Guwahati: Pro-peace talks United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) leader and General Secretary Anup Chetia has appealed to banned ULFA-Independent’s commander Paresh Baruah to join the process with the Centre, under a single organisation.
His call comes days after ULFA-I suffered a big blow with the surrender of its deputy commander Drishti Rajkhowa.
Baruah’s whereabouts are unknown but an expert believes he is in a Chinese region neighbouring Myanmar border, and controls his rebel outfit from there. He split from secessionist ULFA in 2012 after the outfit decided to suspend operations and sit with the Indian government for talks without preconditions.
While calling on Baruah to join the talks, Chetia claimed that the rebel leader is ready for talks if the government is willing to listen.
“He never said he is not ready for talks. Let the government listen to what he has to say. We want him to sit at the negotiating table. You may agree or disagree, but let there be no reluctance to listen to his views,” Chetia told ThePrint.
While ULFA’s earlier stated goal was sovereignty for Assam, its talks with the Centre over the last decade has precluded any such condition. However, Baruah continues to maintain his stand of joining the table only when the issue of sovereignty is under discussion.
Over four decades after its formation, the rebel group has weakened significantly and is facing several challenges — from logistics to funds and recruitment. The surrender of its deputy commander has only highlighted these. Here’s a look at where ULFA-I stands today.
Rajkhowa surrender and its impact
On 11 November, ULFA-I deputy commander-in-chief Drishti Rajkhowa alias Manoj Rabha surrendered in a joint operation by the Unified Command – the Army and the state police forces of Meghalaya and Assam in South West Garo Hills of Meghalaya bordering Bangladesh.
The 50-year-old’s surrender came after a relentless pursuit over nine years by the Army’s military intelligence (MI) wing. Rajkhowa, who hails from Rangjuli in Goalpara district of lower Assam, served ULFA for 30 years before he decided to surrender, primarily because of his wife’s ill health.
Speaking to local media in Guwahati over satellite phone from an undisclosed location, ULFA-I commander Paresh Baruah said Rajkhowa’s surrender happened with permission from the outfit, and was an outcome of various circumstances.
Chetia said, “It was getting very difficult for Drishti to survive in Garo Hills. He was not receiving any fund, and because there are no active insurgent outfits in Garo Hills, why will villagers provide the Assam boys with food and shelter for long? His wife’s health condition was also worsening.”
However, Chetia added that Rajkhowa’s arrest will not have a significant bearing on the ULFA-I.
“This will not affect the outfit in any big way. He was in charge of the western districts with four-five boys, not more. If he stayed this way, he would have been dead by now. There was also not much connection with Paresh,” he said.
“Drishti was waging an independent struggle on his own — Paresh uses a satellite phone and Drishti used WhatsApp — this created a hurdle in keeping contact. There were no differences between the two. The relation has always been cordial,” Chetia added.
Before his surrender, Rajkhowa had served several extortion notices to at least five businessmen in Goalpara district amounting to Rs 30 lakh each, with a further demand of Rs 5 lakh as annual contribution.
Now, the ULFA-I has announced the elevation of the outfit’s Major General Michael Deka Phukan as the new deputy commander.
Funds and manpower crunch
The ULFA-I has suffered a series of apprehensions and surrenders in the last few years, with the numbers fast dwindling from its maximum cadre strength of about 200, according to Assam Police sources.
Over 20-30 ULFA-I cadres have surrendered since the beginning of 2019, and many more are likely to give up, said the sources.
In May 2019, self-styled Corporal Tiger Asom alias Bubul Moran was captured in a joint operation by the Army and Assam Police. The 26-year-old is listed in police records as an active cadre who was involved in the killing of the Bordumsa police station officer-in-charge in Tinsukia in 2018.
Signs of desertions emerged in the outfit following the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army)’s crackdown on Northeast rebel groups at Ta Ga — headquarters of most Northeast militant groups — in February last year. The Tatmadaw captured several outposts, training schools, and recovered a huge cache of arms and ammunition while laying siege to the rebel camps.
Former Assam DGP Harekrishna Deka said the ULFA-I today is weakened and left with drying funds. Chetia agreed with this. But despite the setbacks, the outfit might continue to exist under tough conditions.
“The ULFA today has been left further weakened. Their source of funds is drying. Paresh might be getting help from China at some level. But their number has dwindled for lack of willing volunteers,” said DGP Deka.
“Drishti Rajkhowa’s surrender is a big blow too. Grapevine says even Paresh is trying to negotiate a face-saving return to mainstream. I do not know it for sure,” he added.
Chetia said ULFA-I has been weakened “naturally”. “The time when we started the movement — the conditions then and now are completely different. There were no proper roads or connectivity, no mobile phones or technology. Today, if an ULFA boy takes shelter in any village, anyone can inform security forces through the mobile phone,” he said.
“It is impossible to survive under such conditions. There have been many apprehensions and deaths too because of that,” said Chetia.
“The funding has also gone down, but Paresh is managing somehow through his sources,” he added.
‘Paresh Baruah still seems to be in control’
The pro-talks leader, however, believes that ULFA-I will continue to survive because of recruitment of new cadres, and resentment among people against the government over several issues, including the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
“The surrenders in ULFA started since 1992. Despite that the outfit has survived. Till recruitments continue, the organisation will survive. In recent times, a lot has to do with government policies as well — many youth joined the ULFA during the anti-CAA movement,” said Chetia.
Northeast rebel groups, including ULFA, will continue to be in Myanmar by shifting to new areas that may give them better human and logistics support, said Deka.
“The crackdown by Myanmar Army last year and later must have had its psychological effect too, particularly among the new recruits. There have been many attacks by the Myanmar Army in NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland) and ULFA camps in the past. But despite heavy losses, these outfits have survived,” the former Assam DGP said.
“The terrain of the region and anti-Myanmarese tribal environment helped them survive. And, from a distance, Paresh Baruah still seems to be in control of the outfit,” he said.
Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar observer and author of China’s India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World (2018), is also of the view that the Northeast insurgents would remain in and around Myanmar, and move closer to the Indian border.
“There’s nowhere near the Chinese border they could have a proper camp. Paresh Baruah is in Ruili in China, but there are no (rebel) troops there. The old headquarters at Ta Ga in northwestern Myanmar was abandoned in early 2019, but there are still a lot of other camps in the surrounding mountains,” he said.
The rebel body owes its origins to the anti-immigrant movement in Assam against the large-scale migration from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the aftermath of the 1971 war.
In the late 1970s, the state saw a boiling agitation by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), seeking detection of illegal immigrants, their deletion from the voters’ list and deportation to Bangladesh.
Talks between the Centre and AASU-AAGSP leaders broke down on the issue of the cut-off date. While the agitators demanded that the process of detection should cover all migrants who had entered India since 1951, the Centre insisted on 1971 for the identification of foreigners.
As the agitation began to display secessionist tendencies, local student leaders Bhimakanta Buragohain, Golap Baruah alias Anup Chetia, Samiran Gogoi alias Pradip Gogoi and Bhadreshwar Gohain formed the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in April 1979 to establish a “sovereign socialist Assam” through an armed struggle. Paresh Baruah joined the group in 1981.
While secession from India was ULFA’s declared goal, it has consistently stood against illegal immigration — a hot-button issue that remains a concern in Assam even now. Over the years, many other issues also came on its agenda, including the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).
The group remained inactive until the mid-1980s. The Assam Accord was signed in 1985 to resolve the immigrant issue.
In the early 1980s, ULFA-I 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. Its strength then soared to 3,000 militants with access to some 2,000 weapons of various makes.
“The cadre strength in 1983 was very strong. After we returned from Kachin (Burma), there was massive recruitment of cadres. We first got weapons after coming in contact with the NSCN in 1982. 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,” Chetia said in an interview published in Guerrilla, a book by journalist Biju Kumar Deka on insurgent groups of Western South East Asia.
The rebel group had clearly partitioned political and military wings. Paresh Baruah led the military wing as the outfit’s commander-in-chief’ while Arabinda Rajkhowa headed the political unit.
The violence perpetrated by ULFA included disruption of communications, hitting economic targets, ransom calls and killing of government officials. The killings and illegal activities escalated in 1990. In the same year, Assam was brought under President’s rule and ULFA was banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
By the early 1990s, it had a strength of around 5,000 trained insurgents. However, later in that decade, continuous military and para-military operations considerably weakened the outfit.
Banned outfit splits
In February 2011, ULFA leaders led by its vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi announced that the outfit’s general council had decided to sit for talks with the Centre without preconditions.
The group signed a tripartite agreement for Suspension of Operations (SoO) with the Centre and the Assam government and the ULFA-PTF in September 2011.
But a Paresh Baruah-led group described the general council as unconstitutional, negating the deal.
A formal split between the factions took place in August 2012 when Baruah expelled Arabinda Rajkhowa and appointed Abhijit Barman as the outfit’s chairman. Consequently, two factions emerged — Anti-talks faction (ULFA-ATF) and pro-talks faction (ULFA-PTF), led by Baruah and Rajkhowa, respectively.
The ULFA-ATF renamed itself as ULFA-Independent in April 2013.
According to satp.org, ULFA-I continues to maintain linkages with most other militant formations with which the undivided ULFA had relations.
Its cadres are militarily organised into three groups at different camps in Myanmar, Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh, and Mon district of Nagaland. Security agencies also suspect that the outfit still has a few camps in Bangladesh.