Home / Politics / Policy /  ULFA: Last hurrah of spent force or rebel outfit on comeback trail?

New Delhi: On 22 August, many newsrooms across Assam received a video. In it, a young man, identified as Kuldeep Moran from Tinsukia district of the state, is kneeling down and is surrounded by five heavily armed men with their faces covered. “I have been kidnapped by the ULFA. They have been taking me from one place to another on foot by blindfolding me almost every day. I appeal to my parents, as well as to chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal to get me released as early as possible. I don’t want to get killed in crossfire," Moran says in Assamese, looking into the camera.

A week ago, on 15 August, five Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) went off in Tinsukia and Sivsagar districts of upper Assam. The Assam Police pinned blame on the anti-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam: ULFA (Independent), or ULFA (I), headed by commander-in-chief Paresh Barua, who has steadfastly refused to negotiate.

Three days earlier, on 12 August, gunmen opened fire in a village in Tinsukia district, killing two people and injuring at least seven others. Again, Assam Police confirmed to the media that it was the handiwork of the ULFA (I).

What do these incidents suggest?

Is the ULFA, an organization that began as a sub-nationalist force and metamorphosed into a killing machine in the 1990s and the early 2000s before being pushed to the margins, making a comeback? Or is it simply the last hurrah of a spent force? Also, have the central and the state government been caught off-guard by the recent spate of violence, considering most prominent leaders of the organisation had already surrendered their arms and come over-ground?

There may be no clear yes or no. While ULFA’s demoralized cadre may not be in a position to fight back even if it wants to, there are reasons to be wary of it.

Freelance journalist Rajeev Bhattacharya who has reported extensively on ULFA believes the organization is no longer a formidable entity but is trying to emerge as one again through tactics like formation of a government in exile. “It hasn’t materialized so far due to opposition by some Manipuri groups, but even if such a government were to be formed, I don’t really anticipate a drastic change in the situation in favour of these groups. This apart, ULFA is also trying other means and tactics of waging war against the Indian state," says Bhattacharya, probably the only journalist to have had access to the group’s base in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division —the account of which he has documented in the book, Rendezvous with Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men.

Has the ULFA then lost all goodwill of the Assamese population, something that was instrumental to its rise in the first place?

“The fact that ULFA had to rope in school children to trigger the blasts in Tinsukia speaks a lot about its current conditions. Motivation is extremely low among the cadres. Most importantly, there is not a single experienced commander in Myanmar," says Bhattacharya.

He, however, warns that the group still continues to have support in pockets of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivasagar districts: “This is where the recruitment takes place nowadays but it has gone down compared to the situation 15 years earlier."

Academic Sanjib Baruah, author of India Against Itself, one of the most revealing texts on insurgency in India’s north-eastern states, says he considers the political situation in Assam to be quite “fluid". “There is enough disenchantment and uncertainty in the air. But I am not sure a resurgence of ULFA is in the offing. History rarely repeats itself that way," says Baruah, currently teaching political science at New York’s Bard College.

A full-fledged resurgence, as it appears, may be far-fetched but it is important to understand that the strength of ULFA is also contingent on quite a few external factors, the most important perhaps being the political leadership in India’s neighbouring countries, particularly Bangladesh, where the group has largely operated out of in the last two decades. In fact, the first major breakthrough that the Indian government achieved vis-a-vis negotiations with the ULFA that led to a meeting between ULFA leaders and former Union home minister P. Chidambaram followed a political change in Bangladesh.

“Following a landslide electoral victory in December 2008, the Awami League government headed by Sheikh Hasina made a crucial decision to improve the country’s ties with India. It reversed the policy of the previous government to tolerate—if not actively host—ULFA and other north-east Indian rebel groups in Bangladeshi territory, and began to actively cooperate with Indian security agencies. Within months, key ULFA leaders began to be ‘picked up’ by Bangladeshi security agencies and ‘pushed’ into India—a murky formulation designed to circumvent potential legal wrangling over transferring them to Indian custody since the two countries do not have an extradition treaty," writes Baruah in a 2012 essay called The Rise and Decline of a Separatist Insurgency: Contentious Politics in Assam, India.

Bhattacharya, too, is equivocal about the direct effect a change in leadership in Bangladesh could have on the situation in Assam: “There might be a resurgence of militancy in Assam if a Bangladesh Nationalist Party government comes to power in Bangladesh in the next elections. And militancy will take a different hue this time around. Then, there could also be trouble if there is an attempt to evict the illegal Bangladesh settlers in Assam and this is what some people might be waiting for."

Is the Indian political leadership and the new Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government prepared for a possible escalation?

According to Baruah, the new state government makes for an interesting dichotomy. “ULFA as an idea has always been more powerful than ULFA as an organization. That’s because it inhabits a political space that has a solid history. I have called it regional patriotism. The structural conditions that explain the strong presence of this style of politics in Assam have not changed. There is no significant political/ideological conversion that I can see. The BJP won the election by piggybacking on regional patriotism; it was not an ideological victory of Hindu nationalism. That’s the contradiction that is unfolding. The Sonowal government does not have the autonomy to follow a course of action that is responsive to the constituencies it mobilized during the elections," explains Baruah.

Bhattacharya calls it unfortunate that New Delhi doesn’t seem to be attaching enough importance to peace talks with the pro-talks faction of the ULFA: “It should wake up from its slumber. To cut a long story short, it should expedite the peace process with the ULFA and bring it to a logical conclusion at the earliest." The new state government, Bhattacharya says, hasn’t shown much indication of being radically different from its predecessors.

The 1990s in Assam were a period of relentless, extreme cyclic violence and deep-seated fear, marked by innumerable extortions and murders by the ULFA – and the state’s equally clinical, and often indiscriminate, counter-violence. The political leadership’s lack of vision led to ULFA running a parallel government in many pockets. “So deep-rooted is the fear of ULFA now that not even cabinet ministers have the courage to speak against it," notes an India Today article of September, 1990, when the organization was banned. “The moment the discussion shifts to ULFA in the Cabinet or in the AGP Legislature Party meeting, everyone shuts up. Who knows who will go back and report to ULFA?" the magazine quotes a sitting minister of the state government.

Assam has come a long way since then. From being an army camp for all essential purposes, the state now is in large measure what mainland Indians would call “normal": there are no infinitely long spells of curfew, one can travel across most parts of the state without being accosted by men in olive, families go out for late-night dinners to pizza outlets in the cities and towns and young people go out to parks and pubs in the evening.

The normalcy, though, has taken some doing to achieve; has seen much collateral damage, and many wounds have still not completely healed. The truth is, Assam simply cannot afford for history to repeat itself.

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