New Delhi: Stories of violence have emerged almost continuously from the ethnic fault lines that exist in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts of Assam.
This past August 5, yet another brutal killing of people took place in Balajan Tinali, 12 km from Kokrajhar town, the headquarters of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) that administers the northeastern state’s four contiguous districts – Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri. However, this time around, the ethnic pattern of the attack doesn’t seem to fall along predictable lines.
According to reports, at mid morning on August 5, when a group of unknown men descended on the area to gun people down, the weekly Friday market was on. A throng of people – shopkeepers, petty vegetable traders and local shoppers – looking for cheaper deals were at the market. At the end of the shocking incident, 13 civilians were dead and 19 others seriously injured. Later, one more victim of the gun attack succumbed to injuries at a hospital in Kokrajhar.
Among the dead were eight Bodos and two from the Nath community, an ethnic group that has traditionally been spared by Bodo militants active in the region.
According to early information given to the media by the Assam police, two militants came to the market in an auto-rickshaw along with some civilians and began firing their automatic weapons. “One of them also lobbed a grenade which, while exploding, injured several persons. Some market huts also caught fire,” the police said.
They said that the security forces managed to gun down one of the militants soon after the incident.
Local channels, quoting the police, said that an army convoy was passing through the area and engaged with the militants in “just 10 minutes”, which led to the killing of one of the attackers. (Thirty six companies of paramilitary forces were brought in to the Kokrajhar district before the April assembly elections. Post poll, only nine are in place, comprising 360 personnel spread across the three sub-divisions.)
Later, police and security force personnel reportedly said the militants wore black masks. The number of those killed on the spot went up to 13. So did the gunmen, from two to three. Additional director general of police L.R. Bishnoi said, “Three militants came in a shared tempo bearing AS 16C-6540 number at around 12.30 pm. They fired indiscriminately at the general public.”
He, however, gave credit to the Assam police – not the central forces – for their “quick response attack” which “led to the killing of one militant who has been identified as a Bodo”.
“One AK-56 rifle, a mobile phone, two SIM cards, a Chinese grenade and three bags were recovered from him,” Bishnoi continued.
The anti-talks I.K. Songbijit faction of the NDFB (National Democratic Front of Bodoland) is the only prominent separatist group that has a recent history of organising such ruthless public massacres in the BTC areas. Though it has no history of killing Bodos or the Nath and Koch Rajbonshis residing in the area, it has time and again resorted to mass killings of Adivasis (tea garden community) and Muslims. The last brutal attack on civilians in the area, on December 23, 2014, on Adivasis and Muslims, was attributed to the NDFB(S). Amongst those who died on August 5, only four were Muslims and none Adivasi.
However, as soon as news of the August 5 attack reached Guwahati, 200 km from the spot of crime, top officials of the Assam police told the media that it was the handiwork of the NDFB(S). State director general of police Mukesh Sahay said there were enough indications to point a finger of suspicion at the outfit.
“Going by the fact that one militant has been gunned down by the police and an AK-56 weapon and a grenade recovered from him, it looks like an NDFB(S) attack. But then it will be too premature to come to a conclusion at this stage,” Sahay told The Indian Express on the telephone while driving down to Kokrajhar on August 5. The Assam police’s contention is that a joint state police and army operation on the NDFB(S) in the Indo-Bhutan border areas had worried many senior leaders of the outfit holed up there. The organisation then “wanted to divert attention elsewhere to flee” to its base in Myanmar.
NDFB(S) general secretary B.R. Ferenga was quick to respond to this allegation, categorically denying any involvement in the attack in a statement sent to some media houses. He claimed that it was an attempt by the Assam police to “tarnish” the group’s public image. However, the Assam administration has stuck to its stand. State finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma took to Twitter soon after the attack, not only to say that early reports suggest the Songbijit faction of the NDFB was behind it but also identified the reported slain militant as “a self styled commander of the 16 battalion of NDFB(S)”.
According to local reports, Bodo People’s Front (BPF) chief and state minister Hangrama Mohiliary was the first to identify the militant as Monjoy Islary Mwdan, a Bodo. Hangrama, a close friend of Sarma, is a former leader of the separatist outfit Bodo Liberation Tigers.
The drill after the attack was as to be expected. Sarma rushed to the spot to take stock of the situation and visited some of the injured being treated in the Barpeta Medical College.
Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who was in New Delhi, met with national security adviser Ajit Doval and others before rushing back home.
On August 6, both Sarma and Sonowal met those injured who had been shifted to the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital. Sonowal announced ex gratia compensation of Rs 5 lakh for the next of kin of those killed in the massacre and Rs 1 lakh to the injured.
On August 8, Sonowal visited Balajan and chaired a meeting of the ‘unified command’ comprising army officials, paramilitary forces and state police in Kokrajhar. Later, speaking to media persons, he dismissed the denial issued by NDFB(S). He said all the evidence collected so far proved that it was the Songbijit group which had carried out the attack.
“Our government will take stern action against these extremist outfits, no one will be spared,” he asserted.
A day after the attack, a four-member team of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) reached Kokrajhar. The shared porous border with Bangladesh, which has heightened its operations against Islamic fundamentalism post the horrifying July 1 attack in an upmarket Dhaka restaurant, obviously made the home ministry look at the incident with extra seriousness. With the attack carried out on a Friday, many in the state and elsewhere were already calling it “jihadi style”.
This is the first militant attack in Assam after a gap of one and a half years, and also the first since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government took over the reins on May 24. The assembly elections were largely incident free.
Besides, with the Assam police claiming with such surety that the NDFB(S) was involved, the issue needed special attention. The NDFB(S) is the only anti-talks faction in the state, besides the Paresh Barua faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which is presently capable of launching an attack.
Interestingly, post August 5, whispers in the corridors of power in New Delhi began to indicate that “something was amiss”. Highly placed intelligence sources hinted to The Wire that there was a volley of unanswered questions related to that attack.
On August 8, when union home minister Rajnath Singh gave a statement in parliament, it became clear that the state and the Centre were not on the same page, at least on the details of the attack.
Singh gave the time of attack as 11 am, not 12:30 pm as claimed by the Assam police. He didn’t specify who killed the militant. The minister also told the Lok Sabha, “We are trying to ascertain the identity of the slain militant and the outfit involved in the attack.”
He said some “external agencies and forces” were involved in supplying arms and ammunition to banned terror outfits in Assam. “I have taken up the matter with the Assam government and the security forces in the state to track down the militants involved in this attack, so that they are brought to justice,” he added. An AK 56 rifle, two magazines of live ammunition and a grenade was recovered from the slain militant, he added.
On the same day, Sonowal too made a statement on the attack in the state assembly. He, however, named the NDFB(S). “The involvement of the NDFB(S) has come to light so far. The massive operation and investigation by the security agencies would also find out if any other force was involved in the incident at Balajan,” the chief minister said in the assembly, adding that the superintendents of police and district commissioners across the state “are on high alert to avoid any untoward incident in their respective areas”.
Commenting on the difference in the statements, state Congress leader Rockybul Husain said on August 8, “Our party sent a team to Balajan; I was a part of it. We don’t want to play politics over a militant attack; we want to be a constructive opposition. Since the Centre’s version is different from the state’s version, we request the state government to clarify which is the truth.”
The question that begs an answer is: why is Centre staying away from naming the NDFB(S) and the slain militant, when the state police and politicians have?
Interestingly, even though Hangrama was quick to identify the militant, the militant’s family curiously couldn’t. Ishary’s parents, brought in for identification of the dead man by the Assam police, refused to take the body home, saying that their son had a burn mark on his chest and they couldn’t spot it on the body. According to some reports, they also told local media that their son was apparently taken into custody by the police some days ago.
So why was Sarma so quick to identify him? Hangrama, reacting to the news of the militant’s parents’ failure to identify their son, said, “They couldn’t because he left home 15 years ago. They didn’t see him for a long time.” Maybe, but then how could Hangrama identify him so easily?
His parents also said they faced problems in identifying him as his eyes had bullet injuries. “This is strange, as a quick look at the injuries seem to show that he was shot from a close range, certainly not in a kind of attack where so many people were involved that it led to a melee,” an intelligence officer remarked after checking the close shot photos of the militant.
In that press note sent out on August 5, the NDFB(S) accepted that Ishary was a member of the outfit but added, “We retired him two months ago”. So where was he for the last two months?
In a statement issued by the NDFB(S) on August 10, reiterating its prior denial of any involvement in the attack, the group squarely put the blame on Sarma and Hangrama. It said, “We suspect Hangrama Mohiliary, Himanta Biswa Sarma and some other third party are indirectly or directly involved in that incident. If not so, how can they clarify within half an hour of the incident (what) happened?”
The outfit also accused the Assam police of a “pre-plan” where “two Assam police (personnel) wearing black coloured dress open fire indiscriminately over the public of the market, shoot L. Mwdan (the said militant) from zero distance.”
Yet another doubt is that even though the initial reports quoting security forces said the attackers wore masks, the slain militant didn’t. He was instead seen in a rain coat. The photo that did the rounds of media houses of Ishary showed him in a relaxed mood, apparently checking out wares at a market with a rifle slung on a shoulder. Did that rifle have bullets? Was it used in the attack?
Intriguingly, sources in Barpeta after visiting some of the injured, told this correspondent, “They didn’t remember seeing this man at the spot.” According to The Telegraph, some locals present at the site said at least one attacker was clad in kurta and shorts and had his face covered with a black cloth and spoke in Hindi. They said he “appeared to be non-local.” The report quoted a shopkeeper, Token Basumatary, as saying, “There is doubt over whether the person gunned down by security personnel was the one involved in the attack.”
On August 7, Assam police arrested the driver of the auto rickshaw in which the militants, including Ishary, apparently reached the marketplace. Details of his interrogation are awaited.
“Another unanswered question is why both the army and Assam police have claimed to have neutralised the militant,” asked Guwahati-based senior journalist Rajeev Bhattacharjee.
Bhattacharjee, who met both Songbijit and Parsh Barua in their hideouts in Taga, Myanmar during a reporting assignment some years ago, however felt, “It could be even ULFA, which carried out the attack with help from NDFB(S).”
“You have to look at two things here. One, the anti-talks faction of ULFA doesn’t have the power presently to pull off an attack of such kind within the state. So it might have taken help from NDFB(S). Secondly, issuing a denial after an attack is the style of ULFA, not NDFB(S),” he stated.
Another question that seeks an answer, he pointed out, “is that the August 5 press statement of NDFB(S) is dated July 19.”
July 19 was a Tuesday, also a market day in Balajan Tiniali.
An armed separatist group’s attack on or a day close to August 15 is common in the northeast as a symbol of their protest against the Indian state. If it was a planned attack of the NDFB(S), to be carried out on July 19, complete with a statement of denial to be issued to the press thereafter, why was the attack launched on August 5?
Neither the outfit nor the security agencies have engaged with the question of whether the NDBF(S) had planned an attack for July 19.
Meanwhile, in the Bodo-dominated areas, many said that NDFB(S) killing Bodos is “unlikely”. United People’s Party chief U.G. Brahma told reporters, “I won’t comment on the possibility of NDFB(S)’s involvement but it’s unlikely that Bodo militants will kill their own people.”
Before the assembly polls, the NDFB(S) issued a statement asking Bodos not to take part. Reacting to it then, Hangrama accused Songbijit of “being a Karbi and therefore he has no right to speak on the interest of the Bodos.”
Added Bhattacharjee, “It is known in the intelligence circles that NDFB may use the name of Songbijit, but it is not him who is calling the shots in the outfit. It is a former college lecturer, B.R. Ferenga (the one who released the August 5 statement). He is a Bodo.”
On August 8, in response to a query from a Lok Sabha member on whether the NIA would be conducting the investigation, Rajnath Singh said, “The state government is investigating the matter. If it is not going on properly, then we will speak with the state government and hand it over to the NIA.” At present, the NIA is probing eight cases against NDFB(S).
This article has been edited as the date on the NDFB(S) press release was erroneously stated to be August 19.