Samudra Gupta Kashyap
In 1979, a group of young men met at Rang-ghar, the 17th century amphitheatre that stands in the heart of Sivasagar town in upper Assam, and spoke of a “sovereign” Assam. Buddheswar Gogoi, a school teacher, was named chairman of the organisation that came to be known as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). Other members included Bhimkanta Buragohain, now advisor and ideologue, Pradip Gogoi, vice-chairman, Suren Dihingia (who later left the group) and Someswar Gogoi. Another youth, Rajib Rajkonwar who later came to be known as Arabinda Rajkhowa, joined a few months later and soon replaced Buddheswar Gogoi as chairman. Then joined Paresh Barua, who went on to found the ULFA’s armed wing and became its commander-in-chief.
Three decades later, some of the young men who met at Rang-ghar flew to New Delhi to talk to the Centre early this month. The demand for sovereignty has been replaced by the quest for an “honourable” solution under the ambit of the Indian Constitution. Only Barua remains defiant, still threatening to wage a lone war from an undisclosed location—and posing a threat to the peace process.
By the time ULFA leaders decided to talk with the government for the second time—the first was in 1992—the violence they had unleashed in Assam had killed an estimated 10,000 people.
Though the first few years of ULFA were relatively peaceful, the outfit stepped up violence after the 1983 assembly elections in Assam. In May 1985, it looted a bank—a branch of the UCO Bank in Guwahati, killing its manager. A year later, it looted the State Bank of India at Namrup. In September 1986, the ULFA carried out its first political murder, gunning down lawyer Kalipada Sen, one of the founders of the United Minorities Front of Assam (UMFA).
By 1990, the ULFA’s reign of terror had spun beyond the control of Prafulla Kumar Mahanta’s AGP government. On one hand, ULFA members, keen to project a a Robinhood image, began taking action against drug-peddlers and trouble-makers, and on the other, they began targeting individuals. Prominent among those who fell to the ULFA’s bullets in 1989 and 1990, were industrialist Swaraj Paul’s younger brother Surendra Paul, who had major stakes in the tea industry, Dibrugarh SP Daulat Singh Negi, Oil India PR manager PKD Ramamurthy, Kamrup Chamber of Commerce president GL Harlalka and Hindustan Fertiliser Corporation’s personnel manager D Chaliha. The ULFA also carried out a number of kidnappings that year. Among those who were kidnapped and released for a ransom was Gauhati Refinery general manager HKL Das.
On November 26, 1990, Hindustan Lever Ltd was forced to airlift its executives from its tea plantations in Upper Assam following threats from the ULFA. A day later, the Centre cracked down on the ULFA, declaring it unlawful and called out the Army which launched Operation Bajrang. The AGP government too was dismissed a few weeks before it could complete its five-year term.
That was the beginning of a series of blows the outfit suffered, with the army busting its two major hideouts, killing several of its members and arresting hundreds others. At one of its hideouts inside the Lakhipathar reserved forest near Digboi, the army discovered a number of bodies from a mass grave, many of them had their hands tied behind their backs.
But even as Operation Bajrang was beginning to yield results, it was called off in March 1991. Three months later, the Congress won the assembly elections, only to be greeted by the sensational simultaneous abduction of 15 persons from different districts of the state. Those abducted included a Russain engineer working with Coal India Ltd and several engineers of ONGCL. The ULFA later secured the release of over 350 of its cadres from jail in exchange of the hostages, but not before killing two of them, including the Russian engineer.
The 1992 peace talks
In September 1991, the army was called in again in Assam and Operation Rhino was launched. A harried Arabinda Rajkhowa sent a delegation of five top leaders, including general secretary Anup Chetia to hold direct talks with Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in January 1992. A month later, the ULFA held its general council meeting in an undisclosed place inside Arunachal Pradesh, but Paresh Barua refused to attend it. Despite that, another delegation led by Vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi flew to Delhi and met home ministry officials. A few weeks later, Rajkhowa gave in to Barua and pulled out of the talks but about 15 senior ULFA leaders, led by central publicity secretary Siddhartha Phukan—whose actual name was Sunil Nath—surrendered before chief minister Hiteswar Saikia, thus causing the first major split in the ULFA.
“It is Paresh Barua who has been calling the shots inside the organisation. Rajkhowa may have been the chairman for a long time but he was more like a flower-vase,” says Sunil Nath, who now runs a business. Nath says while Anup Chetia built the ULFA’s political wing, Barua almost single-handedly shaped its military wing.
“Barua is an exceptionally shrewd person. Today, although he has only a handful of armed wing cadres with him, Paresh Barua has the potential of creating massive havoc,” says Nath. “Boys from urban areas have no attraction for the gun. But hundreds and thousands of unemployed drop-outs are even today a huge resource pool for any militant group including what is left of the ULFA,” he adds.
In its fight against the ULFA, the army too had its own limitations, says Lt Gen (Retd) D B Shekatkar, who as GOC of the Army’s Four Corps, headed operations against the ULFA in the mid-1990s. “These are after all our own boys, and not from any enemy country,” he says.
Then there are political compulsions, adds Shekatkar. “There have been local political interests in keeping the ULFA alive. When political leaders get involved, the army’s role becomes limited. And, I have no hesitation in saying that political parties had also used the ULFA to come to power,” he says.
Political parties, particularly the Congress and the Asom Gana Parishad, have often accused each other of taking the help of ULFA to further their interests. During elections, the ULFA would back a party it felt was supporting it and would strike out against the ones it thought was opposing it. So, when Mahanta, whose AGP was once seen as a sympathiser of the ULFA, chose to be tough on them, they hit back by killing Nagen Sharma, the No. 2 in his government, in February 1990. In the past two decades, all the three major parties in the state—the AGP, the BJP and the Congress—have lost a number of leaders and workers during elections.
The decreasing clout
It is, however, the ebbing away of people’s support that has severely dented the clout of the ULFA. The explosion in 2004 on Independence Day in Dhemaji, an upper Assam town, which killed 13 primary schoolchildren, was the turning point in its popularity.
Political developments in the subcontinent too worked against the ULFA. The change of guard in Bangladesh in 2008 and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s commitment to not allow Bangladesh to be used for anti-India activities, have started yielding results.
While differences between Rajkhowa and Paresh Barua started deepening, the flow of funds collected through extortions too has come down sharply in the past two years, making it difficult to run the organisation. So, when Rajkhowa was trapped by security forces in Bangladesh and handed over to India in December 2009, the only way left for him was to seek a “respectable” solution through peaceful negotiations.
When Rajkhowa was first produced before a court in Guwahati, he said he had not surrendered and that it was not possible to hold talks with handcuffs on. A year later, as former IB chief PC Haldar held several rounds of informal discussions with him inside the Guwahati Central Jail, the government agreed not to oppose the bail petitions of the ULFA leaders.
So, on February 5, the ULFA formally announced its decision to hold unconditional talks with the Government of India, but not before admitting that continuing to stick to the armed struggle could be suicidal.
The ULFA has also finally given up its earlier preconditions: of holding talks in a third country, including “sovereignty” as an issue on the agenda, and having an UN observer during the talks.
Five expert committees constituted by the Sanmilita Jatiya Abhibartan, a convention that was attended by representatives of over 100 groups and organisations in Guwahati last year, are now working overtime to prepare the framework for talks between the ULFA and the government.
“All that the people of Assam can now wish is that the ULFA leaders who have finally come forward for talks, do not go astray. Nobody can afford to miss this opportunity,” says Dr Hiren Gohain, former Gauhati University professor, who heads the Abhibartan.
Original Story: The Indian Express