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India: ULFA-I And Talking To The Wind In Assam – Analysis

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By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*

On December 2, 2021, United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I), in its bi monthly magazine Swadhinta, asked the Government of India (GoI) to send political envoys and not the military, if it decides to discuss its (ULFA-I’s) core demand of creating a ‘sovereign Assam.’ The rebel group argued, “Otherwise, we know that the dialogue would be nothing else but a death trap.” Though it did not clarify any further, the article does indicate that the outfit is asking for an interlocuter with a political background for a dialogue.

Earlier, on November 14, 2021, ULFA-I extended its unilateral ceasefire for another three months. Paresh Baruah, ‘president’ of ULFA-I’s ‘Supreme Council’ had stated that the outfit would not engage in any kind of ‘military operations’ during these three months. ULFA-I had first declared a unilateral ceasefire on May 15, 2021, which was again extended for three months in view of the COVID-19 situation in Assam. Then, on August 14, 2021, ULFA-I extended the unilateral ceasefire for another three months, observing, “The COVID-19 situation is yet to stabilise and as our social responsibility, we have extended the ceasefire for another three months and no operations will be conducted during this period.”

ULFA was formed April 7, 1979 and its core demand was the creation of a ‘sovereign Assam.’ Since August 2012, when the ULFA split in to two – ULFA-PTF [Pro Talks Faction] and ULFA-ATF [Anti-Talks Faction], later rechristened as ULFA-I in 2013 – ULFA-I has stuck to the core demand of the creation of a ’sovereign Assam.’

The Government, however, has made it clear that it is not ready to deliberate on this issue. Indeed, on November 17, 2021, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma declared,

In the past six months, things have moved ahead in the positive direction. Extension of ceasefire is a positive move. At some point of time, we have to deliberate on core issues. However, we have to strike a balance between core demand of the outfit and limits of the Constitution.

No ULFA-I linked incident of violence has been reported since the declaration of the unilateral ceasefire. The last violent incident reported was on April 29, 2021, when the ‘Commander of the Western Command’ of the ULFA-I, Dwipen Saud aka Jishnu Asom aka Ramen Nath, was killed in an exchange of fire with the Security Forces (SFs) at Besimari in Bongaigaon District. On the other hand, the Security Forces (SFs) have arrested nine ULFA-I militants since the declaration of the ceasefire. Most recently, on November 30, 2021, SFs arrested an ULFA-I militant, identified as Girindra Chetia aka Pabitra Asom, from the Tinkupani Reserve Forest in Jaguan, Tinsukia District.

Further, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has tightened the noose around the group. On September 15, 2021, the NIA filed a supplementary charge sheet before a special court in Guwahati against Paresh Baruah and four cadres – Pappu Koch Bokoliyal, Amrit Ballav Goswami, Arunodoy Dahotiya and Munna Baruah – for their alleged involvement in a grenade attack in 2019 which led to injuries to 12 people.

Moreover, media reports claim that former ULFA-I ‘chairman’ Mukul Hazarika aka Avijit Asom, a London-based medical practitioner, could soon be extradited to India due to his association with the outfit. Hazarika has been interrogated by UK Government agencies in London over the past couple of months, following an extradition request by their Indian counterparts.

Indeed, the Government’s tough approach towards ULFA-I is reasonable, as it realizes that the ULFA ‘movement’ in totality has lost its prowess since the split in ‘parent’ ULFA in August 2012, and the splinter faction ULFA-I has failed to generate the same level of threat or anywhere close to the parent group, despite its best efforts.

It is significant that, between January 1, 1992 and July 31, 2012, out of 750 SF attributable fatalities (another 70 remained unattributable, as the identity of the terrorist group involved could not be established), ULFA was responsible for 354 fatalities, followed by National Democratic Front of Bodoland, 186; National Socialist Council of Nagaland/Dima Halam Daogah, 143; Dima Halam Daogah-Jewel Garlosa, 45; United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), 13 and  Dima Halam Daogah Nunisa, nine.

After the split while one faction, ULFA-PTF went into talks, the other faction, ULFA-I was found involved in eight out of 21 attributable killings in the SF category, followed by NDFB-IKS, seven; United People’s Liberation Army (UPLA), three; NSCN-IM, two; and Karbi People’s Liberation Army (KPLT), one.

Similarly, between March 6, 2000, when started compiling data on insurgencies  in Northeast, and July 31, 2012, out of the 1,083 civilian fatalities attributable to any militant group, 560 civilian fatalities, i.e., 51.75 per cent were linked to ULFA. NDFB was distant second with 288 civilian fatalities (26.56 percent).

After the split, ULFA-I has been found to be involved in 30 of 207 attributable civilian killings (86 remained unattributed).  Of the remaining 177 such killings, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Ingti Kathar Songbijit faction (NDFB-IKS) was involved in 146; followed by the Karbi People’s Liberation Army (KPLT), 14; Dima National Liberation Army (DNLA), eight; NDFB, five; Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), two; and Dima Halam Daogah-Action Dimasa faction (DHD-Action) and United Democratic Liberation Army (UDLA), one each. Thus, ULFA-I accounted for 14.49 per cent of the total civilian fatalities. In 2019- 2021, no civilian fatality has been attributed to ULFA-I in Assam. In these three years, Assam accounted for one, three and eight attributable civilian killings, respectively.

Significantly, that in May and December 2014  NDFB-IKS engaged in several killing sprees targeting Muslims and Adivasis (tribal communities originally drawn from outside the State, principally as labour for tea plantations, also referred to as ‘tea tribals’). Of the 146 civilians killed by NDFB-IKS, at least 108 were killed in the May and December incidents.

During this period ULFA-I also collaborated with major terror groups in the region and was a leading partner of United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA). Paresh Baruh had also formed the Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura and Assam (ANMMMTA), to create mass unrest across the Northeast. The stated objective of ANMMMTA was to engineer mass mobilization against the Government by exploiting various democratic movements, mobilization through electronic/ print/ social media, recruitment for extremist activities and fund collection.

However, SF action on the ground has wakened ULFA-I over time. According to SATP data, the group has lost at least 505 (35 killed, 336 arrested, 134 surrendered) of its cadres/leaders since its formation. On November 12, 2020, Dhristi Rajkhowa, the ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ of ULFA-I, who was also heading its ‘western command’, surrendered before authorities.

More recently, on April 25, 2021, ULFA-I released ‘assistant general secretary/finance secretary’ Jiban Moran aka Gunnat Dangori from its ranks due to age related ailments.

Paresh Baruah is aware of the changed realities, and is engaged in efforts to recover lost ground. To this end, he highlights emotive identity and livelihood issues which find resonance among the people of the State. Thus, on August 27, 2021, Baruah appealed to Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu to grant a permanent residence certificate (PRC) to the State’s Assamese-origin people. Baruah stated,

Diversity has laid the foundation for many nations around the world; some overcame extreme poverty and managed to topple mountainous obstacles with workforce… Arunachal Pradesh has always been kind to its Assamese-speaking community over the years. However, Assamese speakers, who are natives of the land and have been living there for generations before NEFA (North-East Frontier Agencies) 1972, are now in danger of repatriation… I would like to humbly request the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh to not let the heritage of countless Assamese families decimate. It is an earnest request on our behalf that the Assamese people who are natives of Arunachal Pradesh be granted PRC.

Earlier, on May 14, 2021, ULFA-I had demanded that 95 per cent jobs in energy companies, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) and Oil India Limited (OIL), be reserved for the locals of Assam. It also demanded that INR 50 million from each of these companies be used for infrastructure development in the State, and that these companies provide LPG to the rural areas through pipelines.

Baruah has made some changes in his ‘party’ to strengthen his hold over the outfit. ULFA-I announced that, with effect from September 4, 2021, Paresh Baruah would be the ‘president’ of the ‘supreme council’, while ‘lieutenant general’ Michael Asom and ‘major general’ Nayan Asom were appointed as members of the ‘Supreme Council’. Nayan Asom was also appointed as ‘president’ of the ‘high council’ and ‘brigadier’ A. Z. Sironam Asom, ‘brigadier’ Arunudoy Asom and ‘brigadier’ (retd.) Samiran Asom were appointed as members of the ‘High Council’. Interestingly, the name of ULFA-I ‘chairman’ Mukul Hazarikawas missing from the list, indicating that Baruah had taken complete control by removing the ‘chairman.’

Despite the declaration of the ceasefire, moreover, the group continues to recruit cadres. According to a November 13, 2021, report at least two promising kickboxers, Nayanmoni Chetia and Sabita Chetia, and three other girls from Assam had joined ULFA-I. In a video that surfaced on November 12, they were seen entering dense forests with the purpose of joining the militants. More recently, on November 23, SFs arrested an ULFA-I militant and two Assam youth from the Mon town area of Nagaland. The arrestees were on their way to ULFA-I camps in Myanmar via Nagaland’s border.

Meanwhile, there are apprehensions that Assam might witness a revival of mass protests. COVID-19 had forced a retreat on the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) agitation, but is all set for a relaunch following the successful agitation to repeal three farm laws led by various farmers’ bodies on the outskirts of New Delhi. The Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP), a regional party formed after the 2019 anti-CAA protests, has announced a 10-day agitation coinciding with the Swahid Diwas (Martyrs’ Day).  The first ‘martyr’ of the Assam Agitation, Khargeshwar Talukdar, died on that day, December 10, in 1979.

In the meantime, talks with ULFA-PTF have stalled. According to ULFA-PTF General Secretary Anup Chetia, the reason is the absence of an interlocuter. On March 10, 2021, Union Minister of State for Home G. Kishan Reddy had stated,

The process of peace talks with the ULFA [PTF] is an ongoing process and its details cannot be disclosed at this stage. The term of Interlocutor Shri A.B. Mathur expired in the month of April, 2020. Presently, there is no proposal under consideration for the appointment of a new Interlocutor.

The ULFA movement is at critical juncture, and is finding the ground situation increasingly difficult, as SFs and investigative agencies continue to mount pressure. Nevertheless, the possibilities of mass agitation and instability in the State and the wider Northeast, do have the potential to generate events that could provide fillip to the flagging outfit.

*Giriraj Bhattacharjee
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

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SATP

SATP, or the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).

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