On March 31, 2013, Security Forces (SFs) killed a Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) militant in an encounter near the Khashi Ghaghra area under Krishnai Police Station in Goalpara District. Another GNLA militant was injured in the incident.
On the same day, SFs recovered an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), suspected to have been planted by National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) cadres, from a road that connects Kanyakuchi and Saljhar Townships under the Rangjuli Police Station in the same District.
Worryingly, Goalpara recorded 22 insurgency-linked fatalities in 2012, including 17 extremists, four civilians and an SF trooper, as compared to just four fatalities, all militants, in 2011. The highest previous record of fatalities in the District was 14 in 2001, including eight SF personnel and six militants. In fact, the District had recorded its last civilian fatality on July 21, 2009, when United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) cadres shot dead a surrendered militant, Hazong Rabha, and his wife Nalani Rabha, at their Nalanga Pahartoli residence under Baguwan Police Station in Goalpara District. He was engaged in coal trade since laying down arms. The last SF fatality had taken place on July 30, 2010, when at least five Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers were killed and 33 were injured in an ULFA-triggered IED blast at Bhalukdubi.
The District has recorded a total of 106 fatalities since 1998, including 17 civilians, 25 SF personnel and 64 militants, in 85 incidents of killing since 1998. 10 of these incidents were ´major´ (each involving three or more fatalities). The last major incident occurred on July 13, 2012, when SFs killed three suspected militants of the Ranjan Daimari faction of NDFB (NDFB-RD) at Salpara village. The worst ever attack targeting civilians took place on March 16, 2003, when six civilians were killed and 55 were injured in an IED blast engineered by ULFA cadres, under a passenger bus at Bamunghopha on National Highway (NH) 37.
Goalpara, meanwhile, has emerged as the centre of an illegal weapons´ market, a fact borne out by the recovery of arms in the District over the last three years. State Home Department records indicate that Goalpara topped the chart in the category of ´arms recovered from extremists´ in Assam in 2012. An official report stated, "Between January and December 5 in 2012, the State Police recovered 118 weapons and 642 rounds of live ammunition from various areas of Goalpara District. In 2011, the figure was 97 and 63 respectively; while, in 2010, 50 arms and 303 ammunition rounds were recovered from the District... Across the State, a total 418 weapons and 9,257 rounds of ammunitions were recovered in 2012."
Clearly, extremist activities have increased considerably in Goalpara. The District borders the troubled Garo Hills in the neighbouring State of Meghalaya, which shares a 443 kilometre international border with Bangladesh - the longest after Tripura amongst North-eastern States. Despite dramatic initiatives by Bangladesh to expel Indian insurgent groupings from its soil, several Northeastern extremist formations continue to maintain a residual presence in that country, and cross the border to execute terrorist attacks and abductions, or to ferry arms, ammunition and contraband. In fact, the District has, since long, been an extremist hub.
The increase in the number of fatalities in 2012 reflects the growing nexus between the Meghalaya-centric GNLA and the Assam-oriented Anti Talks Faction of ULFA (ULFA-ATF). These two groups have established joint training facilities in the Durama Hill Range of the Garo Hills. Paresh Baruah´s close aide, Drishti Rajkhowa alias Manoj Rabha, is ULFA-ATF´s chief coordinator with GNLA. Rajkhowa also stays in close contact with GNLA ´commander-in-chief´, Sohan D Shira. Speaking on the ULFA-ATF-GNLA arrangement, then Senior Superintendent of Police (Guwahati City), Apurba Jibon Baruah noted, "According to the pact, ULFA-ATF will not harm the Garo people living on the Assam side, while a group of 30-40 ULFA cadres are taking shelter in GNLA camps in the West Garo Hills District." An unnamed senior official in the Assam Police (Operations wing) thus noted, on January 21, 2013, "Every year, we are recovering an increasing number of weapons from cadres of the GNLA and the ULFA hardliner´s faction [ULFA-ATF]. The GNLA is procuring weapons in huge numbers from Myanmar. A team of ULFA hardliners [ULFA-ATF] led by Drishti Rajkhowa is procuring the arms in turn from the GNLA." This arrangement has become crucial for ULFA-ATF, as most of the undivided ULFA´s armed faction leaders have joined the rival Pro-Talks faction (ULFA-PTF) following the formal split of ULFA in February 2011. Moreover, a presence in the Garo Hills areas of neighbouring Meghalaya provides the ULFA-ATF with an escape route to Bangladesh.
The Rabha National Liberation Front (RNLF), earlier known as Rabha Viper Army (RVA), is another militant formation with a significant presence in the Goalpara District. Sustained SF action, however, has led to the depletion of RNLF cadres. According to the SATP database, at least 31 RNLF militants have been arrested since 2009. A weakened RNLF is trying to regain its influence in the area. Inspector General of Police (IGP) Law and Order, L.R Bishnoi on April 3, 2013, noted, "We have information that following Panchayat (local level self-Government institution) elections in Goalpara, the Rabha National Liberation Force is again trying to gain strength by purchasing arms and ammunition. The outfit, which is mostly active in the District [Goalpara], had received a blow when eight of its cadres were killed in encounters during the past seven-eight months. Another five cadres had surrendered. Drishti Rajkhowa of ULFA had asked a leader of the outfit, Deepak Rabha, to regroup and promised them support in this regard."
The Panchayat polls conducted in the District on February 12, 2013, led to large scale violence. On that day, during the third and final phase of Panchayat elections in Assam, at least 20 persons were killed in Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council (RHAC) areas in Goalpara District. While 13 people died as a result of Police firing, when violent mobs of Rabhas attacked polling centres and polling teams in RHAC areas, another seven were killed in clashes between Rabha and non-Rabha groups. The Rabha groups were demanding RHAC polls before the Panchayat Polls. Clashes between Garos and Bengali-speaking Muslims, on the one hand, and Rabhas, on the other, had taken place in 2010-2011 as well. The Rabhas, who constitute just over a fifth of the population in Goalpara, where almost 60 per cent of the population is Muslim, are up against the combined strength of the Garos and Muslims, who have allied against them.
Adding to its woes, the District is also the target of mischief engineered by Pakistan´s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). A media report on April 1, 2013, underlined Assam´s vulnerability to the ISI´s demographic invasion, arguing that the Agency´s "current game plan" was the "construction of communalism" in the Northeast, through "engineered and targeted migrations", especially in Goalpara and Dhubri - the "gateway Districts" of the region.
Significantly, Goalpara District is one of six Assam Districts which has become Muslim majority in the past three decades. The District´s strategic location, combined with its use for illegal arms traffic and the diverse mix of ethnic groups, makes it extraordinarily susceptible to present and future troubles. Extraordinary vigilance will, consequently, be necessary to ensure that incipient threats do not find spaces to evolve into renewed sources of major instability in a region that has already suffered for far too long.
(The writer Giriraj Bhattacharjee is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)