There had been a lull in the terror territory in our region with the guns and cannons falling silent ushering in an era of peace and quiet for our people. But the threatening by the Paresh-Barua-led faction of insurgent group United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) to popular Assamese singer and composer Zubeen Garg against defying the outfit’s ban on the performance of Hindi songs in the Rongali Bihu festival has once again raised the ugly head of dissidence. But an unfazed Zubeen said an artist could not be dictated to. He said he would live with his own freedom and would sing more of his own Hindi songs during his scheduled Bihu Programme. And rightly said as it seems these fighters are fighting against our freedom.
The northeastern part of India is a land blessed by the bounty of mother nature. It is a rainbow land — it is colourful, it is mysterious and it is a medley of diverse people. The northeast is an ethno-cultural frontier encompassing much of India’s rich but lesser known Mongoloid heritage, a transition zone of linguistic, racial and religious streams.
Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim are the states that constitute the Northeast. But earlier they were all under the mother state Assam. The hill tribes of the Northeast are different from their other counterparts in middle-east India. They compound local majorities within recognized territories where distinctive cultures have flourished in relative isolation which therefore has enabled them to claim statehood or local autonomy and hence the division of Assam.
The beautiful northeast had sadly turned into a cauldron of violence. The ULFA, BLT, NDFB, etc. in Assam, NSCN in Nagaland, NLFT in Tripura — the list goes on and on — are the militant organizations that have been raging havoc in the life and minds of innocent people from some time now.
If we zero in on Assam we note that the Assamese are a simple people. Complacent and ingenuous are two words that sum up the Assamese amply. They are a simple peace-loving lot who value and treasure their hard-earned freedom as fiercely as any other citizen of the country. Maniram Dewan, Kanak Lata, Piyoli Phukan are the names which flash in the minds of the Assamese when they think about the struggle for freedom, for these were the sons and daughters of the soil who had paid with their blood during the freedom struggle. And neither is the Assam movement beyond recollection.
The Assam movement was a mass movement which took place in the year 1978, triggered off by the infiltration of Bangladeshis from the border areas. This had imbibed a fear among the Assamese of losing their identity and cultural bonding. The students of Assam united to form the All Assam Students Union and led the people of Assam in their struggle to protect their identity. It resulted in the signing of the Assam Accord.
Aggrieved by the Assam Accord which it perceives as a sellout, and disillusioned by the local party’s, Asom Gana Parishad, performance in office during the following years, a faction of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) broke away and the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was born. Its aim was to separate Assam from India and create a Swadhin Assam and revive the cultural glory of Assam and establish socialism, albeit through violent means.
Initially the ULFA succeeded in spreading fear among the masses. The founder members of the ULFA were Arabinda Rajkhowa, Golap Barua and Paresh Barua. At its nascent stage the ULFA had carved a Robin hood image for itself by concentrating on eradicating social evils like banning liquor, helping villages to construct roads and bridges, etc. In the year 1986 the ULFA developed its first contacts with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the NSCN in Myanmar for training its recruits and acquiring arms. It was also during this time that it resorted to extortion and kidnappings to raise money. The business community and industrial establishments lived in dread following these activities. A few years later the pressures in Myanmar led the ULFA to establish relations with the ISI and the Afghan Mujahideen in Pakistan followed by the Bangladesh Field Intelligence in Dhaka. Though it sought to build contacts with the LTTE it did not bear much fruit. Vexed by its growing tentacles, the government called in the Army in 1990 and President’s rule was declared in Assam. Operation Bajrang was carried out which ultimately led to the ULFA being banned and branded as a terrorist organization. The top leaders of the organization fled to safer countries. Mass graves were found in the Lakhipathar and Saraipung jungles which told a tale of blood and terror. Police check posts became a familiar sight in Assam and people were hounded by the Army in the name of search operations and interrogations. Innocent youths found their way to the Army camps which ultimately led to a growing feeling of hatred for the ULFA among the masses.
Thinking that the worst was behind, the Centre declared elections in the state in 1991 and the Congress swept the polls. The late Hiteswar Saikia was sworn in as the chief minister of Assam but little did anyone realize that the ULFA would strike and raise its head once again at a time when the people were trying to heave a sigh of relief. The day the CM took oath the ULFA retaliated by abducting 14 IAS officials and in return demanded the release of all detenus held during Operation Bajrang. The government gave in to its demands and released 400 of the captives but the ULFA in turn went against its promise and killed some of the officials. And in the ensuing 11 weeks 166 persons were killed and a staggering 252 were kidnapped by the organization. At this juncture the Army was once again called in, resulting in Operation Rhino. Taken by surprise many hardcore militants were nabbed which included 46 top leaders as well as 299 supporters. Around 16 ULFA camps were destroyed and various papers were confiscated which proved its links with the NSCN, KIA and the LTTE. It was during this time that the ULFA threatened the vernacular press for its candid reports but the press stood its ground.
Later getting word that many of these youths were disillusioned and demoralized and wanted to shed the path of violence, the CM announced clemency. In March 1992 the publicity secretary of ULFA, Sunil Nath, led 3,500 youths to come and surrender. By mid-1995, more activists surrendered and the figure reached 4,860. The government announced a cash incentive of Rs. 50,000 and a soft loan of 2 lakhs for the rehabs. Many availed the offer and some were absorbed in various jobs. And therefore the SULFA, i.e., the Surrendered ULFA, was born.
After basking in its newfound glory for a while, a section of the SULFA, unable to shed its nefarious nature, began a pseudo rule of its own. Aided by the government and armed with PSOs the members of the SULFA have been raging terror of a different kind. Carrying arms openly has become a right for them. Harassing citizens by virtue of their ex-militant status has created a fear psychosis in the minds of the people. They have imposed their supremacy in all spheres including business opportunities. But they too are suffering from insecurity from their underground comrades. The remaining section of the militants who did not lay down arms feel transgressed by the SULFA’s coming into the mainstream and therefore has been targeting many of those who surrendered. The ULFA and the SULFA played the cat and mouse game for some years.
And then when the AGP was in the ruling seat led by Prafulla Kumar mahanta many family members of ULFA leaders were secretly killed by unidentified gunmen. With the fall of this government following elections in 2001, the secret killings stopped. Investigations into the killings culminated in the report of the “Saikia Commission”, presented to the Assam Assembly November 15, 2007. The report provides details about the killings and the ones involved in it.
However, now the Arabinda Rajkhowa-led Ulfa faction is holding peace talks with the government, the All Assam Surrendered Ulfa Samiti has been demanding that Ulfa hardliner ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah be brought to the talks table to find an amicable solution. They want the government to provide a window to Paresh Baruah to join the talks. The government has been reiterating its stand that it will continue the counter-insurgency operations if the militant organizations do not shun the path of violence. It has repeatedly said that it is ready to hold talks with the outfits provided they are within the parameters of the Indian Constitution and without any pre-conditions.
Hence, Assam is in a Catch 22 situation with neither of the two contenders willing to change its stance. The state’s developmental wheel has also come to a standstill with the big companies and industries either fleeing the scene or reluctant to invest in this region. This has therefore resulted in an increase in the rate of unemployment and therefore disillusionment among the youth, forcing them to join such militant outfits and rolling on the cycle of militancy in Assam.