Terror in Kokrajhar: a desperate attack by a declining NDFB(S)?
Disrupting the 19-month calm, in an audacious attack 3-4 militants entered the Balijan Tanali market in Kokrajhar and opened fire, killing 13 people. One attacker was also killed.
Kokrajhar is in the heart of Bodoland, a region with a history of such violent attacks but things have been relatively quiet since December 2014, when the Army, Paramilitary and the Assam Police started the joint 'Operation All Out' to weed out the terror group.
The attack has also come as a challenge for the BJP, which only recently formed the government in Assam for the first time. In Bodoland, even members of the minority communities, including Muslims, credit the BJP government at the Centre for stemming violence in the region.
Saddened by the attack in Kokrajhar. We strongly condemn it. Thoughts & prayers with the bereaved families & those injured.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) August 5, 2016
The indiscriminate firing on innocent people is ‘cowardly and dastardly’ and those responsible would be dealt with very sternly.— Sarbananda Sonowal (@sarbanandsonwal) August 5, 2016
A top police official in Guwahati told Catch that "14 civilians and one extremist have been killed in the attack," while adding that another 20 have been injured, some of them critically. "We believe it to be the work of NDFB(S) terror outfit," says the official.
The outfit, which broke away from National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) in 2012, has been involved in several attacks in the past.
Terror in the market
The attack, according to reports, started around noon. Three to four terrorists, dressed in fatigues, came in an auto rickshaw and started firing indiscriminately.
"They first lobbed a grenade at the busy Friday market, as people came in to shop," says the police source. "Then they started firing with an AK 47," the source says.
While the security forces managed to kill one terrorist, three others are said to be on the run, said Mukesh Sahay, the DGP of Assam, while briefing the media. "Friday is a busy day at the market," the police official said.
The weapons, a grenade and a Kalashnikov, used in the attack, also shows the involvement of NDFB(S), according to officials.
Shocked at barbaric violence and death of innocents in #Kokrajhar. Rushing to the spot. May god give courage to the bereaved— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) August 5, 2016
A history of violence
Even though the terror outfit has a history of carrying out violent attacks, the way they indiscriminately fired on Friday has come as a surprise. Local sources say that among the 13 dead civilians there are six Bodos, two Assamese, two Bengali-speaking Muslims and two Bengalis.
"Although the region has seen fratricidal violence amongst the different Bodo groups, this is new," the official says.
While the area has a strong presence of security personnel, there are reasons as to why they failed to prevent this attack.
"There is a sense of fatigue in the police. They are not properly equipped, and there are more than 10,000 vacancies," says a senior police official. "While the cadre base of NDFB(S) has definitely gone down, one must not forget that they are a terrorist group. Even if they have 10 people, that's enough to carry out an attack," the official explained.
NDFB(S) had also recently warned that they would carry out attacks against National Investigation Agency (NIA) officials.
Previously, NDFB(S) has been responsible for ghastly attacks, including the December 2014 massacre of Adivasis in Sonitpur and other areas and the massacre of Muslims in April 2014 in a remote village adjoining Manas National Park in Baksa district.
It is a breakaway faction of the NDFB, and is opposed to conducting talks with the Indian government. IK Sangbojit, a Karbi from Sonitpur, formed it in 2012. Songbojit, however, has not held any important position in the outfit since April 2015, when the group announced a new national council with B Saroigwara as the President and G Bidai, the second in command of the Bodoland Army as the Vice President.
Interestingly, the region has also seen the presence of Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, another terror group. In the last one year, as many as 35 suspected operatives said to be part of the terror outfit have been arrested in Assam. Many of them have been arrested from Kokrajhar and Chirang.
In September 2015, the police had busted a camp of the terror outfit in Daukhanagar in Chirang.
"This sort of a demonstrative attack is an act of desperation by the NDFB(S)," says a top police official. "It appears to have been done to send a message."
He adds that it may have been perpetrated to create more fissures in an already divided Bodoland, where the terrorists are constantly losing support.
When this reporter visited Kokrajhar in April, days before the Assembly elections, there was an unease and fatigue among the locals against the ongoing conflict. Most spoke of a desire to see peace return to the region, of how they want a dialogue and were happy the way gun culture has seen a decline.
They had voted conclusively in favour of the BJP-BPF alliance, instead of the UPP, which is seen as a more hardline faction on the demand of separate Bodo state. In the 2014 elections, a non-Bodo alliance won from Kokrajhar, despite the Modi wave.
Most Bodos this reporter spoke to also confirmed that support for local terrorist groups was on the decline because people were fed up of violence. The vote for the BJP and the supported for Operation All Out only further proves that the group has lost its base over time.
Some Bodos even spoke about how they want to change the perception that Bodoland is a conflict area. "These terror groups believe in ethnic cleansing - an idea which does not resonate with most locals anymore," an official says.
NDFB(S), too, has seen a lot of churning especially after the December 2014 violence targeting Adivasis in Sontipur and other places which according to some accounts was carried out by Bidai without taking Songbojit into confidence. The attack, finally led to the government deciding to launch the Army operation that has deeply dented their presence.
Over the past few years, 86 of their cadres have been arrested and more than 60 of them have been chargesheeted - including in cases of the 2014 violence being investigated by the NIA. In one case of the 2014 violence in Kokrajhar, a NDFB(S) operative Pradip Brahma alias Pwler was given a life sentence by a NIA court.
Weeding out terror
Several police officers posted in the area point out how the joint operation has broken the back of the outfit. "Not just their cadres, we have also been able to arrest locals who were acting as couriers for the terror group," an official said, speaking of how they have been also able to disrupt the flow of weapons to the group - which would usually come from Myanmar.
"Even Bidai, their top leader has been forced to move to Bhutan," a senior official says.
After the Paramilitary forces moved in for area domination even in the remotest of areas, the outfit has lost control over territory, a police official explained.
"This attack is an act of desperation," the senior police official says while adding that it could be the last nail in NDFB(S) coffin. "The way they have targeted the innocent will only lead to them losing whatever little support was left for them."
He cites the 2008 serial bomb blasts in Assam which were later found to be a handiwork of NDFB. "The way that incident finished off the NDFB, this one may finish off NDFB(S)," he says.
Edited by Aleesha Matharu