Two contrasting incidents in Assam reveal the current reality in the once restive state
In an appalling display of brutality and desperation, six militants belonging to the hard-line faction of the outlawed Assamese insurgent outfit the United Liberation Front of Asom - Independent (ULFA-I) on 31 October perpetrated an execution-style massacre of five innocent Bengali-speaking workers of Bisonimukh Kherabari village in Tinsukia district in the north-east Indian state of Assam. The manner in which the killing was carried out was dreadfully brutal, and it exhibited the depths of desperation that the once potent ULFA has been reduced to.
Sahadev Namashudra, the sole survivor of the ULFA-I attack, revealed that at 1945 hours on 31 October, the six militants wearing olive fatigues and carrying sophisticated weapons visited the shop where the victims had gathered and asked them to accompany the militants to a nearby spot for questioning. He added, "We had to line up. Suddenly I heard gunfire. I jumped towards a low land. There was some smoke and I could hear more rounds of gunfire. There was chaos. I remained lying down for 5 to 10 minutes in the dark. When I looked for others who were in the group, I saw someone lying on the ground. I started running towards my house. I called the others, only to find five bloodied bodies".
Just a few weeks prior to this carnage, ULFA-I had carried out an explosion of a low-intensity bomb in Assam’s largest city Guwahati on 13 October in which four people, including a woman, had been injured. The choice of such soft targets and the pointlessness of the violence let loose against them reflect the dire straits that ULFA-I finds itself in.
ULFA was formed during the ‘Assam Movement’ of 1979-85 that was characterized by street-protests against illegal migration from neighbouring Bangladesh that the protestors believed threatened to reduce Assam’s indigenous population into a minority. Assam’s plight as a less-developed state of India provided ULFA with a further opportunity to exploit. In its heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s the then unified ULFA, which demanded sovereignty for Assam, enjoyed considerable public support on the back of the emotive issue of illegal migration and the idealistic narrative that the outfit subscribed to and propagated. The idealism of the group of young Assamese men that formed ULFA in Sibsagar district of Assam in 1979, however, soon gave way to opportunism and greed that manifested itself in the excesses of indiscriminate violence and ruthless extortion, with even the indigenous Assamese population being considered fair targets.
A string of violent attacks in Assam by ULFA in the early 1990s prompted firm retaliation from the Indian State. Sustained pressure from the Indian security forces weakened ULFA and drove the majority of its leaders and militants to seek shelter in neighbouring countries. Bhutan and Bangladesh, both of which share land borders with Assam, were convenient bases that not only afforded ULFA safe sanctuary but also enabled it to carry out violent operations and extort funds from its nearby zones of operation in Assam. The geography of Bhutan and the scanty presence of Bhutanese troops in the rugged mountain terrain bordering Assam facilitated the setting up of several ULFA camps in the Samdrup Jhonkar region of the country by the mid-1990s. In Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) party, both of which have a marked anti-India hue, enthusiastically hosted ULFA as well as several other north-east Indian insurgent organizations as a de facto State policy during their period in power.
Concerted pressure from India combined with the dawning of the unsavory reality that the ULFA presence in Bhutan had grown to be a menace for the local population led to the launch of the highly successful India-Bhutan joint ‘Operation All Clear’ in 2003 in which ULFA militants were flushed out en masse from their Bhutanese camps and pushed across the border into the thankful hands of the waiting Indian security forces. In Bangladesh, the tide for ULFA turned with the landslide electoral victory of the traditionally pro-India Awami League (AL) party headed by Sheikh Hasina in December 2008. Hasina reversed the policy of the BNP-JEI combine by launching an all-out attack against ULFA and other Indian insurgent groups that had been ensconced in comfort in the country. Most of the top leaders of ULFA, including chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, were apprehended and handed over to Indian authorities. These leaders, having discarded their earlier demand for independence, began negotiating a peaceful settlement with the Indian Government in 2011.
However, ULFA’s commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah fled to Myanmar where he was sheltered by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang). He announced the formation of ULFA-I, which was a pale reflection of the undivided ULFA, and pledged to continue the armed insurgency. As per reports in the media, Paresh Baruah is presently living in the Yunnan province of China. The Chinese Government when queried on Baruah’s presence in Yunnan has been evasive in its response.
The force of the Indian State and the loss of foreign habitat only partly explain the reason for ULFA being condemned to its present insignificance. A critical contributing factor has been the near-complete erosion of the goodwill that had catapulted ULFA into prominence in its early years. Academic Sanjib Baruah brought out this dissipation of public support by quoting Assamese TV personality Akashitora, who questioned, "Is there any valid reason to glorify ULFA, which was responsible for the killing of so many innocent lives in the past 30 years? They are talking about their colleagues killed or missing; what about the hundreds killed by the ULFA?” Sanjib Baruah further opined that, “Clearly the violence endured by the people over the past three decades since ULFA was formed in 1979 – acts committed by ULFA and other militant organizations as well as by the security forces – had significantly changed the public mood, and the perceptions of ULFA”. Freelance journalist Rajeev Bhattacharya, who has covered ULFA extensively, responded to the question “Has the ULFA then lost all goodwill of the Assamese population, something that was instrumental to its rise in the first place?” by pointing out that “The fact that ULFA had to rope in school children to trigger the blasts in Tinsukia speaks a lot about its current conditions. Motivation is extremely low among the cadres. Most importantly, there is not a single experienced commander in Myanmar”.
The incremental withering of ULFA’s acceptability in the eyes of an Assamese population facing the brunt of its mindless violence was accompanied by a weakening of the outfit’s ability to strike at its preferred targets. This presented the opportunity to the Indian State to ensure and sustain near-normalcy in Assam, which it wisely capitalized upon. Incessant violence and deep-rooted fear had engulfed the people of the state since the 1990s. This was progressively replaced by a sense of security and normalcy. The days when long spells of curfew were imposed in the state, when travel within the state was fraught with the lurking danger of being accosted, intimidated and extorted by armed ULFA militants, when families refrained from venturing out after dark and the youth forfeited visits to parks and pubs to the larger interest of safety, and when industrialists and farmers alike lived in constant fear of marauding ULFA militants demanding their money, livestock and food grains, were all things of the past. Economic development, that had taken a back seat in the vicious cycle of insurgent attacks and punitive responses by the State, could now be focused upon in this refreshingly new environment.
It was in this new milieu that four Naga insurgents suspected of belonging to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), ULFA-I’s close ally, found themselves transporting a large cache of weapons from Assam to the adjacent Indian state of Nagaland on the morning of 3 November. The weapons, comprising a 12-bore single barrel rifle, three AK-56 rifles, a Chinese LMG rifle, two 5.56-mm rifles, a .22 pistol, 308 rounds of 5.56-mm bullets, 361 rounds of 7.62-mm bullets and a hand grenade, were concealed under stacks of bamboo. When they reached Harinagar village in Assam's Cachar district, which falls on a route that is often used by insurgent groups to ferry weapons, the four insurgents were bravely confronted by villagers suspicious of the cargo that they were transporting. Two of the insurgents managed to escape, but the remaining two were beaten severely by the villagers and then handed over to the police. They later succumbed to their injuries in hospital.
This incident has served as a grim reminder to ULFA and other similar insurgent outfits that their violent ways would eventually be rejected by the very people they claim to represent. It has also yet again delivered the valuable lesson to states combating insurgency that the key to winning over hearts and minds lies in the state’s ability to ensure a sense of normalcy and a fulfilling lifestyle to affected citizens. Assam even today does not figure amongst India’s most prosperous states, even if the focused efforts of the central and state governments have seen to it that the state has come a long way economically since the 1990s.
For people emerging from circumstances such as those faced by Assam over the last 30 years, it is the psychology of being free from fear and the ability to lead a normal life that are infinitely more important.