Guwahati: The kidnapping of two employees of the New Delhi-headquartered Quippo Oil and Gas Infrastructure Limited by insurgents has come as a reminder of troubled times in Assam, when the ‘kidnapping-for-ransom’ strategy spread terror in the state.
This time though, the crime is being seen as one of desperation.
The two men — drilling superintendent Pranab Kumar Gogoi, 51, and radio operator Ram Kumar, 35 — were abducted by the United Liberation Front of Assam-Independent (ULFA-I) on 21 December from Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district, which borders Myanmar.
Last Sunday, the banned outfit’s commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah called up journalists in Assam to say that it has “deferred action” against the two officials and that the “deadline set for their release has been extended”. This came after it had threatened to take the “ultimate action” against the hostages earlier in the week.
On Friday, however, Barua told ThePrint from an unknown number “the negotiation is going on a good stead” with authorities at Quippo, where the two men are employed.
“Maybe after two to three days, we can inform the media. We are hopeful to get some positive results,” Barua said.
The sequence of events has brought the focus back on ULFA(I), a breakaway faction of the militant outfit ULFA, and its commander Paresh Baruah.
The last time ULFA(I) was in the news was for several low-profile kidnappings in 2019. The outfit had been lying low since.
Experts say these latest abductions are a desperate attempt by Baruah and the ULFA(I) to appear relevant.
“I feel that ULFA is already dead. They are trying to dig out the body and blow some life into it,” a former army officer, who was involved in operations against ULFA in the 1990s, told ThePrint. “But the method selected is most inappropriate. The biggest mistake they have made this time is to kidnap an Ahom guy.”
Former Assam Director General of Police Harekrishna Deka said the ULFA is back to using ransom as a source of revenue, and the present kidnapping seems to be motivated by a need for funds.
“ULFA seems to be in desperation and is a weakened outfit today. They are short of finance and have resumed extortions from companies,” Deka said. “The kidnapping of employees as soft targets is their old practice. But they miscalculated the reaction and threatened execution of the kidnapped persons. Instead of the government and the company being alarmed, this threat has invited public condemnation from different quarters.”
“These are not high-profile employees but the ULFA knows that the company with the consent of the government will negotiate their release so that their work in the region does not suffer,” Deka added. “Even earlier, kidnappings were mainly for money only. It was an easy way to raise funds.”
Pranab Kumar Gogoi and Ram Kumar were kidnapped from the Kumchaikha hydrocarbon drilling site near Innao in Arunachal Pradesh.
While Gogoi is Assamese from Sivasagar district, Ram Kumar hails from Bihar. Kumar’s five-year-old son, who is battling blood cancer, has made an emotional appeal for his father’s release.
ULFA(I) reportedly demanded Rs 20 crore for the men and had initially set 16 February as the deadline for the ransom payment.
A video appeal of the two employees released by the outfit in January confirmed that they are in the custody of ULFA(I) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN).
While it is not clear which faction of the NSCN is involved in the incident, the Changlang Police had earlier suspected the Myanmar-based NSCN-K to be behind the abductions. The NSCN(IM) in Nagaland, which is currently negotiating a peace deal with the Modi government, denied allegations of being involved in the incident.
On its part, Quippo has so far not issued an official statement on the matter though it is in negotiations with ULFA(I) over the phone.
News channel News18 Assam Northeast, however, recently quoted a Quippo spokesperson as saying that the company is still negotiating with the banned outfit.
“For us there is no deadline. I know two of my colleagues are there, and we will work to ensure that they return home,” the spokesperson said. “We have been in discussion with them since 21 December. We are not in a position to call them, they call us. In the past few weeks, we had talks multiple times a day, and on a daily basis also.”
The spokesperson added that the central government was also helping the firm. “In addition to directly talking with them, we are also working with the intelligence agencies under the central government,” the spokesperson said. “They are also guiding us on how to resolve this. We are also taking the help of a well-known person in the Northeast to reach out to them.”
The Assam Police also said it is working to ensure the release of the two men. “We are in touch with the Arunachal Pradesh Police to ensure the safe release of the abducted persons,” Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order) in Assam, G.P. Singh, told ThePrint.
ULFA’s history of abductions in past
ULFA owes its origins to the six-year-long (1979-1985) Assam Movement seeking detection of illegal immigrants, their deletion from the voters’ list and deportation to Bangladesh.
The extremist faction of the movement, which was always skeptical about the much-hyped ‘constitutional safeguard’ for Assamese, metamorphosed into ULFA. The group’s objective is “restoring Assam’s sovereignty”.
Baruah split from secessionist ULFA in 2012 after the outfit decided to suspend operations and sit with the Indian government for talks without preconditions. He now heads the ULFA(I).
The abduction of Quippo staffers is the latest in a long history of hostage-taking incidents by militant outfits in the Northeast.
The banned ULFA had made abductions a cottage industry in the early 1990s. The extremist outfit used the fear factor to extort money from business houses and tea gardens or would kidnap employees to pressurise the companies concerned.
At the very beginning of the Hiteswar Saikia-led Congress government in 1991, the ULFA simultaneously kidnapped 14 persons, including a Soviet engineer, Sergei Gretchenko, to secure release of its arrested cadres.
The state government had to hold secret negotiations and came to a compromise by releasing some of them. Gretchenko was later killed while trying to escape.
In 1994, ULFA members allegedly abducted Hemram Keot, the then Commissioner of Taxes in the Assam Administration.
Among these high-profile abductions, some hostages survived their ordeals while others were killed. In 1990, ULFA murdered tea planter Surendra Paul, the brother of UK-based businessman Lord Swraj Paul.
In 1997, Delhi-based activist Sanjay Ghose was abducted by ULFA because of differences of opinion with the outfit. Ghose was later killed, and his body dumped into the Brahmaputra, according to the police charge sheet.
In recent years, a manager-caretaker of a stone quarry in Tinsukia named Apurba Kakoti was abducted by ULFA rebels for ransom in 2018. In October 2019, Gauranga Sudar Deb, a staffer of Sankar Tea Estate in Talap area of Tinsukia district, was abducted. He was set free after 12 days when the company paid an unknown ransom amount.
Six persons were kidnapped between January 2015 and July 2019 by the ULFA, either on its own or in joint operations with other outfits, according to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Tribunal that upheld the central government view last year that ULFA is an unlawful organisation.
Experts say that apart from monetary gain, the abductions are used for political gains too.
“Kidnapping of high-profile government officers and politicians was to negotiate release of arrested cadres of the outfit,” former DGP Deka said, referring to the kidnapping of Hare Krishna Das, the general manager of the public sector Guwahati refinery in July 1990 during the first term of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government.
“It was to seek release of Hirakjyoti Mahanta, the then second-in-command of ULFA,” Deka added. “The AGP government wilted under pressure, had secret negotiations with the outfit and Hirakjyoti was not only released, but ULFA escorted him with armed guards from Guwahati to Chabua under the terms of these secret negotiations,” he told ThePrint.
The video appeal by the two Quippo employees revealed another aspect of the entire saga — the close ties between ULFA(I) and the NSCN, both banned outfits.
It is believed that the Myanmar-based Khaplang faction of NSCN (NSCN-K) is behind the abduction. “Since they have done this together, it’s only obvious that they have to seek NSCN’s consent,” pro-talks ULFA leader and General Secretary Anup Chetia told ThePrint.
“If they take their own decision without discussing it with them, then the understanding between the two outfits will be affected. ULFA and NSCN have friendly relations,” Chetia said.
In the early 1980s, ULFA formed associations with other Northeast rebel groups — NSCN and the Kachin Independence Army. By 1986, it had established contacts with agents of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
“We first got weapons after coming in contact with the NSCN in 1982,” Chetia said in an interview published in ‘Guerrilla’, a book by journalist Biju Kumar Deka on insurgent groups of Western South East Asia. “We didn’t have money then to buy arms and ammunition. NSCN gave us the weapons they used — the first one was an AK-series rifle. They helped us immensely, from the heart. ULFA will always remain indebted to them.”
“NSCN trained us, gave us food, asking for nothing in return. Khaplang was more sympathetic towards us,” Chetia narrated in ‘Guerrilla’. “He always believed that people of Assam have a historical connection with the Burmese. The Ahoms came from that side and had resemblance with their Pangmi tribe. He considered us his own.”
ULFA(I) has been conducting operations — individually and in alliance with other Northeast insurgent groups including NSCN(K) in the bordering areas of Assam and the neighbouring states.
On 19 November, 2016 ULFA(I) and NSCN(K) ambushed an army convoy in Assam’s Tinsukia district, killing three security forces personnel. On 22 January, 2017, the two outfits carried out an ambush on security forces in Arunachal’s Changlang district, inflicting casualties.
Analysts now warn that paying of ransom will set a bad precedent and might lead other militant groups or anti-social elements to employ this strategy in the future.
“While every citizen wants the safe release of the two Quippo employees, paying ransom and appealing time and again to militant groups to release kidnapped persons is likely to embolden the ULFA, which is not desirable,” said Brigadier Ranjit Borthakur (retd).
“The government should devise appropriate measures to protect all citizens — whether employed by government or private companies involved in various developmental work, especially in militant dominated areas,” he added.