To infer that India’s COIN campaign in Assam is successful is not justifiable yet as the conflicts have not been resolved; rather they have been contained or managed to a great extent. Conflict resolution is not just the surrender of arms of or signing of agreements. Assam is a multi-ethnic society, which means accords and agreements should be inclusive in nature whereby the involvement of civil society is a must in the process of negotiation. The Indian state should look beyond accords and agreements and give priority to seek conflict resolution while simultaneously sustaining COIN operations to reduce the level of violence. Currently, the state of Assam has been put on track for development where its role in foreign policy has been growing.
Assam represents one of the conflict ridden volatile zones in contemporary South Asia. Since India’s independence, armed conflicts in the form of insurgencies have broken out in undivided Assam, leading to the formation of present day Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. The State of Assam continued to witness the emergence of a number of insurgent movements with varying demands and goals. Today, many of these have died down and an analysis of the security situation in Assam indicates India’s campaign for containing insurgencies in the State has been commendable as the level of fatalities and insurgency related violence have come down (see Table 1.1). Also, many of the insurgents are in peace talks with the Government and some of the prominent insurgencies have been neutralised.1
Table 1.1: Security Situation from 2007 – 2016
|Years||Incidents||Extremists Arrested||Extremists Killed||Extremists Surrendered||Security Forces Killed||Civilians Killed||Persons Kidnapped|
|Source: Annual Reports of Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India|
However, amidst the ongoing peace process, the state has shown signs of renewed insurgent activity in the form of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA – I) where ‘I’ stands for Independent which was hitherto perceived to be an insignificant force following the losses incurred in its cadre strength, popular support including its major members coming to the negotiating table with the Government of India (GOI). Over the past few years, the hard line faction of the ULFA renamed as ULFA (I) has shown a resurgence to upsurge attacks on the Army personnel, civilians, including a series of IED explosions that took place on Republic Day this year.2 In ULFA (I), related violence in the year 2016, there have been casualties of six civilians and three security forces personnel including a kidnapping.3 Such resurgent activities of the ULFA (I) have generated cause for some worry for the advocates of peace in Assam. In view of such renewed insurgency, what concerns Assam more is that it could witness the terror back in the state. Other than ULFA (I), the state has a number of militant groups that are still active and continue to resort to violence from time to time. This calls for a revisit to India’s approach to counter insurgency in Assam and to look for the underlying issues that needs to be addressed.
Resurgence of ULFA (I)
The armed insurgency by ULFA is located from the popular Assam Movement4, out of which it emerged as an insurgent organisation demanding creation of a sovereign socialist Assam from the Indian Union. After a prolonged Counter Insurgency (COIN) campaign, the outfit entered in peace talks with the Government of India in 2011. The peace talks with the group saw a split in the organisation in the form of an anti-talk faction, the ATF led by Paresh Baruah, the Commander-in-Chief of the ULFA and the Pro-Talk Faction (PTF), led by Arabinda Rajkhowa, the Chairman of the group. While the outcome of the peace talks are still awaited, it is observed that the ULFA (I) has been successful in gaining its strength after the organisational split and currently with nearly 300 cadres, it operates at the inter-state border areas along the Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.5 It is argued that the ULFA (I) is no less than a criminal organisation as there is hardly any ideological base left in the organisation. Nonetheless, the outfit still poses a threat and cannot be taken lightly.
Although the ULFA (I) represents more than three-decade old insurgency in Assam, in due course of the ULFA’s quest for sovereignty, the organisation shifted from its ideology when it established its linkage with the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and started operating from Bangladesh.6 The outfit also continued to remain indulged in killing civilians and harassing population through extortion in the name of protection money or business tax from the business houses.7 Since 2011, the hard line faction of ULFA became dormant or it can be said that there was a temporary lull in the outfit’s activity. While in dormancy, as security analysts put, the outfit remained busy in regaining its strength through recruitment drives, gathering finance through extortion and abductions.8
The period of dormancy could be seen from 2011 to 2015 after which the organisation showed signs of resurgence through fresh attacks as mentioned earlier. The recent reports also indicate a fresh recruitment drive by the outfit in the districts of upper Assam.9 It could be said that in its period of dormancy, the outfit was playing a wait-and-watch game revamping its strategies while peace talks between the PTF and the GOI took its normal course.10
A deeper analysis of the armed conflicts in the state brings several issues that warrant introspection in India’s approach in dealing with the issue of insurgency in the state and raises questions relating to the aspects of conflict resolution. It is in this connection that present situation where there is a resurrection of the ULFA and its renewed insurgent activity could be located. In Assam, it could be observed that newer domain of conflicts have emerged in the state as older ones are ‘contained’, thereby giving rise to the fact that major conflicts in the state have been managed, but not resolved yet. Apart from the ULFA (I), other active insurgent outfits are the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S), Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and Karbi People’s Liberation Tiger (KPLT).11 These outfits have also been the major elements in derailing the ongoing peace process in the state.
Recent reports indicate that the ULFA (I) has formed a nexus with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K) and the present areas where the ULFA (I) operates fall under its (NSCN-K) jurisdiction. Furthermore, what is more critical is the fact that the ULFA (I) is also a member of the newly formed conglomerate of the militant groups in the Northeast – the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA)12 and thereby adds to the renewed dimension of threat perception for the Indian State.13 This suggests that the centralised command control system14 in the state has not been promising in resolving conflicts. Does this indicate a counter insurgency failure in the state of Assam? Or whether the counter insurgency strategy in Assam is unraveling? To answer these questions, it is necessary to look at the very approach of countering the insurgencies by the security forces as well as the efforts by the GOI towards ushering conflict resolution in Assam.
India’s Counter Insurgency Approach in the State
In Assam, the GOI follows a multi-pronged strategy to deal with the insurgencies and extremist conflicts. According to the seventh report of the Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC),15 such strategies could be seen through (i) security forces and police action (ii) granting local autonomy through mechanisms such as the conferment of statehood or autonomous district councils under the Sixth Schedule and through ‘tribe specific accords’ (iii) negotiations with insurgent outfits and (iv) development activities including special economic packages. Thus, a mix of various strategies combines India’s COIN approach. All such strategies have the same objective – to help the Government reasserting its control over its territory and population.16
Most of the ideas of India’s COIN measures are derived from the Indian Military Doctrine developed in 2004 and the Indian Army’s Doctrine on Sub Conventional Warfare (DSCO) developed in 2006. Although the framing of such doctrines have an influence from the counter insurgency approaches of British and US, where there is the primacy of use of force, the case for Indian COIN approach is different. Unlike the counter insurgency operations by British or the US which were outside their territory, insurgencies in Assam or North-East region are homegrown. Thus, for India, fighting insurgents is against fighting fellow Indians and hence the use of heavy artillery is not exercised. Scholars like Goswami17 term this as the Army’s proportionate use of force against internal armed rebellion.
Today, the idea of COIN is not just containing or subduing the insurgents militarily, but employing a wide range of strategies other the militaristic. Such a mix of strategies defines the comprehensiveness of COIN approach which includes all the aspects of military, political, economic and psychological or the civic action programmes. The latter is related to the term ‘winning hearts and minds’ which has got significance considering the fact that fighting an insurgency is as much political as they were military and the military apparatus has to play a role other than just combat.18 This aspect is a part of modern COIN strategy as devised in the Indian Army’s doctrine of sub-conventional operations.19
Assessing the Approach
For long, the Indian state relied heavily on the security-centric approach when it comes to respond to the insurgencies in Assam. This indicates that there has been a preference of a military offensive which seeks to contain the insurgencies. In fact, it has mostly been containing rather than resolving the insurgencies. The COIN campaign starts with this approach and following which subsequent efforts are made to resolve the conflicts. It suggests that containing insurgencies and resolving insurgencies are two different things, similar to the differences between conflict management and conflict resolution. In conflict management, conflicts are controlled in such a way that the level of violence does not escalate or conflicts are no more a major problem, whereas in conflict resolution, deeper issues are addressed for a lasting solution in a society.
India’s prolonged campaign in subduing or dealing with the issue of insurgencies in Assam does not reflect the aspects of conflict resolution; rather it reflects conflict management. However, the GOI has been using a mix of various strategies such as the use of force, dialogues and negotiation, structural changes including economic development which have gained prominence in relation to India’s consciousness to renewed geo-strategic aspirations towards the East.20 Nonetheless it is the military dimension that has got weightage above all the other strategies. The presence of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Unified Command Structure in the state validates this argument. While the presence of the AFSPA is a matter of security assessment of a disturbed area,21 the preference of a militaristic approach is seen in other instances also. For example, while negotiating with insurgencies, the Indian state first corners down the insurgent group through a military offensive during COIN operations which weakens the organisation and then efforts are made to bring the organisation to the negotiating table.22 The strategy of negotiation is also seen to take place bilaterally and in a selective way where there is no official involvement of civil society which could expedite the peace process and help overcoming procrastination.
For India, the ultimate objective in negotiation has always been to achieve peace. With the ULFA, as the outcome of the peace talks are awaited, it is to be noted that in Assam, accords and agreements are seen to be exclusive in nature and have given rise to fresh challenges. The case of Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) is an example which has been witnessing periodic inter-ethnic violence. Also, one aspect of accords and agreements is that they act as snowballs leading to demands from other ethnic groups.23 Furthermore, it is seen that the development intervention by the state has been considered to be the ultimate panacea of all sorts of issues surrounding insurgencies and various social insecurities. But it is a recent affair that the development paradigm has been made a part of the COIN strategy in the state.24 Besides, in the wake of a neo-liberal era, the state’s development intervention has garnered a lot of criticism as there have been new challenges relating to internal displacement, social movements and environmental concerns.25
Conclusion and Suggestions
To infer that India’s COIN campaign in Assam is successful, is not justifiable yet as the conflicts have not been resolved; rather they have been contained or managed to a great extent. Conflict resolution is not just the surrender of arms of or signing of agreements. Assam is a multi-ethnic society, which means accords and agreements should be inclusive in nature whereby the involvement of civil society is a must in the process of negotiation. The Indian state should look beyond accords and agreements and give priority to seek conflict resolution while simultaneously sustaining COIN operations to reduce the level of violence. Currently, Assam has been put on track for development where its role in foreign policy has been growing.26
The state, other than being a foreign policy connector, can cater to the needs for development and peace, the success of which depends upon the internal security environment as security and development mutually reinforce each other. Therefore, it is high time that the GoI needs to reconsider its approach from just containing or seeking conflict resolution. This implies that focus should be made to merge the priorities of containing the level of violence and addressing the deep rooted issues such as inclusive growth, generating employment opportunities and addressing ethnic aspirations within the mandate of the Indian constitution. Also, the state should not delay further in finalising the outcome of the peace talks with the pro-talk faction of the ULFA.
1. Government of India. Annual Report 2016-17, Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi.
2. South Asia Terrorism Portal. “Assam Assessment”, available at http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/india/states/assam/index.html (Accessed May 19, 2017; Mitra, Naresh. “Ulfa-I gradually gathering strength: Security experts”, The Times of India, November 20, 2016. Available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/guwahati/Ulfa-I-gradually-gathering-strength-Security-experts/articleshow/55525033.cms (Accessed on June 2, 2017); Das, Nabina. “Insights into the past, roadmap for the future”, The Hindu Business Line, September 16, 2016. Available at http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/blink/know/insights-into-the-past-roadmap-for-the-future/article9111426.ece (Accessed on June 3, 2017)
3. South Asia Terrorism Portal. “Assam Assessment”, available at http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/india/states/assam/index.html (Accessed May 19, 2017).
4. With the fear of being culturally and politically ‘swamped’ by the growing influx of populace, resentment built up among the local pollution of Assam which had escalated into one of the independent India’s most prolonged and vigorous agitations in the form of Assam Agitation or the Anti-Foreigners Movement or the Assam Movement in 1979.
5. Karmakar, Sumir. “Paresh ahead in mantle race – Khaplang death spawns new equations”, The Telegraph, June 11, 2017. Available at https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170611/jsp/frontpage/story_156217.jsp (Accessed on June 4, 2017)
6. Lintner, Bertil. 2012. Great Game East: India, China and the struggle for Asia’s most volatile frontier, Noida (India): Harper-Collins Publication; Upadhyay, Archana. 2006. “Terrorism in the North-East: Linkages and Implications”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 41, No. 48, pp. 4993-4999.
7. Goswami, Namrata. 2015. Indian National Security and Counter Insurgency: The Use of Force Vs Non-Violent response, New York: Routledge; Mahanta, N. G. 2013. Confronting the State: ULFA’s Quest for Sovereignty, New Delhi: Sage Publications; Turner, Mandy and BinalakshmiNepram. 2004. The Impact of Armed Violence in Northeast India, Centre for International Cooperation and Security Report, Bradford: University of Bradford, p. 5.
8. Bhattacharya, Rajeev. “ULFA goes on a recruitment overdrive in Assam as outlawed group’s cadre strength thins out”, Firstpost, June 01, 2017. Available at http://www.firstpost.com/india/ulfa-goes-on-a-recruitment-overdrive-in-assam-as-outlawed-groups-cadre-strength-thins-out-3505511.html (Accessed on May 26, 2017); ULFA(I) recruiting youths ? DGP”, Press Trust of India, May 12, 2017. Available at http://www.ptinews.com/news/8697191_ULFA-I–recruiting-youths—DGP.html (Accessed on June 6, 2017).
9. “ULFA(I) on overdrive to recruit fresh cadres”, The Shillong Times, APRIL 17, 2017. Available at http://epaper.theshillongtimes.com/epaperimages /1742017/1742017-md-hr-4.pdf (Accessed on June 3, 2017)
10. Author Interview with WasbirHussain, Director of Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati, Assam.
11. Government of India. Annual Report 2016-17, Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi.
12. United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA) was formed in the year 2015. It is an umbrella organization with some prominent insurgent groups of northeastern states. For details see Times of Assam Available at: https://www.timesofassam.com/headlines/ulfai-ndfb-nscn-klo-gets-united-as-unlfw/
13. Bhattacharya, Rajeev. 2015. “Birth of UNLFWSEA: Internal Dynamics and Implications for India’s North-East”, Journal of Defence Studies, Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 95-110; Mazumdar, Prasanta. “There’s been some resurgence of ULFA: Top cop”, Indian Express, November 30, 2016. Available at http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2016/nov/30/theres-been-some-resurgence-of-ulfa-top-cop-1544296.html (Accessed on May 24, 2017).
14. In the year 1997, a ‘unified command structure’ was introduced in Assam with the purpose to facilitate coordination of all security agencies deployed in the State during counter insurgency operations.
15. Government of India. 2008. “Capacity Building for Conflict Resolution: Friction to Fusion,” 7th Report of Second Administrative Reforms Commission, Available at http://arc.gov.in/arc_7th_report/ARC_7thReport_Ch12.pdf (Accessed on May 21, 2017).
16. Rajagopalan, Rajesh. 2008. Fighting like a Guerrilla: The Indian Army and Counterinsurgency, UK: Routledge, p. 55.
17. Goswami, Namrata. 2015. Indian National Security and Counter Insurgency: The Use of Force Vs Non-Violent response, New York: Routledge.
18. Rajagopalan, Rajesh. 2008. Fighting like a Guerrilla: The Indian Army and Counterinsurgency, UK: Routledge, p. 148.
19. Integrated Headquarters of Ministry of Defence. 2006. “Doctrine for Sub Conventional Operations”, Headquarters Army Training Command: Shimla.
20. India aspires to integrate the Northeast region with the economies of ASEAN through regional connectivity. The Act East Policy is the post-cold war strategic foreign policy that has been devised considering India’s interest towards East.
21. According to the Disturbed Areas (Special Courts) Act, 1976, an area can be stated as disturbed when “a State Government considers that (i) there was, or (ii) there is, in any area within a State extensive disturbance of the public peace and tranquility, by reason of differences or disputes between members of different religions, racial, language, or regional groups or castes or communities, it may … declare such area to be a disturbed area.”
22. Sharma, Indrajit. 2014. Negotiations and Peace Processes: Conflict Resolution in Assam, Dissertation submitted to Centre for Security Studies, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar (Unpublished).
23. Rajagopalan, Swarna. 2008. Peace Accords in North East India: Journey Over Milestones, Washington: East West Center.
24. Author Interview with WasbirHussain, Director of Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati, Assam
25. Hussain, Manirul. 2008. Interrogating Development: State, Displacement and Popular Resistance in Northeast India, India: Sage.
26. Jacob, Happymon. 2016. Putting the Periphery at the Center: Indian States’ Role in Foreign Policy, Washington: Carnegie Endowment.