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ULFA: Beginning of the End

In the last three decades the United Liberation Front of Asom has followed a trajectory which has taken it away from its stated goal, alienated it from the masses and pushed it increasingly into the groove of terrorism sans an ideology. It began in April 1979 as an organisation committed to ending "Indian colonial rule" and, unlike other such outfits, succeeded in drawing its cadres from all segments of the population. At one time ULFA symbolised, for many in Assam, a point of resistance to Indian hegemony. But the extortions, killings, bomb blasts, targeting of civilians and of migrant workers from north Indian states, led to erosion of whatever support and sympathy it enjoyed. Today the outfit is on the defensive mode.

COMMENTARY

ULFA: Beginning of the End

Udayon Misra

been insisting that minus the issue of sovereignty, there could be no talks, yet the quickly surfacing inner contradictions within the outfit seems to leave it with little option other than to try and work out

In the last three decades the United Liberation Front of Asom has followed a trajectory which has taken it away from its stated goal, alienated it from the masses and pushed it increasingly into the groove of terrorism sans an ideology. It began in April 1979 as an organisation committed to ending “Indian colonial rule” and, unlike other such outfits, succeeded in drawing its cadres from all segments of the population. At one time ULFA symbolised, for many in Assam, a point of resistance to Indian hegemony. But the extortions, killings, bomb blasts, targeting of civilians and of migrant workers from north Indian states, led to erosion of whatever support and sympathy it enjoyed. Today the outfit is on the defensive mode.

Udayon Misra (udayon_misra@yahoo.com) is national fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
december 26, 2009

W
ith the arrest by Bangladesh early this month of the chairman of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Arabinda Rajkhowa, and the deputy commander-in-chief, Raju Baruah, and their subsequent handover to the Indian authorities, many seem to believe that the curtain is finally about to fall on the 30-year-old insurgency led by the militant organisation with its onepoint agenda of securing a swadhin or independent Assam. Although Bangladesh has officially denied having arrested and pushed them out of the country along with their families, the Indian side has put out the story that the ULFA leaders actually surrendered and were subsequently arrested by the Indian security forces. It has, however, been reported that Indian intelligence agencies tried to convince the ULFA chairman to sit for talks after giving up the sovereignty demand and finding him reluctant, arrested and produced him before the court. Rajkhowa too has denied that he has surrendered. Whatever the case might be, all this was part of a much wider move initiated by New Delhi with help from Dhaka to put an end to the ULFA-led insurgency in the region. These arrests were preceded a month earlier in November by the surrender before the Border Security Force (BSF) near the Indo-Bangla border at Agartala of ULFA “foreign secretary” Sasha Chaudhury and “finance secretary” Chitraban Hazarika who are at present lodged in the Guwahati central jail. With this as many as seven members of the ULFA’s 10-member “general council” are now behind bars.

With two other general council members remaining untraced since the anti-ULFA operations mounted by the Royal Bhutan Army in December 2003, the only major ULFA leader who is now holding out is its powerful commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah. Baruah has been resolutely opposing talks with the centre if the issue of sovereignty of Assam does not find a place in the agenda. Although Rajkhowa and his imprisoned colleagues have also

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an honourable exit through negotiations with the centre.

Erosion of Support

The sustained elimination of ULFA cadres by the State, the steady erosion of public support for its cause, growing divisions within the top leadership, the unilateral ceasefire declared by its 28th battalion which had been responsible for some of the outfit’s most dreaded strikes and, finally, the change of equations in Bangladesh – all seem to have pushed the organisation to its present situation. The change of government in Dhaka was already making things difficult for it when reports surfaced about ULFA’s involvement in the revolt by the Bangladesh Rifles in February 2009. This, along with reports that the outfit had worked against the Awami League in the general elections, seemed to have been the decisive factor in the Sheikh Hasina government’s moves to crackdown on the ULFA leaders and push them out of the country. Ever since the ULFA leaders moved to Bangladesh in the 1990s and started operating from there, they had invested massive sums in Bangla banks and had built up huge assets for themselves. This, along with the support they received from anti-India elements in Bangladesh, had made Dhaka turn a blind eye to the activities of the insurgent outfit. For instance, the ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia has been in a Bangladesh jail since 1998 and repeated efforts by the Indian authorities to have him sent back to India were met with indifference by the Bangladesh government.

In the last three decades the ULFA has followed a trajectory, which has increasingly taken it away from its stated goal, alienated it from the masses and pushed it more and more into the groove of terrorism sans an ideology. It began in April 1979 as an organisation committed to putting an end to “Indian colonial rule” and, unlike many of the other ethnic outfits, succeeded in drawing its cadres from all segments of the population, but the extortions, killings, bomb blasts and targeting of civilians which

COMMENTARY

included migrant workers from north Indian states, led to the progressive erosion of public support and sympathy for the outfit which, at one time, symbolised for many an Assamese a point of resistance to Indian hegemony. But today the outfit is on the defensive mode with its commander-inchief having apologised for the first time in its history for carrying out the blast at an independence day meet in the upper Assam town of Dhemaji in 2004 which left 19 people killed, most of them schoolchildren. Initially, ULFA disowned responsibility for the blast which shook the conscience of the entire state, leading to a massive erosion of support for the militant outfit. But now the commander-in-chief has claimed that he was mis informed about the ULFA’s role in the blasts and has tried to shift the blame to the leaders of a local unit, many of whom belong to its 28th battalion and are now in a ceasefire mode with the government. But such moves to win over popular sympathy have not been able to make much headway, with more and more victims of ULFA violence speaking out against the outfit and demanding justice for their kith and kin killed by the organisation. Its past seems to be finally catching up with the organisation.

Militaristic Structure

Much of the ULFA’s present troubles may be traced to its militaristic structure, which has stood in the way of inner-party democracy and has often led lack of proper coordination on policy matters between the different district and local units.1 The dominance of the armed wing and the district commanders have often led to ideological weaknesses which, in turn, have been reflected in the outfit’s growing alienation from the masses. While it is unlikely that a blast of the scale of the one at Dhemaji could have been carried out without the approval of the central leadership, there have been instances of actions carried out all on their own by local units. Though during its early phase the ULFA did try to strike a rapport with the masses through certain welfare measures carried out under the banner of its overground organisation, the “Jatiya Unnayan Parishad”, it soon retreated into its militaristic shell where secrecy, discipline and unquestioning obedience to orders seemed to be rule. This is what resulted in grave aberrations and the image of the outfit greatly suffered right from the beginning when mass graves were unearthed at the ULFA camp at Lakhipathar during Operation Bajrang in 1990. This was the period when, following the virtual failure of the Assam movement, the outfit commanded a large degree of popular support throughout the state. Another noticeable feature of the ULFA’s manner of functioning has been that at no stage of its struggle has it really tried to test the people’s support for its actions. Unlike the Naga National Council which had carried out a “plebiscite” and a poll boycott in the early 1950s to mobilise as well as test people’s will, the ULFA has never tried to develop any mechanism to do so, although time and again it has made ritualistic noises about a referendum.

People’s Consultative Group

Notwithstanding all this, the general mood in the state is clearly in favour of a negotiated settlement of the ULFA issue.

INDIAN INSTITUTE OF PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION

CONSULTANCY PROJECT ON “PROMOTING INVOLVEMENT OF RESEARCH INSTITUTIONS, UNIVERSITIES AND COLLEGES IN CONSUMER PROTECTION AND CONSUMER WELFARE”

Subject: Inviting proposals for Research Projects/Studies under the Consultancy assignment sponsored by the Department of Consumer Affairs, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution, GOI, New Delhi.

Detailed proposals in the prescribed format are invited from Research Institutions, Universities and Colleges in the area of “Consumer Protection and Consumer Welfare” under the above Consultancy Assignment for consideration by the Evaluation Committee for funding from the Consumer Welfare Fund. Details of Scheme format, guidelines and other eligibility criteria/conditions are available and can be downloaded from the website www.consumereducation.in. Copy of the Scheme can also be obtained from the undersigned or from the Consultant, O/o the Consultancy Project, Room No. 11-A Ground Floor, IIPA, IP Estate, Ring Road, New Delhi - 110 002.

(Pranab Banerji) Project Director

december 26, 2009 vol xliv no 52

COMMENTARY

Even those who have been at the receiving end of ULFA violence have expressed themselves in favour of talks. Earlier too there have been efforts to bring the outfit to the negotiating table. Following the ULFA chairman’s desire for talks with the centre, ULFA nominated 11 persons to constitute the People’s Consultative Group (PCG) in October 2005, raising much hopes of a settlement. This was followed by a brief period of suspension of operations against the outfit in August 2006, while the PCG tried to bring the government and the ULFA to the negotiating table. But the PCG’s efforts floundered partly because of its pro-ULFA partisan nature and partly because of pressure from the hardliners within the bureaucracy and the army who were against giving credibility to the organisation and favoured an all-out offensive against it. As a result of this, the talks just did not materialise and, when operations were resumed barely after a month in September 2006, the PCG finally opted out of the negotiations. Meanwhile, security operations against the outfit were intensified and scores of ULFA cadres were gunned down in encounters, most of them being quite controversial. The ULFA struck on 30 October 2008 in Guwahati and several other towns of Assam in more than a dozen simultaneous explosions which left, as per official figures, 77 killed and hundreds injured. This resulted in further intensification of security operations.

As on earlier occasions, efforts to open peace negotiations are bound to be bogged down over the question of sovereignty. The ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah has made it clear that there could be no talks without the issue of sovereignty being placed in the agenda. Even if all the leaders who are in custody agree towards reframing of the concept of sovereignty to include some form of greater autonomy, it is uncertain if this would work, given the intransigence of the commander-in-chief. For, within the ULFA’s militaristic structure, it has invariably been the armed wing that calls the shots and for years its general council, which is supposed to approve policy guidelines, has not even met.

Though the chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa still commands a considerable degree of respect among the cadres, yet it is the commander-in-chief who virtually controls

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
december 26, 2009

both the finances and arms of the outfit. This is exactly what Paresh Baruah made clear just after the arrest of the chairman when he virtually dictated to him not to soften the stand on sovereignty. Thus, without the involvement of Baruah, the talks are bound to be uncertain. But even if the government were to go ahead for talks with the ULFA leadership minus the commander-in-chief, the greatestdilemma before the outfit would be the absence of any blueprint of demands on which the negotiations could begin. For, except doggedly holding on to the issue of sovereignty, ULFA has never tried to work out its modalities and what it would actually mean for the people of Assam.

Swadhin Asom

Only recently, in a series of articles in the local press,2 the ULFA commander-in-chief has tried to hold up a picture of its vision of a Swadhin Asom where the future of the Assamese nationality would be safeguarded. This vision, however, seems seriously flawed, given its approach to the question of “colonisation” and the “occupation” of Assam by Indian colonisers which include not only people from the other states but also all those segments of Assamese caste-Hindu population which had migrated over the centuries from different parts of the Indian subcontinent and made Assam their home and contributed immensely to its culture and civilisation. It is this segment that is now being accused of carrying with them the seeds of Indian colonisation and of hindering the process of Assamese nationality formation which, according to the writer, is being actively aided by the immigrant Muslim population. Moreover, all those communities who came from countries across the region’s eastern frontiers and settled in Assam and became a part of the greater Assamese nationality have been accepted as indigenes. Also, while talking of the rights of the smaller ethnic groups, the ULFA commanderin-chief seems quite clear that these rights would be guaranteed within a greater, composite Assamese nationality, not outside it. Referring to the statehood demands of the small ethnic groups, the article expresses its stiff opposition to any move to further breakup Assam and terms this as a conspiracy of the Indian colonial rulers,

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while at the same time expressing its support to any ethnic struggle aimed at putting an end to Indian occupation. The main thrust of the argument seems to be limited to the freeing of Assam from all Indian “occupiers”, including those Assamese who see themselves as Indians and hence are traitors to ULFA’s cause, and the acceptance of the indigene-tribal-immigrant Muslim equation.

Although Paresh Baruah’s articles cannot be seen as an official document of the ULFA, yet coming from the commander-inchief it certainly reflects the stand of the outfit in relation to those linguistic groups from other states living in the region who are seen as part of the Indian occupation force. This gains significance in the light of recurrent ULFA attacks on migrant workers and petty traders especially from states like Bihar, a phenomenon which is also to be seen in some of the neighbouring north-eastern states, especially in Manipur. Thus, the question of sovereignty for ULFA seems inextricably linked with de-Indianisation above everything else, something which would certainly not appeal to the majority of the Assamese people.

Advantage with Government

Given such a scenario, the advantages are clearly with the government which is insisting that there can be no talks unless the demand for sovereign Assam is dropped. What, however, New Delhi must keep in mind at this juncture when the ULFA seems to be badly cornered, is that the issues that surfaced in the course of their struggle such as the restructuring of federal powers and the rights of states to their resources still have their relevance and are supported by a wide range of organisations such as the All Assam Students Union, the Asom Gana Parishad and the Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad from whose ranks initially most of the ULFA cadres were drawn. Significantly, most of these issues were raised by the members from undivided Assam during the Constituent Assembly debates. It also needs to be remembered that the ULFA gained its strength from what may be termed as the failure of the Assam Movement (1979-85) which was easily one of the largest populist agitations in the country’s post-independence history. Whatever its

COMMENTARY

aberrations in the form of violence against minority communities in certain areas of the state, the movement succeeded in highlighting the swift demographic change that was taking place in Assam because of continuous migration from across the international boundary with East Pakistan/ Bangladesh and the resultant challenge to Assamese identity as also important issues of citizenship and enfranchisement.

The movement had gained momentum from ethnic Assamese and tribal fears of being turned into a minority in their own state and of eventually losing political control. But, when this six-year agitation failed to provide any tangible solution to the foreign nationals issue, it was inevitable that ULFA with its agenda of selfdetermination should step into the political vacuum. In the absence of any viable political organisation to articulate the Assamese grievances over the centre’s failure to pull the state out of the grip of an extractive economy and ensure distributive justice and the rule of law, ULFA’s colonial thesis naturally had many takers. Moreover, the Indian state’s reliance on blatantly coercive tactics to suppress the mass agitation, particularly the State violence perpetrated during the controversial elections of 1983, succeeded in alienating the Assamese and also a large section of the plains tribals from the Indian “mainstream”.

By the time the Assam accord was signed in August 1985, people’s confidence in the centre had been thoroughly shaken and the stage was set for the emergence of militant regionalism bordering on separatist politics. That is why despite its selfdefeating course, ULFA continued to occupy a significant space in the Assamese regional imagination. This partly explains the paradox that, even while disapproving of ULFA’s terrorist strikes and rejecting its demand for a sovereign Assam, the average Assamese still feels that some of the issues thrown up by its armed confrontation with the State cannot just be wished away. It is perhaps this that was referred to by a leading journalist when he said that “ethnic sensibilities” were touched when the ULFA chairman was jostled around in handcuffs while being placed in court, prompting some people to raise pro-ULFA slogans.

Notes

1 I have worked out this in greater detail in my book,

The Periphery Strikes Back: Challenges to the Nation State in Assam and Nagaland, IIAS, Shimla, 2000. 2 Amar Asom, Guwahati, 16-18 December 2009.

december 26, 2009 vol xliv no 52

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