NORTH CACHAR HILLS, INDIA // After hours of being out of mobile phone range, the bell finally rang. "Commander Daniel here," said a scratchy voice on the other end, probably somewhere in the remote jungles of Assam's North Cachar Hills. "What do you want?" The signal was weak. His coarse voice was breaking. It sounded as though Commander Daniel was on the move. He declined a face-to-face interview - "Too risky, we are being hounded" - but he had a terse message for the Indian government.
"Tell them," he said, "if they think they can crush us just because they've got our chairman, they are wrong. Our movement will not stop." One of the most wanted fugitives in the region, Commander Daniel - Daniel Dimasa - escaped with two other rebels in a jailbreak in December after eight months behind bars. He is one of the top commanders of the Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel), also called Black Widow, the most lethal insurgent group in the region, active since 2003. It is fighting for a separate state within India for the Dimasas, the largest tribal group in this hill district.
The army is doggedly hunting them, buoyed by recent successes, such as the capture from a Bangalore guesthouse last week of the Black Widow's elusive chairman, Jewel Garlosa, a notorious rebel long on the run. It recently shot the group's foreign secretary, Frankey Dimasa, in Guwahati, Assam's capital. And in a bid to nip sources of funding to the group, this month the government arrested Mohit Hojai, the chief executive of the North Cachar Hills autonomous council - or the local government - after it was revealed he was helping siphon government funds to the group.
The Indian government's aggressive stance is symptomatic of a seismic shift in the country's policy of tackling insurgency. India is the world's most attacked nation after war-torn Iraq, according to the Worldwide Incidents Tracking System. But beyond Islamic militants from neighbouring Pakistan, it faces a key security risk from the myriad insurgencies within its own borders. After a new government was recently sworn in New Delhi, India's home minister, P Chidambaram, in his "100-day agenda", outlined that he would make fighting Naxalities (Maoist rebels active across 13 of India's 28 states) and insurgent groups in the north-east, his chief priority.
And while the government will not disclose its strategy, the troops surge in the North Cachar hills - a sparsely populated 5,000 sq km tribal hilly region - is indicative of its new no-tolerance approach towards insurgents. "The general perception in the government is that if Sri Lanka, a tiny island, can eradicate the [separatist Tamil Tigers], why can't we?" said Umeshwar Singh, an officer from the Intelligence Bureau, currently posted in Haflong, the district headquarters.
North Cachar Hills is home to 18 tribal communities including the dominant Dimasas, Zeme Nagas, Hmars, Kukis and the Karbis. And there are scores of insurgent groups all said to be representing the rights of ethnic tribes. Clashes have escalated over the past three months between the Dhimasas and Zeme Nagas. No one knows who is behind them, but officials believe the region's armed groups are trying to inflame ethnic communal passions.
Among the insurgent groups, the Black Widow is said to be the most recalcitrant. It routinely orchestrates brutal killings, the kidnapping of tea-garden owners and extortions from local businessmen and government contractors. In recent months, they have killed security personnel and shot at freight trains supplying essential commodities to neighbouring states. But the casus belli, the government says, is the Black Widow's disruption of two ambitious capital-intensive infrastructure projects: the national East-West Corridor road project, a motorway that will connect Assam in India's north-east with Gujarat state on the western fringes of India's border with Pakistan, and the railway's broad-gauge conversion project.
In a joint statement, the contractors of the East-West Corridor - which includes the companies Gammon India and Continental Engineering Corporation - warned they were mulling over "absolute withdrawal" from the project, as there was no respite for their workers from the relentless cycle of kidnappings and killings. Many contractors have already fled. To flush out the insurgents in this region of just 200,000 people, the Indian government is in the process of escalating its troop level - from 60 companies of the Indian army to 75, according to Mr Singh. With an influx of 8,000 to 10,000 security personnel, the soldier-to-population ratio could spiral to 1:20, one of the high est in the world.
But it will not be easy tackling them. As you move towards the rural interior, the forest becomes denser, the population conspicuously sparse and concrete roads morph into rutted mountain tracks. Rebels hiding in these forests are led by four formidable commanders, backed by nearly 300 sure-footed fighters adept at guerrilla warfare, armed with a sophisticated inventory of Chinese-made AK47s, M16s, and rocket launchers, and who know the jungle terrain like the back of their hands.
This is known to be a wealthy insurgent group, with monetary collections believed to be far greater than that of the United Liberation Front of Asom, the state's biggest insurgent outfit. Despite that, Mr Singh is confident they will be reined in. About 10,000 soldiers versus 300 insurgents (he believes they are fewer now because of rising desertions) is an unlikely match. If more troops are needed, more will be called in, he said. "The government is hell-bent on finishing them."
But even if the army succeeds, however formidable the challenge, will this mark the end of insurgent activity? Sipping lalcha - or black tea - at a local cafe, a Haflong-based social worker laughs at the prospect of North Cachar Hills bereft of insurgents. "This one goes and another one will sprout up like mushrooms." He says he has lost count of the number of groups, small and large, whom he has to pay an unofficial tax to every month.
"How many militants can the army kill?" he said. "Seventy per cent, 80 per cent? And then what? Only a handful is enough to spawn a new insurgent group." The painful history of this breathtaking region confirms the view. The Black Widow, or DHD(J), is a breakaway faction of the larger Dimasa outfit, DHD, led by Dileep Nunisa, which entered into a ceasefire agreement with the central government in early 2003.
Opposed to the truce, Jewel Garlosa, then a senior commander, reneged allegiances with DHD to single-handedly float his own group, DHD(J). Sequestered into four different camps, nearly 800 DHD rebels claim they have renounced violence under the ceasefire agreement, but have not put down their arms. Local tribals still routinely accuse them of killings and extortions. Scores of interviews with tribals and DHD commanders confirm that the government is unofficially using the DHD as a proxy to attack the Black Widows, even though they are bound by a ceasefire and not supposed to engage in armed warfare.
In order to neutralise them, the government is also backing a splinter group, locally called the "James group", led by a rebel named James Dhimasa, who recently broke away from Jewel Garlosa with 60 armed cadres. The James group has not entered any ceasefire agreement and so can openly move about the region with arms. Both groups are accused of brutal killings, extortions and gunrunning. Yathong Dimasa, the tall and stocky 34-year-old additional commander-in-chief of DHD, confirmed that his cadres, armed with M16 and AK47s (heavy weapons they are not allowed to carry under the ceasefire agreement), routinely accompany the army, and sometimes on their own, to hunt Black Widow rebels.
The James group did the same, he said. James Dimasa declined to be interviewed. Mr Singh, when asked about the role played by other rebel groups, acknowledged the army sought their assistance to penetrate into the difficult terrain and converse with locals in the tribal language. He confirmed that the James group had not entered into any ceasefire agreement, and they would "not be apprehended for now". email@example.com