By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On August 26, 2021, suspected Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA) militants opened fire on a convoy of seven trucks laden with coal and clinkers, killing five civilians and critically injuring another, in the Rangerbeel area under Diyungmukh Police Station in the Dima Hasao District of Assam.
The trucks were enroute to Lanka (Hojai District) from Umrangso (Dima Hasao District) when the incident occurred. Dima Hasao Superintendent of Police Jayant Singh disclosed, “The gunmen stopped the vehicles, fired at them, and later, set them afire. Five people were killed while one sustained injury. They are the trucks’ drivers and handymen.”
On April 23, 2020, DNLA had warned,
Coal is a non-renewable resource and its mining causes disaster. Its transportation damages roads in our tribal areas. We should preserve the natural resources instead of allowing mining in our area… If anyone defies, there will be no mercy and action will be taken.
Despite announcing the threat over a year back, DNLA had not carried out any attack targeting coal mining prior to the August 26, 2021 incident. The outfit was, however, involved in two incidents of killing since its formation on April 15, 2019, (data till August 29, 2021), both reported in 2021. On May 19, 2021, DNLA militants killed Sanjoy Ronghang, a priest, in the Dhansiri Police outpost area of Karbi Anglong District. On January 27, DNLA militants killed two persons in a firing incident, again in the Dhansiri area.
On the other hand, DNLA lost 11 of its own cadres during this period. Most recently, in a major setback on May 23, 2021, the Assam Police and Assam Rifles, in a joint operation, killed eight DNLA militants in an encounter in the Dhansiri area. Some slain cadres were identified as Amarjeet aka Rounder, Nikhen aka Dhadkan, Balnes aka Zingdao, Pritam aka Nawa, Action Dimasa, and Joreng Dimasa aka Tamil. Two of the slain militants remain unidentified. One Assam Rifles trooper was injured in the encounter. 17 DNLA cadres have been arrested and 13 have surrendered since the formation of the group.
Indeed, after the May 23, 2021, encounter, an euphoric Chief Minister Himanta Biwa Sarma declared, “almost the entire DNLA group has been eliminated today.” The Chief Minister, however, seemed to be in a hurry to gain some political mileage and had overlooked ground realities. It is pertinent to recall here that a May 23, 2021, report had quoted an unnamed Army officer noting,
The DNLA’s cadre strength is low after a few setbacks because of intensified operations. But the group has been creating trouble in certain pockets of Karbi Anglong as well as adjoining Dima Hasao District.
This was a more accurate reflection of the ground situation.
Not surprisingly, after the May 23, 2021 setback, DNLA started making efforts to prove the point that it was not a spent force, and the August 26 attack was the culmination of this effort. Some of the DNLA-linked incidents since May 24 include:
August 19: after an exchange of fire, Police arrested three suspected DNLA militants in the Maibang area of Dima Hasao District.
August 18: Police arrested a woman Dipali Hapila, from her residence in Diyungbra in Dima Hasao District for allegedly helping DNLA in transportation.
August 15: DNLA militants opened fire to scare off alleged ‘informers’ of Security Forces at Longsab village in the Purana Maibang area under the Maibang Police Station in Dima Hasao District.
August 14-15: Unidentified militants opened fire from automatic weapons in a village under the Hathikali area in Dima Hasao District.
Interestingly, the outfit seems to have changed its focus area from Karbi Anglong to Dima Hasao District after the May 23, 2021, setback in Karbi Anglong. All the DNLA-linked incidents (including the August 26 attack) after May 23, 2021, have been reported from the Dima Hasao District.
DNLA called for a 36-hour bandh (shutdown strike, starting 5am August 14) in five Assam Districts – Karbi Anglong, Dima Hasao, Cachar, Hailakandi, and Karimganj – demanding “Hirimba Raji State [Hirimba State].” The medieval Dimasa Kingdom known as Hirimba stretched from the present Dimapur and covered parts of the then undivided Cachar and Nagaon Districts. However, when DNLA announced its formation on April 15, 2019, the stated aim articulated by its ‘chairman’ Naisodao Dimasa was to establish ‘independent Dimasa self-rule’ in areas supposedly comprising the Dimasa inhabited areas of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao Districts only.
In the meantime, according to an August 27 report, Special Director General of Police, G. P. Singh claimed,
The total strength of the DNLA would be about 20. However, they are backed by the (Naga insurgent group) NSCN-IM [National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah] which also provides them with logistics and shelter in and around their camps in Hebron (in Nagaland).
Reports indicate that DNLA is being supported by a section of NSCN-IM as part of a proxy force or as a ‘front’ in the Hill Districts of Assam. The two outfits have acted together on at least one occasion in 2020. On February 27, 2020, suspected DNLA militants opened fire at a vehicle belonging to a road construction company in the Mailoo area under Langting Police Station in Dima Hasao District. There was no casualty in the incident. Authorities believe that NSCN-IM militants were also involved.
DNLA is still a threat and the Chief Minister’s celebrations were premature. Indeed, after the August 26, 2021, attack, Assam Director-General of Police (DGP) Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, admitted candidly,
Insurgency is a reality in Assam…we cannot deny that. If we (the Police) succeed in 90 operations, we may fail in 10. But be assured we will take all steps at the strictest level to address this unfortunate incident.
The pressure created on DNLA will have to be sustained over time, if the group is to be eliminated. Any complacency at this juncture would be detrimental for the counter-insurgency campaign in Assam in the long run.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management
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SATP, or the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).