The intelligence inputs gave more than a hint of what was to come. On 29 July 2016, a week before suspected National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Songbijit (NDFB-S) militants killed 14 civilians in Assam's Kokrajhar district, an Assam Police source had told the media, "The ULFA and the NDFB have not been able to carry out any major attack in the past several months, as a result of which they are now desperate to strike in a big way to prove their existence." Last month, reports the Telegraph, an intelligence-led operation had been carried out in neighbouring Chirang district leading to the arrest of a 30-year-old NDFB member and recovery of an INSAS rifle, which had been looted from Territorial Army personnel in 2014. Two days later, another 22-year-old militant belonging to the outfit was arrested in Kokrajhar district. A pistol with live ammunition was recovered. And yet, five days later, on 5 August, the outfit used a two-member team to target a crowded market and kill 14 civilians and injure 20 others. The death toll could have been much higher but for the chance event that security force personnel happened to pass through the market. In the encounter, one of the attackers was killed while another managed to escape. The slain militant was identified as Monjoy Isliary alias Maudang, "commanding officer" of the 16th battalion of the NDFB-S.
It should perhaps not come as a surprise that even an anticipated attack has "surprised" the political and security establishment in Assam.
Not only has the NDFB-S been involved in some of the worst massacres in Assam's recent history of militancy, it has also been trying to assert its relevance by orchestrating big-toll attacks targeting the state's Bodo heartland, after being ruled out as weak and desperate by the state's security establishment. It should perhaps not come as a surprise that even an anticipated attack has "surprised" the political and security establishment in Assam. In December 2014, the outfit had massacred 31 people in the Sonitpur district, the home district of the outfit's chief Ingi Kathar Songbijit. In May 2014, 43 people, most of whom were Muslims, were killed in twin attacks in Kokrajhar and Baska districts. The NDFB-S denied its involvement in the May attack. Yet, the Assam government appeared certain that the outfit played a role. Nevertheless, prior to these attacks, few in Assam attached much importance to the outfit's fire power.
While Songbijit, believed to be based in Myanmar, provides broad directions, the operations of the outfit are managed by its "army chief" Bishnu Goyari alias Bidai and his deputy Binod Mushahary alias Batha. Assam Police intelligence inputs suggest that both are based in the dense forested areas along the Indo-Bhutan border. Military operations, both of the area-clear and area-domination varieties, for the past one year include "Operation All Out" launched by the Army, Police, SSB and CRPF. MHA sources have indicated 113 militants have been killed and more than 1400 including overground workers of the outfit have been arrested since the December 2014 attacks. Among the militants killed in 2016 are some of Bidai's confidants -- his personal security officer Biron Narzary and Birbal Islary, who worked closely with him. This reportedly reduced the outfit's strength to only "20-25 cadres". The ministry sources, however, indicate a possible "slackness" which might have affected the operations, allowing the outfit to recover some of its strength. The Assam government's new assessment indicates that the outfit has "30-40 militants holed up in the state, while another 100 are in hiding in Myanmar."
Past incidents and present trends suggest that the 5 August attack will not be the last by the NDFB-S.
On 27 July, Kiren Rijiju, Minister of state for Home Affairs ruled out peace talks with the NDFB-S, citing the outfit's penchant for killing innocent civilians. He also hinted that the operation against the outfit launched by the state and the central forces along with "cooperation" from Bhutan had been "successful". The official assessment, as the 5 August attack demonstrated, was way off track. By early 2016, the security force operations had lost steam, allowing the cadres who had retreated to Myanmar to return. In the past six months, not only has the outfit remained active in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Sonitpur districts, it seems to have adapted to the technique of carrying out attacks with small action teams. In case the team flounders and is neutralized, the damage to the outfit is minimal in terms of foot soldiers and weapons lost.
Several factors work in favour of insurgent outfits in the Bodo heartland, apart from facilitating conditions such as the challenging topography and a weak police force. Bodos, Adivasis, Muslims, and other tribes compete among each other for scarce land and livelihood sources, making the region an ethnic tinderbox unless administered well. The governance administered by the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD), however, is in shambles. Insurgent outfits such as the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) who gave up arms and elevated themselves to be political masters in the region have proved to be only self-aggrandizing leaders. Unemployment is high and so is poverty. That explains why outfits like the NDFB-S are able to continue recruiting young men from the area by promising them a decent pay, a cut from extorted wealth and a gun to brandish. All these constitute a liberating experience for a lot of young men who either were deprived of opportunities due to bad governance or have grown up in an area where an easy way of life is a norm. A large number of them also opt to be overground workers for the outfit, providing intelligence, arranging logistics and extorting from local businessmen and contractors. A well-oiled network that maintains the sanctity of the routes from Assam through Arunachal Pradesh to Myanmar transports the new cadres to the outfit's facilities, where they undergo training before re-entering Assam.
Past incidents and present trends suggest that the 5 August attack will not be the last by the NDFB-S. Despite political promises that the killers will be taken to task and security assessments that swear on the outfit's weakness, facilitating conditions will preserve the outfit's fire power -- to hit and to shock.