India’s Assam State Reels under New Year’s Terrorist Offensive

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 6 Issue: 1

India’s northeastern state of Assam has endured a series of terrorist incidents, including bomb blasts, attacks on trains, and a fierce gun fight between security forces and terrorists, all within the first ten days of the New Year. On January 1, terrorists suspected of belonging to the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) triggered serial explosions targeting busy market places like the Birubari, Bhootnath, and Bhangagarh areas in Guwahati city, killing five persons and injuring over 50 others (Assam Tribune, January 2). The state police suspected the involvement of ULFA’s 709 Battalion in the serial blasts, though the group denied any responsibility for the attack. Terror visited Guwahati again on the evening of January 9, as suspected ULFA terrorists detonated a bicycle-borne improvised explosive device (IED) near the Northeast Frontier Railways headquarters, close to a busy market in the Maligaon area of the city. Three persons were killed and ten others were injured in the incident (The Telegraph [Kolkata], January 10; News Live TV [Guwahati], January 11).

State police could not prevent the terrorist strikes from occurring, even though they claimed to have prior information about the presence of a group of ULFA cadres in the city who were acting at the behest of the group’s leadership, based in Bangladesh and the Indo-Bhutan border region.

There were striking similarities between the latest bomb blasts and the October 30, 2008, state-wide serial explosions, which were blamed on the ULFA and the Bangladesh-based Harkat ul-Jihad Islami (HuJI) combine (see Terrorism Monitor, November 25, 2008). The other group believed to be part of the October 30 conspiracy was the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). Bodoland is a small part of Assam province near the border with Bhutan and is home to the Bodo people, who maintain their own language and culture.

Forensic investigations into the New Year’s blasts revealed that TNT was used in the bombs (The Telegraph, January 4). The state police have so far arrested as many as 15 persons, including hardcore ULFA cadres, in the ongoing crackdown on terror elements behind the New Year’s Day serial blasts in Guwahati. The prize catch for the police was the ULFA’s Sanjeev Talukdar, who reportedly supplied the TNT explosives to the operation’s mastermind Pranjal Deka at the behest of Khagen Kalita. (Assam Tribune, January 5). Pranjal Deka, who along with at least five other ULFA terrorists entered into Guwahahti in late December to perpetrate violence, was killed during an encounter with the army on January 8 in Assam’s Halikuchi village (Press Trust of India, January 8). Both Deka and Kalita belonged to the ULFA’s deadly 709 Battalion. The others arrested in connection with the incidents were Imran Choudhury, Hemanta Phukan, Ravinder Singh, and Tarun Kalita. The police also arrested nine distributors and retailers from Reliance Telecom Limited (RTL), who had provided SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards to the terror suspects without proper verifications.

Police sources further announced that the other planners behind these blasts were identified as Akash Thapa and Amrit Baruah, both of whom belonged to the 709 Battalion and are believed to be hiding in the Indo-Bhutan border area (Telegraph [Kolkata], January 4). The January 1 serial explosions took place hours before the scheduled visit of Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram to Assam state. He attended the first ever meeting of the Multi Agency Center (MAC), a nodal agency for the coordination and dissemination of intelligence information. The meeting was attended by high ranking officials from federal investigating and intelligence agencies. Following the meeting, the visibly perturbed Home Minister indicated that he would take firm and decisive action against the perpetrators, pointing fingers at neighboring Bangladesh, which, according to him, continues to be a "safe sanctuary" for the ULFA and NDFB leaderships (Zee News [New Delhi], January 3). The Indian government is likely to seek the expulsion of top ULFA and NDFB leaders taking shelter inside Bangladesh, including Anup Chetia, Arabinda Rajkhowa, Paresh Barua and Ranjan Daimary. Looking at the change of guard in Bangladesh, where the pro-India Awami League won national elections held in late December, the Indian government is optimistic about a possible crackdown on the terrorist elements in that country, many of which operate on both sides of the India-Bangladesh border.

Some progress has been made at the negotiating table in defusing the militant threat. The New Year’s blasts coincided with the scheduled announcement of ULFA’s split by the pro-peace faction of the group at a public meeting in Tinsukia. On June 24, 2008, the “Alfa” and “Charlie” company of the ULFA’s 28 Battalion declared a ceasefire, paving the way for this split (Assam Tribune, January 3). However, the official announcement on the ULFA split was deferred until January 2, 2009, almost 30 years after the group had been formed. In a press conference held at Kakopathar, the pro-talks faction leader Mrinal Hazarika said his faction would now sit for negotiations with the government within the framework of Indian Constitution. After almost six months of waiting, the pro-talks faction severed all its operational ties with the mother outfit and renounced its demand for sovereignty. Instead, the faction will work towards achieving greater autonomy for Assam. Similarly, the NDFB has also split into pro- and anti-negotiation factions after the recent bomb blasts in Assam. The splits will definitely affect the fire-power available to the ULFA and NDFB and weaken their overall strength in the region.

Battered by relentless terror strikes, the Assam government adopted a tough anti-terror law under the provisions of the Assam Preventive Detention (Amendment) Bill 2009 on January 10. Under this act, a terrorist suspect can be detained in judicial custody for two years instead of six months (The Hindu, January 10). How far this new law will go in helping combat terror effectively in the state and in the region will be seen in the coming days.