After counter-insurgency: policing dissent in Assam

SANJAY BARBORA

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SPEAKING to a group of human rights activists on 3 January 2012, the sub-divisional police officer (SDPO) of Namsai outlined the difficulties of policing a busy frontier station. He spoke of a landscape that was bewildering and complex. Rivers meandered across the hills and valleys; the international border was very close by; and people belonging to various insurgent groups, like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), were all a part of the problem that he had to deal with on a daily basis. This expansive narrative was apropos the questions that were asked about the murder of three Assamese boys on 26 December 2011 by personnel of the 26th Maratha Light Infantry. Although unsaid, the SDPO’s explanations seemed to suggest that dead bodies were only to be expected in such a place.

The incident, widely reported in the media, serves to highlight the consequences of military operations that have continued in Assam even after most armed groups had been forced to come around to negotiating terms of a ceasefire with the Government of India by 2009-2010. Although the army claimed that the three youth – Janak Moran, Siba Moran and Dhiraj Duara – were members of the anti-talks faction of ULFA, student associations and other civic organizations had radically different versions of the deaths. They felt that the youth had been killed in the fallout of a nebulous relationship that exists between the police, army and professional criminals. Such opinions, though difficult to prove, are commonplace in Assam. There is even the public report of the government’s commission of enquiry into extra-judicial executions in 2007 that lends credence to the possibility of a collusion of government agencies in committing murders outside the purview of established law.1

The SDPO at Namsai was forthcoming in his answers as he outlined the new contours of counter-insurgency in the region. When asked about the improbable story put forward by the army regarding the death of the three young men, he expressed greater concern about a new breed of militants in his area who were giving him sleepless nights. The Maoists, he claimed, were unlike the other insurgents of the past. They encouraged villagers to think about their existential conditions and spent considerable amount of time building on the peoples’ disaffection with the government.

 

The SDPO had trouble defending the killings of the three youth by the army. However, since the bodies had been handed over to his station, it was his lot to explain the intricacies of joint operations conducted by the Indian Army and the police under the aegis of the Unified Command Structure (UCS) in Assam. He was concerned that the army was still out looking for ULFA activists when it ought to be focusing on Maoists and other troublemakers who encouraged critical thinking. The SDPO felt reassured that the army would come around and understand that the enemy had changed form. The UCS would then prove more effective in combating insurgency in Assam.

Namsai, however, lies a few kilometres inside Arunachal Pradesh and technically is not even part of Assam. The UCS is supposed to be in operation within the state of Assam but, as the SDPO explained to the activists, its extension into Arunachal Pradesh is ‘implied’. It is the aggregation of these implied rules that makes the future bleak for the citizens of upper Assam and their counterparts in Arunachal Pradesh. On 9 May 2012, a joint team of Assam Police, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Indian Army personnel, announced that they had killed four Maoists who were allegedly members of an entity called the Upper Assam Leading Committee. All the four victims were Assamese men from villages near Sadiya, where the encounter is supposed to have taken place.

 

The UCS was created in 1997 and had within its ranks members of the army, paramilitary, police and surrendered militants who did not follow the prescribed route of recruitment as special police officers (SPOs) under sections (17 and 18) of the Police Act (of 1861). Human rights activist and researcher, Ram Narayan Kumar noted that they were ‘a squad of executioners, created by various official agencies, integrated with the Unified Command Structure, established by the state government’s notification – No. PLA 271/95/223 dated 24 January 1997 – to synergize the operations against militant groups.’2 He further notes that ‘the USC involved the chief secretary of the state, general officer commanding (GOC) the Army Staff’s 4 Corps, the state police, inspector generals of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Border Security Force (BSF) and representatives of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).’

The UCS was an inevitable outcome of the criticisms levelled against the government, following the deployment of the army in Assam in 1990 under the aegis of ‘Operation Bajrang’. There were two significant changes that had taken place in the 1990s that warranted a more effective counter-insurgency strategy. The first change was the growth of an organic, non-funded human rights movement that built itself on a sense of collective outrage fuelled by large-scale violations committed by the Indian Army. Journalists and lawyers were part of this movement; hence, human rights abuses were regularly reported and the Gauhati High Court received several cases directed against the army.

The 1990s also saw an expansion of the Assamese print media, thereby altering the public sphere in the Brahmaputra Valley to a great extent. Operation Bajrang, therefore, was an abject failure for the Indian Army, not only because it failed to contain and corral ULFA, but also because it was absolutely vilified by the local media. Clearly, it was simply not enough to insert the military into civilian spaces, even with the aid of draconian security laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 and Assam Disturbed Areas Act.

 

The other change that occurred in the 1990s was the shifting focus of the conflict itself. While Operation Bajrang was marked by the army’s fumbling attempts to engage in military combat with ULFA guerrillas, later operations were much more targeted and insidious in their capacity to widen their actions against those it perceived to be separatists. Therefore, by the time Operation Bajrang was allowed to lapse as discredited, the army had already come out with a second round of military offensives under Operation Rhino in 1991. Then too, the idea was to focus on middle and high-level ULFA activists, some of whom were living under aliases in third countries.

However, the political effort of the Assam government was to ensure surrenders from amongst the rank and file of the organization. Army operations were actually suspended for a few months in 1991 when the Congress (I) government, led by Hiteshwar Saikia, attempted to negotiate with ULFA leaders. However, these operations resumed when the talks failed and Operation Bajrang II was carried out, not only against ULFA but also against other armed opposition groups – such as the Bodo Security Force (BdSF)3 – in the Brahmaputra Valley. By the time the UCS came into play, the focus of the operations had shifted from purely military engagement to psychological operations, media management and, of course, the documented killings of families and sympathizers of ULFA activists.

 

During the various army-led operations against insurgents in Assam, the police had remained in the background, with its personnel appearing as supporting actors in the counter-insurgency strategy. Elsewhere in the world, where military operations have been conducted against small but influential groups of radicals, governments have converted their local police force into low-intensity paramilitary organizations. In Ireland, for instance, the British Army was steadily pulled back from direct engagement with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the 1970s. Instead, the government favoured a gradual militarization of its police force and the creation of other (Loyalist) militia that worked outside the ambit of the law.4 In Assam too, the local police was rapidly modernized and armed for operations against insurgent groups that had counter-intuitively multiplied following army operations in the 1990s. In real terms this meant that the Assam Police was driven into intelligence gathering and surveillance at the local thana level.

The traditional insurgent support base in rural Assam was rife with police informers and spies, who at any given point of time could also have been victims of counter-insurgency operations. To complicate things further, the government’s policy of encou-raging surrender from the ranks of insurgent groups had created a body of well-armed, incentive-seeking young men who needed to stay on the right side of the law. The surrendered former militants – known locally as SULFA (Surrendered ULFA) – shared an intimate and complicated relationship with the counter-insurgency apparatus, especially the police.

By the late 1990s, counter-insurgency had become a nebulous enterprise, with allegations of extra-judicial encounters, financial misappropriation and uncanny associations between different actors. Throughout this the police and army were subjected to intense media scrutiny, though there were few attempts to challenge their actions in courts of law.

 

Most commentaries on the legal framework that supports counter-insurgency focus on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) and allied acts that makes it possible for the implementation of extraordinary security laws. Sanjib Baruah calls it ‘…a textbook case of an undeclared emergency that the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and other human rights treaties seek to prevent.’5 He further adds that the suspension of freedoms under AFSPA, along with the attendant acts that supplement it, add up to a de facto emergency regime, without actually having a formal decision or declaration of emergency. It remains a case where matters of routine policing dovetail with low-intensity counter-insurgency operations. These matters assume ominous proportions, especially at a time when the raison d’être for extraordinary laws to combat insurgents are a bit shaky.

Since the year 2003, many armed groups in Assam had entered into a ceasefire and suspension of operations with the government. The first round of ceasefire started with the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF), which soon transformed itself into a political party, contested elections for the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD). This acted as a powerful incentive for other armed groups to attempt alternate political strategies to negotiate for power with the Government of India.

Soon after the BLTF settled in to control the administrative machinery in BTAD, other armed groups in the two autonomous districts of Assam – Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills (now renamed Dima Hasao) – entered into a similar ceasefire with the government. Relatively larger insurgent groups like ULFA and NDFB were also forced to enter into phased negotiations with the government, after their leaders were detained in Bangladesh and passed over to the Indian government.

 

One would have thought that this would signal a lull, or even a gradual de-escalation, of army operations in Assam. Instead, there has been an overall increase in military-style encounters in the Brahmaputra Valley. Scores of Bodo youth were killed in encounters with the police and army in 2009 and 2010, while extra-judicial killings and incarcerations are routinely reported from other districts in upper Assam.6 Symbolically too, the fact that the Government of Assam had appointed a career intelligence officer (instead of a regular police person) as the Director General of Police, sent a contrary message to those expected a benign turn in counter-insurgency operations in the state.

 

The traditional ideological grounds for radical politics in Assam have shifted over the last decade. While insurgent groups like ULFA spoke about the economic exploitation in the state, they were not prepared for the nature of the transformation of the economy. In the year 2000 and the decade that followed it, Assam’s economy and its middle classes had undergone insidious, albeit radical, changes. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, politics in Assam had participants from different classes, most notably students, and skilled and semi-skilled professionals.

As explained earlier, the human rights movement that emerged in opposition to military excess, was to an extent dependent on middle class participation and support. Over the years, a combination of coercion and cooption has resulted in this class disengaging from overtly oppositional politics. In part, this attests to the government’s strategy of acceding to demands for ethnic autonomy and engaging in power-sharing arrangements with leaders of armed opposition groups. However, this is also the result of a systematic isolation and criminalization of dissent within the state. The ease with which the government has been able to create associative connections between what the security regime calls left-wing extremism and protests against the Assam government’s acquiescence to large-scale power projects, testifies to two disturbing changes.7

First, it is the landscape of political radicalism that has been transformed in Assam. Unlike the earlier, inward looking attempts at political mobilization, there is a renewed and explicit strategy to organize peasants and workers. Organizations like the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) have been in the forefront of this mobilization, but they are by no means the only ones. Smaller, more tightly knit associations of students and youth, have begun to marshal support from areas where more conventional organizations – such as All Assam Students Union (AASU) and Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chattra Parishad (AJYCP) – have enjoyed unwavering support for over three decades.

 

These newer organizations and political formations have so far eschewed mobilization along ethnic/identity lines, and have instead chosen to rally people around issues pertaining to failing agricultural policies, river erosion and development induced displacement. They have been predictably labelled as Maoist, or groups having Maoist sympathies by the security establishment, though there is little substance in these accusations. These are, at best, allusions and insinuations that are not backed by any concrete investigative work, either by the police or sections of the media that treat police press releases as though they were the manifest truth.

Second, there has been a contradictory crisis arising between the government of Assam and its neighbours, even as the middle class opinion on developmental issues has begun to converge across the region. Over the past decade, there has been an increase in border clashes between Assam and its neighbouring hill states, mainly Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. These disputes are rooted in different land ownership patterns in the hill states, and the expansion of plantation crops like tea and rubber to areas that were traditionally subjected to subsistence, shifting agriculture. The media in Assam has been uncritical in its reportage of these conflicts, tending instead to abide by the police’s version of events. For perhaps the first time in its modern history, the Assamese middle classes, including erstwhile separatist rebels, have begun to accept and defend the territorial boundaries of the state.

 

The Government of India has remained an interested, but diffident actor in these developments. This was most evident in the central government’s recurring calls to its counterparts in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to sort out border disputes. Its concerns had been heightened by protests against the big dams that are being commissioned for construction in Arunachal Pradesh. Organizations like KMSS had successfully prevented the transport of critical machinery to the dam sites and continue to defy the administration’s calls to allow construction to continue.

The protestors have for long been concerned about the downstream impact of the dams and have argued that tens of thousands of livelihoods will be lost if the Government of India went ahead with its plans to build dams along the tributaries of the Brahmaputra river. This pits the protestors against public sector giants like the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC), the prime agency in charge of building the dams in Arunachal Pradesh. A combination of factors that include a weak opposition in the legislative assembly, have resulted in the Assam government’s willingness to use force against the protestors.

 

In the disturbing tradition of mythological warfare – which entails layer upon layer of deception, disinformation and distrust – law and politics have become compliant to the government’s need to police dissent. Security concerns have converted Assam into a film studio-like village stage set, where ghosts of earlier counter-insurgency campaigns are regularly invoked to justify militarization. The security drama, enacted at regular intervals in places like Namsai and Sadiya, has destabilized the boundaries between might and right, mystified reason in the pursuance of violence, and has abrogated the need for political debate and discussions on the three decades of conflict. These processes may be part of what Sanjib Baruah refers to as a short cut that insurgents and governments resort to when negotiating relationships of power.8 They have an eerie effect on an embattled community that has already been fragmented by counter-insurgency strategies. It is the trauma of having to reflect resentment and resignation in a simultaneous, collective thought process.

When this writer toured villages and small towns all over the Brahmaputra Valley, between the years 1996 and 2001 – a time when extra-judicial executions were routine – it was not uncommon to find sparks of resistance and anger against the government. Following a visit to the houses of the three youth who were murdered at Namsai on 26 December 2011, one found instead a sense of resignation amongst the parents and families of the victims. The parents of the victims, who were poor working class persons from upper Assam, would have been part of the generation that had been radicalized by the ULFA in an area that provided leadership and cadre for the organization. Their resignation speaks volumes about the trajectory of armed struggles and counter-insurgency in the region.

Yet, if the local police officers and their kind are to be believed, they continue to join ragtag bands of dissidents, conveniently labelled as Maoists (or the anti-talk faction of ULFA). It would be erroneous to claim that military operations and allied campaigns were successful in containing insurgency in Assam. Similarly, radically inclined armed opposition has not managed to make a dent on the state’s capacity for coercion and violence. In this interplay of violence and policing, one sees how dissent and dialogue can be driven underground.

 

While it is difficult to undo the intimacies shared by India’s counter-insurgency regime and local communities, it is important to highlight that the latter have paid an undue price in the process. Today, small beleaguered groups who continue to raise uncomfortable questions about the nature of the relationship between them and powerful, development-driven state agencies and their allies, risk being criminalized. Unless attempts are made to engage them in dialogue, as well as begin a genuine process to assuage local grievances, Assam’s political future looks as though it is headed for another long term of discontent. The need to create spaces for dialogue between advocacy groups, academic communities and the media, is of paramount importance. A plural public sphere that is able to break through the security-driven miasma of policing would be a good beginning in Assam.

 

Footnotes:

1. The J.N. Saikia Commission of Enquiry was categorical in its indictment of members of the police and army, as well as certain political leaders, who colluded in the extra judicial executions of family members of insurgent leaders between 1996 and 2001.

2. Ram Narayan Kumar, ‘Field visit report on Assam and Manipur from 17 May 2008 to 5 June 2008’, p. 5. (Field notes shared with colleagues via electronic mail.)

3. The Boro Security Force was later renamed as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).

4. John Newsinger, ‘British Security Policy in Northern Ireland’, Race and Class 37(1), 1995, pp. 83-94.

5. Sanjib Baruah, Routine Emergencies: India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act. (Unpublished essay.)

6. For a detailed account of the current anti-dam protests and police campaigns against the protestors, see Priyanka Borpujari, ‘Damning the Dam Protestors’, in http://sanhati.com/excerpted/5099/ (Accessed 29 May 2012). For a detailed account of the army’s ongoing campaign against alleged insurgents, see, ‘Death, Impunity and Insurgency: A Report on Extra-Judicial Executions in Tinsukia, Assam (2011-2012)’ in http://sanhati.com/excerpted/4759/ (Accessed 29 May 2012).

7. India’s prime minister has consistently maintained that left-wing extremism, along with religious fundamentalism and terrorism, are the combined threats to the country’s security. This view has been critiqued by several commentators for its propensity to coalesce all forms of dissent under one security driven lens.

8. Sanjib Baruah, ‘The Rise and Decline of a Separatist Insurgency: Contentious Politics in Assam, India’, in Rajat Ganguly (ed), Autonomy and Ethnic Conflict in South and South-East Asia. Routledge, London and New York, 2012, pp. 27-45.

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