By Giriraj Bhattacharjee
The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UHMA) continues to project contradictory assessments of the Paresh Baruah-led Anti-talks Faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-ATF), indicating an absence of strategic clarity in approach, both to this group, and its breakaway Pro-talks Faction (ULFA-PTF). Thus, on June 1, 2012, Union Home Secretary R.K. Singh, dismissed the ULFA-ATF as an insignificant group, arguing, “Paresh Baruah … ULFA anti-talk faction is a small rump faction… insignificant. We will go without him. One insignificant person going away does not matter.”
On the other hand, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, had observed, on April 30, 2012,
The Home Secretary held the talks and he has reported to me that it is making progress but it will be slow progress because there is an anti-talk faction [ULFA-ATF]. So the pro-talk [ULFA-PTF] leaders are proceeding with great caution.
Meanwhile, recent developments indicate that, after the February 5, 2011, split, ULFA-ATF has begun to recover some ground despite the loss of key ‘military commanders’ to ULFA-PTF, as well as in operations against the Security Forces (SFs). Hira Sarania erstwhile ‘commander’ of ULFA’s “709th battalion” and Pallab Saikia, the ’27th battalion’ commander”, are among the ‘military leaders’ who opted to go with ULFA-PTF. Other top leaders from the ULFA’s armed units, including ULFA’s ‘deputy commander in chief’ Raju Baruah and leaders from ULFA’s ’28th battalion’, Mrinal Hazarika, Jiten Dutta [28th battalion-Alpha company leader], and Prabal Neog, now occupy important positions in the 35-member ULFA-PTF committee formed by Arabinda Rajkhowa. Other top militants, including Gulit Das, Haren Phukan and Phanindra Medhi alias Lebu, who once handled all of Baruah’s finances in Bangladesh, have also been incorporated into the ULFA-PTF.
Further, the SFs have arrested 85 cadres of ULFA-ATF. Palash Hazarika alias Pawan Hazarika of the “28th battalion”, and reportedly Paresh Baruah’s bodyguard, surrendered before the SFs at Chetia Pathar in Chabua in Dibrugarh District on July 5, 2011. 13 cadres of the outfit, including three ‘corporals’ and one ‘lance corporal’, have also surrendered. Earlier, on February 5, 2011, Bangladeshi SFs had handed over three mid level militants – ‘captain’ Upen Buragohain alias Antu Chaudung [reportedly one of Paresh Baruah’s closest aides], ‘second lieutenant’ Pradip Chetia and ‘corporal’ Saurav – of the mother organization ULFA to the Border Security Force (BSF). In 2009, Bangladeshi authorities had arrested and handed over ‘Chairman’ Arabinda Rajkhowa, ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Raju Baruah, ‘foreign secretary’ Shashadhar Choudhury and ‘finance secretary’ Chitrabon Hazarika. ULFA ‘general secretary’ Anup Chetia is currently lodged in a high security prison in Bangladesh.
Since February 5, 2011, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, ULFA-ATF has carried out as many as 14 blasts, targeting installations such as the Railways, Police Stations, Transmission Towers and markets. At least three persons, including two ULFA-ATF militants and a bomb carrier, have been killed in these attacks, and dozens have been injured. The most prominent of these attacks include:
May 25, 2012: A bomb suspected to be placed by ULFA-ATF went off in the evening at Philobari under Doomdooma Police Station in Tinsukia District. The bomb carrier, a young boy, died on the spot. Businesspersons in Philobari had allegedly been receiving extortion notices from the ULFA-ATF.
March 4, 2012: ULFA-ATF exploded an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) at Borpathar in Sivasagar District, damaging a power transmission tower of Northeastern Electric Corporation Limited (NEEPCO). The Police suspect ULFA-ATF had carried out the blast to put pressure on the ‘chairman’ of the ULFA-PTF, Arabinda Rajkhowa, who hails from the area.
November 20, 2011: Two ULFA-ATF militants were killed at Aouhatia Sarangabam in Sivasagar District when they were a planting bomb on railway tracks.
ULFA-ATF cadres have also engaged in gunfights with the SFs, with at least seven encounters reported. Five militants were killed in these encounters, while one SF trooper also lost his life. In the March 15, 2011, incident, one Assam Police Sub-Inspector and two suspected ULFA militants were killed during an encounter at Tongona Majgaon, under the Kakopathar Police Station of Tinsukia District.
ULFA-ATF is also provoking widespread fear through extortion notices and abductions, as an increasing desperation attends its efforts to secure funds. A financial crunch in the organization is evident, as it comes under SF pressure in Assam, and as the loss of bases and safe havens in Bangladesh takes its toll. While a majority of extortion notices and incidents go unreported in the media, at least 15 incidents have come on the record since February 5, 2011. Prominently, on March 26-28, 2012, ULFA-ATF served an extortion notice over the phone to the Food Corporation of India (FCI) office in North Lakhimpur District. Earlier, on February 9, 2012, ULFA-ATF demanded INR two million from the St. Luke’s Hospital at Chabua in Dibrugarh District. There is no further information about these incidents. Reports indicate that, in many cases, top leaders, including Paresh Baruah, have called up businessperson to force compliance to extortion demands. However, while a residual capacity to extort money remains, the actual realization is reportedly diminishing. An April 29, 2012, report claimed that there have been instances where people have agreed to pay up less than a fourth of the demanded amount, even after receiving calls from Paresh Baruah. Significantly, since February 5, 2011 SFs have arrested 85 militants and linkman connected to the outfit, of which 28 were arrested on extortion related charges.
ULFA-ATF is presently led by its ‘acting vice-chairman’ and ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah (57), based somewhere near the Sino-Myanmar border. Its acting ‘chairman’ is Abhijeet Burman, and the ‘central committee’ of the outfit includes ‘associate general secretary’ and ‘finance secretary in-charge’ Jibon Moran, along with two ‘deputy commanders-in-chief’, Dristi Rajkhowa and Bijoy Das. All present posts in the ‘central committee’ have been declared to be temporary in nature. Interestingly, Baruah has left the position of ‘General Secretary’ vacant. ULFA-PTF leader Mrinal Hazarika, in an interview to the media following the formation of the temporary central committee of ULFA-ATF observed, “Maybe Barua is waiting for Anup Chetia’s return, since he himself cannot nominate a permanent committee.” Anup Chetia alias Golap Baruah, Paresh Baruah’s cousin and mentor, is currently lodged in the high security Rajshahi Central Jail in Bangladesh since the completion of his prison term in January 2005[Anup Chetia was arrested in Dhaka on December 21, 1997 with two forged Bangladeshi passports]. Bangladesh’s envoy to India, Tariq Ahmad Karim, on June 14, 2012, disclosed, “India and Bangladesh are friendly neighbours and India has been requesting Bangladesh to extradite Anup Chetia, like other Indian terrorists, but he (Chetia) has applied for political asylum and that takes legal course of action.” He stressed that if Chetia had not applied for political asylum, he would have been pushed back into India long ago, like several other ULFA leaders.
ULFA-ATF has, an estimated strength of 150-250 militants, mostly new recruits, who are militarily organized into three groups – Rongili (the cheerful lady), the biggest formation, based in Myanmar; Lakhimi (the homely lady) is a small group still in Bangladesh; and Kopili (the speedy river), the new identity for the erstwhile 27th battalion, now temporarily based in Majuli, the biggest riverine island on the river Brahmaputra, located in Jorhat.
An operationally decimated ULFA-ATF has also started to collaborate, for its activities in lower Assam Districts of Kamrup and Goalpara, with the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), a militant formation operating in the Garo Hills area of Meghalaya. Dristi Rajkhowa leads the ULFA-ATF unit operating in lower Assam. Senior Superintendent of Police (Guwahati City), Apurba Jibon Baruah, elaborating on the arrangement between the GNLA – ULFA-ATF noted, “According to the pact, ULFA [ATF] will not harm the Garo people living on the Assam side, while a group of 30-40 ULFA cadres are taking shelter in GNLA camps in the West Garo Hills District.” Indeed, their presence in the Garo Hills area provides the ULFA-ATF with an escape route to Bangladesh. Earlier, ULFA-ATF had reportedly sought to establish a relationship with the Manipur-based People’s Liberation army (PLA), though the fate of the proposed alliance remains unknown.
ULFA-ATF has also come out in support of Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) units operating in the upper Assam Districts, although Baruah had initially viewed the movement with suspicion and had reportedly given orders to his cadres for the elimination of the Maoists. Significantly, on May 10, 2012, Baruah condemned the killing of four Maoist cadres in an encounter in a remote village in Sadiya in Tinsukia District on May 9, and extended ‘moral support’ to the Maoists. Some financial calculus may also underpin this reappraisal. The Maoists are reportedly ready to spend INR two billion for arms and training of their cadres, and Baruah is known to have emerged as one of the most important traffickers of Chinese small arms in the region.
Further, ULFA-ATF is among 14 militant groups of the Indian Northeast that joined hand in March 2011, to float a United Front. In addition to ULFA-ATF, the group includes the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), the Manipur based PLA, United National Liberation Front (UNLF), three factions of the People’s Republican Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), the Noyon group of the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP-N), Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), All Tripura Tigers’ Force (ATTF), Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), GNLA, and a new unnamed group in Arunachal Pradesh.
In another worrying development, the arrest of Anthony Shimray of Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak -Muivah (NSCN-IM) on September 27, 2010, confirmed the fact that Paresh Baruah had emerged as a major arms dealer between the Yunnan-based China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) and various militant formations in India’s Northeast. Baruah also maintains strong relations with the China-supported United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Myanmar. UWSA was formed in 1989, following the breakup of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). Notably, ULFA-ATF has, at least on two occasions, expressed a Pro-China position in an effort to maintain the support of this powerful neighbour.
On May 26, 2012, Assam’s Additional Director General of Police (ADGP, Special Branch) Khagen Sarma claimed that Paresh Baruah had procured an estimated 800 AK series rifles over the past couple of years. “He is now left with around 150-200 armed cadres, after the arrest of almost all ULFA top guns. Does he need that many weapons?” Sarma argued. The main concern for the SFs, now, is that the excess firearms in the ULFA-ATF arsenal will fall into the hands of the CPI-Maoist, an emerging force in the State. The Maoists are already using Chinese weapons allegedly provided by the PLA.
Reports also indicate that Baruah may now be using his network to smuggle narcotics into India. Two agents of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Khwaja Sultan Malik and Qalil Ahmed, known to be operating out of Bangladesh, are believed to be helping Baruah and his trusted aides. Both Malik and Ahmed have close links with drug cartels in Southeast Asia, known to be smuggling narcotics into India through the porous Indo-Bangladesh border, allegedly with the ULFA’s help.
Moreover, in an attempt to garner public support to regain lost ground, Paresh Baruah has extended support to several popular and mass movements, such as the anti-dam movement led by Akhil Gogoi and opposition to the Indo-Bangladesh accord on border demarcation. In an email statement to media on June 28, 2011, Baruah declared, “We should support Gogoi [Akhil] for his continuous struggle against capitalists.”
Efforts to re-unite the factions have not been given up and, on April 29, 2012, ULFA-ATF issued an ultimatum to ULFA-PTF ‘chairman’ Arabinda Rajkhowa to return to “active duty” within three months. ULFA-ATF ‘Assistant Information and Publicity Secretary’ Arunudoy Asom stated that, in case of a failure to comply with the deadline, the outfit would be forced to change its leadership.
ULFA-ATF’s continuous efforts to restore its capacities and establish a wider network of cooperation and collaboration with other militant and extremist formations in India’s Northeast continue to constitute a significant threat to peace in the region, even as they jeopardize the UMHA’s attempts to secure a peaceful settlement with ULFA-PTF. If the ULFA-ATF is able to consolidate its power, this will directly impact on the PTF’s will to engage with the state, even as talks progressively lose their relevance to the security situation in Assam. Consequently, sustained SF operations against the ULFA-ATF are necessary to halt the processes of consolidation that it has initiated. Worse, any undermining of the negotiations with ULFA-PTF would also bring into question the various Cease-fire Agreements (CFAs) signed earlier with another 18 militant formations in India’s northeast.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management