I was born in a remote village of Sivasagar district in Upper Assam, where my father was the only doctor of the government dispensary. ULFA was a name that we kids learned early on, and soon it became synonymous with our existence.
Around this time, a small bamboo establishment had sprung up on a paddy field next to the hospital. We soon came to know that this hut was selling country liquor. People, especially college students, came in hordes to drink there without resistance from the police. The police were allegedly hand-in-glove with the operation. But one day, the place became abruptly deserted. I still remember hearing, “Our boys came and burnt down the place overnight”. “Our Boys” was a popular euphemism used for ULFA cadres.
Decades have passed and although “Amar Lora” or “Our Boys” is a euphemism seldom heard now, the romanticism and weakness for the numerous insurgent groups (we don’t call them terrorist groups) still exists in the hearts and minds of many people across the length and breadth of Assam. If it’s NDFB(S) for the Bodos, it’s ULFA(I) for the Assamese especially in Upper Assam, KLNLF for the Karbis, etc. Each of these groups claims to reflect and fight for the aspirations of the communities it represents.
The reality though can be seen in exceedingly and repetitive bloody expression of their ideology.
In 2004, 10 school children and three women died in an explosion by the ULFA at an Independence Day celebration on the Dhemaji College ground. ULFA C-in-C had initially denied the outfit’s involvement with the blast. Yet, in 2009 after the arrest of ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, he owned up to the blast for the first time and apologized. As did the C-in-C later.
Similarly, in the serial blasts (18 bombs went off) of October 30, 2008 of Assam, 81 people died and 470 were injured. Initially HUJI militants were considered to be the perpetrators, but it was later revealed that a hit team of the NDFB under the founder chief, Ranjan Daimary executed the bombings across Assam.
In both these cases, most people I spoke to refused to believe initially that the ULFA or the NDFB might be the perpetrators. We liked to live in a utopia in which such inhumane and cold-blooded killing could not be done by our people.
On August 5, 2016, it was a usual busy weekly market day at Balajan Tiniali market, few kilometres away from Kokrajhar town in Assam. Around 11:45 am, three unidentified gunmen started firing indiscriminately at the people gathered in the market. This was followed by a grenade blast that ripped apart some shops. Later during counter-insurgency operations, one gunman was shot, while others managed to escape. Fourteen people died and many more were injured in the unprecedented attack.
Soon, rumours began to spread that the attackers were ISIS and Jihadis in spite of the fact that the dead militant was clearly a Bodo. People commented that such viciousness and indiscriminate firing cannot be the handiwork of NDFB(S). Slogans against ISIS and Jehadis began to do the rounds in and around Kokrajhar as reported by an ABMSU leader on an evening talk show at one of the new channels on the same day. A section of the regional media tried their best to point towards the so-called Jehadis.
They kept referring to a suspicious press release allegedly sent by the General Secretary of the NDFB(S) denying any role in the attack. Keeping aside the fact that it’s well-known that NDFB(S) has a history of false denials, the backdated (dated July 19, 2016) press release points to the fact that the entire incident could be a pre-planned attack by the NDFB(S).
In a press meet following the incident, Bodoland IGP L R Bishnoi said that the attack was the handiwork of the NDFB(S) as the militant who had been shot dead has been identified to be a member of the outfit. Apparently, his mobile phone records show that he had conducted several conversations with a senior leader of the NDFB(S) since Thursday evening.
What is alarming about the entire attack is that the evident romanticism of the insurgent groups by people of Assam still remains. We have to come to terms with the fact that insurgency has taken the shape of terrorism in the Northeast over the decades. At a time when terrorism has struck globally through various ways and means, it’s not surprising that these groups are learning from each other.
We mustn’t forget that more than 100 people had died and over 400,000 took shelter in 270 relief camps after being displaced from almost 400 villages in the communal violence between the Bodos and the Muslims in Kokrajhar in July, 2012. The Kokrajhar attack is yet another desperate act of terrorism emanating out of a severe existential crisis.
It’s high time we realise that romanticism associated with insurgency in Assam and the Northeast should be a thing of the past. At a time when fragmented identities and sectional clashes are on the rise in the region, such dangerous romanticism will only lead to lethal side effects.
(The first paragraph of the article had appeared earlier as part of a separate essay in Himal Southasian on Nov, 2013)