By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
Two school going children, Ritu Raj Moran and Mantu Moran, hailing from Pensheri area of Tinsukia District, who had gone missing since December 4, 2018, are reported to have joined United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I).
In November 2018, a 16-years-old girl, Karishma Mech, hailing from the Lekhapani area in Tinsukia District reportedly joined ULFA-I.
In the same month, 24-years-old Munna Baruah, a nephew of ULFA-I ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah, originally hailing from Dibrugarh District, reportedly joined the insurgent formation. Baruah went missing from the Digboi town of Tinsukia District where he was working as an apprentice at the Digboi Oil Refinery.
In November, 27-year-old Abhijit Gogoi, originally hailing from Tinsukia District, reportedly joined ULFA-I to “save the Assamese community”.
In October 2018, two persons, Chandra Buragohain and Pabitra Gogoi, hailing from Tinsukia District, is believed to have joined ULFA-I. News reports, however, claim that Pabitra Gogoi has returned.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 11 persons have joined ULFA-I in 2018 (data till December 30, 2018). The exact number of such recruits, both in the District and the State, however, remain unknown. Assam Director General of Police (DGP) Kuladhar Saikia stated, in November 2018, “There are various numbers doing the rounds. Some say it is 30, while others claim it is 100. Whom to believe? We have asked our officers and the special branch to conduct an enquiry.” According to a December 10, 2018, report, State Police had identified 18 confirmed recruits from Tinsukia District over the last three years, of which eight had subsequently deserted the outfit. Another eight were arrested in November 2018 before they could leave for the rebel camps in Myanmar to join ULFA-I.
Nevertheless, Tinsukia District Superintendent of Police, Mugdhajyoti Dev Mahanta, observed, in November 2018,
|A pro-ULFA sentiment is building up on the social media. We are keeping an eye on it. There were one or two cases where vulnerable youth were directly contacted (by ULFA-I) to join the group. We do identify such youth and give them counseling. We are also trying to engage the youth in games and sports to keep their minds away (sic).|
These developments indicate that ULFA-I has gained some traction in recent months in the District, substantially due to the polarizing discourse on the ongoing project to update the National Register for Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. The ULFA-I has successfully raked up the ‘Assamese nationalist’ sentiment to regain some influence and to mobilize small numbers of youth in upper Assam [the core Assamese speaking areas], comprising the Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Dhemaji, Golaghat, Charaideo, Lakhimpur, Majuli, Sivasagar, and Tinsukia Districts.
Tinsukia covers an area of 3,790 square kilometers in the eastern part of Assam. It shares borders with the last remaining hubs of militancy in the Northeast – five Districts of Arunachal Pradesh (East Siang, Lower Dibang valley, Lohit, Changlang and Tirap) and two Districts of Assam (Dibrugarh and Dhemaji). Two of these – Changlang and Tirap – share borders with Myanmar, which has for long served as a safe haven for major insurgent groups operating in the Northeastern region. The District is important in the insurgents’ schemes of things due to its strategic location. DGP Kuladhar Saikia, while visiting Tinsukia District on May 5, 2018, had observed, “Militants use Arunachal Pradesh to enter Assam and very often are flushed back into Arunachal Pradesh during the operations here “.
The demography of the District adds to its vulnerabilities. Apart from Assamese and Bengali speakers, Tinsukia is home to around 15,000 Hindi-speaking families spread across 300 of the District’s 1,100 villages, originally hailing from what are now the States of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. About 4,000 Marwari families, principally a business community originally hailing from the Marwar-Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, are also present in the District. There is a perception of these ‘outsiders’ dominate the local economy and marginalize the ‘indigenous’ inhabitants. With ULFA-I’s polarizing efforts and warnings of attacks in the future, the District seems particularly susceptible.
ULFA-I’s ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah had warned,
|We own up responsibility for the blast [in Guwahati on October 13]. We triggered it as a mark of protest against the Government of India’s attempt to settle the Bengali immigrants in Assam. The attack is also against the conspiracy against the National Register of Citizens (NRC). We will continue such protests in the coming days. We are sad that the hegemony of the locals is increasingly getting hurt.|
On October 13, 2018, ULFA-I militants detonated a low-intensity bomb in Guwahati in protest against the Union Government’s bid to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in Parliament. The blast left four persons injured. The proposed Bill is unpopular in the Assamese speaking areas of the State and also with the Tribals, as these groups fear that their political and economic rights will be hugely undermined if this Bill is passed. The Bill is intended to provide citizenship to illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who are of Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Parsi or Christian. The groups representing the interests of the indigenous communities claim that the Bill, once passed, would legitimize the present lot of illegal Hindu ‘Bangladeshis’ and also encourage future immigrants. ULFA-I’s uncompromising posture caters to this sentiment in order to increase its presence and regain its support amongst the locals in the State.
According to partial data compiled by SATP, Tinsukia District accounted for seven fatalities (five civilians, one trooper and one militant] in three incidents out of the total 20 fatalities (eight civilians, one trooper, and 11 militants] in 13 incidents recorded in the State in the current year (data till December 30, 2018). All the three incidents in the District were attributed to ULFA-I. The lone major incident (involving three or more killings) in the State, also took place in Tinsukia. On November 1, 2018, five Hindu Bengali daily-wage workers, including three of a family, were killed by suspected ULFA-I militants in Bisonimukh village, in Tinsukia District. ULFA-I was also responsible for two civilian fatalities in Charaideo District, the only other fatality linked to ULFA-I outside Tinsukia.
Much of the violence and threat of violence is tied up to extortion. A much weakened ULFA-I has intensified efforts to raise revenues to sustain the ‘movement’ and abductions have also been on the rise in the District, where ULFA-I retains a relatively stronger presence. On December 15, 2018, three suspected ULFA-I militants abducted the owner of a cattle farm, Khem Bahadur Chetri (50), from Bagkhuli Chapori under Saikhowaghat Police Station in Tinsukia District. The abductors had demanded a ransom of INR 1.1 million for Chetri’s release. He was, however, rescued by Security Forces (SF) on December 19. Again, on November 19, 2018, ULFA-I cadres had abducted the caretaker of a stone-crushing plant, Apurba Kakoti, from Jagun in Tinsukia District. He was later released on November 27, 2018. On June 8, 2018, ULFA-I militants abducted the supervisor of a private tea estate at Jagun in Tinsukia District. He was subsequently released on June 25, 2018. In 2017, only one abduction incident had been recorded in the District, when a tea estate supervisor, identified as Sailyo Dahotia (40), was abducted by a six-member armed group, suspected to be ULFA-I militants, from Dihingia tea estate in the Kathalguri area in Tinsukia District on September 28, 2017. He was released on October 5, 2017. [Abduction and extortion are grossly under-reported, with individuals and families preferring to comply, often to reduced demands, of the rebel group].
Meanwhile, SFs have continued to crack down through 2018 and have arrested at least 30 militants, including 14 ULFA-I cadre, in the District. SF pressure also led to the surrender of six ULFA-I militants in the District through 2018. One surrender incident had been reported in 2017, in which one ULFA-I militant gave up arms before the Police.
The vulnerabilities of the Assam-Nagaland-Arunachal Pradesh borders and a rising volume of extremist content on social media are two principal areas that need urgent attention in Assam, and particularly in Tinsukia, if the ULFA-I’s efforts to restore a measure of its dominance are to be effectively countered.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management