Dialogue October-December, 2008 , Volume 10 No. 2
Serial attacks in Assam
D. N. Bezboruah*
It is an ominous unfolding of events that the traumatic and tragic Mumbai blasts of November-end should have come almost exactly a month after the serial blasts of Guwahati, Barpeta, Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar that shook Assam on October 30. The sequence that includes the cities of Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Delhi, the four cities of Assam and Mumbai at the top of the heap, is a bizarre and most telling sequence of super terrorism unfolding in India. This is certainly not the end, as the sequence also indicates, since each successive serial blast attack has been more intense and more destructive that earlier ones. We are also beginning to see how the intelligence failure and the inability of the government to anticipate and prevent these attacks and the reluctance punish those engaged in the most dastardly crimes against the nation has emboldened the terrorists to inflict worse mayhem every time. The very size and vehemence of the Mumbai attack has characterized it as an attack against the country, and the nation has come together to repulse and condemn the attack. The heroic role of the security forces and the sacrifices they made will always remain a source of inspiration to the nation. This did not happen with the macabre attacks on Assam on October 30. In fact very little is known about it. The media wrapped it up in just two days or so. And a great deal of cowardice was in evidence. But the Mumbai blasts and the power of a handful of terrorists to hold the nation to ransom for 60 hours at a stretch serves to remind us of the horrendous implications of what can happen when the government fails the people in ensuring their security by putting political and electoral expedience above national security. And that is why it is important for the people of India to know about the first instance of serial blasts in four cities of Assam as well.
A day after Diwali this year, on October 30, 2008, a series of blasts were set off by invisible killers in Guwahati, Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Barpeta Road. These morning blasts were almost synchronous, and carried out with great precision and much devastation. The blasts left over 80 dead and more than 300 injured. Guwahati was the worst hit with 43 dead in the three blasts under the Ganeshguri flyover, next to the CJM’s court at Panbazar and near the Panbazar police station. The first location was a market place and a parking lot, and the second location also had a sizeable parking lot where the explosion took place. What is more significant is that parked cars and motorcycles were used for the blasts and they caused the worst possible damage to scores of vehicles, rendering the places quite inaccessible due to the fires that broke out. The police swung into action a good bit later. But what was one to expect in a city where the DGP himself watched everything in the comfort of his home on television for about five hours before bestirring himself? In fact, the TV cameramen were in the locations almost instantly – well before the DGP.
The immediate knee-jerk official reaction was to put the blame squarely on the ULFA – merely on the strength of the desperation that the outfit was going through after the surrender of some of its battalions. No one stopped to think of the style of the attacks (with bombs planted in cars and motorcycles and the close timing of the blasts) that matched the serial blasts in other Indian cities. In fact, the kind of blasts witnessed in Guwahati was well beyond what the ULFA could have accomplished on its own. There was also a denial from the ULFA for whatever it was worth. That was when the official sources started talking about the Harkat-ul Jihadi Islami (HuJI). Seven HuJI activists had been shot down by the Army in Dhubri district more than a month earlier. Thus the blasts being the handiwork of the HuJI could not be ruled out. But Bangladesh denied that the HuJI of that country had anything to do with the blasts – much in the same way that Pakistan is denying that it had anything to do with the attack on Mumbai by terrorists. This was when an unknown organization by the name of Islamic Security Force owned responsibility for the serial blasts and warned that there would be more of them in future. The mobile phone that had sent the SMS was traced to one Nazir Ahmed of Moirabari in Nagaon district. But there were other reports that the terrorists had entered Assam through Dhubri and that their accommodation was arranged by the ULFA. According to yet another important source in the Central intelligence agencies, the HuJI and the Lashkar-e-Toiba carried out the blasts with the help of the ULFA. This source asserts that no terrorist outfit can carry out such an operation without the help of local terrorist groups. And now there is evidence that the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) activists were also linked with the serial blasts. Three of the cars used for the Guwahati blasts had been parked in the house of a Bodo activist a day before the blasts. This discovery seems to have suited the Assam Government admirably, because it is now flogging the Bodo angle for all it is worth. The NDFB has provided the government with just the kind of proxy it was looking for.
The reasons for seeking a proxy and for bringing the cosmetic investigations to a dead end are quite clear. Soon after the blasts, the speculations about the HuJI involvement were brushed under the carpet in the same way as all information pertaining to the killing of the seven HuJI activists by the Army in Dhubri district earlier had been quickly scotched and repeated demands to furnish their particulars doggedly ignored by the State government. Soon after the serial blasts of Guwahati, eyewitness accounts of suspicious persons who had fled the sites of the blasts were taken. This led to the production of five identikit pictures. One of these pictures was given wide publicity through the press. This has not led to any detections. There are reports that out of the remaining four, three were of bearded individuals. These have not been published. The Assam Government is as determined as the UPA Government at the Centre that it will not allow the investigations of the other serial blasts in Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Delhi to be carried on until the Lok Sabha elections are over. There have been no reports on the fate of the 20 SIMI and Indian Mujahideen activists who were arrested for their involvement in these blasts. By contrast, there are day-to-day reports of the Malegaon investigations. The message is very clear. Muslim terrorists can blast bombs anywhere in the country, and the government will do nothing about them, lest the ruling party lose the votes of the minorities and the foreign nationals from Bangladesh voting quite illegally in our elections.
As in the rest of the country, in Assam too the ruling party will not lift a hand against the worst criminal – killer or traitor – if his religion is not politically correct. Afzal Guru with a death sentence upheld by the Supreme Court cannot be hanged because of his religion. The SIMI and Indian Mujahideen terrorists cannot be tried and punished according to the laws of the land because of their religion, regardless of the number of people they have killed with their serial blasts. It is as though the law does not exist for them. And as in New Delhi, so in Guwahati: the ruling party has said in so many words, “Just win the elections, forget your country.” It is playing politics with terror. It does not matter to our rulers if the country is ruined by terrorists working for foreign powers as long as their religion is politically correct. In India we call this ‘secularism’.
This message — that the government will not touch Muslim terrorists before the Lok Sabha elections – has not been lost on the terrorist groups. They know that there will be no punishment for them at least until the Lok Sabha elections are over. And this stance of our rulers has not been lost on our inimical neighbours. So what does one expect from the ISI that is behind the HuJI, the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Al Qaeda? Just as the Mumbai attack was by activists of the Lashkar-e-Toiba trained by the ISI, so were many attacks by terrorists in Assam. The Mumbai tragedy has been a traumatic experience for the nation. One can only hope that it will also be a sort of catharsis for the practitioners of pseudo-secularism in the corridors of power. The mere removal of the Union Home Minister may not be enough for the country. The physical and psychological links of Assam and the entire Northeast to the Indian mainland have remained tenuous ones. A 38 km-wide ‘chicken’s neck alone links us with India. It may be far easier for terrorists and cessationist forces to annex the entire region to an inimical neighbour with expansionist ambitions. Let the electoral greed of our political parties and their ‘secularism’ not turn out to be a catalyst of Bangladesh’s ambition to annex a part of India.
Terrorism – the invisible enemy
A terrorist attack in this country is always followed by bitter recriminations. Since there are different tiers attending to the security of the North East region, each one tries to be one up on the other. The first knee jerk reactions to the October 30 blasts in Assam were actually very confusing. First the blasts were attributed to the Harkat Ul- Jihadi (Huji), a Bangladesh-based fundamentalist group. Then stories were floated around that the Huji was assisted by the ULFA. Later on the military stated they had intercepted messages about the attack much before it happened. Now the state police claim they have enough evidence to link the attacks to the NDFB and the ULFA. Both groups have denied involvement. So we are back to square one!
Tracking terrorism and preventing bomb blasts is no easy task. No government in the world has been able to prevent acts of terror despite their very professional intelligence networks. On August 7, 1998, 252 people were killed and 5000 injured when the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. Over 200 of those killed were Kenyans. Only 12 were Americans. The attacks were carried out in the capitals of Kenya and Tanzania. Although the bombs were placed at the American embassy it shocked the Kenyans and Tanzanians that they had become targets of terrorist attacks. The attacks were immediately blamed on Osama Bin Laden although other lesser known groups claimed responsibility for it. As can be expected, the Americans temporarily closed down all diplomatic missions in Africa for fear of further attacks.
The American reaction to the blast was to create more terror by bombing Afghanistan and Sudan on the plea that these countries assisted terrorists and therefore they posed a threat to the national security of the US. The sad thing about such bombings is that they hit the wrong targets. A pharmaceuticals company in Sudan was blown to smithereens. This created bitter anti-American feelings across the Islamic world. The infamous attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11 was a natural corollary. Even the American Secret Services were caught by surprise. Or at least this is what the world was told and there is little evidence to dispute that. The world was glued to the television screen as they watched the most powerful nation being bloodied before their very eyes.
It is a very natural reaction that when any religious group or community is stereotyped as ‘the evil one’ incapable of anything good except that of fomenting terror and destruction, it tends to adopt more hardened posturing. When the assumptions are far-fetched but the accusations gain momentum the reactions can be blistering. It often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The more guttural the blame, the more bloody the reprisals. It then becomes a zero-sum game where the vulnerable become sacrificial lambs.
September 11, has spread panic across the world and Muslims in general were labeled as terror mongers. I wonder how it feels to be looked at as a potential terrorist at airports or other public places merely because one dons an outfit that is suggestive of Islam. The hurt and pain must be unbearable as much as the shame and sorrow of knowing that there are within one’s religious community those that have perpetrated terror and destruction. Understanding the Muslim mind is the greatest dilemma of our times. Muslim writers like MJ Akbar articulate with deep anguish the physical and intellectual persecution that members of the community face on a daily basis. One admires the restraint with which they write though. Akbar almost walks the tight rope of trying to balance the social and political injustices faced by Muslims with their own inner contradictions which often churn up the anger and bile that is manifest in their body language.
In Assam the classic battle of perception versus reality plays out in gross misrepresentation of facts. Voices against the Bangladeshi infiltrator are getting raucous. But identifying this ubiquitous ‘illegal migrant’ is a path fraught with ambiguities. Ironically, the intelligentsia and media in Assam also seem to play into the hollow, chauvinist ‘son of the soil’ discourse that blames the ‘illegal immigrant’ for all the ills that overwhelm the State today. It is hard to say when the state will invent a proper mechanism to detect ‘foreigners’( read Bangladeshi). Until then there is enough alibi to get away with state failure in all spheres of governance. Blasts actually divert peoples’ attention from issues of development or the lack of it.
Few have tried to rationally analyse the reasons for the October blasts or to predict future attacks with any amount of certainty. In ‘Terrorism, The New World War, Llyod Pettiford and David Harding observe that terrorism is likely to dominate international and domestic political agendas of countries to a degree that has never been witnessed before, thereby straining alliances and relationships as the world seeks to come to grips with a mostly unseen enemy – a kind of international bogeyman who is constantly emphasized by world leaders to make sure their populations are aware of an ever present threat.
The authors contend that in an era of globalization and failed states the conjunction between the two has allowed the terrorist threat to be projected worldwide. Other social and political scientists admit that it will be difficult to eliminate this terrorist threat. What is critical is to try and understand the reasons and motivations that trigger terrorist attacks. Intolerance of and disdain for the religious beliefs of others lead to polarization in society. In India multiculturalism is a very romantic term. None of us care to understand its embodiment. In fact with time non-sectarian values are fast losing currency. Religious fundamentalism by right wing Hindus is on the upswing. Their being associated with the recent bomb blasts at Malegaon informs us that Muslims do not hold a patent on terrorism.
In this rather confusing scenario what is required is serious introspection into the probable reasons that turn people into terrorists and to humbly try and address not just the symptoms of terror but its insidious roots that have gone deep inside the psyche of those who see no harm in eliminating innocent citizens to appease their own distorted minds.
Fate of a Subeditor
The brutal gunning down of Konsam Rishikanta, a 22 year old trainee (junior) sub-editor of the local English daily, Imphal Free Press, by unknown assailants on Nov 17 afternoon, has brought to light another interesting but unfortunate aspect of the journalistic profession. In public perception sub-editors mean much less a journalist than their more glamorous peers, the reporters. The first question those of us who were his colleagues faced from most enquirers has been, was he targeted for any reports he has written. When the answer is that this is unlikely for he was a sub-editor, most turned away as if the issue is already half closed. Well sub-editors do not write reports, they process them to give them print worthy shapes and sizes, lay out the pages, decide where and which pictures are to accompany stories etc. Does this make the sub-editor any less a journalist? Any editor would know it too well that this is a total fallacy. But the attitude persists and it is almost with a sense of guilt that one has had to admit that Rishikanta was unlikely to have been killed for his journalistic opinion. But even if the killing had nothing to do with any reportage he can claim, the fact is it is still an unnatural and violent death that he suffered. This probably is despite his desperate plea proclaiming he is a journalist to his assassins. Should then the journalist community remain silent? Thankfully, the All Manipur Working Journalists Union, AMWJU, does not think so and has been standing solidly behind the dead sub-editor. Unfortunately, many NGOs, international as well as national, claiming to work for the protection of journalists had other ideas. These NGOs dropped Rishikanta’s case merely because he was unlikely to have been killed for any news reportage he is responsible for. One is tempted to add here – who cares? There is one thing surprising in approach to the problem by many of these NGOs. They give so little importance to the perception of local journalist communities to these matters and literally brush them aside as trivial and unreliable sentiments. In the Rishikanta case for instance, the entire media in the state decided to go on an indefinite cease work strike demanding the government to institute an independent enquiry into the murder as they suspect police hand in the crime. This being so, for the local journalists here the episode represents a real danger – a fate which can visit any one of them any time. They would not, and indeed did not wait to ask if Rishkanta’s was killed while on a journalistic assignment or because of what he has written in the past. This of course is partly because they would know much more accurately Rishikanta’s personality, professional commitment, honesty, respect for law etc, than the international media NGOs who do remote enumeration of these crimes. The question is, why can’t the consensual voice and perception of the journalist communities immediately exposed to the problems be treated as an index of the gravity and authenticity of an issue? It is true these media activists are merely completing an obligation mandated by their organisational constitution but how relevant would they remain to the journalist community in Manipur for instance if they do not recognize their fears and apprehensions and perceived threats to them and their profession? As it is, their support would in no way bring Rishikanta back to life. In this sense it is just a matter of extending moral solidarity to a local struggle of fellow journalists. Sadly, even this they are unwilling to do. The notion of objectivity which discredits local sentiments (or sentiments anywhere) rather than treating the facticity of this passionate resistance as an objective index for gauging the gravity of the situation is rather upsetting. The solely reliance on detached empiricism of enumeration and cataloguing to reconstruct a scenario, such as the murder of Rishikanta, too becomes somewhat sterile.
At the moment, the identities of Rishikanta’s assassins are not known. Only circumstantial evidences indicate it was the state security forces which were responsible. If this assumption is correct, then it also becomes a case of extra judicial execution. This itself should animate the fraternity to respond. We write so much against extra judicial killings, and yet when a colleague is subject to the same treatment, why must we remain silent? To briefly recap. Konsam Rishikanta, a junior sub-editor of the Imphal Free Press was shot dead by unknown gunmen and abandoned at a place called Langol Sangai Second Home, at the foothills of the Langol Hills Imphal West. The 22 year old journalist bore three bullet injuries, one in the gullet and two in the chest. He was blindfolded and left lying on his back by the side of the isolated road. Nobody has claimed responsibility for the murder yet. The All Manipur Working Journalist Union, AMWJU swung into action and held a quickly organised meeting at the Manipur Press Club and condemned the murder. The journalist body also called an emergency general body meeting the next day and there decided to go on an indefinite cease work strike demanding chiefly that the government should institute an independent enquiry into the murder. The government has still not complied for reasons best known to itself. Rishikanta is the fifth journalist to be assassinated in the state in the last three decades. Many more have been subject to intimidation and life threats on a routine basis. In keeping with a resolution of the AMJWU, newspapers in Manipur have been remaining off the stands in protest against the brutal and unexplained execution of the junior sub-editor. One of the issues which came up strongly during the AMWJU GBM was that the information of the gunning down came too early. This indicated the unlikelihood of involvement of underground militants for normally when they commit such a crime, they would first scoot and only after they have reached the safety of their hideout, they would think of claiming responsibility. This would mean the lapse of at least a couple of hours, but normally a day. Obviously the execution then was most likely to have been by some agency which did not have to run after the crime, was the general conclusion. This theory is supported by the fact that the spot at which the Rishikanta’s body was found has only two motorable approach roads and both these pass by security cordons. Records in the past few months also show it is also a spot where generally militants and suspects are killed in “encounters” and not the other way around. In the last four or five months, there has been an unmistakable rise in the number of people shot dead by the police in suspicious circumstances. The high point was last month when reporters who had gone to cover an encounter killing of two suspected cadres of the People’s United Liberation Front, PULF (Umar faction), an ethnic Muslim militant group, by the police were detained by the villagers of Kongpal Sabal Leikai on the suspicion that the reporters had actually collaborated with the police in the killing. The suspicion, as was explained by the mob, arose because the reporters arrived at the scene of “encounter” too quickly and this could not have been possible if they did not have prior knowledge of what they claimed was murder perpetrated by the police in “fake encounter”. While it was preposterous to presume the reporters had anything to do with the deaths of the two, be they militant cadres or innocent civilians, the intriguing question remains as to how the reporters manage to be at the spot of the killing so quickly. There is now a popular hypothesis explaining this amongst media men in the state. The hypothesis needs to be taken seriously for it is informed by day to day experience in the news rooms. It also clearly indicates blatant and systematic fake encounter killings by the police in the past few months. Reporters rush to a spot only after they hear of an encounter or else of the discovery of dead bodies. This first information normally comes from policemen in the field with whom individual reporters generally try to keep a good rapport so that channels for first information of suddenly developing news events remain open and without glitches. If not for the mad rush of assignments, work pressures, adrenalin overflows and perennial deadline chasings which keep newsmen from sitting back and reflecting on the nature of this information flow, the scenario would actually have been frightening for them. Indeed, it is not a matter of joke, but the desensitisation has been such that it has become one, and reporters with a touch of black humour often just for the laugh, predict where the next encounter deaths could be depending on information they receive of where suspects had been picked up and which direction they had been taken. Uncannily, on many occasions these predictions turn out not too far from the truth if not hit bull’s eye. On at least one occasion, one such disturbing account told as usual in light though cynical vein is that some reporters received information of an encounter death and they rush to the spot. But because of some miscommunication within the police, when the reporters arrived at the spot, no encounter had happened yet. The suspect who the reporters presume was the man to die in the encounter was also still alive and in police custody. If this was actually the case, unlike many other encounter victims, this particular suspect had everything to thank the early arrival of reporters for his new lease of life. This cannot be a joke by any standard, but the callousness that has come to be associated with human lives in Manipur’s killing field is such that even these frightening scenarios have become matters of hearty newsroom laughs. Fake encounters are a frightening reality in Manipur today, and everybody knows it too. Yet, the civil society here seems to have lost the energy or inclination to raise the banner of protest indicating a total fatigue as well as a growing despair that there is nothing much they can do than resign to fate.
|Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati|