Another wave of bloodshed has rocked India’s restive northeast. Coordinated attacks by suspected ethnic Bodo militants from the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) left at least 55 people dead, including many children, in India’s northeastern Assam State on December 23. Unconfirmed reports indicate that five attacks, raids, were recorded in the Sonitpur and Kokrajhar districts. They reportedly targeted non-Bodo people tribesmen, who traditionally worked in local tea gardens. Militants were said to have been wearing military fatigues and armed with AK-47s. A number of executions were reported as well. Afterwards, tribesmen attacked a Bodo village with spears, killing three. Five more non-Bodo locals were killed by Indian forces during protests against the attacks. As a result of the killings and unrest, India imposed a dusk to dawn curfew on five parts of Assam State, mostly in the Sonitpur district. Unconfirmed reports indicate that parts of the international border with Bhutan were said to have been closed as well. The Manas National Park, on the border with Bhutan, will be closed for three days in order to allow for counter militancy operations. On December 21, two NDFB militants were reportedly killed by Indian security forces as a part of a new offensive against the group. In May, NDFB fighters killed dozens of Muslim settlers.
Overall, the raids underscore volatile security conditions in northeast India, as numerous insurgent and separatist factions operate throughout the region. The region, including Assam, hosts a range of ethnic and religious peoples, which serves to exacerbate local tensions. Additionally, overall economic growth in India and efforts to attain resources from the region has spawned an influx of so-called non-native peoples to the region. In that context, the NDFB of the Bodos has been fighting for decades to combat perceived foreign influence and separate from India. This has pitted them against the Indian government, Muslim settlers, other regional militant factions, and rival indigenous peoples.
The latest raids have thus far been perceived as an escalation by India. The NDFB likely aimed to respond to recent counterinsurgency operations against it, while possibly acting to intimidate local voters. To that point, reports indicate that Bodoland Autonomous Hill Council elections are to take place in the near term. Past attacks have targeted those perceived as having not voted for the group. The Bodos are said to have accused rival tribesmen of aiding security forces in their operations against the NDFB.
India has already moved to respond. Some 5,000 paramilitary personnel have been deployed to Assam since the killings in order to maintain order and intensify operations against the NDFB. Moreover, efforts could also be focused on Bhutan to secure its southern border, and once again route any NDFB fighters operating from its territory. In 2003, the Royal Bhutan Army launched its first major military campaign. Its objective was to oust the NDFB from its territory after a series of attacks against India.
However, India’s reactions to the December 23 raids indicate that militants may still be operating from south Bhutan. This was underscored by the closure of border areas, especially Manas National Park. In the past, militants have reportedly utilized the thick jungles and hills around Manas National Park, among other sectors, as a cross-border infiltration route. The topography of the region has hindered India’s ability to totally eradicate the group.
Therefore, further Bodo attacks are liable to occur in northern Assam State in the coming days. On the other hand, the scale of the attacks may prompt militants to seek refuge in the India-Bhutan border region, given likely anticipation of India’s response. Bhutan may also intensify its own operations on its southern border, either to target NDFB positions or more effectively patrol the border. Nevertheless, India will maintain a heightened state-of-alert in Assam State over the coming days, so as to deter or thwart more attacks. Despite this, further violence between rival communities and factions in Assam is likely.