India: KLO Upsurge On The Margins In Assam-Bengal

On June 4, 2022, suspected militants shot and injured a businessman identified as Sunil Mondol at his house in the Narabari area under the Serfanguri Police Station in Kokrajhar District. According to Mondol’s family, the businessman had received an extortion demand of INR 200,000 from the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) a few days earlier.

On June 4, 2022, suspected militants shot at and injured another businessman, Anil Ishwari, at his house in Amtek Bazaar, Chirang District.

Subsequently, Police found this incidents linked to the KLO as well.

On June 5, 2022, Police arrested two suspected KLO militants, Uttam Rai and Mridul Rai, in Kokrajhar District.

On June 6, 2022, following the inputs received, the Police arrested four suspected KLO militants, including a female model identified as Nabaneeta Barman Bothra, along with her husband Bikash Bothra, as well as Gourchandra Ray, and Nirmal Ray, from Kokrajhar District.

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the last KLO-linked incident in which a civilian was killed was way back in 2014. On January 21, 2014, suspected KLO militants shot dead a businessman identified as Sudhangshu Sarkar (52), at Khukshi Bao Bazaar under Fakiragram Police Station in Kokrajhar District.

Similarly, the last militant fatality linked to KLO was in 2016. On March 4, 2016, Security Forces (SFs) killed the ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ of the group, Dibankar Barman aka Anupal aka Jabarjung aka Raghav, in the Siljan Kakrikola area of Kokrajhar District.

KLO is one of the oldest militant groups still operating in the region. It was formed on December 28, 1995, by a section of the West Bengal-based All Kamtapur Students’ Union (AKSU) members Tamir Das aka Jibon Singha, Tom Adhikari, Milton Burman, Madhusudan Das aka Tarzan, Harshavardhan Burma, and Pulastya Burma, with the objective of carving out a separate Kamtapur State comprising six districts of Bengal( Cooch Behar, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, North and South Dinajpur, and Malda) and four districts of Assam (Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Dhubri and Goalpara). No reliable estimates of the current strength of KLO cadres is available.

KLO militants were initially trained by the undivided United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). Bhutan was a safe haven for ULFA, KLO, and the undivided National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) till 2003. Royal Bhutan Army (RBA)-led Operation All Clear gave a decisive blow to these groups, including KLO. On December 21, 2003, the RBA handed over KLO founder-members Joydeb Roy, Milton Burman, and other important leaders such as Sanjoy Adhikari alias Vicky, Bhim Dakua alias Jayanta Das and Pabitra Singha alias Biplab Singha, to the Indian authorities.

Thereafter, KLO operated in the lower Assam Districts in coordination with undivided ULFA and NDFB, and later with the Independent faction of ULFA (ULFA-I) and NDFB- I.K. Songbijit faction (NDFB-IKS). ULFA-I has now lost its foothold in these districts due to the arrest of undivided ULFA’s ‘Deputy-Commander-in-Chief’ Raju Baruah (2010); the surrender of ULFA-I’s Manoj Rabha aka Drishti Rajkhowa (2020); and the elimination of the ‘Commander of the Western Command’ Dwipen Saud aka Jishnu Asom aka Ramen Nath (2021).

KLO activities peaked between 2000 and 2006, a period when ULFA and NDFB were both very active and had not undergone a split. According to partial data by SATP, between March 1, 2000 and December 31, 2006, KLO was responsible for 40 fatalities, of which 37 (26 civilians, 1SF, 10 militants) were in West Bengal and three (all militants) in Assam. KLO activities peaked in 2002, with 15 fatalities (six civilians, one SF trooper, and eight militants) all in West Bengal. Bangladesh’s proactive stance since 2007, and more prominently after the Awami League-led Bangladesh government took over in 2009, was a fatal blow for ULFA and NDFB. Bangladeshi authorities handed over the top ULFA and NDFB leadership that operated from their soil. Further, NDFB underwent a split on December 15, 2008, and ULFA in August 2012. All these developments affected KLO’s operational effectiveness. KLO was forced to operate from Myanmar, where it has been part of the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWESA) since 2011.

The current spate of KLO’s activities is likely linked to a desperation for funds, besides the evolving political scenario in West Bengal. Significantly, the Koch-Rajbongshi community is demographically important in both the Northern part of Bengal (where it is listed as Scheduled Caste) and Lower Assam (listed as Other Backward Caste), forming a significant chunk of potential voters for political parties. The protection of land and demographic influcnce remains the principal concern of the community in West Bengal.

Both the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) and Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) are trying to woo the Koch Rajbongshis in West Bengal. BJP was successful in consolidating Koch-Rajbongshi votes in the 2019 Parliamentary elections as well as in the 2021 Assembly elections. Now, voices from the BJP local leadership can heard backing the demand for a separate State/Union Territory of North Bengal. This endorsement converges with KLO’s main demand.

On June 7, 2022, the Jalpaiguri BJP Member of Parliament Jayanta Roy, thus observed, “There is nothing wrong in demanding a separate State for North Bengal. It does not matter what name it is. If there is a separate State, it will be for all people of north Bengal, everyone in north Bengal is deprived.”

Indeed, in its June 5, 2022, video KLO cites the BJP’s endorsement of its demand, “Cooch Behar is a C-class state as per the India Accession Treaty… A number of MPs and MLAs from the region like John Barla, Nisith Pramanik, and Jayanta Roy have backed our demand. The people of Koch-Kamatapur will form the greater Cooch Behar or Kamatapur state, and will create their own political destiny.”

Ironically, the present spate of violent incidents has surfaced at a time when KLO had expressed its willingness to join the peace process as recently as in December 2021, when KLO ‘chief’ Jiban Singha aka Tamir Das had sent a letter to the Assam Government.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma responded with a Tweet, declaring, “In Continuation with Govt of India’s efforts to bring lasting peace in the region, I welcome the desire of KLO leadership to join mainstream at an early date to resolve all issues through political dialogues. Govt of Assam would fully reciprocate this goodwill measure.”

In Assam, KLO’s main demand is the grant of Scheduled Tribes (ST) status to the community, which is not acceptable to the existing STs in the State. However, in order to halt the consolidation of major communities behind the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) agitation, the State Government agreed to upgrade the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) to the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) for Bodo groups and an Kamtapur Autonomous Council (consisting of villages in Dhubri, South Salmara, Bongaigaon and Goalpara District) was created to pacify Koch-Rajbongshi groups.

The West Bengal Government has, however, not responded to this development, as the AITC leadership is against any division of the existing State. Unsurprisingly, KLO has accused the west Bengal Government of not wanting the organization to take part in peace talks with the Centre.

In an interview, Fidel Koch, KLO’s ‘operations commander’ noted, “We are ready to take part in peace talks with the government. The Central and Assam governments have taken up initiatives to hold the peace talks but the West Bengal government has not agreed to discuss our 29-year-old pending issues.”

Meanwhile, in 2022, some KLO activities have also been spotted in West Bengal. Information obtained by the Police from three arrested KLO militants indicates that the militant formation is trying to regroup in North Bengal. During investigations, the Police found that KLO was trying to use technology to impart training to its latest recruits. In a March 7, 2022 report, a former police officer who had worked in the KLO operational area disclosed,

There is information that some KLO leaders are providing online training to some youths who have recently joined the outfit. It seems to be a part of the plan to develop new modules in north Bengal and resume the activities here.

Historically, according to partial data compiled by SATP, since its inception till date West Bengal has been the focus of KLO violence, with 42 out of the total of 52 fatalities recorded in the State. The major chunk of killings occurred between 2000 and 2006, with 37 killed in West Bengal (26 civilians, one SF trooper, and 10 militants); three militants were killed in Assam. From 2007-to 2011, there were no KLO-linked fatalities. Then, from January 1, 2012 to 2022 (data till June 19), KLO violence resulted in 12 fatalities; seven in Assam (two civilians and five terrorists) and five in West Bengal (all civilians in 2014).

Most recently, on June 5, 2022, KLO ‘chief’ Jibon Singha, in a video, issued a direct threat to West Bengal Chief Minister (CM) Mamata Banerjee hours before her three-day visit to North Bengal, declaring,

In accordance with Cooch Behar merger agreement, Kamtapur has been recognised as a full-fledged constituent state of the Union of India… The citizens will themselves form Greater Cooch-Kamtapur State and think for its well-being. There is no requirement of outsiders representing the West Bengal government within the proposed Kamtapur territory. And that’s why Mamata Banerjee! Do not step in the Kamtapur area. We will not tolerate any interference in the formation of Kamtapur. If anyone tries to do that through force, the situation will turn worse and there will be bloodbath (sic).

Following this threat, the West Bengal Police tightened security for Chief Minister Banerjee during her scheduled visit (June 6-8) to Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts. The visit went through according to schedule without any untoward incident. The last reported incident of fatality linked to KLO in Bengal (then known as West Bengal) was in 2014. On January 9, 2014, five persons were killed in an explosion in the Paharpur area of Jalpaiguri district.

Security Forces have continued to act against KLO to keep it under check. According to partial data compiled by SATP, 202 militants (West Bengal – 109, Assam – 86, Tripura – 3. Nagaland – 2, Arunachal Pradesh – 1 and Meghalaya – 1) have been arrested since 2000, till date (June 18, 2022). While 2020, reported the highest number of arrests, at 16 in 5 incidents, two arrests were reported in 2021, in two incidents. In 2022, seven KLO members have already been arrested in two incidents.

The KLO insurgency was initially powered by ‘historical’ grievances, the relative deprivation of the community, and cultural marginalization in their own traditional homeland. Over the years, the movement has lost momentum. However, political messaging around the demand for a separate State of North Bengal has the potential to legitimize the outfit, giving it some means to regain its lost base.