By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On May 17, 2022, the Assam Police alerted two leading Public Sector Undertakings (PSU)s engaged in Oil and Gas exploration and refining – Oil India Limited (OIL) and Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) – to strengthen the security of their installations and personnel after receiving intelligence about a possible threat from the Independent faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I).
An unnamed senior Police official stated, “We had information that the outfit could target both the oil PSUs, which have operations in Assam. Based on that, we shared the details with them. This is a routine practice that is done from time to time.”
Conspicuously, a year earlier, on May 14, 2021, ULFA-I had demanded that 95 percent of jobs in ONGC, Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL), and 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 Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) to the rural areas through pipelines.
Significantly, in the past (more frequently when ULFA was united) they targeted pipelines in remote locations and abducted officials. In the most recent incident, on April 21, 2021, ULFA-I militants abducted a Junior engineer, Ritul Saikia, and two of his colleagues – M.M. Gogoi and Alokesh Saikia – from the ONGC rig site at Lakwa in Sivasagar District. On April 24, 2021, M.M. Gogoi and Alokesh Saikia were rescued in a joint operation involving the army, the Assam Rifles, Nagaland police, and village guards, from near the India-Myanmar border in the Mon District of Nagaland. Later, on May 22, 2021, ULFA-I released Ritul Saikia.
According to partial Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the last incident of attack on an oil installation was on May 25, 2017. On that day, one person was killed in an explosion at an OIL pipeline, around 500 meters from the oil collecting station at Dikom in Dibrugarh District. Later, ULFA-I claimed it had carried out the blast and identified the deceased as one of its cadres, Bobby Dohatia aka Palash Asom.
Meanwhile, on May 14, 2022, Arunodoy Asom, ‘secretary’ of ULFA-I’s ‘publicity wing,’ asked Assam’s Labour and Employment Minister, Sanjoy Kishan, to apologize for his comments on ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah and on the death of ULFA-I cadre Biju Gogoi aka Bhagya Axom. Arunodoy Asom stated that Kishan, who represents the Tinsukia constituency of the Assam Assembly, would be ‘boycotted’ in public functions in Tinsukia and Dibrugarh Districts if he failed to apologize within 24-hours. He warned that any person who supported the Minister or attend his programs would have to face ‘dire consequences’ for which “ULFA-I would not be responsible.” On May 13, while commenting on the execution of ULFA-I cadre Biju Gogoi, Sanjoy Kishan called ULFA-I’s ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah a ‘liar.’ The death of Biju Gogoi became a talking point when ULFA-I militant Santosh Lama aka Apu Asom,arrested on May 10, 2022, revealed during police interrogation, that ULFA-I cadre Biju Gogoi was killed by fellow ULFA-I cadres while he was trying to flee the camp in Myanmar. Later, Paresh Baruah declared that Gogoi had committed suicide between 12:00 am and 03:00 am on February 21, 2022. On May 12, Tinsukia Superintendent of Police, Debojit Deuri disclosed that Police has accessed some leads that indicated that at least 13 or 14 of 35 cadres who had joined the ULFA-I group since December 2021 had been killed by the outfit itself, for different reasons.
The strong stand taken by ULFA-I regarding the Minister’s comments exposes the group leadership’s fears that the episodes of killing of its own cadres would lead to erosion of its support amongst locals, further marginalizing its cause. Continued recruitment might also have suffered due to negative perceptions amongst potential recruits.
Nevertheless, Minister Sanjoy Kishan publicly apologized to ULFA-I, on May 14, declaring, “Our Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is trying to create an atmosphere to bring ULFA-I to the negotiating table to establish peace in Assam. And I don’t want that atmosphere to be disturbed. I just talked about some youths joining ULFA and if my comment hit the sentiment of Paresh Baruah in anyway, I seek apology for that.”
On May 7, 2022, ULFA-I executed two of its recruits, Dhanjit Das and Sanjib Sarma, in Myanmar for allegedly spying for the “occupational Indian forces.” ULFA-I ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah proclaimed, “The two were found guilty of working as moles of the Indian system. They were executed today according to the provisions of our constitution.”
Before the execution of both the suspects, their confessional statements were shot on video.
On April 4, 2022, an ULFA-I Over Ground Worker (OGW), Suraj Gogoi, was killed in the Sonari area of Charaideo District.
Significantly, ULFA-I had declared a unilateral ceasefire on May 15, 2021, which was again extended for three months, given the COVID-19 situation in Assam. Then, on August 14, 2021, the ceasefire was extended for another three months. However, on March 4, 2022, Baruah decided not to extend the ceasefire.
Though ULFA-I did not carry out any attack during the entire period of ceasefire, or since the announcement of abrogation of the unilateral ceasefire, various developments, including recruitment activities and the executions listed above, indicate that ULFA-I has sought to exploit the ceasefire period to strengthen itself, and is now trying to reassert itself.
Indeed, reports indicate that, between September 2021 to March 11, 2022, around 204 Assamese youth joined ULFA-I in Myanmar. On April 7, 2022, Assam Chief Minister (CM) Himanta Biswa Sarma revealed that 47 boys and girls had joined the outfit in the preceding few days. He said, “Forty-seven boys and girls have joined ULFA-I in the past few days. while on the other hand, many senior cadres of the outfit have returned to the mainstream. As long as ULFA-I exists, this process of coming out and going in will continue.”
CM Sarma reasoned that the attraction for the youth was that “it [ULFA-I] has an organization having its ideology.”
Undivided ULFA’s ‘general secretary’ and leader of the Pro-talks faction of ULFA Anup Chetia, referring to the continuing recruitment, explained, “It is likely that ahead of the possible peace talks, the group is looking to increase its strength to over 1,000. People are also looking to join hoping to get something in the rehabilitation process…”
Indeed, the recent signing of the Memorandum of Understandings (MoU)s with Bodo (in 2020) and Karbi ethnic groups might have led to such perceptions among recruits looking for ‘empowerment’ (both material and social). For instance, the Assam Government had approved INR 1.6 billion for the rehabilitation of Bodo militants.
According to State Government data, a total of 3,439 militants surrendered between 2016 and July 6, 2021. In addition, according to partial data by SATP data, from July 7, 2021, to May 19, 2022, another 627 militants had surrendered.
According to the latest surrender policy, effective since April 1, 2018, relief measures incude an immediate grant of INR 400,000 to each surrenderee, which is to be kept in the name of the surrenderee as a Fixed Deposit in a bank for a period of three years. This money can be utilized as collateral security/Margin Money against loan to be availed by the surrenderee from the bank for self-employment. Also, the policy provides for the payment of stipend of INR 6,000/- per month to each surrenderee for a period of three years; besides monetary incentives are also provided for surrendering weapons and ammunition. There is also a provision for vocational training to the surrenderees for self-employment.
On May 16, 2022, commenting on reports of recruitment by ULFA-I during 2021, Lieutenant General R.P. Kalita, Indian Army Commander of the Eastern Command, observed, “Yes, we have seen this and it is a concern for us. They have recruited people from both the Upper and Lower Assam regions. These (recruitments) are mostly done through social media.”
Lieutenant General Kalita further claimed that most recruits had criminal backgrounds.
There have been talks about peace talks between the Government and the ULFA-I for some time now. On May 10, 2021, the then newly elected CM Himanta Biswa Sarma appealed to ULFA-I to come forward for peace talks, declaring, “A dialogue with the ULFA [I] is two-way traffic. Paresh Baruah has to come forward. Similarly, we have to go to him. If both sides have the will, communication won’t be difficult.”
On January 1, 2022, CM Sarma reiterated, “It is clear that he [Paresh Baruah] wants a negotiated settlement… but their demand for sovereignty is a non-negotiable position. We are working towards breaking the deadlock.”
On May 17, 2022, in an interview to a local TV channel, Paresh Baruah stated that he was ready for talks if the ‘core issue’ (Assam’s sovereignty) was also on the table. He ruled out measures such as an economic package, or granting of Sixth Schedule status or Scheduled Tribes status for certain communities, as part of any solution. He, however, disclosed that there had been no formal proposal of talks from Government of India so far.
The brutal action against ULFA-I’s dissidents and potential strikes on PSUs are likely intended to dissuade cadres from leaving the group, and to attract a more ideologically committed cadre. Another possible motive could be to establish some additional leverage in negotiations by demonstrating the group’s nuisance potential. It is important, consequently, for the Government to be cautious in its dealings with ULFA-I and not to hurry peace talks just for the sake of talks.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management