Debating India

A ruthless hit squad


Thursday 15 January 2004, by CHATTOPADHYAY*Suhrid Sankar

Article paru dans Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 01, January 03 - 16, 2004.

Operations carried out by KLO action squads were so efficient that ULFA often hired their services.

recently on the Bhutan border

THE Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) has suffered a major setback with the Royal Bhutanese Army (RBA) destroying its camps in the India-Bhutan border and capturing five of its most senior leaders. On December 21, the RBA handed over to the Indian authorities KLO founder-members Joydeb Roy alias Tom Adhikari and Milton Burman alias Mihir Das, and other important leaders such as Sanjoy Adhikari alias Vicky, Bhim Dakua alias Jayanta Das and Pabitra Singha alias Biplab Singha. While Tom Adhikari was the action squad head of the organisation, Milton Burman, the second-in-command after Tamir Das alias Jiban Singha, was the tactician.

Tom Adhikari masterminded the attack on the local office of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Dhupguri town in Jalpaiguri district on August 17, 2003, in which five CPI(M) workers were killed and 14 others injured. Also involved in the attack were Singha and United Liberation Force of Asom (ULFA) activist Biju Chakraborti. Tom Adhikari and Chakraborti were also responsible for the murder of Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) leader Charan Thakur on October 11, 2003, in Banchukamari Haat, Jalpaiguri.

The capture of Tom Adhikari and Milton Burman is also a psychological setback for the KLO. Just as the two were feared among the business community and the tea industry in the region, they were revered by a large section of Rajbanshi youth. Apart from being the organisation’s main fundraiser, mostly through extortion, Tom Adhikari was in charge of recruitment. Such was Tom Adhikari’s reputation and success rate in `operations’ that even ULFA sometimes hired the KLO action squad. In fact, the KLO became the first militant group to carry out an abduction in north Bengal, when on April 18, 1998, it kidnapped and killed Naresh Das, a businessman of Kumargram. Operation Flushout put out of action seven of the 10 members of the KLO core committee. The organisation does not have enough resources to regroup and stage a comeback.

THE KLO was formed by members of the Rajbanshi community of north Bengal, who broke away from the All Kamatapur Students Union, to wage an armed struggle to form a separate country. The organisation came into existence on December 28, 1995, with a cadre strength of 60. Later that increased to nearly 400. The KLO’s areas of operation include six districts in north Bengal - South Dinajpur, North Dinajpur, Coochbehar, Jalpaiguri, Malda and Darjeeling - and four districts in Lower Assam - Dhubri, Bongaigaon, Kokrajhar and Goalpara. However, most of the organisation’s activities have been concentrated in Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri.

Interrogation of the five captured KLO leaders has uncovered new information about the banned outfit’s activities. It had only two camps in Bhutan, in the Bucca and Peping regions, and 85 militants operated from these camps. Around 45 KLO members were stationed at Samdrup Jhonkar, the headquarters of ULFA. What were believed to be camps before the RBA operations started were actually ration dumps maintained by the militants. Contrary to the widely held notion that the KLO was financed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), interrogations have revealed that the outfit’s arms and ammunition were purchased from Bangladeshi arms dealers and supplied by ULFA. Although the ULFA trained KLO militants, it hardly ever involved itself directly in the latter’s `operations’. The KLO, in turn, would pay for the training and the arms and help arrange rations and other supplies to ULFA.

For their own supplies, KLO militants depended on people who lived on the Indian border. Initially, the militants had set up camps on the Bhutan side of the border in the Kumargram, Raidak and Turturi areas. However, with the Army and the police identifying the jungle tracks used by the porters and cutting off all supplies to the camps, the militants were forced to shift further west to Samchi, Gomti and Tadhing. They had to depend a lot on the local people and the poverty in the region assured them manpower. Apart from food supplies, the militants were in dire need of medicines as malaria and diarrhoea were rampant in their jungle hideouts.

It was in November 2000 that the KLO first set up camp, albeit jointly with ULFA, in Kalikhola and Nichula on the Bhutan border. Prior to that KLO militants were mostly in ULFA camps, undergoing training. They set up their independent camps only in 2003, in Peping and Bucca. The geography of the region made it a suitable hideout - it is heavily forested; the 150-km border is highly porous, enabling activists to slip in and out of India; and it provides multiple escape routes both to Myanmar and, through Assam, to Bangladesh.

The KLO resorted to extortion from tea garden owners and businessmen of the region. According to information received by the police after preliminary interrogations, owners of small tea gardens fell easy prey to the KLO’s unlawful demands. One tea garden at Rajgunj is reported to have paid Rs.1 lakh a year. Annual rates for other businessmen and tea gardens varied from Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000.

A source in the Dooars tea industry told Frontline: "No extortion or ransom notes were received by the established tea gardens. It was the small tea growers and local businessmen who had invested in small gardens who were the victims of the KLO." There are hundreds of such gardens in the Maynaguri, Changra Bandha and Islampur regions. According to police sources, those who resisted were abducted. In at least two cases, the victims never returned.

The manager of an established garden told Frontline: "There is a sense of immense relief in the gardens with the capture, flight and death of KLO leaders. Although gardens like ours were never picked on by the militants, a sense of fear was always there because we knew about the plight of the small growers."

Interrogations have confirmed the well-known secret of the Kamatapur People’s Party’s (KPP) link with the KLO. The captured militants have confessed to financing the KPP. The two organisations, though close to each other, have different political agendas. While the KPP demanded only a separate State of Kamatapur, the KLO wanted a separate country carved out of parts of north Bengal and Assam.

THE Bhutanese population in north Bengal feel insecure after the RBA operations. Communities on both sides of the border are engaged in small trade and often maintain small establishments on the other side. Shemphen Wanchuk has a small business in oranges and cardamom in the Samtse region. "My house is just a few hours’ walk from the Indian border and I also have a house here. I don’t know if it is safe to stay in this part any more after the operations against the Indian extremists. They might take revenge on us," he told Frontline. The fear of people like Wanchuk proved not to be unfounded. On December 23, the self-styled KLO chairman Jiban Singha issued a `quit notice’ to all Bhutanese in the Kamatapur area of north Bengal. He exhorted his cadre to drive them out and demanded a halt to all trade and commerce with them. He alleged that the Bhutan government "betrayed the trust we had laid in them, as they had never earlier opposed our stay in that country". However, the KLO is unlikely to be able to fulfil its threat, given its present condition.

Singha, who could not be traced since the commencement of the RBA operation, is suspected to have fled to Bangladesh. He is believed to have been losing his credibility among the rank and file of the organisation, mainly because of his greed and his tendency to stay away from operations. A resident of Uttar Haldibari, Singha, along with Tom Adhikari, Milton Burman, Madhusudan Das alias Tarzan, Harshavardhan Burma and Pulastya Burma, formed the KLO. Having been arrested once in the mid-1990s, Singha has since managed to avoid incarceration.

But for the presence of the Army and the Border Security Force, there is little indication on the Indian side of the border of the operation going on in Bhutan. Forces in the border areas are still on high alert to prevent insurgents from escaping back into the country. For the people living in these areas, the presence of the Army is now reassuring. Nilkamal Subbah, a tea stall owner at Totopara on the border situated 160 km from Siliguri town, told Frontline: "Initially, when the Army came in we were all very scared, having no idea of what was going on. Now we feel it is better that they stay." When Operation Flushout started on December 15, the entire 150-km border between West Bengal and Bhutan was sealed. By December 17, the two main gateways at Pheuntsholing and Samtse were opened.

However, there was no slackening of the security arrangements on either side of the border. All vehicles were checked, and heightened intelligence and security measures were taken up by the police and the armed forces.

In a well-timed gesture, the CPI(M)-led Left Front government in West Bengal has taken up a programme to rehabilitate the surrendered militants. Five such militants, including Madhusudan Das, who had surrendered following Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s appeal last year, are reported to have been given Rs.12,000 each and the license to start trade in river bed materials. This offer is likely to encourage those insurgents who are on the run to give themselves up to security personnel and return to the mainstream of society.


Pic1: RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI/REUTERS ; Captured KLO militants at a police camp in Jalpaiguri district on December 20.

Pic2: SHIB SHANKAR CHATTERJEE ; Police personnel display arms and ammunition recovered from KLO militants in Jalpaiguri district on December 20.

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