ULFA ups the ante

Considering that the outfit has been relatively silent since the installation of the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government at Dispur in May 2001, the strikes could well mark the surfacing of a change of political equations. It seems strange then that it should have been the Gogoi administration that seemed completely at a loss regarding the violence, coming as it did in the midst of claims that the state was finally returning to normalcy. So much so that the state administration, already strapped for security forces (see interview) put out advertisements in local dailies offering rewards to anyone who could offer clues to what was to be the first of five mortar attacks starting November 2002. For the people of Assam, the developments could simply mean a return to being caught in the crossfire of a new confrontation, "like grass crushed in the fight between two bulls" as the state's most well-known thinker and singer-songwriter in recent times, Dr Bhupen Hazarika, says. Only in this case, the chaos could be worse, with the government and the ULFA, both of which had so long depended on short-term logistical moves, now digging in, in a violence-torn state.

Both Gogoi and Paresh Baruah, the self-styled commander in chief of the ULFA are victims of circumstances much beyond their control. Gogoi's election was, for example, not so much a mandate to bring the ULFA to the negotiating table as it was to rein in the notorious, and armed, SULFA, or surrendered ULFA, who had gone on the rampage during the time of his predecessor the Asom Gana Parishad’s (AGP) Prafulla Mahanta. Charged with misrule and rampant corruption, a personally sullied Mahanta accused of polygamy, was also said to have turned a blind eye to a series of 'secret killings' in the state, the popular perception being that the administration was in cahoots with the SULFA, turning Assam into a land of the midnight knock. Gogoi’s neutralising the SULFA in the circumstances by default meant a round of peace and goodwill with the ULFA.

Expected Impediments: Gogoi’s fortunes, however, were destined to be shortlived. While the surrendered militants did tone down their violent activities after the new chief minister took office, what with the Congress' pre-election pledge that it would not tolerate such lawlessness, the fact remains that the SULFA, when let loose, does form a ruthless, tried and tested force against their former comrades. In a situation where Gogoi, like any other chief minister, would ultimately run into the insurmountable roadblock of the ULFA’s “non-negotiable” demand of a "sovereign Assam", it isn’t surprising that the chief minister chose to manoeuvre in the limited space available.

The strategy: that while Gogoi makes repeated announcements of his willingness to travel abroad to hold talks with the ULFA (in line with the outfit’s demand that negotiations be held in a country other than India), his government would also go ahead and formalise the use of the SULFA against the militants, just in case. In the first week of March, Minister of State for Home Raquibul Hussain disclosed in the state assembly that Assam’s request for two new reserve police battalions to be formed with surrendered militants of the ULFA and NDFB (the National Democratic Front of Bodoland), is now pending with the Centre. According to Hussain, up to January 2003, there was a total of 8,798 militants who had surrendered. Of them 7,618 were members of the ULFA, while 317 were from the NDFB. “We are simply rehabilitating those who are law abiding among surrendered militants,” says Gogoi. “What else could one have expected the chief minister to say?” asks Sarat Sinha, former chief minister. “By employing former militants, while educated youth have no jobs, the government is abetting and encouraging militancy.” A decade ago Sinha had caused a furore in the state with his “they are all the same... AASU during the day, AGP in the evening and ULFA at night” statement. And are things different now? “Not at all,” he says, “every party that comes into power plays the same game.”

As contradictory, and perhaps self-defeating as Gogoi’s actions may seem, should the government’s plans succeed and it decide to use the SULFA along with the Unified Command comprising the army and police against the ULFA, Assam could witness a new and intensified round of violence that has in the past targetted not just those in uniform on either side of the law, but also families of ultras who were butchered, along with the general public which is victimised by both militants and security forces.

The Illegal Influx Angle: Add to the above the fact that the foreign nationals issue which, the ULFA's demands for the state's "freedom" notwithstanding, forms the original support base among the Assamese, especially in rural strongholds finally appears to work its way into the national agenda, and the outfit's sudden efforts to draw much needed attention no longer seem strange. With the recent countrywide outcry against illegal migration from Bangladesh, pending petitions by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and others challenging the IMDT Act in the Supreme Court, and the BJP making periodic noises about calling a joint session of Parliament to repeal the law, any solution on the influx front could among the Assamese threaten the existence of the ULFA, which has, in any case done a flip-flop on the issue in the past, with statements such as “There are no Bangladeshis in Assam”. “At that time, the ULFA were guests of Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, with the lady believing she could use the them to arm-twist India on the Farakka waters issue,” says DN Bezboruah, editor of The Sentinel in Guwahati, and perhaps the most vocal critic of the violence in the state and the IMDT Act, a piece of legislation that makes the detection and deportation of illegal migrants an almost impossible task.

Already boxed in by the fact that the Centre is actively negotiating with the NSCN-IM for a solution to the age-old Naga armed struggle, the oldest of insurgent movements in the North-east, completely leaving out the ULFA’s partner in the equation, the NSCN-K, this then would a crucial point for the ULFA to make its presence felt. Worse still, there are now reports that the NSCN-K too is preparing for talks with the Centre. A partner of the ULFA in the Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front (IBRF), the NSCN-K’s adopting a pro-negotiation agenda could completely marginalise the ULFA. Expectedly then, phone calls claiming responsibility for the recent blasts, a task that would normally have been left to the outfit's publicity secretary at best, this time came directly from Paresh Baruah. To the public, and a speculative media, it was also an indication that Baruah still controls the ULFA, laying to rest rumours of more moderate, and possibly pro-talk elements such as Arabinda Rajkhowa, its chairman, taking over.

That the Congress, its claims of wanting to bring back peace to the state, notwithstanding, has stuck to its old stand of opposing the repeal of the IMDT Act (widely believed to be an essential ingredient of vote-bank politics in the state), has only helped the ULFA further its cause in the present situation. “A combination of a solution with the NSCN-IM and a repeal of the IMDT Act would knock the bottom out of the ULFA movement,” says Bezboruah, a recipient of the Panchajanya Nachiketa Award for journalism. That, of course, would be too much to expect going by the state’s political history over the past two decades, the results of which are there for all to see.