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MANTRAYA ANALYSIS#31: 30 NOVEMBER 2018

Paresh Baruah’s ULFA: Signs of Revival 

Bibhu Prasad Routray

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Abstract

ULFA-Independent, which seeks independence of India’s northeastern state of Assam, and operates from its camps located in the ungoverned spaces of Myanmar, is on a comeback trail. Headed by veteran rebel leader Paresh Baruah, ULFA has not only executed few terror attacks in Assam in 2017, its ability to recruit and extort too has grown. To prevent its revival the state needs to do more than conducting kinetic operations.   

Paresh Baruah     (ULFA-I commander in Chief Paresh Baruah)

 

On a Comeback Trail

In the morning of 28 November, passersby in several districts of Assam, in northeastern India, noticed flags of ULFA-Independent (ULFA-I) hoisted at various locations. Flags also had come up in two locations in Guwahati, adjoining the state capital Dispur.[1] The day is observed by the outfit as ‘Protest day’. Although no violence had been orchestrated, the Paresh Baruah-led outfit had managed to make a statement, right in the heart of Assam’s power centre.

Baruah, the recalcitrant rebel leader, who is ULFA’s founding member and Commander-in-Chief since 1979, remains opposed to any negotiations with the government. For long Indian security agencies have pointed at the fact that Baruah divides his time between Myanmar and China. In Myanmar, the outfit maintains camps and training facilities along with outfits like the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K). In China, Baruah pleads with the authorities and sometimes succeeds getting assistance in forms of finance and arms.[2] In fact, India’s Home Ministry believes that ULFA is the newest weapon in the hands of Beijing to revive the insurgency movements in the northeast. The issue reportedly figured in the meeting between India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Zhao Kezhi, China’s Minister of  Public Security in October 2018 in New Delhi.[3] China’s support provides Baruah the hope that he can indeed rebuild the movement.

Surge in Violence

Assam’s security situation has improved. Compared to 2012, when the state witnessed 169 extremism related incidents, in 2017, these numbers were reduced to only 33. A part of the reason for this improvement is the neutralization of extremists in security force operations. Between 2012 and 2017, 2294 extremist cadres were arrested, 319 cadres were killed, and another 1009 surrendered. Another 199 cadres have been killed, arrested and have surrendered in 2018 (till November). This neutralization of 3821 cadres in the past seven years has had enormous impact on insurgencies- big and small- making it difficult for them to operate with impunity. Only three security force personnel and six civilians were killed by extremists in 2017, compared to four security force personnel and 29 civilians in 2016.[4]

However, Baruah’s commitment to revive the movement has translated into a mini surge of sorts in violence, mostly in the districts in proximity with Assam’s borders with Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. Both states share boundary with Myanmar, allowing the ULFA-I cadres undisrupted routes for ingress and egress. Districts including Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Charaideo, Nalbari, Darrang, Sivasagar, and Udalguri have witnessed activities by the ULFA-I cadres and its over ground workers.

Amid reports of the ULFA-I cadres sneaking into Assam to carry out an attack on the Republic Day, the outfit on 26 January triggered three low intensity explosions in Tinsukia district. A day earlier, on 25 January, it had circulated a video of its cadres burning the Indian national flag and calling for a boycott of the Republic Day. Other incidents include ULFA-I cadres opening fire in Charaideo district (on 5 February), killing a police officer in Tinsukia district (on 5 May) and engaging in multiple encounters with the police and army personnel. On 26 March, in Namsai district of Arunachal Pradesh, ULFA-I cadres attacked a check post manned by Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel.

However, the most brutal and daring of the attacks came on 1 November. In the evening, a group of ULFA-I cadres dressed in military fatigues and armed with AK-47s converged on Bisonimukh-Kherbari, a Bengali-dominated village in Tinsukia district. They picked up and led six villagers to the nearby riverbank before executing five of them. Only one survived as he lunged forward on to some low-lying land nearby. ULFA-I denied its responsibility in the attack, but the Assam police insisted that the killings could have been carried out only by the outfit. Prior to this killing, on 13 October, ULFA-I had carried out and claimed responsibility for a low intensity explosion along Brahmaputra river bank in Guwahati injuring four persons. Baruah called up a Guwahati based TV news channel and said this is his message to “people who stay in Assam but are conspiring against Assam”[5]. Interestingly, Assam police had initially rubbished Baruah’s claim.[6]

Widening Acceptability?

The ongoing National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam that seek to identify and deport illegal Bangladeshi Muslims in Assam and New Delhi’s bid to push through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 that provides citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who migrated to India till 31 December 2014, appears to have boosted the prospects of ULFA-I. The outfit’s foundation is built on the issue of restoring the rights of the indigenous population of Assam from the onslaughts of outsiders including the Bangladeshi immigrants as well as Indians from other states. Although ULFA had diluted its position on Bangladeshis during the time it had found shelter in Bangladesh, it is now sensing an opportunity to make a comeback flagging the same issue. ULFA-I’s objection that the Citizenship Bill if passed, would legalise the stay of ‘Hindu Bangladeshis’ in Assam and turn them into a minority, is shared by many civil society organisations and the pro-talk faction of the ULFA. The underlining ideology of the outfit, however, isn’t much about protection of Assam’s indigenous population. Barring few pockets in the state’s eastern districts, the outfit’s archaic revolutionary slogans have few takers.

And yet, Baruah continues to find new recruits to add to his cadre strength of 400. ULFA-I cadres continue to serve extortion notes on businessmen. In June 2017, a charge sheet by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) spoke of a ‘massive recruitment drive in the rural areas of Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Sivasagar, Lakhimpur and Nalbari districts’[7]. In August 2018, Additional Director General (Special Branch) of Assam Police admitted that the ULFA has recruited youths in upper Assam’s Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts.[8] While experts insist that the surge in ULFA’s popularity is due to the NRC issue, Assam government says that ULFA-I is merely exploiting the unemployed youths. On 25 November, Assam’s Finance Minister said that ULFA-I’s ability to find recruits is due to ‘lack of employment opportunities for the youth’. “The root is employment. So, if we could bring them (youths) back to Assam and give them jobs here, they will not go to ULFA-I” he said.[9] Given that the government’s ability to provide employment is limited, the minister’s statement indirectly admitted that ULFA-I’s terror-criminal activities continue to provide an attractive career option to some of Assam’s youths. An example of this trend is the launch of ULFA’s Facebook page, Swadhin Asom (independent Assam), on 15 June 2018 and the reaction it received. Within the first 20 hours, the page had received hundreds of ‘Likes’. Some of the visitors even shared their mobile numbers on the page, expressing their desire to join the outfit. The page has since been disabled.[10]

Back Channel Talks

ULFA-I remains married to the idea of ‘sovereignty for Assam’ and Paresh Baruah remains committed to a war with India. There are several indications from his statements in the past that he would prefer to die as a rebel for the cause of Assam’s independence, rather than making peace with his adversaries. His former colleagues, due to variety of reasons, came over ground, splitting the organization in 2009. Baruah, however, has not only remained adamant and rebuffed peace overtures, but has strategized to revive his organization by establishing alliances with other insurgencies and sought help from India’s neighbouring countries.

It appears that he has turned down New Delhi’s most recent back channel efforts to bring him on board to expand the scope of negotiations that the government is conducting with the pro-talk ULFA faction. In the early months of 2018, New Delhi engaged an unidentified senior pro-talk ULFA leader to play mediator with an objective of bringing Baruah to the negotiation table. In April 2018, a newspaper said that the government has managed to establish a direct channel with ‘certain individuals having access to Baruah’. Couple of rounds of preliminary discussions with the potential go-betweens were held in Myanmar and Europe[11]. But nothing came out of it.

In early May, Baruah told a Guwahati based television channel, “If the government of India wants a dialogue, it has to treat the ULFA issue as a political issue”. The statement was interpreted as a change in Baruah’s heart, by the overzealous media.[12] In September 2017, Baruah had similarly insisted that the proposed process of negotiation must be on the issue of Assam’s independence, in response to an appeal by spiritual Guru Sri Sri Ravishankar for peace. “Our arms struggle for a sovereign Assam does not need any form of rehabilitation, demanding back our motherland which was forcefully occupied by Indian colonists is not a crime. We reject your offer of peace talks with the government of India, unless they are willing to take the independence of Assam into consideration and practice it in their constitution”, Baruah insisted.[13] 

State Response

Stepping up security force operations has been standard reactionary practice of the state to ULFA’s violence. In November 2018 alone, 34 people were detained by Assam police for providing support to the ULFA in the state.[14] Police rue the advantages enjoyed by the insurgents from the open inter-state and international borders. It is evident that joint operations and coordination between state police forces between Assam, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh, either don’t exist or are too patchy to be effective. Similarly, it is apparent that after decades of counter-insurgency operations, India is yet to find an answer to the complexity posed by Myanmar’s ungoverned spaces. Clearly, the occasional, yet much publicized surgical strikes by the Indian armed personnel into Myanmar have not achieved long-term results. The growing ties between Myanmar and India have not translated into active cooperation in the security realm.

There is, however, a limit to the solution that a force-centric approach can provide to the challenge posed by Paresh Baruah’s ULFA-I. There are several other areas that need attention. The negotiations with the pro-talk ULFA has been continuing for the last seven years. The Suspension of Operation (SoO) Agreement with the outfit had been signed in September 2011. The controversy around the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill too has enforced the ULFA. Unless a holistic approach is adopted to address these multiple challenges, ULFA’s revival, facilitated by external assistance as well as internal incapacities, may be difficult to prevent. Such a development would not only destabilize the region, but would also affect the Act East Policy of the government.

 

End Notes

[1] “ULFA-I flags found hoisted in city, other places”, Assam Tribune, 29 November 2018, http://www.assamtribune.com/scripts/detailsnew.asp?id=nov2918/at056. Accessed 29 November 2018.

[2] In an interview Baruah elaborated his outfit’s links with China. “We have a very cordial relation with China, and their friendship is unparalleled. But we need to understand China’s compulsions. They have become a powerful nation [that is present] in all powerful forums of the world. So we cannot expect them to do everything we ask for. They can do certain things, but they cannot do everything for us. We understand that situation, so we are reaching out to other nations as well.” Rabi Banerjee, “We need international support, and we are getting it”, The Week, 24 November 2018, https://www.theweek.in/theweek/cover/2018/11/22/we-need-international-support-and-we-are-getting-it.html. Accessed 27 November 2018. [P.S. ULFA-I denied that this interview was ever conducted. The Week, on the other hand, has produced an audio recording of the interview and has stood by its publication.]

[3] “India asks China to support application in UN on Masood Azhar, not to shelter ULFA chief”, Economic Times, 22 October 2018, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-asks-china-to-support-application-in-un-on-masood-azhar-not-to-give-shelter-ulfa-chief/articleshow/66321080.cms. Accessed 27 November 2018.

[4] “Insurgency in Northeast”, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, https://mha.gov.in/sites/default/files/5_InsurgencyNE_21022018.PDF. Accessed 23 November 2018.

[5] “Assam: Four injured in explosion in Guwahati, no casualties reported so far”, Scroll, 13 October 2018, https://scroll.in/latest/898147/assam-four-injured-in-explosion-in-guwahati-no-casualties-reported-so-far. Accessed 27 November 2018.

[6] Rahul Karmakar, “4 hurt in minor blast in Guwahati; ULFA claims responsibility”,The Hindu, 13 October 2018, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/four-injured-in-guwahati-blast/article25213768.ece. Accessed 28 November 2018.

[7] Neeraj Chauhan, “ULFA on massive recruitment drive in rural Assam, says NIA’, Times of India, 1 July 2018, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/ulfa-on-massive-recruitment-drive-in-rural-assam-says-nia/articleshow/59691503.cms. Accessed on 27 November 2018.

[8] Mahesh Deka, “ULFA (I) launches recruitment drive across Assam, serves extortion notice to Fancy Bazar traders”, Northeast Now, 9 August 2018, https://nenow.in/north-east-news/ulfa-launches-recruitment-drive-across-assam-serves-extortion-notice-fancy-bazar-traders.html. Accessed 27 November 2018.

[9] “Youths turning to ULFA (I) due to unemployment: Assam minister”, Business World, 26 November 2018, http://bwpeople.businessworld.in/article/Youths-turning-to-ULFA-I-due-to-unemployment-Assam-minister/26-11-2018-164519/. Accessed 27 November 2018.

[10] Prabin Kalita, “Ulfa Facebook page gains massive popularity within 20 hours of opening”, Times of India, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/ulfa-facebook-page-gains-massive-popularity-within-20-hours-of-opening/articleshow/64616299.cms. Accessed 27 November 2018.

[11] Pankaj Sarma, “Delhi bid to rope in Paresh for talks”, Telegraph, 25 April 2018, https://www.telegraphindia.com/states/north-east/delhi-bid-to-rope-in-paresh-for-talks/cid/1447300. Accessed 28 November 2018.

[12] “Ulfa-I chief holds out olive branch, ‘open to peace talks’”, Times of India, 7 May 2018, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/guwahati/ulfa-i-chief-holds-out-olive-branch-open-to-peace-talks/articleshow/64060112.cms. Accessed 28 November 2018.

[13] Seema Hussain, “Leave us alone: ULFA snub to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar”, The Week, 9 September 2017, https://www.theweek.in/content/archival/news/india/leave-us-alone-ulfa-snub-sri-sri-ravi-shankar.html. Accessed 27 November 2018.

[14] “Rising Violence: Guwahati police steps up operations”, Sentinel, 25 November 2018, https://www.sentinelassam.com/news/rising-violence-guwahati-police-steps-up-operations/. Accessed 28 November 2018.

(Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is Director of Mantraya. This Special Report is published as part of Mantraya’s ongoing “Mapping Terror and Insurgent Network”, “China in South Asia”, and “Borderlands” projects. Mantraya Special Reports are peer reviewed publications.)

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