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Growing Fundamentalism in the Northeast

Dr. M. Amarjeet Singh is Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution, School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Banglore, India. Prior to this he was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 19, 2007

    The disturbing reports about the presence of jihadi forces in India's northeast have added a new twist to the region's multiple insurgencies. Combined with the recent arrest in Delhi of three alleged Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) operatives hailing from Manipur once again indicates how vulnerable the northeast region is to the jihadi menace.

    Talk about the presence of jihadi forces in this part of India may appear to be the result of 'imagination' or 'paranoia' to some. But to those following developments in the region it constitutes a significant internal security threat for the country. The lack of unanimity on this issue makes it imperative to undertake a thorough evaluation of the available information and evidence.

    The Indian security establishment has over the years gathered some alarming evidence on the activities of externally sponsored jihadi forces intent on fishing in the troubled waters of the northeast in collaboration with some militant outfits active there. This evidence suggests that jihadi organisations such as Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Bangladesh-based Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HuJI) and Jama'atul Mujahideen (JuM) have made significant inroads into certain parts of the region's most populous and most strategically important state of Assam. There is also some evidence, as the arrest alluded to above indicates, that one or more of these organisations could be making attempts to spread their activities to Manipur as well.

    In this connection, the General-Officer-Commanding of the Tezpur-headquartered 4 Corps, Lt. Gen. R. K. Chhabra, disclosed the presence of jihadi elements in the Char areas (riverine islands which constitute about 3,608 sq km or 4.6 per cent of Assam's total land area) along the Brahmaputra. Further, unspecified intelligence sources disclosed that jihadi elements as well as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) have set up several bases in Assam's Dhubri district along the India-Bangladesh border. Moreover, the Commander of the Army's 107 Mountain Brigade, Brig. Kanwaljit Singh, has given the alert that the LeT, HuJI and JuM have started operating in certain minority-dominated pockets of Lower Assam, particularly where suspected migrants from Bangladesh have a sizeable presence.

    Police sources in Assam say that jihadi organisations had surfaced in the state way back in 1994, though they became active only after 2001. Their modus operandi is to attack economic installations in the petroleum sector and soft targets like market places. They are looking at the region not only as a playground but also as a corridor to other parts of the country. According to the Assam Police, as many as 198 jihadis were arrested in the state between 2001 and October 2006, while 56 more have surrendered.

    More recently, on December 19, 2006, a team of the Special Cell of Delhi Police arrested three alleged Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) trained LeT operatives hailing from Manipur, identified as Salman Khurshid Kori, Abdur Rehman and Mohammad Akbar Hussain, from a spot near Delhi's Red Fort area. Two kilograms of RDX, two detonators and a hand grenade were seized from them. They were allegedly planning to carry out bomb blasts at crowded market places in the capital. This is the first time that LeT operatives hailing from any state in the northeast region have been arrested in the capital. The LeT, according to Delhi Police sources, has been trying to tie up with local militant outfits in Manipur like the People's United Liberation Front (PULF). This development has caused considerable alarm among security agencies engaged in counter-insurgency in the region. In addition, Assam and Manipur have, in recent years, seen the emergence of several Islamic militant organisations, which Assam Police claim have come under the umbrella of the Bangladesh-based JuM. Prominent among these are the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) and PULF.

    JuM has been reportedly sending jihadis trained in Afghanistan to Assam to strike soft human targets and vital economic installations. These jihadis are also learnt to have been associating with outfits like ULFA and MULTA. Besides, the JuM is learnt to have been recruiting unemployed youths in both Lower and Upper Assam. The Inspector General of the Border Security Force (BSF) for Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland Frontier, Jyoti Prakash Sinha, stated: "We have specific inputs that the youths from Asom have been taken to Bangladesh for training and other jihadi activities only to be sent back to Asom. These youths are not few in numbers and they are being taken by agents working for the ISI and the DGFI of Bangladesh." Besides, some jihadi groups are also suspected to be using madarsas as a cover for their activities. Khagen Sarma of the Assam police stated that "Madarsa committees may not be directly involved but these elements do use religious institutions as cover."

    There are valid reasons for not taking these developments lightly. Many of the militant organisations in the northeast, including ULFA and MULTA, find safe haven in Bangladesh and have strategic connections with anti-India groups based there. Over the years, there have been reports of increasing ties between ULFA and these groups to cause greater bloodshed and destruction in Assam. Above all, Assam continues to be the 'living space' for Bangladeshi migrants, who are vulnerable to exploitation by these elements.

    This development has added a new twist to the extremely complex security environment that besets the northeast region. In this context, strengthening intelligence co-ordination between the State and Central agencies; and strict vigil along the Indo-Bangladesh border assume increasing importance to meet this emerging internal security threat.