms in recent years, Assam chief minister has raised an alarm about Islamic fundamentalist groups operating in the state.

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. (PTI) PREMIUM
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. (PTI)

At a press conference in Guwahati last Thursday, Assam chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, stated that the Northeastern state has become a “hotbed for Islamic fundamentalism” with links to Bangladesh — a new threat after a decline in local insurgent incidents in the state in recent years.

He cited the busting of five “jihadi” modules in the state since March this year and arrests of nearly two dozen persons including a Bangladeshi national with links to Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), a terror outfit based in the neighbouring country with connections to Al Qaida in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), as examples of how the threat has grown.

Sarma said that as per available intelligence, at least six ABT members from Bangladesh had entered India illegally around 2016-2017 and have been creating terror modules and sleeper cells by indoctrinating local youths in Assam about ‘jihadi’ ideology.

“It has now been proved beyond doubt that Assam has become a hotbed for Islamic fundamentalism. Of the six ABT members, we have nabbed just one and five are absconding. So, you can imagine the gravity of the situation. There may be 100 such others, of which we are not aware,” said the CM.

“Al Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed a few days back in Kabul. This was the same man who had appealed for jihad in Assam. This shows that Assam is already on the radar of the top Al Qaida leadership,” he added.

This was not the first time, ‘jihadi’ elements, some with links to Bangladesh, were detected and arrested in Assam. Himanta, who heads the home department, informed that they were first noticed in 1999 with the bursting of a module of Bangladesh-based Harkat-ul-Mujahedin (HUM).

In 2003-04, a module of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) was busted. Between 2011 and 2016, security forces busted several modules of Jamat-ul-Mujahedin (JUM), Bangladesh and Hijbul Mujahedin. In 2018, one module of Hijbul Mujahedin (HM) was detected.

The chief minister informed that while such activities were few and far between earlier, now more and more ‘jihadi’ connections are being unearthed in the state with disturbing frequency.

According to the police investigation, those arrested in the past four months were found using highly-sophisticated technology to communicate, rarely using their phones for calls and there was complete compartmentalisation of different modules with members using several aliases.

Sarma said the arrested ‘jihadis’ showed “extreme levels of radicalisation and total allegiance to ‘Shariat’ law” while adding that all modules had some links with ‘madrasas’.

The Assam government has already closed nearly 800 government-run madrasas in the state and converted them to regular schools. As per official data, at present, there are around 1500 private madrasas - 800 ‘qawmi madrasas’, 500 ‘hafizi madrasas’ and 200 ‘banat madrasas’ in the state.

“These people were working as preachers in mosques—as a cover job—their aim was to wage jihad against India and establish ‘Shariat’ law. Several training camps were organised by these people, especially during Covid times. They were trained in tradecraft (techniques/technology used in modern espionage), radicalisation, indoctrination, gun training and bomb-making,” he added.

While no incidents of ‘jihadi’ terror attacks have taken place in the state, the CM stated that the ABT members from Bangladesh start with finding a base, followed by indoctrination of youths, then active participation in ‘jihadi’ works and finally leading to subversive activities.

“Their idea is to indoctrinate a large number of populations as quickly as possible. These people are not interested in indulging in subversive activities till they indoctrinate a large number of people so that there can be a rebellion against the state,” said the CM.

Sarma’s comments suggested that ‘jihadis’ could be the new headache for security agencies in Assam and cause for worry for ordinary citizens. This is happening at a time when the state, which had been ravaged by insurgency for nearly four decades, was witnessing a decline in terror activities.

Insurgency in Assam started in April, 1979 with the formation of the United Liberation Front of Asom—as an offshoot of the anti-foreigner's agitation against the inflow of illegal immigrants to the state from Bangladesh (former East Pakistan). The stated aim of the outfit was to create an independent Assam.

A decade later, Bodo Security Force (BSF) was formed in the areas of lower Assam. The outfit, which represented the Bodo community, sought to create an independent Bodo nation. This was followed by the emergence of many outfits of different communities with diverse goals. As per the South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP), at one point Assam had 60 different terror outfits.

While a peace deal was signed by the Centre with BSF in 1993, other Bodo outfits like the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), which has several factions and Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) emerged, which continued their activities in the Bodo areas for many years.

ULFA cadre in Assam in a photograph dated 20 September, 1991.(HT Photo)
ULFA cadre in Assam in a photograph dated 20 September, 1991.(HT Photo)

In February 2011, ULFA split into two groups—one group led by chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa which decided to give up its violent past and sit for talks with the Centre without any condition and another led by commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah, which decided against talks and rebranded as ULFA-Independent.

NDFB came under ceasefire in 2005 and another faction gave up arms in 2010. In 2020, the three remaining factions of NDFB surrendered and a new peace deal was signed with the Centre and Assam government. As per the deal, all of them disbanded and deposited all their arms. In the past two years, over 4,000 of them have been rehabilitated.

In January 2020, before the signing of the peace deal, 644 rebels from eight different outfits surrendered and 1,615 cadres of the three NDFB factions gave up arms after signing the deal the same month. In December 2020, former self-styled deputy commander-in-chief of United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) Drishti Rajkhowa and 62 other rebels from four insurgent outfits of the region laid down arms.

One of the most dreaded and wanted militant leaders of Assam, Ingti Kathar Songbijit, who headed the Peoples’ Democratic Council of Karbi Longri (PDCK), a militant outfit from the Karbi Anglong, laid down arms in February last year. Along with Songbijit, 1,039 other militants belonging to five militant outfits of Karbi Anglong - PDCK, Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), United Peoples Liberation Army (UPLA), Karbi Peoples’ Liberation Tiger (KPLT) and Karbi Liberation Front (KLF), laid down arms.

Earlier this year, Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA) came over the ground and deposited all their weapons. They surrendered in three batches and all the outfits leadership and cadres totalling 117 persons gave up arms. As per the police, 16 insurgent groups, big and small, have surrendered, disbanded and signed peace deals in recent years and now ULFA-I and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) are the only active groups in Assam.

The changing scenario has also been reflected in the activities of terror outfits in the state. A datasheet prepared by SATP shows that while 565 persons (183 civilians, 76 security personnel and 287 terrorists) died in the state in 2001, the figure was 29 (10 civilians, 19 terrorists) last year.

Significantly, citing COVID-19 as a reason, ULFA-I declared a unilateral ceasefire for the first time in May 2021, which continues. The outfit didn’t urge the public to boycott last year’s Independence Day and this year’s Republic Day celebrations, the first time in many years. Background parleys are on with ULFA-I and KLO to bring them to talks.

In March this year, the Centre decided to withdraw the disturbed areas tag under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) from many areas in Assam due to a “marked improvement in law-and-order situation” in the state. The Act, which gives unbridled powers to the Army, is not in force in 23 districts and parts of one district in Assam. It will continue to remain in effect in 9 districts.

AFSPA was imposed across Assam in November 1990 in the wake of violent activities by ULFA. Since then, it has been extended every six months.

On Saturday, days ahead of the 75th Independence Day celebrations, retracting its earlier stance, ULFA-I issued a statement declaring a shutdown in Assam on August 15 and urging the public to boycott the occasion.

The announcement by the banned outfit and claims by the state government about Assam turning into a “hotbed” for Islamic fundamentalism could mean that peace is yet to return completely and the controversial AFSPA might remain effective for more years.

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    Utpal is a Senior Assistant Editor based in Guwahati. He covers seven states of North-East India and heads the editorial team for the region. He was previously based in Kathmandu, Dehradun and Delhi with Hindustan Times.

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