Terrorism in Assam Strategic stalemate must come to an end

HOME Minister P Chidambaram was greeted by a series of low intensity terror blasts triggered by ULFA militants on his first visit to Guwahati on the New Year’s Day. He promptly asked the state government to intensify operations against the terrorists. Earlier, on October 29, 2008, serial bomb blasts in crowded markets had rocked Guwahati and Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Barpeta districts in lower Assam, leaving over 60 dead and about 400 injured. 
These were suspected to have been triggered by HujI militants based in Bangladesh, with help from ULFA cadres. Several of India’s north-eastern states have been in turmoil for many decades due to an unstable internal security environment complicated by political and economic neglect. 
While the militant movements in the north-eastern states are mostly home grown, some of these have developed links with Pakistan’s ISI and LeT and international terrorist organisations such as the LTTE. Due to porous borders, the militants find it profitable to seek shelter in India’s neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar and operate from bases in these countries. 
In Nagaland, peace has prevailed due to the cease-fire that has now held for about a decade. However, it is still only a tenuous peace and political negotiations with the Naga leaders for a final settlement are proceeding extremely slowly. Meanwhile, various Naga and Manipuri factions are engaged in a fierce internecine struggle for power in both these states. In Tripura, violent incidents tend to break out at regular intervals and generate frequent demands for the deployment of the Army and other security forces. 
In Mizoram, which has seen many years of relative calm, subterranean tensions have been simmering for some time and may again rise to the surface if these are not addressed satisfactorily. In Assam, the ongoing counter-insurgency campaign against the separatist ULFA cadres and Bodo extremists is making little headway even though the extremist organisations appear to have reached a discernible level of strategic fatigue. 
They may also opt for negotiations with the government so that they can buy time for resuscitation. Illegal migrations from Bangladesh into lower Assam have altered the demographic profile of the affected districts and added a sectarian dimension to the internal security challenge. The Muslim population of this area has grown from about 16 to 18 per cent in the 1950s and 1960s to over 40 per cent now. 
Divisive vote-bank politics has kept the pot boiling by encouraging these migrants to enrol as voters and abetting such enrolment. The government claims that it has instituted various measures like border fencing, reduction of distance between one outpost and another, increase in the strength of the riverine police and the provision of floodlights to detect and prevent infiltration. However, the measures have been quite ineffective. 
The vibrant culture of the beautiful Brahmaputra basin, which gave birth to an ancient civilisation and was once a flourishing centre of trade, has been torn asunder by militancy and terrorism that are now several decades old. Sporadic acts of violence, a gun culture, extortion and kidnappings now mark daily life, even though the security forces have succeeded in maintaining a semblance of normalcy. 
Unless a political solution is found to solve the underlying socio-economic problems and to ameliorate the “hearts and minds” challenge of alienation from the national mainstream, full blown -militancy could again bounce back without warning in Assam. 
The funds earmarked by the Central Government for development must trickle down to the people in a transparent and accountable manner; thousands of crores must not disappear without a trace as has happened in the past. The Indian Army has given an excellent account of itself in counter-insurgency operations in Assam, as also elsewhere in the north-eastern states, despite adverse terrain and weather conditions, logistics difficulties and political flip-flops. 
Further military operations against the terrorists who are still active in Assam must continue unfettered. The mistakes made in the early 1990s must not be repeated. When the situation had deteriorated, Operation Bajrang was launched but was soon called off as it became inconvenient for the newly elected government to have the Army deployed in the state; six months later Operation Rhino was launched and was again inexplicably terminated when limited success had been achieved. 
The proclivity of successive state governments to send the Army back to the barracks for political reasons as soon as the situation improves visibly is difficult to understand from the operational point of view. The security forces need time to become effective and establish a counter-insurgency grid, including humint networks to gain actionable intelligence. On-off deployment policies hamper operations and reduce the security forces’ ability to deliver effective results. 
Simultaneously, the ULFA leadership, that is now ensconced in Bangladesh, has to be eliminated in conjunction with the government of Bangladesh. It is to be hoped that the newly elected government of Sheikh Hasina and the Bangladesh security forces will cooperate with the Government of India to launch joint operations to apprehend the terrorists active against India from its soil. 
Bangladesh must dismantle the infrastructure of the terrorists, including the commercial organisations like hotels that terrorist outfits like ULFA are running quite openly, and stop the regular flow of arms and ammunition to them. In case such cooperation is not forthcoming, India will have to go it alone and explore such measures as it deems fit, including covert operations, to address the remaining roots of terrorism that now lie mostly in Bangladesh. 
Finally, policymakers and those who are responsible for governance must seek to understand why the Indian state has repeatedly failed to successfully counter the long-festering militancy in Assam and other north-eastern states and address the root causes, which are mainly socio-political and socio-economic in nature. 
The nation cannot sustain a high growth rate over a long period if a major region is not part of the success story and, in fact, acts as a drag on it due to the high opportunity costs imposed on the national economy due to unrealised revenues and taxes and the cost of maintaining internal security. India’s quest to enhance its trade with ASEAN countries through the land route will also remain a non-starter unless durable peace returns to the north-eastern region. 
The writer is the Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.