Assam NRC updation has spurred radical Islamist activity; security forces say outfits may exploit discontent among migrants

The process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has provoked some radical Islamist outfits to step up their presence in areas inhabited by suspected illegal migrants.

Inputs received by security agencies suggest that two organisations from the southern region of the country are on overdrive to expand their base among the community through 'philanthropic activities' like the distribution of textbooks and blankets.

While these organisations were initially confined to Goalpara and Darrang, their activities have now expanded to include Karimganj, Chirang and Baksa. A student wing floated by one of these groups has also been making efforts to enroll students in Guwahati. A cause of worry for the agencies is the involvement of these groups with radical Muslim leaders and their access to huge funds from West Asia.

Pallab Bhattacharya, additional director general of Assam Police in charge of the Special Branch, said that the NRC has offered scope to many organisations to 'fish in troubled waters.'

 Assam NRC updation has spurred radical Islamist activity; security forces say outfits may exploit discontent among migrants

Army officials apprehended 5 MULTA cadres from the Gauripur area in Dhubri District of Assam. Image: Rajeev Bhattacharya

“The recent conference by the SIO (Students Islamic Orgnisation) at the Delhi press club is an example, as is the raising of the NRC issue at the level of the United Nations (UN),” he said.

Wild guesses are being made about the number of migrants who would be identified after the completion of the NRC. However, various groups espousing the causes of Hindu and Muslim migrants have already begun to oppose the exercise of identifying foreign nationals, claiming that genuine citizens are being harassed and victimised. It is possible that some radical groups may exploit disaffection among the migrants after the final list is declared.

On 20 June, News18 Assam even reported that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) had activated sleeper cells in Assam for causing disturbances after the NRC is completed. The report also referred to previous instances when functionaries of the agency were apprehended in the state.

Meanwhile, additional battalions of paramilitary forces have been rushed to the state to deal with the post-NRC situation. Areas in central and western Assam have been also been identified where companies would be deployed to assist the state police. The final draft of the NRC, which was supposed to have been published on 30 June, has been postponed due to floods.

Presence of radical Islamist outfits in Assam

Radical Islamist groups have intermittently surfaced in Assam, enlisted cadres for a while but fizzled out within a few years. The earliest activities of these organisations can be traced to the mid-1990s in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, when outfits like the Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULTA) emerged with the goal to safeguard the interests of the community. More groups surfaced in the early 2000s, but they appear to have been short-lived.

A relief camp in Darrang after riots in 2008. Image: Rajeev Bhattacharya

A relief camp in Darrang after riots in 2008. Image: Rajeev Bhattacharya

Around 500 militants belonging to Muslim Fundamentalist Organisations (MFOs) either surrendered or were apprehended in Assam and Manipur between 1999 and 2004. They were mostly cadres belonging to MULTA, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and People’s United Liberation Front (of Manipur).

Pakistan’s ISI has also been making efforts to develop a network in Assam either with ethnic rebel groups or Muslim communities. A statement issued on  6 April, 2000 by the then chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta in the Assam Assembly disclosed significant details about the agency’s strategy in the region, which also includes creating new groups along communal lines, supply of explosives and weapons, sabotage and communal tension between Hindus and Muslims.

Evidence of the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB)’s presence in Assam surfaced three years ago following the blast at Burdwan in West Bengal in 2014, which killed two persons. The probe into the incident revealed that one Bura Bhai who was the head of a martial arts institute at Chirang had allegedly been providing arms training to youth associated with the JMB module. More than 20 activists have been arrested by the police in Assam.

With the Awami League led government in Bangladesh launching a severe crackdown against fundamentalist and terror groups, some activists of JMB and other Islamist organisations are believed to have taken refuge in parts of India, including Assam and West Bengal.

Can these groups pose a security threat in Assam?

A long list of radical Islamist outfits that had supposedly taken birth in Assam in the past two-and-a-half decades finds mention in some books and reports by intelligence agencies. Apparently, the names of some organisations (like Independent Liberation Army of Assam) are obscure and have never been heard of, which casts serious doubts about the authenticity of these accounts. Officials have also given statements on some occasions on the presence of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Kashmiri rebel groups in Assam.

These reports notwithstanding, it is reliably learnt that top functionaries of MULTA had landed in Bangladesh to network with similar groups and agencies with the goal to procure weapons and funds. Some over-ground militants from the ethnic groups who had been based in Bangladesh also believe that small groups of MFOs from Assam availed training in the Af-Pak region in the same manner as they were themselves trained by ISI instructors.

But these MFO activists seem to have charted a path very different from the ethnic rebel outfits. Full scale operations by security forces have never been mounted so far against any MFO in Assam. Nor have they ever resorted to attacks or ambushes on the security forces. Some officials do not rule out the possibility of the inaccessible char (riverine) areas in the state being used by them for indoctrination and recruitment of cadres, since the police lacks an effective presence in these areas.

Sensing the danger, the state government has initiated a survey of 829 such villages of a total of 2,251 along the Brahmaputra river, which are concentrated in the central and western zones of Assam. A proposal has been sent to the Centre for satellite imageries and augmenting the strength of the river police wing. Former police chief Mukesh Sahay had himself camped for several days near a char last year to supervise an operation.

Another official who has been keeping a tab on the activities of MFOs drew a parallel between their strategy and that of the CPI(Maoist) in central India. “They are committed to long-term goals and they live among the people. In the absence of weapons, a viable alternative is mass support. MFOs are attempting to replicate strategies which have been observed in other states and countries."

Updated Date: Jun 30, 2018 23:02:57 IST