By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On April 29, 2021, the ‘Commander of the Western Command’ of the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (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. His gunman, Padum Rai, was arrested along with weapons and a grenade.
Dwipen Saud had taken over charge of the ‘Western Command’ on November 20, 2020, replacing Dhristi Rajkhowa.
Rajkhowa, the ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ of the ULFA-I was heading the ‘Western Command’, at the time of his surrender on November 12, 2020.
Michael ‘Asom’ Dekaphukan aka Joy Chandra Das, who had replaced Rajkhowa as ‘deputy commander-in-chief’, remains ‘in office’.
Earlier, on April 25, 2021, ULFA-I released ‘assistant general secretary/finance secretary’ Jiban Moran aka Gunnat Dangori from its ranks. ULFA-I ‘chairman’ Abhijit Barman stated that the outfit was concerned about 67-year-old Moran’s “critical health condition and lack of proper treatment at his current disadvantageous location.” Moran was intercepted by the Army and intelligence agencies at Khonsa in Arunachal Pradesh on April 28, 2021. He has been in Dibrugarh Police custody since April 29, 2021.
It is useful to recall that the parent group, ULFA, was formed on April 7, 1979, with the principal aim to ‘establish sovereign socialist Assam through armed struggle.’ The group split into two on August 8, 2012: the pro-talks faction (ULFA-PTF) and the anti-talks faction (ULFA-ATF). ULFA-ATF rechristened itself ULFA-Independent following its ‘central executive committee’ meeting between April 2 and 5, 2013, at Taga in Myanmar.
According to a National Investigation Agency (NIA) charge sheet in case RC-04/2013/NIA/GUW, the ULFA-I leadership included ‘chairman’ Abhijit Barman aka Dr. Mukul Hazarika, presently residing in the UK, ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah, presently in China, ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Drishti Rajkhowa, ‘general secretary’ Bhaskar Borah aka Rantu Gogoi, ‘assistant general secretary/finance secretary’ Jiban Moran aka Gunnat Dangori, ‘director’ of the ‘general military headquarters’ Dwipen Saud aka Ramen Nath. The charge sheet indicates that there were 16 leadership elements, of which one has been killed, four have surrendered; while one has been ‘compulsorily retired’ by the outfit.
Moreover, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 35 ULFA-I cadres have been killed since April 5, 2013, across four States – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland (data till May 9, 2021). There were eight fatalities [all in Assam] in 2013; 14 fatalities [Assam (13) and Nagaland (one)] in 2014, two fatalities [Assam (1) and Meghalaya (1)] in 2015, six fatalities [Arunachal Pradesh (three) and Assam (three)] in 2016; four fatalities [all in Assam in 2017, and one fatality [in Assam] in 2018. In 2019 and 2020, no ULFA-I militant was killed.
327 ULFA-I cadres have also been arrested during this period. Similarly, 133 ULFA-I cadres have surrendered during this period.
Indeed, according to the NIA, ULFA-I had around 400 cadres in 2013. The present strength is estimated to be around 250.
ULFA-I is a severely depleted force. The outfit has failed to carry out any major attack (resulting in three or more fatalities) targeting civilians since November 1, 2018, when five civilians – Hindu Bengali daily-wage workers, including three of a single family – were killed by the outfit’s cadres in Bisonimukh village, Tinsukia District. The last ULF-linked civilian killing was reported on November 23, 2018, when ULFA-I militants triggered a blast killing two civilians and injuring another at Nitaipukhuri Road at Demow in Sivasagar District, Assam.
The last major attack on the SFs involving ULFA-I was reported on July 29, 2020, when the outfit’s cadres, along with cadres of the Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF) and Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), killed three Assam Rifles personnel and injured another five in an ambush at Khongtal village in Chandel District, Manipur. This remains the last fatal attack on SFs by ULFA-I.
Nevertheless, strict vigil is warranted against this outfit to thwart any possible attack and to prevent it from continuing its disruptive activities. After the April 29, 2021, encounter, Assam Director General of Police (DGP) Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, disclosed,
We had information that ULFA Western Command was planning some high-profile kidnapping along with other anti-India forces, which now appears to be foiled.
Three Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC) employees – two Junior Engineer Assistants (Production) and a Junior Technician (Production) – were abducted in the early hours of April 21, 2021. The abduction took place at an ONGC rig site in the Lakwa field of Sivasagar District. Two of the abductees were later rescued by the Security Forces from Nagaland.
Though the group identity of the abductors is yet to be ascertained, the role of ULFA-I is suspected.
Significantly, ULFA-I released two employees of Quippo Oil and Gas Infrastructure, Pranab Kumar Gogoi and Ram Kumar, on April 3, 4, 2021, after keeping them hostage for over 100 days. The outfit had demanded INR two billion from the company for the release of its two employees. It is rumoured that the company ultimately had to pay INR 50 million. The Quippo Oil and Gas Infrastructure Limited also agreed to create 5,000 jobs for Assamese youth, to secure the release of their two employees. The two employees were abducted on December 21, 2020.
On April 8, 2021, ULFA-I served a ‘notice’ to Amalgamated Plantations Private Limited (APPL), a leading tea company, demanding immediate relocation of all its administrative offices to Assam and recruitment of indigenous people of the State. It warned that the APPL may face “ruin” if their demands were not met.
In the meantime, the outbreak of COVID-19 has created an economic crisis that may help ULFA-I gain lost ground, helping it in recruitment of cadres.
A report authored by the State Innovation and Transformation Aayog (SITA) along with the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati, and the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), New Delhi, on the possible impact on the economy of Assam due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has projected a rise in the unemployment rate to between 16 and 27 per cent, from the present eight per cent. The report further states,
COVID-19 is expected to lower the growth rate of the State’s economy by 1.3 to 5.2 per cent in the current fiscal (2020-21). This suggests a potential loss in the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) worth INR 3,219 to 12,877 crore at 2011-12 prices. The loss is equivalent to INR 4,442 to INR 17,770 crore at the current prices.
Another Advisory Committee for Revitalisation of the State’s Economy, headed by former additional chief secretary S.C, Das observed,
Returning of such a huge number of migrant labourers will bear some significant implications, which includes swelling pool of jobseekers, most importantly, sudden increase in labour supply in the State, besides increasing unemployment, will depress the general wage level, which will have pervasive and far-reaching socio-economic implications.
ULFA-I is already trying to exploit local sentiment on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to recruit new cadres and regain influence.
According to submissions made before the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) Court in September 2020, Paresh Baruah has also formed a new organisation, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura and Assam (ANMMMTA), to create mass unrest across the Northeast. The stated objective of ANMMMTA is to engineer mass mobilization against the lawfully established Government by exploiting various democratic movements, mobilization through electronic/ print media/ social media, recruitment for extremist activities and fund collection.
During a ten-day long Operation commencing on December 10, 2020, the Assam Police arrested seven militants in Darrang District. Amrit Bhuyan, Superintendent of Police (SP), Darrang District, stated,
They were engaged in recruitment of new cadres for the outfit and were working for the last three months. They have already arranged 10 youth, who were due to be sent to the outfit’s camp for training. Two youths, who were sent by them, have already returned from Dimapur in Nagaland.
SFs have maintained sustained pressure on ULFA-I and have thwarted almost all its attempts to regain ground. There is a need for continued vigilance and better inter-agency cooperation, particularly in view of the rapidly worsening security situation in coup-hit Myanmar, which is likely to provide Indian militants there breathing space for hit and run operations, especially along the borders. Polarising political rhetoric on identity is also creating new tensions and risks of violent and armed mobilization by anti-state elements.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management