India’s ‘other’ war: Jihadi paranoia and ethnic militancy

By Nilim Dutta

The December 23 carnage

It was between 17:00 and 17:50 hours when a series of calls came. It was Dec 23, 2014 and I was in Guwahati, Assam that evening where I was born and have grown up.

“Sir, our people have been killed in an attack in at least two villages in Ultapani area. Their homes have been burnt down.”

“Sir, all our people have been killed. All of them.”

I asked, “Calm down. Where has this happened?”

“Sir, in Sonajuli in Pabhoi area. Sir, Phulbari 9 & 10.”

I immediately communicated it to the top echelons of the security establishment whose responsibility it is to respond to such terror attacks. The calls, however, kept pouring in.

“Sir, another attack in Serfanguri. Our people have been killed there too.”

In another hour, it became apparent to me from the steady stream of direct information from the places of occurrence that casualties would exceed 50 and many would be children. India’s national media was still oblivious.

For the next 48 hours, I would have little time to sleep or even eat as not only did I continue to manage a steady stream of ‘critical’ information directly from the ground to help deal with the aftermath, but also responded to numerous calls from terrified villagers across a 300-km stretch of remote border villages, reassuring them or aiding them in any way possible.

One of the worst terror strikes in India in this decade thus took place on Dec 23, 2014 in the North Eastern state of Assam. In a coordinated, near-simultaneous attack on five locations, the farthest of which were at least 300-km apart, terrorists brutally gunned down 81 unarmed civilians belonging to the Adivasi community.

While India’s security establishment was preoccupied with creating an alarm about possible terrorist strikes from the Islamic State, Al Qaeda or even Pakistan’s ‘good terrorists’ the Lashkar-e-Taiba in the past few months, this terror attack embarrassingly didn’t come from any Islamic Jihadi groups. The carnage was perpetrated by India’s own ‘good terrorists’ who had been treated with kid gloves for decades in spite of being responsible for some of the worst terror attacks India has suffered in the last three decades.

The manufactured paranoia of ‘Jihadi’ terror

It was in July 2014 that an important minister of Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet and a very senior bureaucrat in India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) were both honoured guests to ‘launch’ a monthly magazine in New Delhi’s Press Club of India. No national newspaper appears to have carried this as news and it would have even escaped our attention had it not been for the ‘cover feature’ of the first issue of the magazine: “Al Qaeda begins hiring in North East”.

The ‘cover feature’ went on to claim that it was in possession of a highly classified intelligence report that recruiters from Al Qaeda were targeting Muslim youth from Manipur and Assam, two of India’s North Eastern states, to join the global Islamic terror network. It claimed that in the first batch, Al Qaeda had recruited 17 Muslim youth from Manipur to join the global jihadi network and fight in India, Syria and Iraq. In the second batch, the magazine claimed, 10 Muslim youth from Manipur were recruited.

What made the report believable to even an informed reader was that it carried the names of the 17 Manipuri Muslim youth from Lilong in Thoubal district in Manipur who had reportedly joined Al Qaeda.

What naturally aroused my curiosity was how did a nondescript magazine come into possession of such a ‘highly classified intelligence report’? Why did an important member of Modi’s cabinet as well as a very senior bureaucrat in charge of ‘internal security’ in India’s North East happen to launch this magazine?

Events took an even more curious turn when people in Lilong, from where Al Qaeda had reportedly recruited the Muslim youth, broke out in protest and burned copies of the magazine. When threat of appropriate legal action was conveyed to the magazine, the publisher and the editor hastily apologised and conveyed that they may have got the names wrong and that they had only published the names based on an intelligence report. They also categorically clarified that they had no intention of casting aspersions on the people of Lilong, particularly its Muslim community.

Months later, many so called ‘experts’ would cite this dubious report as ‘proof’ of how Al Qaeda has already made inroads into India’s North East, among them the Director of the South Asia Programme of the Washington DC based ‘Middle East Media Research Institute’ or MEMRI in a piece he had written for The New Indian Express.

The fear regarding India’s North East, particularly Manipur or Assam, becoming the hotbed for recruitment by Al Qaeda and sundry jihadi group’s intensified after Al Qaeda released a video early in September 2014 where Ayman Al-Zawahiri announced the formation of ‘Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’ and mentioned that it “would be good news for Muslims in Myanmar (Burma), Bangladesh and in the Indian states of Assam, Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir, where they would be rescued from injustice and oppression.”

With a Hindutva Right government in power at the Centre, this was all that was needed to now ratchet up the fear of ‘jihadi terrorism’ targeting India even though any such threat had not increased radically by any standards of objective professional assessment.

Imagine offering ‘general amnesty’ to the terrorists who carried out the Mumbai suburban train blasts on July 11, 2006. Imagine giving those terrorists an ‘autonomous council’ to rule as reward.

Exactly a month later, on Oct 2, 2014, in a nondescript town called Burdwan in Assam’s neighbouring state of West Bengal, a bomb went off in a house killing the bomb makers. India’s premier terror investigating agency, National Investigation Agency (NIA) soon took over the case and revealed that the suspects, including the deceased, were active members of Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Some of them were allegedly Bangladeshis living illegally in India.

Within a week, the Assam Police also arrested at least six Muslim youth in Barpeta district of Assam for their alleged links to the Burdwan blast and JMB. On Oct 31, 2014, NIA released a list of ‘most wanted’ terror suspects linked to the Burdwan blast. The lone suspect from Assam in that list of 12 suspects was Shahnur Alom of Barpeta district. Apparently, Shahnur, his wife and his children had already gone into hiding by then. The media speculated that they had already slipped into Bangladesh.

What was sought to be drowned out by a deluge of ‘plants’ in the media is the fact that investigative agencies had confiscated little more than crude bombs from the hands of these alleged fearsome Jihadis, apparently the same kind of crude bombs that the Hindu fundamentalist outfit Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres were caught using many times in Kerala against their political rivals. For those who do not know, RSS represents the ideological core of the present political dispensation, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was elected into power in India in May this year.

The ‘Jihadi’ story in Assam took an interesting turn when ‘most wanted’ suspect Shahnur Alom’s wife, Sujena Begum alias Surjya Bhanu was arrested from Assam’s capital city, Guwahati on Nov 7, 2014. Contrary to speculations in media that she may have slipped into Bangladesh, she was actually living with her father in the farmhouse of a prominent BJP leader of the state and the spokesperson of the party.

It also soon leaked out that she has grown up in his property where her father had been the caretaker for a decade and a half. Her father claimed Sujena has not been arrested but had actually surrendered to the police and that the BJP leader was aware of the developments and had advised them accordingly, as he also happens to be an eminent advocate. This naturally raises the question as to why the leader of a party which was most vocally active against Islamic Jihadis was found to have been sheltering one in his own property.

A month later, almost to the day, Sujena’s husband and one of NIA’s ‘most wanted’ suspects, Shahnur Alom, too was arrested barely 60km from Assam’s capital city of Guwahati. It soon leaked out that Shahnur had actually surrendered.

What is even more confounding is that he had apparently surrendered to the then Assam Police intelligence chief, IG of Special Branch, Khagen Sharma in 1998 along with 32 other youth as a Harkat-ul-Mujahideen cadre and had ever since been in contact with the said police official who now heads the entire Assam Police as the Director General.

How did a dreaded JMB activist operate right under the nose of the state’s intelligence chief, and later police chief?

In spite of these arrests, all that the police could recover from the accused as weapons were 10 crude bombs of doubtful provenance.

I was apprehensive that the Jihadi paranoia in Assam was created to ease off the pressure that was slowly being mounted on the NDFB factions since May 2014. I was apprehensive that it would lead to serious consequences.

The seeming impunity with which they operated can be understood from an incident that occurred on Oct 21, 2014 in Kokrajhar district of Assam, their stronghold. In a reserved forest bordering Bhutan, a strike team of NDFB (S) reportedly surrounded some personnel of the 135 Eco Task Force of the Territorial Army and took away 7 INSAS Rifles, 21 magazines and 420 rounds of 5.56 mm ammunition from them.

In contrast, none of the arrested ‘alleged’ Jihadis possessed even a pistol.

In spite of having a more than 10 million Muslim population, and a large number of them believed to be ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’ and a national security threat in the lurid imagination of the Hindutva Right as well as the ethnic chauvinists, Assam has so far not suffered even a single terror attack by any Islamic Jihadi terror groups.

The hypocrisy of India’s ‘zero tolerance’ to terrorism

On Dec 18, 2014 an Anti Terrorism Court in Lahore granted bail to Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, one of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s top commanders and the alleged mastermind of the 26/11 carnage in Mumbai.

The news of Lakhvi’s bail, even though he was still to be released, caused predictable outrage in India. For India, this was indisputable evidence of the Pakistani establishment’s complicity with ‘good terrorists’, which acted only against India, and once again exposed its lack of commitment to ending support to terrorists on its own soil. The underlying subtext to this posture is that while India was continuing to exercise ‘zero tolerance’ to terrorism and making enormous sacrifices in fighting it, Pakistan is duplicitously continuing to treat terrorists with kid gloves.

The reality is far more complicated and inconvenient.

Less than a month prior to the carnage unleashed in Mumbai on Nov 26, 2008, an equally horrific terror strike had taken place in India. On Oct 30, 2008, across seven different places in India’s North Eastern state of Assam, 11 powerful bombs were triggered off almost synchronously. The capital city of Guwahati suffered the worst of the three blasts. The blast killed 88 civilians instantly, some of them horrifically burnt and mutilated, reduced to just a mass of charred flesh and bones.

Ironically, as investigations would later reveal, it wasn’t an Islamic Jihadi group that had perpetrated this horrific attack but an ‘ethnic militant group’ in ‘ceasefire’ with the Government of India (GOI). The reason they were in ceasefire was for ‘peace talks’. Surprisingly, the GOI did not deem it fit to withdraw the ceasefire to the terrorists even after this horrific carnage.

The mastermind of the Oct 28, 2008 carnage in Assam was captured in Bangladesh and handed over to India in May 2010. Three years later, in June 2013, he was released on bail by Indian courts, apparently, for ‘talk peace’ again.

Ironically, there was no outrage when an Indian court set free on bail a terrorist mastermind responsible for a carnage as horrific as the 26/11 Mumbai carnage 18 months before a similar court in Lahore granted bail to Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi.

On Dec 22, 2014, the militant group that had committed the Oct 30, 2008 carnage in Assam was still talking peace. At the luxurious Taj Ambassador Hotel at the heart of New Delhi, senior officials of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs and leaders of this militant group had smoked the peace pipe in their latest three-hour long meeting. What was apparently discussed was their demand for a separate state to be carved out of Assam. This was no clandestine meeting. Both parties had even addressed the media.

The next day, on Dec 23, 2014, a faction of that same militant group carried out its latest outrage, brutally massacring 81 civilians belonging to a certain community in a coordinated attack carried out almost synchronously across five different locations the farthest of which were at least 300km apart.

It did not cause a breakdown in ‘peace talks’ with the militants, nor did it result in cancellation of bail or any immunity given to leaders of its various factions.

India has become as adept as Pakistan in playing ‘good terrorists-bad terrorists’ even at the cost of hundreds of lives of our own civilians.

Playing ‘good terrorists-bad terrorists’ in India’s North East

Bodos are the largest plains tribe of Assam and considered to be amongst the oldest indigenous communities that inhabited the Brahmaputra Valley.

Distinguished by their ‘mother tongue’, Bodos constituted about 4.86 per cent of Assam’s population as per the Census of India 2001. Even though the Bodo population is spread across all the districts of Assam, they are most concentrated along the districts bordering Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.

The movement for identity assertion by the Bodos demanding a separate state within the Indian Union started in the 1980s. Even though the movement was initially a democratic mass movement, rabid ethnic chauvinism and insurgency soon eclipsed the democratic voices. The demand for a separate state soon transformed to a separatist demand for a sovereign Bodo nation. That is how the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), one of India’s most dreaded insurgent groups, came into being in 1986 .

The NDFB initially called itself the Bodo Security Force. In 1994, it changed its name to the National Democratic Front of Bodoland or NDFB.

The NDFB would not remain the sole Bodo insurgent group, though. Another Bodo insurgent group, called the Bodo Liberation Tigers or BLT, emerged in 1996. In contrast to NDFB’s demand for a sovereign Bodo nation, BLT was satisfied to have a separate Bodo state within the Indian Union.

Both NDFB and BLT have been responsible for some of the most brutal acts of terror in the late 90s, from bombing civilians to massacres of non-Bodos, apart from killing Bodos in fratricidal acts of terror. It would be pertinent to point out that the Bodo militants are neither the first nor the only brutal ethnic insurgent groups that continue to operate in Assam.

In July 1999, BLT entered into a ceasefire with the Government of India. Soon after the ceasefire, BLT began ‘operating’ in coordination with the security forces against the NDFB. In other words, the BLT had by then become our ‘good terrorists’, much like the Lashkar-e-Taiba for the Pakistani State, and it would soon be rewarded for this loyalty.

On Feb 10, 2003, the BLT signed the ‘Memorandum of Settlement’ with the Government of India and the Assam State Government that paved the way for the creation of a ‘Bodoland Territorial Council’ nine months later.

On Dec 6, 2003, 2,641 leaders and cadres of the BLT laid down their arms and the next day, their leadership were sworn in to head the interim council. The ‘Bodoland Territorial Council’ was created as a ‘special autonomous zone’ within Assam comprising four newly created contiguous districts that contained 11 per cent of Assam’s land area. In effect, the Indian state co-opted the ‘terrorists’ and turned them into ‘rulers’ overnight.

A militant group that barely constituted 0.2pc of the community it claimed to represent and barely constituted 0.009pc of Assam’s population was given away 11pc of its territory to rule over and made the arbiter of the destiny of about 2.8 million citizens. All cases against them were ‘dropped’ in a ‘general amnesty’ granted to them.

Forgotten was the fact that barely seven years earlier, on Dec 30, 1996, these same militants had bombed a long-distance passenger train, the Brahmaputra mail, and brutally killed 33 civilian passengers. That was just one of its many brutal terror attacks.

Imagine offering ‘general amnesty’ to the terrorists who carried out the Mumbai suburban train blasts on July 11, 2006. Imagine giving those terrorists an ‘autonomous council’ to rule as a reward.

The NDFB too, eventually, struck a deal with the GOI and came into a formal ‘ceasefire’ on May 25, 2005.

NDFB cadres, however, continued to flout ceasefire ground rules with impunity by not just brandishing arms openly, but also continuing to indulge in extortion, kidnappings and killings. NDFB also continued to recruit, train and raise new batches of the ‘Bodoland Army’ in blatant violation of the ceasefire. It is apparent that even they had now become ‘good terrorists’.

On Oct 30, 2008, less than a month before the 26/11 carnage in Mumbai, Assam suffered one of its worst terrorist attacks. Eleven near-simultaneous bomb blasts ripped across seven different locations in the state killing 88 civilians and leaving 540 seriously injured. The worst of the three blasts took place in the capital city of Guwahati. Within hours, the Inspector General of the Special Branch, the intelligence wing of the state police, claimed that the blasts were carried out by Jihadi terrorists belonging to the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), Bangladesh.

Investigations, however, began to reveal that the terror strike wasn’t carried out by any Islamic Jihadis but by the NDFB. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) soon took over the investigation from the Assam Police and established that NDFB’s founder chairman, Ranjan Daimary, was the mastermind of the Oct 30, 2008 serial blasts who was by then living in Bangladesh and raising new batches of the ‘Bodoland Army’.

The CBI investigation thus established that the horrific terror strike was carried out by the top leadership of a militant organisation which was supposed to be in ‘ceasefire’ and whose leaders and cadres were supposed to be living in ‘designated camps’ under the watchful eyes of the security forces and our intelligence agencies.

That the security forces and the intelligence agencies were clueless should have been considered a serious security lapse and effectively probed. Accountability should have been fixed and heads should have rolled. However, neither the Inspector General of the Special Branch of the state police nor the Director of the Intelligence Bureau was held accountable. In contrast, India sacked its Home Minister for failure to prevent the 26/11 Mumbai attack.

Curiously, the same Inspector General of the Special Branch would later get promoted to Additional Director General of Police in the Special Branch. Rising further in his career, he would rise to serve as the Director General of the Assam Police since January 2014 during whose tenure the NDFB (S) would unleash its worst spate of terror attacks.

Exactly a year after the Oct 30, 2008 terror attack in Assam, Government of India would appoint the former Director of Intelligence Bureau, under whose watch the terror attack took place, as the interlocutor to ‘talk peace’ with the NDFB.

What must be taken note of is that neither the Government of India nor the Government of Assam saw it fit to call off the ceasefire with the NDFB and crack down on the terror group following the horrific terror attack. To escape culpability, the NDFB ‘expelled’ Ranjan Daimary in December 2008 leading to a split and creation of the NDFB (Ranjan) faction. Those who held on to the ceasefire now called themselves the NDFB (Progressive) or the pro-talks faction.

Could the Government of India have talked of ‘peace’ with LeT in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack?

Ranjan Daimary was finally captured in May 2010 in Bangladesh and handed over to India. By then, CBI had already filed a charge sheet naming him and 21 others from NDFB in the Oct 30, 2008 terror attack case in the Special CBI Court at Guwahati. Even while Ranjan Daimary remained in incarceration initially after his capture, efforts to ‘talk peace’ continued.

At a time when India was getting impatient to hang Ajmal Kasab (allegedly being fed ‘biryani’ at the expanse of tax payers) the other terrorist, Ranjan Daimary, was being provided with the luxury of a cell phone in jail because he needed to talk ‘peace’ with his cadres.

While Kasab was hanged on Nov 21, 2012, Ranjan Daimary was set free on bail on June 23, 2013.

It was while NDFB Chairman Ranjan Daimary was still in jail, but in ‘peace talks’, the claims about a new breakaway faction, the NDFB (Songbijit) under I.K. Songbijit, started to emerge. Over the next one and a half years, NDFB (S), the new mysterious breakaway faction of NDFB, would unleash a spate of terror attacks and massacres that would eventually lead to serious questions being raised as to how it suddenly become so powerful and why was the security establishment still treating it with kid gloves?

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