By Afsara Shaheen
On July 30, 2023, a cadre of the Independent faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I), identified as Jogen Gogoi, was injured in Police firing in a reserve forest in Abhayapuri in Sonari in Charaideo District of Assam. The police opened fire when Gogoi, who was arrested on July 29, 2023, for extortion activities, took Police to the forest to show them the extortion money that he had hidden there, but tried to escape. One pistol, a magazine, along with several rounds of live ammunition were recovered from his possession. He admitted that he was collecting extortion money from businessmen and tea planters in Charaideo District at the behest of ULFA-I leader Ganesh Asom.
On July 23, 2023, the ULFA-I issued a statement signed by ULFA-I ‘captain’ Rumel Asom, threatening Assam Director General of Police (DGP) Gyanendra Prasad Singh over Police ‘shootouts’ in the state, declaring he would have to face ‘dire consequences’ if the State Police did not refrain from continuing what it called “fake encounters”. The statement from ULFA-I added, “This is our last warning.” The development comes after one suspected accused was injured in Police firing on July 22, 2023, pertaining to a case of extortion demands from business persons in Upper Assam.
On July 22, 2023, two ULFA-I cadres – a woman identified as Pushpanjali Gogoi, and Hema Chetia – were arrested by a joint team of the Indian Army and Assam Police near Dibrugarh University in Dibrugarh District. INR 300,000 and INR 164,000 extorted from businessmen was recovered from Pushpanjali Gogoi and Hema Chetia, respectively. During interrogation, Hema Chetia revealed that more extortion funds were kept in his house. As a joint team went to his house to seize the money, he tried to attack the policemen with a grenade-type explosive. In retaliation, the Police team fired at his leg and he was overpowered. A ‘bottle grenade’ and INR 10,000 was recovered from his residence.
On July 21, 2023, the Assam Riffles arrested two ULFA-I operatives, Rituraj Gohain aka Pulin Asom and Montu Neog aka Maina Asom, during an operation launched by the Khonsa Battalion of Assam Rifles in conjunction with the Arunachal Pradesh Police in Tirap District in Arunachal Pradesh. The duo had crossed over the Indo-Myanmar Border to try and make their way to Assam, in a bid to carry out subversive activities.
On July 21, 2023, Assam Police arrested one ULFA-I cadre, identified as Sanjay Barua, while he went to collect extortion money from a businessman in Tinsukia District of Assam.
On July 15, 2023, the Special Branch of the Assam Police interrogated two surrendered ULFA-I cadres, Sangram Asom and Ranjit Asom, who were accused of extorting money, in the Guwahati in Kamrup (Metro) District of Assam.
On July 9, ULFA-I sent an extortion letter to the Timon Tea Garden in the Sonari area of Charaideo District in Assam, demanding INR 7.2 million. The letter, signed by ULFA-I leader ‘Nayan Asom’, was sent to Manoj Gogoi, the manager of the Timon Tea Garden, via WhatsApp.
Meanwhile, on September 3, 2022, in a major crackdown against the ULFA-I, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) conducted searches at 16 locations in Assam, in connection with the ULFA recruitment case and militant training in Myanmar. The case, which was registered by the NIA on May 18, 2022, pertains to recruitment by ULFA-I, extortion to strengthen ULFA-I, radicalisation of youth for unlawful activities, and their training at camps based across the Indo-Myanmar border, in Myanmar. Reports suggest that several social media platforms have been used by ULFA-I to lure the youths to join the insurgent group.
ULFA-I’s present activities overwhelming focus on extortion and the protection of its networks for resource generation and recruitment. Nevertheless, of the six terrorism-linked fatalities recorded in the state in 2023 so far (data till July 30), four were linked to ULFA-I. On February 20, 2023, three persons were killed by suspected ULFA–I militants in the Tamulbari area in the Tinsukia District of Assam. ULFA-I believed that the three unidentified victims were ‘informers’ of the Security Forces and that ULFA-I ‘field commander’ Uday Asom was killed on February 9, 2023, based on the intelligence provided by the three. The remaining two fatalities this year are of two Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) cadres, Abhijit Deka and Nipon Roy, who were killed in an encounter with the Assam Police in the Chakraxila Hills area in Kokrajhar District, Assam, on April 24, 2023.
In 2022, of the total six fatalities (three civilians and three terrorists) recorded, all three terrorists killed were from ULFA-I.
While the last civilian killing in the state was carried out by ULFA-I (February 20, 2023), the last SF killing in the state was reported way back in 2018 and was also linked to ULFA-I. On May 2018, a Policeman was killed in an encounter with ULFA-I militants at Bordumsa in Tinsukia District. The last terrorist killed also belonged to ULFA-I.
Since the formation of the group in August 2012, after a split in the parent ULFA, incidents linked to ULFA-I have resulted in 125 fatalities, including 47 civilians, eight Security Force personnel and 70 ULFA-I cadres.
The ULFA movement started in April 1979 with the stated aim of creating an independent Assam. On February 5, 2011, ULFA leaders led by the then ULFA ‘vice-chairman’ Pradip Gogoi, along with the then ‘foreign secretary’ Sashadhar Choudhury and the then ‘central publicity secretary’ Mithinga Daimary announced that the outfit’s general council had endorsed the resolution of the central executive council (CEC) to sit for talks with the Central Government without any precondition. The then ULFA ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah-led group described the general council itself as unconstitutional thus negating the resolution. Differences continued to grow. The ‘formal’ split, however, took place in August 2012 when Paresh Baruah ‘expelled’ Arabinda Rajkhowa and appointed Abhijit Barman as the outfit’s ‘chairman’. Since August 2012, when the ULFA split into two – pro-talks faction of ULFA (ULFA-PTF) and anti-talks faction of ULFA (ULFA-ATF) which later in 2013 rechristened itself as ULFA-I – the latter has stuck to the core demand of the creation of a ’sovereign Assam.’
While most major terrorist groups, which had once created havoc in Assam, have now joined peace talks resulting with the government, resulting in significant improvement in security situation in the state, ULFA-I remains violently active.
Indeed, on July 6, 2023, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma while addressing a surrender ceremony of eight Adivasi militant groups in Assam, appealed to ULFA-I,
In Assam when all militant groups have come over ground, ULFA should also come for talks in the interest of all sections of the people of the state.
Earlier, on April 27, 2023, Sarma had stated that a peace accord with ULFA-I was likely ‘soon’ and a draft accord had already been sent to ULFA-I leaders. Sarma disclosed,
Now only two factions [ULFA-I led by Paresh Barua and Pro-Talks faction led by Anup Chetia] have remained. A draft proposal is circulated and if they agree we will have an Accord next month. If they propose change, we will have to delay it otherwise in May we will sign the peace deal.
Earlier on January 27, 2023, Sarma stated that ULFA-I was the last hurdle in the government’s efforts to ensure complete peace in Assam. He appealed to the extremist group to join the mainstream for “Assam to become an island of peace”.
In between, on May 10, 2023, Anup Chetia stated that a peace agreement can be signed if the Centre accepts its demands, including land rights for indigenous Assamese people. Anup Chetia was extradited to India from Bangladesh in November 2015. He later joined the peace process.
Earlier, after the killing of one ULFA-I militant on July 1, 2022, in the Kakopathar area of Tinsukia District in Assam, Paresh Baruah had said the Government of India (GoI) should establish understanding and faith to start peace talks:
In times of heavy rain and floods all over Assam, why did they (Indian forces) carry out such an operation against ULFA-I? Our group had just come down to Assam to collect essential items such as food, medicine, etc. It shows they don’t want to initiate talks with us. We were in unilateral ceasefire for nine months in the name of COVID-19 pandemic. After that big effort from us, the GoI did not show any effort to make the atmosphere conducive for talks. We are always ready for talks on our core issue of sovereignty.
Baruah asserted that he had faith in Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who wanted to start talks.
ULFA-I had declared a three-month unilateral ceasefire on May 15, 2021. Paresh Baruah had said that the outfit would not engage in any kind of ‘military operations’ during these three months. Then, on August 14, 2021, ULFA-I extended the unilateral ceasefire for another three months, again due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation. Again, on November 14, 2021, ULFA-I extended its unilateral ceasefire for another three months. On March 4, 2022, the outfit decided not to extend the ceasefire further and refused the offer of peace talks by the Government, insisting on “Swadhin Asom” or independent Assam, as a key plank for the peace talks. The group remains defiant and belligerent.
During the ceasefire period, no violent activities related to ULFA-I took place. The first incident of violence after the ceasefire occurred on May 7, 2022, when ULFA-I claimed that it had sentenced two of its newly recruited cadres, Dhanjit Das of Barpeta and Sanjib Sarma of Baihata Chairali, to death for allegedly being ‘spies’ of the Police.
The security situation in Assam has improved considerably since 2015. Several groups have joined peace talks as well. However, ULFA-I remains a big challenge. Along with the efforts to bring the outfit to the negotiating table, sustained operations against the outfit cadres on the ground continue.
- Afsara Shaheen
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management