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Dealing with ULFA's Terror

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
Dr. M. Amarjeet Singh is Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution, School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Banglore, India. Prior to this he was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
Dr Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
Col. Gurinder Singh was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 22, 2007

    The recent orgy of violence perpetrated by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has brought the issue of security of the common citizen in Assam to the fore again. The scale of violence was highest in Tinsukia with 34 killed, while nine were killed in Sibsagar, eight in Dibrugarh and six in Dhemaji districts. Attacks were also carried out in Golaghat and Guwahati. The orgy of violence started on January 5, 2007, and is likely to continue as indicated by intelligence reports. The ULFA has a history of resorting to acts of terror ahead of important events to pressurize both the Central and State governments to make some concessions. In mid 2006, a series of bomb blasts occurred days before the Central Government and the People's Consultative Group (PCG) were scheduled to hold consultations on the issue of direct talks with ULFA. At that time, it was felt that violent tactics were used to coerce the government to release top ULFA functionaries held in prison on the pretext of holding talks. This time, the spate of targeted violence against the Hindi-speaking migrants began a day after Home Secretary Duggal reviewed security arrangements for the forthcoming National Games to be held in Guwahati in February 2007.

    There is widespread speculation that these killings could have been orchestrated by ULFA to disrupt the games. The expectation is that these terror tactics would force contingents participating in the forthcoming Games to pull out amidst fear of more attacks. Indeed, the venue of the games, Guwahati, witnessed two bomb blasts on January 8 near the army cantonment in Satgaon area. These incidents could also be a reaction to the outcome of an opinion poll, carried out by an independent organization, Assam Public Works (APW), in the state's nine districts showing little popular support for ULFA's campaign for a Swadin Asom (Independent Assam).

    The ULFA resistance movement, started in 1979, was founded on an ideology of Assamese nationalism. Its slogan was to establish a Swadin Asom ((Independent Assam) comprising the ethnic Assamese speaking people. In the beginning, it did manage to garner support from the Assamese people. Over time, however, its ideological degeneration, terror tactics, extortion, external linkages and acceptance of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam have seriously eroded its popular support. Significantly, the historical narrative on which the ULFA bases its resistance movement have also been challenged by mainstream Assamese intellectuals like Udayon Misra, who argue that ULFA's methodology of historical interpretation reflects a selective bias. Prominent public figures like Amalendu Guha, Dr. Hiren Gohain, Homen Borgohain, Dr. Kanak Sen Deka, Jayanta Madhab, and Dr. Nagen Saikia are highly critical of the outfit's tactic of targeting innocent civilians. ULFA has never attempted to take the people of Assam into confidence regarding its organizational structure, tactics and strategy. It has also disregarded the views of other ethnic groups of Assam like the Bodos, Chutias, Deuris, Dimasas, Karbis, Koch-Rajbangshis, Rabhas, Mising, Nagas, Tiwa, etc. The rebel group is hardly representative of the Assamese people.

    One significant reason for the ULFA losing popular support is its growing nexus with external agencies. After the military operations against the outfit in the early 1990s, the ULFA established its base in Bangladesh and forged close links with Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and Bangladesh's Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI). Top ULFA leaders including Paresh Barua and Arabinda Rajkhowa are believed to be operating from Bangladesh. Assam Police has in its possession a list of 12 residential addresses, all in Dhaka, where Paresh Barua, had lived between 1990 and 2004. This list includes several posh localities of Dhaka including New Eskaton Road, Mirpur, Uttara, Mohammedpur and Dhanmondi. The ULFA has invested heavily in real estate and transportation business especially in Sylhet and Chittagong districts of Bangladesh.

    Over the past several years, the Indian security establishment has gathered substantial evidence showing the ISI and DGFI's hand in sponsoring terrorism in the northeast through various insurgent groups active in the region. Available evidence suggests that the ULFA-ISI-DGFI nexus began way back in the early 1990s. On May 15, 2005, a team of Assam and Meghalaya Police arrested an ISI agent, Mohammed Hasifuddin on the Assam-Meghalaya border. He was alleged to have supplied explosives to ULFA for the Independence Day bomb blast at Dhemaji town on August 15, 2004. These blasts killed 17 persons, mostly children. There is evidence to establish that in November 2006, the ULFA collaborated with the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), an associate of Pakistan's ISI, to engineer a bomb blast in the Haldibari-New Jalpaiguri passenger train. It is not a coincidence that in its recent spate of violence, the ULFA has targeted Hindi speaking migrants and not the illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

    Over the years, the government of India has been expressing its desire to hold direct talks with the ULFA. However, its past experience has not been encouraging due to the ULFA's intransigence. The ULFA's offer to hold talks with the Centre during major security operations has been aimed at getting the security forces off its back. This happened during Operation Bajrang in 1990 and Operation Rhino in 1991. In 1992, in response to ULFA's offer to hold talks, the Centre released five of its senior leaders. But soon after the first round of talks, the leaders slipped into Bangladesh and never returned to the negotiating table. Similarly, in the aftermath of Operation All Clear in 2003, when its bases in Bhutan were destroyed and most of its cadres killed or arrested, the ULFA again expressed a desire for talks in 2005. It established the PCG in October 2005 comprising eleven members it nominated. The PCG's mandate was to hold exploratory talks with the government on behalf of the ULFA and prepare the groundwork for a dialogue. While three rounds of talks were held with the PCG, they broke down, as the Centre wanted the ULFA's assurance that it would shun violence and participate in direct talks. The ULFA, on the other hand, insisted on the release of its five top leaders lodged in jails, asserting that the 10-member ULFA executive committee alone could decide on holding direct peace talks with the government.

    In August 2006, the Central government unilaterally announced a ceasefire with the outfit and the ULFA also responded by promising to end hostilities. However, after a period of six weeks, the government called off the ceasefire and resumed military operations on the ground that the ULFA had not kept its promise. On September 27, 2006, the PCG withdrew from negotiations protesting against the Central government's decision to resume military operations against the outfit. Thus, the peace talks came to an abrupt end even before they really took off. In view of the repeated failure of peace negotiations and the recent surge in violence, the Centre is contemplating a massive military operation.

    These operations would need to be conducted under sound policy guidelines. The objective should be the complete disarmament of the militant outfit. There is no scope for half measures given the history of the rebel group's penchant for staying low while military operations are being undertaken and re-emerging once operations are called off. India must also prevail upon Bangladesh to stop providing shelter and support to various insurgent groups operating in the North East. It is also important that both Central and State governments engage important civil society groups like the Assam Sahitya Sabha in peace negotiations. The latter is representative of the people of Assam cutting across ethnic lines and therefore has the influence to garner vital popular support for a peace package. Without popular support, any peace deal with the ULFA would be stillborn. In the immediate future, the National Games must go ahead as planned and all measures should be taken to ensure full participation and smooth conduct of the games. The Centre must persevere with its policy of not engaging with the ULFA unless it shuns violence unequivocally. Refusing to concede under the threat of terrorist attacks is the only way to discredit ULFA as a force.