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The Emerging Islamic Militancy in North-East India

Dr. M. Amarjeet Singh is Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution, School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Banglore, India. Prior to this he was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 03, 2007

    The emergence of several Islamic militant groups in North-East India and their ability to forge close ties with the region's most violent militant groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom [ULFA] and other foreign-based Islamic groups pose a major security threat for the region. Islamic militancy started in North-East India in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent communal disturbances as well as because of Manipur's infamous Meitei-Muslim riot in 1993. A majority of these groups were founded between 1990 and 1996 with the prime objective of safeguarding the overall interests of the minority Muslim communities in the country's North-East. At present, there are about 20 such groups in Assam alone and another five in neighbouring Manipur. Each of these groups plays a different role. For instance, the Islamic Sewak Sangha [ISS] is said to be assisting radicals in crossing the Indo-Bangladesh border, while the Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami (HuJI) and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) help them obtain training in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

    The most active among these groups are the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam [MULTA] and the People's United Liberation Front [PULF]. While the former confines its activities to Assam, the latter operates in Manipur as well as in the adjoining districts of south Assam. Their presence has also been felt in the neighbouring States of Nagaland and Meghalaya. The PULF added to its strength in May 2007 by absorbing the Manipur-based Islamic National Front.

    According to intelligence reports, activists of the two groups have been taking shelter in Assam's border areas, seminaries and in areas dominated by religious minorities. In Assam, they have been carrying out a propaganda campaign in support of a separate "Islamic homeland," which, they envision, would be a society based on Islamic values and mores. For instance, the PULF has "banned" the consumption of alcohol among Manipuri Muslims since 2004. It has punished several people for peddling drugs. And it has asked Manipuri Muslims to wear traditional Islamic attire.

    These groups have ideological ties with foreign-based Islamist outfits such as the HuJI and HuM, which are commanded by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence [ISI]. HuM had reportedly recruited and dispatched a number of Assamese youth for training as far away as Pakistan. HuJI is currently coordinating the activities of these groups. Security analysts have warned that the ISI's long-term goal in the region is to boost the activities of these Islamic groups and convert the region into a 'terror zone". It has also been making efforts to use several Kashmiri and Bangladesh-based Islamist groups in the region. The Lashkar-e-Toiba [LeT], according to Delhi Police sources, has been trying to tie up with North-East militant outfits like the PULF. This came to light following the arrest of three alleged LeT operatives hailing from Manipur, in Delhi on December 19, 2006.

    So far, these outfits have chosen not to directly indulge in violent activities such as attacks against security forces. But their ties with foreign based Islamic outfits like HuJI and HuM is a cause of concern. In 2006, at least thirteen MULTA cadres were arrested in Assam and another eleven have been apprehended till June 2007. In Manipur at least nine PULF cadres were killed and another eleven arrested in 2006. Till July 2007, at least four PULF cadres have been killed, while twenty-five others have been arrested.

    Reports coming in suggest that they have also established close ties with the region's most violent group, the ULFA. There are reports of some ULFA militants working as agents of MULTA. One among them is Bikash Roy alias Mallic Ahmed, arrested from Guwahati on January 22, 2007.

    Both PULF and MULTA are reportedly engaged in gunrunning and extortion. They reportedly supplied assorted weapons to other local militant groups including the ULFA. MULTA reportedly owns several houses in the Sylhet district of Bangladesh to shelter recruits and some leaders of the outfit. They often use Shillong and Lad Rymbai in the Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya as hideouts en route to and from Bangladesh.

    Apprehensions about the alleged plan of establishing an 'Islamic homeland' in the region has been further compounded by the steady rise in the Muslim population in the North-East in general and Assam in particular. According to the 2001 Census, the Muslim population in the North-East was recorded at 8,858,543 as against 6,805,647 in 1991. Out of this, Assam's share was recorded at 8,240,611, followed by Tripura at 254,442 and Manipur at 190,939. Five other states have Muslim populations of less than one lakh: 99,169 in Meghalaya, 10,099 in Mizoram, 35,005 in Nagaland, 7,693 in Sikkim, and 20,675 in Arunachal Pradesh. As the 2001 Census data indicates, in Assam, the overall Hindu population was 64.9 per cent as against 67.1 per cent in 1991, while the Muslim population for the corresponding years stood at 30.9 per cent and 28.4 per cent respectively. Though several factors might have contributed to this demographic change, several analysts believe that the unabated influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh could be a major factor in this increase.

    The impact of Bangladeshi migrants is also visible in the unstable demographic profile of Nagaland. With a population of 1,988,636 as per the Census of 2001, Nagaland recorded the highest rate of population growth in India, from 56.08 per cent in 1981-1991 to 64.41 per cent in the decade 1991-2001. While the population growth has been uniform throughout the State, several areas in the Dimapur and Wokha districts bordering Assam have recorded exceptionally high rates of population growth. Wokha district, bordering the Golaghat district of Assam, recorded a growth of 95.01 per cent between 1991 and 2001, the highest figure for any district in the entire country. Evidently, the silent and unchecked influx of illegal migrants in the district has played a crucial role in this abnormal growth.

    Against the backdrop of these developments, the abnormal increase in the number of madrassas in Assam numbering about 1466, of which 810 are registered, is a matter of concern. Intelligence agencies are worried that many of these madrassas could become safe havens for radical elements.

    Islamic groups have been silent on the burning issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh to Assam. Intelligence agencies express apprehensions about these groups being instigated into taking recourse to violence by other externally-based Islamic groups on the pretext of safeguarding the interests of the minorities facing harassment at the hands of organisations spearheading the oust-Bangladeshi campaign elsewhere in the region. Intelligence agencies fear that the tug-of-war over migrants of suspected Bangladeshi origin could become the trigger for groups such as HuJI to fish in the troubled waters of the North-East.

    The emergence of these groups and their ability to strike deals with prominent outfits like the ULFA and foreign-based Islamic groups has added a new twist to the extremely complex security environment that besets the North-East region. The best possible way to counter this emerging threat is to break their nexus with outfits like the ULFA and their external allies. Not being able to break this unholy alliance will prove to be costly for India's security in the years to come.