By M.A. Athul*
On April 26, 2019, a cadre of the Independent faction of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I) identified as Monikanta Sonowal aka Adarsha Asom surrendered in the Tinsukia District of Assam. He revealed that, due to operations by Myanmar military between February 17 and March 2, food had become scarce in ULFA-I camps and “all supply lines are snapped”. According to a 2017 report, ULFA-I had more than eight camps in Myanmar.
On April 18, 2019, an ULFA-I militant, identified as ‘lieutenant’ Udgiran Asom, surrendered before SFs in the Tirap District of Arunachal Pradesh.
On April 2, 2019, ‘sergeant major’ Bargij Gogoi of ULFA-I surrendered at Charaido District in Assam. The surrendered militant disclosed that all ULFA-I militants were used as bonded labourers in Myanmar. He reportedly disclosed, “They have no rights to move to any places and they can’t do anything as according to their wishes. They are used as daily wage labourers in the paddy fields of Myanmar.”
More importantly, Gogoi stated that, after the Myanmar Army attacked the camps based at Taga in the Sagaing Region in Myanmar, “We fled from Taga based camps toward the jungles with our arms and ammunition, but we were facing problems concerning food, staff and the safety of our lives. There is no good leadership quality among senior leaders like Jeevan Moran, Michael Deka Phukan and others to maintain the cadres. Now, the majority of the cadres want to come join mainstream society. “
Jeevan Moran holds the rank of ‘major general’ in ULFA-I and is ‘second in command’, while Michael Deka Phukan is the ‘assistant finance secretary’.
Meanwhile, a May 4, 2019 report stated that 500 militants, including an unspecified number of ULFA-I militants (based in Myanmar), had approached the Security Forces (SFs) to surrender. The report further claimed that ULFA-I’s senior leaders were in touch with Police officers to work out the modalities of surrender.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 2019 has already recorded the surrender of 13 ULFA-I cadres in six incidents (data till May 5, 2019) across two states [Arunachal Pradesh (one) and Assam (12)]. No surrender was reported during the corresponding period of 2018. However, six ULFA-I militants had surrendered in the remaining period of 2018. Two militants each had surrendered in 2017 and 2016, one in 2015, five in 2014, 18 in 2013 and one in 2012. Except for one surrender in Arunachal Pradesh (in 2019), the remaining 47 surrenders since August 8, 2012, when ULFA-I was formed, have been reported from Assam. The outfit has a presence in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Nagaland.
The catalyst for the recent spike in surrender has been the crackdown by the Myanmar Army on Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) based primarily in the Sagaing Region of Myanmar. Between February 17 and March 2, the Myanmar Army clamped down on IIG’s resulting in the death of at least 20 of their cadres. The Myanmar Army also dismantled IIG infrastructure located at Taga, including a temporary base and two ULFA-I ‘military schools’.
Moreover, at least nine ULFA-I militants have been arrested by Indian SFs in the current year, from two states – Assam (five) and Arunachal Pradesh (four). Most recently, on April 24, 2019, an ULFA-I cadre, identified as Mridul Mahanta, was arrested from an unspecified location in Arunachal Pradesh. During interrogation he revealed that ULFA-I had killed three of its own cadres – Lalit Asom, Ashwini Asom and Rhino Asom – in Myanmar, when they were trying to flee in order to surrender before Indian SFs. He told his interrogators that the trio were captured in the Niliguri Gut camp area inside Myanmar (opposite the Tirap District of Arunachal Pradesh) by Golap Sonowal aka Golab Asom, the ‘camp commander’. Mahanta added that the killing of ULFA-I cadres was approved by ULFA-I ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah.
According to the SATP database, since its formation in 2012, at least 238 ULFA-I militants have been arrested across four States (data till May 5, 2019). In 2012, nine militants were arrested [Assam (eight), Meghalaya (one)], while in 2013, at least 25 were arrested from two States [Assam (22) and Arunachal Pradesh (three)]. The number arrested in 2014 was 26 [Assam (15) Nagaland (three) and Meghalaya (eight)]; and 43 in 2015 two States [Assam (41) and Meghalaya (two)]. In subsequent years, the number was 46 in 2016 in two States [Assam (33) and Arunachal Pradesh (13)]; 27 in 2017 (all in Assam); and 53 in 2018 [Arunachal Pradesh (4) and Assam (49)]; and 9 in 2019 [Assam (five) and Arunachal Pradesh (four)].
Further, at least 37 ULFA-I militants have been killed since 2012 across four States – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland. In 2012, six militants were killed (all in Assam); 2013 witnessed four ULFA-I fatalities (all in Assam); 2014, the highest number at 14 fatalities [Assam (13) and Nagaland (one)]; 2015, two [Assam (1) and Meghalaya (1)]; 2016, six [Arunachal Pradesh (three) and Assam (three)]; 2017, four (all in Assam); and 2018, one (in Assam). No ULFA-I militant has been killed in the current year, thus far.
Indian SFs have achieved notable successes against ULFA-I and have put the group under sustained pressure, with significantly greater impact as a result of increasing support from their Myanmarese counterparts. As a result, on December 15, 2017, Mukesh Sahay, the then Assam Director General of Police (DGP) had noted,
|Something which was pervasive all over the State at one point of time is today confined to pockets bordering Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.|
ULFA-I has also steadily been losing its foreign bases over the years. The group previously had bases and a substantial presence in Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, has now been reduced to remote areas of the Indo-Myanmar Border.
Since its formation in 2012, ULFA-I has killed a total of 37 persons (30 civilians and seven SF personnel) across three Indian States, of which 32 (29 civilians, three SF personnel) have been killed in Assam; three (all SF personnel) in Meghalaya; and two (one civilian, one SF trooper) in Nagaland. There have been no ULFA-I inflicted fatalities in 2019, while there were nine in 2018, four in 2017, seven in 2016, four in 2015, nine in 2014, two in 2013 and two in 2012.
Some notable attacks have, nevertheless, been executed by ULFA-I. In the most recent of these, on November 1, 2018, five Hindu Bengali daily-wage workers, including three of a family, were killed by ULFA-I militants at Bisonimukh village in Tinsukia District.
Further, ULFA-I’s efforts to regroup continue. According to recent reports, after losing bases in Sagaing region in Myanmar, ULFA-I has shifted its bases to Pangmi and Konyak Naga regions inside Myanmar, contiguous to the Changlang District of Arunachal Pradesh and Mon District of Nagaland.
Reports also indicate that the group have been able to recruit nearly 50 youth between August 2017 to November 2018. Referring to the recruitment, Assam Police intelligence wing chief, Pallab Bhattacharyya, observed,
|I don’t think there is a sudden spurt in recruitment. Recruitment has been going on in the past too – just that it was taking place silently and was not reflected through social media and sections of the mainstream media as it is now.|
Significantly, ULFA-I has been able to recruit people with technical expertise as well as those involved in the political process. On November 30, 2018, the Assam Police stated that a software engineer, identified as Abhijeet Gogoi from Dibrugarh District had joined ULFA-I. He uploaded a video on social media claiming that he had joined ULFA-I to “save the Assamese community”.
Earlier, in October 2018, the Vice President of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) Deragaon, identified as Pankaj Pratim Dutta, had joined ULFA-I a month after he was reported missing while on a trip to Guwahati. He shared his video on social media, which showed him holding a gun and giving reasons why he joined ULFA-I. He claimed,
|I have joined the ULFA-I on my own volition. I apologise to AASU members in Dergaon for taking this decision without informing them. I firmly believe that to be able to protect the existence of Assam, there is no other alternative. We need Assam’s sovereignty to protect its existence. That’s the reason I joined the ULFA-I.|
Reacting to the development, AASU President Dipanka Kumar Nath stated, “There have been numerous such cases in the past. However, in the past 15 years or so, no one from AASU, except him, joined the ULFA.” AASU was formed by Lakshmi Kanta Saikia (founding President) and Dilip Kumar Bhattacharjya (founding General Secretary) in 1967.
ULFA-I’s lethality has been significantly eroded over the years, and the group is unlikely to make a dynamic recovery in the foreseeable future. However, polarising Government policies, most prominently including the issue of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) has created opportunities for the group, providing a gush of oxygen to an otherwise dying organisation.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management