SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
Year 2006 saw a consolidation of the trend, discernible since 2002, of decreasing militancy-related violence in Meghalaya. 25 persons were killed in 2006, including eight civilians and 17 militants, till December 7. Previous fatalities were 29 in 2005, 35 in 2004, 58 in 2003, and 64 in 2002.
The Garo Hills, consisting of three districts, East Garo Hills, South Garo Hills and West Garo Hills, as in previous years, witnessed the largest proportion of fatalities, accounting for 15 of the 25 killed this year. East Garo Hills had four civilian and five militant fatalities. West Garo Hills had four fatalities; South Garo Hills: 3, Jaintia Hills: 3, West Khasi Hills: 5, and East Khasi Hills: 1. Of the 17 militants killed in Meghalaya in 2006, eight belong to Assam-based outfits such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS). Among the rest, five belonged to newly formed smaller Garo outfits. Further, five out of eight civilian casualties were ascribed to these new groups.
Prominent among these minor groups, formed especially in the Garo Hills area to fill the vacuum created by the surrender of the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC), are the United Achik National Front (UANF), Liberation Achik Elite Force (LAEF), United Achik Liberation Front (UALF), Achik National Liberation Front (ANLF), Hajong United Liberation Army (HULA), and Retrieval Indigenous Unified Front (RIEF). Similarly, the Hynniewtrep National Special Red Army is active in the Khasi Hills area. Apart from killings, these outfits, with wide cross-border networks in the Northeast, also engaged in several acts of abduction and widespread extortion targeting villagers and Government officials. The UANF ‘chief’, Nimush Marak, was killed in an encounter with the Bangladeshi security forces at a Rangamati hideout in Bangladesh bordering the Gasuapara village of South Garo Hills District, on June 12, 2006. While security forces claim to have successfully neutralized these smaller outfits, the ULFA and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) have created tactical alliances with these amorphous groups to replace their arrangement with the ANVC to facilitate their cross-border movement through the Garo Hills.
The Jaintia Hills and its adjoining Ri-Bhoi District witnessed an extortion drive by the Karbi militants, from neighbouring Assam. On June 24, 2006, several villagers of Moolaber, Skap, Deinler, Saba, Myntang, Psiar, Lum Moojem, Khatkhasla, Mooshrot, Mukroh and other adjoining villages near Labang-Nongphyllut in the Jaintia Hills Distict were forced to pay INR 200 each by UPDS cadres. Again, on July 1, several farmers of Mawlasnai area in the Ri-Bhoi District, with their cultivable lands in the Madan Umwang and Khlieh Umwang areas, were served demand notes by the UPDS to pay ‘levies’. They were later asked by the militants to attend a meeting at Madan Umwang, and were threatened with dire consequences in case of failure to meet the demands.
Similarly, Khasi farmers in the Block-II areas of the Ri-Bhoi District alleged that they were subjected to extortion, on October 24, by the Karbi National Volunteers (KNV), another Assam-based group. Each of them had to pay a "tax” of INR 100 for each item (agricultural produce) sold at Umlaper and Umwang market, while INR 50 and above has to be paid for owning cultivable land in Block-II area. The villagers alleged, further, that the extortion "goes on throughout the year and aggravates during the harvesting season… One who expresses his inability to pay the tax, the KNV militants threaten to take away the cultivable land or the crops", and that there was no one to provide security.
On June 28, several civil society groups and chiefs of local self-governance institutions, Rangbah Shnongs, urged the Government to create more police outposts and deploy additional police personnel to prevent the UPDS from harassing Khasi-Pnar families in the Block-I and II areas of the Jaintia Hills District. Meghalaya Chief Minister J.D. Rymbai, on July 5, accused the UPDS of violating rules of the cease-fire agreement of May 23, 2002, with the Union Government, by indulging in unlawful activities along the Assam-Meghalaya border. It is not clear whether his statement has led to any ground-level augmentation of Security Forces.
Assam-based groups were involved in 13 incidents during 2006 (till December 8) in Meghalaya. While smaller outfits from Assam have targeted Meghalaya for extortion, for larger and more dominant groups such as ULFA, Meghalaya has served as a crucial transit route to and from Bangladesh. Significant levels of movement by ULFA cadres have been reported from the Garo Hills. ULFA’s cadres have crossed into Bangladesh from the West Garo Hills’ plain belt areas and entered into Assam from the Tikrikilla, Rongsai, Bajengdoba and Mendipather areas. On August 24, Meghalaya Director General of Police, W. R. Marbaniang, had stated that counter-insurgency operations against the ULFA would continue in the State, despite the suspension (since withdrawn) of Army operations by the Union Government in Assam.
The cease-fire agreement between the Government and ANVC on July 23, 2004, was extended by another year on July 11, 2006. However, the truce appears to be at a stalemate despite the constitution of a Joint Monitoring Group to monitor the cease-fire. The Government has opposed the group’s demand of ‘de-proscription’ till it surrenders its arms, a condition the outfit is resisting. On May 30, Mehgalaya Home Minister, H. Donkupar R. Lyngdoh, said, "Let people be satisfied with their non-violence and peaceful existence… No doubt, the illegal activities of the ANVC have reduced to a great extent; but until people are satisfied, the ban should continue." The outfit, meanwhile, is attempting to pressurize the Government by reiterating its demand for the creation of an independent ‘Garoland’. On March 24, 2006, ANVC ‘publicity secretary’, Arist Sengsrang Sangma, said it was high time for all Garos to come under one umbrella and demand a separate State. The Union Government extended the ban on both the ANVC and Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) on November 9, 2006.
Prospects for peace with the HNLC have remained bleak despite efforts by the State Government and the Church. Chief Minister Lapang is on record stating that the proposal for peace talks with the HNLC is a better option than its cadres surrendering. The HNLC’s top leadership, including 'chairman' Julius K. Dorphang, 'general secretary' Cheristerfield Thangkhiew and 'Commander-in-Chief" Bobby Marwein, continue to be ensconced in Bangladeshi safe havens and have resisted several attempts by the Government and Church to start a peace process. In the last week of April, however, Dorphang requested the Chief Minister to urge the Centre to ‘expedite’ the peace process. On September 10, the Union Government authorized the Meghalaya Government to directly negotiate with the HNLC. Meanwhile, sporadic activity by the outfit continues in the Khasi Hills region. Two HNLC cadres were shot dead in an encounter with the police at Nonghyllam in the West Khasi Hills district on June 23, 2006 and Meghalaya Police killed a HNLC cadre, Bankit Khonjee, during an encounter at Umkrem in the East Khasi Hills district on September 20, 2006. On September 25, the Meghalaya Police recovered dead bodies of two former HNLC cadres, Philio Hashah and his brother Anthony Hashah, from Wah Khri in the West Khasi Hills District.
Meghalaya, arguably the worst victim of infiltration across the 443 kilometer-long India-Bangladesh border, has recorded a very poor rate of detection, prosecution, conviction and deportation of foreign nationals. Fencing, an effective deterrent to infiltration, has remained unimplemented. Fencing has been found to be damaged along the 198 kilometers already fenced in the Garo Hills, while fencing work in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills areas has been paralysed by protests from the local people. Ominously, official inaction in containing infiltration is provoking locals to adopt vigilante measures. On March 6, 2006, villagers from Nongjri-Umnuih-Nongshken area in East Khasi Hills District announced a programme under the call, “Gun down a Bangladeshi criminal and collect Rupees 3,000”, in protest against the alleged killing of people and looting of agricultural produce by Bangladeshi infiltrators. Such incidents can only further escalate violence in a State that has long been simmering in the absence of adequate and effective policies to neutralize its internal insurgencies, and to contain the overflow of troubles from Assam.
Court’s Slap to Politics of
Assam’s murky politics of citizenship, on which elections have been won or lost in the State for more than fifteen years now, stands finally exposed. The Supreme Court on December 5, 2006, struck down the Union Government’s February 10, 2006 notification that had put the onus of proving an illegal migrant in Assam on the complainant, and not on the accused, as is the case with the law that applies to all such people of doubtful nationality in the rest of the country. What India’s apex court quashed was the Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order, 2006, which, if not a clone of the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) (IM[DT]) Act, 1983, had the same contentious provision — vesting the burden of proof for an alleged illegal migrant on the complainant or investigating agency. Incidentally, the Supreme Court, acting on an earlier petition by the then President of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) Member of Parliament, Sarbananda Sonowal, had struck down the IM[DT] Act, on July 12, 2005, terming it as unconstitutional (referred to as Sonowal - I). Everywhere else in India, foreigners or illegal migrants are governed in accordance with the Foreigners Act, 1946.
When the IM[DT] Act was struck down ten months ahead of the State Assembly elections in Assam (polls were held in April 2006), there was an attempt by minority political forces in the State (read, those who support the outsider Muslim settlers who are a dominant factor in Assam’s electoral politics, controlling up to 50 of the State’s 126 Assembly seats) to cash in on the fear that even bona fide citizens belonging to the minority community could face harassment. The ruling Congress party in Assam, bent on returning to power, had to allay this apprehension among the minorities, and it helped that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was in power at the Centre. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh constituted a Group of Ministers, with Pranab Mukherjee, then Defence Minister, to examine the fallout of the quashing of the IM[DT] Act, particularly its impact on the minorities. It was on the recommendation of the Group of Ministers that New Delhi came up with the February 10, 2006, Order. This was immediately challenged by leaders of two main Opposition parties in the State, the AGP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The core question was, why should Assam have a different immigration law in force or why should the illegal migrants coming to Assam be treated differently from those who have migrated to other parts of the country? This extremely valid question has been posed by many over the years, but the answer itself is not hard to find: politics, obviously. It is this politics that explains why the AGP, which was formed in 1985 with the avowed objective of ridding Assam of ‘illegal aliens’ (Bangladeshi migrants) and succeeded in ruling the State for almost ten years over two terms, could manage to ‘expel’ only around 1,500 illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Whether Dhaka, which insists there is no illegal migration of its citizens to India, accepted these people as their nationals, is a different story.
On the present occasion, after the IM[DT] Act was declared ultra vires of the Constitution by the Supreme Court, the Congress had to appear as the saviour of Assam’s minorities. This was despite the fact that the Foreigners Act, 1946, has strong provisions to ensure that genuine citizens are not harassed in the name of determining the nationality of a person or proving his or her citizenship.
It is interesting to take a look at the arguments put forward by Congress leaders and the Union Government: Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi stated that the February 10, 2006, notification, which amended the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964, was effected by the Union Government to ensure that genuine Indian citizens belonging to the minority community are not harassed during the process of detecting illegal migrants. The Union Government, on its part, during the Supreme Court proceedings on the case, sought to dispel the impression that the controversial Order had shifted the burden of proof on the complainants. The Centre argued that the February notification did not ‘in any way’ contravene Section 9 of the Foreigners Act, 1946, on the question of burden of proof. However, the Court remarked that if there was no difference between the 1964 Order and the latest one, where was the need to amend the 1964 Order and come up with the fresh one? And, further,
The Court added, moreover, "it appears that the 2006 order has been issued just as a cover up for non implementation of the directions of this Court issued in Sonowal-I", and concluded,
It is not that Assam’s main Opposition party, the AGP, has not tried to woo the ‘minorities’ to its fold. On the eve of the State Assembly polls in April 2006, the AGP set up a ‘minority cell’ manned by several Muslim party members. This move was seen as an attempt by the AGP to send a signal out to Muslim voters that the party was not against the community, and that it was only against illegal aliens.
What is extremely important while discussing the contentious migration issue in Assam is to understand that the State of 26 million people comprises indigenous Assamese-speaking Muslims, indigenous Bengali-speaking Muslims (who dominate the Southern Barak Valley Districts), and the Muslim settlers whose origins can be traced to erstwhile East Bengal, now Bangladesh. The Assam Accord of 1985 had fixed March 25, 1971, as the cut-off date for detection and expulsion of illegal migrants, meaning that all those people from present Bangladesh who had entered Assam on or before that date would be regarded as Indian citizens, and the rest were to be detected and expelled. The issue of illegal migration refers only to those people from Bangladesh who illegally entered India after March 25, 1971.
Unfortunately, many politicians and analysts fail to make a clear distinction between the immigrant settlers or illegal migrants and the indigenous Muslims of Assam. That makes the State’s politics murkier still, because the total Muslim population in Assam is estimated at 30 per cent of the State’s population of 26 million.
The security implications of illegal migration are now becoming increasingly urgent. This issue gave rise to the State’s principal insurgency led by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), though this outfit now has little ideological content or connection with its original mandate and objectives. Worse, it is now common knowledge that Bangladesh is progressively turning into a hub of Islamist terror, with radical groups linked to the Al-Qaeda well-entrenched in that country. With a porous border with India stretching more than 4,000 kilometers running along rivers and croplands, inadequate security posts and poor deployment of Forces along the border, trans-border movement is a common phenomenon in the area. Further, with any number of Northeast Indian insurgent groups operating from bases and safe havens in Bangladesh, it is all the more important to stop the illegal influx, as also to detect and expel all illegal migrants.
No wonder the Supreme Court while quashing the February 10 Order reminded the Union Government of its obligations to protect the country from external aggression, noting that
The Court’s observation on the national security aspect must not be taken as a mere cautionary note. It needs to be recognized that most recent Islamist terrorist attacks in India, including the 7/11 blasts in Mumbai, the serial blasts in Varanasi in March 2006, the attack at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in March 2005, and the suicide bombing at the Special Task Force Headquarters of the Andhra Pradesh Police in Hyderabad on October 12, 2005, all had a Bangladeshi ‘footprint’. Indian investigators found that these incidents were carried out by terrorists who had infiltrated from Bangladesh and some of whom were Bangladeshi nationals, or were otherwise sourced or serviced through Bangladesh. A Government status paper presented in the Indian Parliament in the first week of December 2006 observed that Pakistan-based terrorist groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed (now Khuddam-ul-Islam) and Lashker-e-Taiba (now Jamaat-ud-Dawa) are using territory and ‘elements’ in Bangladesh and Nepal for movement of terrorists and finances.
What has, however, kept the issue alive in Assam for more than a decade-and-a-half is the misuse on many occasions in the past of provisions in the Foreigners Act, 1946, where overzealous police or administrative officials served notices on genuine Muslim citizens, including Assamese-speaking inhabitants, to prove their nationality. Such instances were also, unfortunately, the result of petty politics, not acts of honest law enforcement.
Today, there is euphoria in Assam yet again, after the Court struck off a provision that was soft on illegal migrants seen by many as part of Bangladesh’s grand design for a ‘demographic invasion’ of Assam. Groups like the AASU, which had spearheaded the six-year-long anti-foreigner (anti-illegal Bangladeshi migrants) agitation in the eighties, celebrated the verdict. What the AASU has always found hard to explain is the reason why its leadership accepted the IM[DT] Act, which was legislated in 1983 to further an agreement with the Union Government to end AASU’s agitation two years later (in August 1985) under the watchful eyes of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The fact remains that, irrespective of whether a soft or a tough law exists by which to deal with foreigners or illegal migrants, cross-border human traffic along the Indo-Bangladesh border is bound to continue in times to come. The catch lies in enforcing the law in whatever form it exists, not in celebrating the ‘dustbinning’ of a certain provision perceived to be favourable to illegal migrants. Unless the politics of citizenship comes to an end in Assam, illegal Bangladeshis will keep coming in. The laws to tackle the issue must be enforced by the authorities in a determined but impartial manner, and with a recognition that everyone wearing a lungi and sporting a long beard and white skull cap is not an illegal migrant.
Weekly Fatalities: Major Conflicts in South Asia
December 4-10, 2006
Provisional data compiled from English language media sources.
President orders deployment of army: The President, Iajuddin Ahmed, has deployed the army to maintain order across the country. Addressing the nation over radio and television on December 9, 2006, the President said the Armed Forces were deployed in aid of the civil administration to protect life and property of the people, keep the economic activities running, recover illegal arms and prevent terrorist activities. He said all preparations have been made in consultation with the contending parties to facilitate the participation of all political parties and Armed Forces were deployed to maintain law and order for free and fair elections. The New Nation, December 10, 2006.
Assam Foreigners Order unconstitutional: The Supreme Court on December 5, 2006, held unconstitutional the controversial Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order, 2006, which puts the onus of proving a person foreigner on the complainant. Under the Foreigners Act, 1946, the burden of proof that one is not a foreigner lies on the person who is alleged to be so. The Foreigners (Tribunal) Order 1964 was issued for determination of illegal immigrants. The 1964 order was amended in 2006, making it inapplicable to Assam. A Bench consisting of Justices S. B. Sinha and P. K. Balasubramanyan said: "It appears that the 2006 order [issued after the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act was declared unconstitutional] has been issued just as a cover-up for non-implementation of the directions of this court." The Hindu, December 6, 2006.
Naxalites may target important facilities, says Union Home Minister: Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil told Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) on December 5, 2006, that Naxalites were now planning to target important installations in major cities of India. Speaking during the Question Hour, Patil said the intelligence information has been shared with the States. "Like forests provide safe hideouts to Naxalites in tribal areas, the cities also provide them cover. Taking advantage of this, they plan to target major installations in cities," he informed. Patil also said, "We have to deal with the situation in a humane manner but should not be 'timid' towards Naxalites. We have to earn people's confidence through social sector schemes." He, however, rejected a suggestion that the Government should talk to ultras as the Nepalese government had done in that country. He said one kind of strategy would not necessarily work for another country. Hindustan Times, December 5, 2006.
Lashkar-e-Toiba chief’s relatives under scrutiny in US: Two imams (priests) recently arrested for visa violations and released on bail in Boston are related to Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, chief of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), now operating as Jama’at-ud-Da’awa. The 33 arrests in November 2006 were part of an operation carried out by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in eight states and the district of Columbia in connection with an ongoing investigation into a specific visa fraud scheme that was designed to help large numbers of illegal aliens, primarily from Pakistan, fraudulently obtain religious worker visas to enter or remain in the United States. The two priests, Hafiz Muhammad Hannan and Hafiz Muhammad Masood, are relatives of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, Masood being his brother and Hannan being his brother-in-law. Masood is an imam at the Islamic Centre of New England, Sharon, Massachusetts, while Hannan is an imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell, Massachusetts. Hafiz Masood came on a student exchange visa to Boston University in 1988 and studied there till 1990, but stayed on, violating his visa status. Hafiz Hannan came to the US and applied for a religious worker visa which was granted. He made his application through one Muhammad Khalil of Brooklyn, New York. Daily Times, December 8, 2006.
Pakistan ready to give up Kashmir claim, says President Pervez Musharraf: Pakistan is prepared to give up its claim on Kashmir, the demand for plebiscite in the region and on implementation of UN Resolutions if both countries agree on the four-point solution, according to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. In an interview to the New Delhi-based NDTV, Gen. Musharraf said self-governance or autonomy did not mean independence and Pakistan is against independence for Kashmir. He said Pakistan was prepared to give up its claim to Kashmir if India and Pakistan agree on the four-point solution. "We will have to. Yes, if this solution comes up," he said when asked if he was prepared to give up claim to Kashmir. Musharraf also made it clear that if the four-point solution, which includes no change in boundaries of Kashmir, making borders and the Line of Control (LoC) irrelevant, staggered demilitarisation and autonomy or self-governance with a joint supervision mechanism, is agreed upon, Pakistan would also give up on the UN resolutions and its long-standing demand for a plebiscite. He said when both sides are negotiating, it meant compromise and compromise could never take place without stepping back. NDTV, December 6, 2006.