By Veronica Khangchian
On August 19, 2011, Security Forces (SFs) killed seven United Democratic Liberation Army (UDLA) militants at Gutguti Pathargenai forest under Ratabari Police Station in the Karimganj District of Assam, bringing this little known group into sharp focus. An Army soldier was also injured during the gunfight, while one UDLA cadre was arrested.
Earlier on May 16, 2011, SFs had arrested UDLA the ‘commander-in-chief’, identified as Nandaram Reang, and his bodyguard, Gajiram Reang, from the forest area of Kundanala in the Katlicherra Block of Hailakandi District. Further, on April 29, 2011, SFs had arrested an UDLA militant from Channighat in Assam’s Cachar District.
On September 24, 2009, Police in the neighbouring Mizoram State had arrested the UDLA ‘chairman’, Dhainaram Reang, from Kolasib District in Mizoram, and handed him over to the Hailakandi District Police. He, however, managed to secure bail and later escaped into the Mizoram forests. The UDLA was led by Shishumoni Reang, brother of Dhainaram Reang, while he was in Police custody.
Formed sometime in 2008 by Dhainaram Reang, the UDLA has an estimated 50 to 60 cadres, drawn from both the Bru and Bengali Muslim community. The outfit primarily operates in Assam’s Southern Districts of Karimganj and Hailakandi – bordering Mizoram, Tripura and Bangladesh.
UDLA was formed when the United Liberation Front of Barak Valley (ULFBV) came overground with the formal surrender of 305 of its cadres at the Indian Tea Association (ITA) Cultural Complex in Guwahati on September 30, 2008. The ULFBV ‘president’ Panchram Apeto led the surrendering cadres, mostly of them from the Reang tribe of Hailakandi and Karimganj Districts, ending an eight-year-old armed insurrection. Panchram had then claimed that Dhainaram had a hidden nexus with some Muslim militants. Denying this, an UDLA ‘commander’, Rajesh Reang, declared, on September 24, 2010, that his group has close links with Naga militants. He claimed that UDLA’s headquarters were in Bangladesh and that the outfit had been collecting money from various tea gardens in the Karimganj and Hailakandi Districts.
Later, on an unspecified date, a section of UDLA split and formed the United Democratic Liberation Front-Barak (UDLF-B), led by one Danya Ram Reang, along with Lamboo Reang. As in the case of UDLA, UDLF-B has also been brought under tremendous pressure by the SFs.
On April 29, 2011, SFs arrested an ‘area commander’ of UDLF-B, Thaiboi Reang, from Kundanala village in Hailakandi District. Thaiboi Reang was involved in cases of abduction and extortion since the inception of the group. On July 28, 2011, SFs arrested a UDLF-B militant from Katlicherra in Hailakandi District. On April 28, 2010, two cadres of the UDLF-B were arrested from Alagapur in Hailakandi District, when they were trying to extort money in the Algapur market.
The UDLA split again when Atabur Rahman, once an accomplice of Dhainaram, formed his own outfit, the United Democratic Liberation Tigers (UDLT), on December 3, 2009. The rift occurred reportedly because of soured relations between the Bru and the Muslim communities following incidents of UDLA cadres abducting a number of Muslims from Hailakandi District in 2009. Atabur, who vowed to protect the Muslims from Bru militants, was, however, killed on January 11, 2011, in Mizoram, either by rivals or the SFs, along with his cousin and accomplice, Eklasuddin. The UDLT, though, has been described as a group of dacoits and abductors.
Bru militancy started with the formation of the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF) in 1996, following violent clashes between ethnic Mizos and Bru tribesmen in the Mamit District in Mizoram. The immediate cause of the conflict was the demand for an Autonomous District Council (ADC) in the Bru-dominated areas of western Mizoram by the Bru National Union (BNU), a political organisation of Bru tribesmen that was formed in 1994. The Reang/Bru Democratic Convention Party (RDCP), another Bru organisation, passed a resolution in this regard, subsequently provoking Mizo organisations like the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) and Young Mizo Association (YMA) to organise violent attacks in October 1997 on Bru settlements. The Mizo groups apprehended the geographical division of Mizoram. Following the ethnic-violence of 1997, some 35,000 Bru refugees fled Mizoram and took shelter in six relief camps at Kanchanpur in North Tripura, while a significant number fled to Assam. Bru militants have, thereafter, changed their demands to include the formation of a separate homeland in Karimganj and Hailakandi Districts of Assam.
The ULFBV, formed in 2002, was specifically created with the objective of creating a separate Bru homeland in the Karimganj and Hailakandi Districts of Assam. However, on April 26, 2011, the UDLA ‘chairman’ stated that the group was contemplating surrender if the Government was ready to constitute a separate Autonomous Council for the Bru community.
Meanwhile, the repatriation of Bru refugees to Mizoram has emerged as a major concern. Repatriation started in May 2010, for the first time, and a total of 231 displaced Bru families consisting of 1,115 persons, returned to Mizoram. The second phase of repatriation occurred in November 2010, in which another 53 Bru families returned to Mizoram. The third phase began in April 2011 and continued till May, with more than 600 families restored to Mizoram. The fourth phase, which was to begin from June 7, 2011, failed to take off. The stalled repatriation process was reported likely to be resumed from September 15, 2011, but has not yet commenced.
Despite significant losses, UDLA and its splinter groups continue to operate and, over the past two years, UDLA alone has been involved in the killing of at least three civilians in two separate incidents:
July 17, 2011: Suspected UDLA militants shot dead a member of the Bru community, identified as Birguram, branding him a Police informer, in Thinglian village of Kolasib District in Mizoram.
September 18, 2010: UDLA militants attacked the managerial staff of Dullavcherra Tea Estate in Karimganj District, killing two employees.
Meanwhile, on September 8, 2011, UDLA militants attacked the hamlets of Bagmara, Banglabasa, Gandacherra, Baruncherra, Haticherra, Harincherra, Sontila and Jhumtila, forcing people of their own tribe to flee or shift to other places. The Bru militants have been moving about in this area, threatening people to leave the places, possibly to sanitize their own safe havens in the forests.
The group has also been involved in several incidents of abduction and extortion. On June 6, 2011, UDLA militants abducted two executives of a road construction company, Anupam Bricks and Concrete Industries Limited (ABCIL), from Kolasib District in Mizoram, reportedly demanding a ransom of INR 50 million. The Mizoram Police, however, rescued both the executives after an encounter at Banglabasha village in Hailakandi District on June 16, 2011, and no ransom was paid. On April 20, 2011, a small-time businessman, Zakir Hussain Laskar, was abducted by UDLA militants from Hailakandi District. Earlier after the September 18, 2010, killing of two managerial staff of the Dullavcherra Tea Estate, UDLA threatened, on September 24, 2010, that it would continue such attacks until the garden management pays INR 1.5 million, as demanded. On December 21, 2010, UDLA stepped up extortion by issuing notices demanding INR 300 per household in Hailakandi, Dullavcherra and Karimganj Districts, threatened villagers with dire consequences for failure to comply.
Meanwhile, on May 11, 2011, UDLF-B abducted an assistant manager of the Dullavcherra Tea Estate in Karimganj District. He was, however, released at Betcherra in Katlicherra block of Hailakandi District on May 20, 2011. There is no official confirmation of any ransom paid to the abductors, but intelligence sources disclosed that INR 200,000 was paid to ensure his safe release.
Since the formation of UDLA, there have been 16 recorded incidents of killings, abductions and arrests, in which Bru militant outfits have been found involved. Of these, UDLA was connected with nine incidents, UDLF-B with four, United Liberation Army of Bruland (ULAB) with two, and United Liberation Army (ULA) with one incident.
There are seven Bru groups in the region. Significantly, however, three of them, the BNLF, Bru Liberation Front of Mizoram (BLFM) and ULFBV have surrendered. 195 BNLF militants, including the outfit’s ‘president’ Surjya Moni Reang and ‘general secretary’ Solomon Prophul Ushoy, surrendered at the Sidan transit camp in West Tuipuibari on July 25, 2005. Further, 802 BLFM cadres surrendered before the Mizoram Government on October 26, 2006. ULFBV surrendered arms on September 30, 2008. Very little is heard about ULA and ULAB, which leaves the UDLA and its splinter UDLF-B as the only two Bru militant outfits still operational.
The SFs have intensified operations and secured significant successes against most of the militant groups operating elsewhere in the State as well, as is evident by the decreasing fatalities, With both UDLA and UDLF-B under sustained fire, it is unlikely that these groups will retain their capacities for disruption and violence for long.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management