Guwahati: In the dictionary of militants across the Northeast, extortion is investment in a revolution for sovereignty or self-rule. And in a revolution, every paisa counts.
So the outlawed Ulfa has borrowed ideas from the world of banking and investment to now start extorting in “equated monthly instalments”, or EMI, in doses small enough for the victims not to feel the pinch.
Since its formation in 1979, the United Liberation Front of Assam has been relying on extortion from major business groups, oil majors and tea firms to sustain its “struggle for an independent Assam.” But with the big money sources drying up, it had of late been hard pressed to maintain an annual budget estimated at Rs30-35 crore.
According to police officials, the outfit has thus broad-based its extortion network to cover petty traders, villagers and salaried people, demanding regular payments in small doses.
“In some cases, victims have been paying as low as Rs2,000 on almost a monthly basis,” said a senior officer who didn’t want to be named.
Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi is worried by Ulfa’s new strategy, which is being referred to as a “systematic extortion plan”. He said the government has reports of extortions on a large scale, but at the micro level. “These days the militants are collecting money in small, regular amounts, but we have not been able to do anything about it since no one is complaining,” he said earlier this week.
Ulfa is believed to be amassing an average Rs1.5 crore from such micro-collections every month.
But the outfit has not abandoned the big-money strikes. Such as the abduction of Food Corp. of India executive director P.C. Ram, for whose release it has reportedly demanded Rs21 crore.
Ulfa has also been extorting in kind—bicycles, motorcycles, foodgrains, mobile phone handsets and mobile phone SIM cards. Intelligence officials said that while Ulfa’s foot soldiers get only a small portion of the extorted money—a monthly stipend of Rs2,000-5,000, besides cash incentives for subversive successes—the bulk of the collection goes to Arabinda Rajkhowa and Paresh Barua, the top two in Ulfa’s hierarchy.
A recent US report on the extortion-rich Ulfa said its commander-in-chief Barua has assets in Bangladesh and Southeast Asia worth more than $110 million (Rs451 crore). The Union home ministry puts its financial strength at around Rs200 crore.