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The October 30 Terrorist Attacks in Assam

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
Dr Dilip Gogoiteaches International Politics and Human Rights at Cotton College, Guwahati.
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  • November 14, 2008

    The year 2008 has seen terrorist attacks in Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, New Delhi, Agartala, Imphal, and now Assam. The month of October alone witnessed terrorist attacks in Tripura and Manipur, before the October 30 serial bomb blasts in Assam. On October 1, four explosions in Agartala left two civilians dead and nearly 100 injured, while the blasts in Imphal on October 21 killed 18 civilians. The 9 serial blasts in Assam on October 30 killed 83 civilians and injured more than 300. The pattern of these terrorist attacks seems to indicate a seamless web of connection among terrorist outfits across the length and breadth of the country. Similarities between the bomb blasts are striking: public places especially market areas have been targeted aimed at causing civilian deaths. The Assam blasts had an added brutality: the use of car bombs packed with RDX and ammonium nitrate. The blasts in other cities like Jaipur, Ahmedabad or New Delhi earlier were of a lower intensity.

    In the immediate aftermath of the blasts, a hitherto unknown outfit calling itself Islamic Security Force (Indian Mujahideen) or ISF (IM) was held responsible for the blasts by the Assam Police based on an SMS it supposedly sent to a Guwahati based television news channel News Live, claiming responsibility for this dastardly act. Incidentally, the Islamic Security Force, without any link to the Indian Mujahideen, was formed in 2000 during the Bodo separatist movement with the aim of protecting the interests of Muslim migrant settlers in the Bodo dominated district of Kokrajhar. However, no evidence of terror activities by the ISF had come to light before October 30. It may be possible that the ISF has begun to collaborate with the Indian Mujahideen – responsible for the terrorist attacks in Jaipur, Ahmedabad and New Delhi. It must be noted that the authenticity of the SMS has since been questioned and the Assam Police has subsequently stated that it could be a “hoax” aimed at misleading investigations.

    The Security Forces have also asserted that the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Harkat-ul-Jehadi-e-Islami (HuJI) joined forces to carry out the Assam blasts. But ULFA has denied any involvement in the blasts. The HuJI’s involvement has been inferred from the use of RDX. Security Forces also argue that since ULFA is a discredited force in Assam the outfit might want to terrorize people into supporting its so-called cause of Independent Sovereign Asom. This is, however, a highly unlikely proposition. ULFA had learnt its lessons after its 2004 indiscriminate bomb blasts at Dhemaji district which killed 10 school children and seven others. The public outcry against the outfit at that time resulted in diminished ULFA influence. Hence, ULFA would avoid targeting the ethnic group it claims to represent for fear of a fresh public outcry against the outfit. Also, ULFA has no base in Kokrajhar, and thus it is not easy for it to carry out blasts there. Logically too, the outfit would avoid from being openly seen as collaborating with HuJI in carrying out deadly terrorist attacks in ethnic Assamese inhabited areas, for this would further alienate the outfit from its already limited support base.

    Fresh evidence put forth by the Assam Police now suggests that the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) engineered the attacks based on orders issued by its founder and chief, Rajan Daimary, in September 2008. The attacks are seen as a kind of “signalling” to communicate the NDFB’s growing frustration of at the lack of progress in its talks with the Union government. The police further assert that ULFA provided the infrastructural backup to the NDFB to carry out the attacks, and that ULFA military chief Paresh Barua, who is based in Bangladesh, was desperate to showcase his outfit’s lethality against the backdrop of its sagging reputation in Assam.

    It is too early to pass a conclusive verdict on the identity of the perpetrators of October 30 terrorist attacks given the multiple theories being floated by the security agencies. However, each of the three outfits mentioned so far have motives to carry out these attacks. A major aim could be to terrorize a particular population base – ethnic Assamese or Bodo in the case of ISF (IM), Assamese in the case of ULFA, and Assamese as well as Bodos in the case of the NDFB. The blasts could also have been an act of coercive intimidation and response by either the ISF (IM) or the NDFB to the recent ethnic violence between ethnic Bodos and immigrant Muslim settlers in Darrang and Uddalguri, which led to the death of 60 people and the displacement of more than 100,000 people. Another motive could be to destabilise Assam at the behest of external intelligence agencies like Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and the Directorate of Field Intelligence (DGFI) of Bangladesh.

    As usual, various arms of the government have begun to blame each other for failure to prevent the terrorist attacks. The Army claims that it had warned the Assam government on several occasions of impending terrorist attacks being planned by the ULFA and HuJI. The Union Home Ministry had also warned the Assam government of an impending terror attack. But the state government blames the lack of actionable intelligence from the Army. Significantly, the claim of responsibility by the ISF (IM) or the recent police claims about the involvement of the NDFB further complicates the situation as the needle of suspicion is shifted from the ULFA and HuJI to two other outfits about whose activities the Army’s warnings had been silent about. This also absolves the Assam government from charges of complacency. Nonetheless, what is disturbing is the unpreparedness of the state machinery to handle the situation. The security forces are not equipped to handle the immediate post-blasts phase. Personnel of both security forces and the fire brigade failed to reach the affected locales in time.

    One commonly held point in Assam and elsewhere is that Bangladesh-based anti-India forces are actively indulging in terrorist activities from across the international border. This has also been highlighted by high level police and paramilitary officials. A porous border, continued illegal immigration, nexus between Bangladesh-based terror outfits and extra regional forces with local militant groups, and arms trafficking across the border, all make terrorist attacks like the October 30 serial blasts possible. But policy makers often tend to ignore the harsh realities of an ethnically volatile region and adopt an ad hoc strategy without a deeper understanding of the social and political contradictions existing on the ground. Even after 23 years of the signing of the Assam Accord, the fence along the India-Bangladesh border has not been completed. Both the Central and state governments have failed to check the flow of illegal migrants, upgrade the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC), arrest arms traffickers, and deal with armed movements. Instead, security forces have engaged in counter-insurgency operations without addressing the root causes of armed conflicts and countering external linkages.

    India has also been unable to sustain a dialogue mechanism with Bangladesh for resolution of the issue of illegal migrants. Till date, about 12 lakh Bangladeshi nationals have entered India legally with visa but have subsequently vanished without trace. This reflects the inability on the part of law enforcing agencies to perform the tasks of detecting and deporting these Bangladeshi citizens. If this is the state of affairs with regard to legal migrants, how can these agencies handle the flow of illegal migrants? The more worrying implication of this illegal flow of migrants in Assam is that local Muslims are being looked upon with suspicion by the other indigenous communities. Unless the core issues are settled and the root causes addressed through a well formulated strategy and with political conviction, bringing stability to this part of India is not going to be easy.