The Dubious Deal with ULFA
The Assam government, fully backed by New Delhi, has cleared the passage for release of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) leaders from jail. On the New Year’s Day, the so-called chairman of the organisation, Arabinda Rajkhowa, became the sixth top leader to have been released on bail over the last one year. The essential strategy, chalked out by the former Intelligence Bureau head PC Haldar, seems to be that the released leaders will follow the path of the former Mizo rebels in the neighbouring Mizoram by ending their violent means and joining the national mainstream through peaceful political participation.
It so happened that on the day of Rajkhowa’s release, this writer was in the Assam capital. I asked the ordinary people about the significance of the government’s decision. The unanimous response was that the ageing Rajkhowa, like all his senior comrades, had done extremely well for himself (in material terms) and would like some peace with honour before deciding his future course of action now that the ULFA’s morale was at an all-time low, particularly after Sheikh Hasina came to the power in the neighbouring Bangladesh, the country where the top ULFA leadership was getting all types of help from not only the previous regimes in Dhaka but also from the Pakistani and Chinese intelligence agencies. In fact, but for Sheikh Hasina, Rajkhowa would not have been in jail. He was arrested by Indian security agencies after being handed over by the Bangladesh authorities in November 2009 at the Meghalaya border where he was picked up.
The Assam government has been extremely kind to Rajkhowa. Though ULFA continues technically as a banned organisation, the government has given up, for all practical purposes, the restrictions on the outfit, even to the extent of allowing the hoisting of ULFA flags in cars and venues used by its cadres, something unthinkable a year ago. The government no more insists on surrender of arms and a formal letter from the ULFA leaders as preconditions for dialogue. In fact, the state government has offered free passage to the ULFA cadres of all ranks still in their hideouts to facilitate their joining the forthcoming Bihu celebrations with their respective families and friends. Above all, Rajkhowa has now been provided status and security cover by the government comparable to a VVIP
The ULFA was formed on April 7, 1979, by Bhimakanta Buragohain, Rajiv Rajkonwar alias Arabinda Rajkhowa, Golap Baruah alias Anup Chetia, Samiran Gogoi alias Pradip Gogoi, Bhadreshwar Gohain and Paresh Baruah at the Rang Ghar in Sibsagar to establish a “sovereign socialist Assam” through an armed struggle under the spurious belief that Assam was never a part of India. As things stand today, Anup Chetia, the general secretary of the ULFA, is in the custody of the Bangladesh government. Praesh Baruah, arguably the most important leader, who also happens to be the outfit’s commander-in chief, is still elusive and believed to be somewhere in Myanmar with ISI and Chinese connivance.
Over the years, the organisation has had developed close links with similar secessionist organisations such as the then unified National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) of Myanmar. Subsequently, it established ties with Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Afghan Mujahideen. The ISI has provided ULFA cadres with arms training, safe havens, funds, arms and ammunition. Paresh Baruah had reportedly met Osama bin Laden in 1996 during a visit to Karachi. The ULFA leader was reportedly taken to a camp on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where he not only received assurance of military help in the form of arms and ammunition, but also assurances of co-operation and logistical support of all international organisations owing allegiance to Osama, apart from the Al Qaeda.
Pakistan has facilitated the visits of Paresh Baruah and other ULFA leaders to Singapore, Thailand and other countries, and a channel for the transfer of funds and arms has been created. Several madrassas (seminaries) and mosques sponsored by the ISI in the Sylhet and Cox’s Bazaar areas are being used to hoard and transfer arms procured by the ULFA from Thailand and Myanmar. The ISI largesse enabled ULFA to buy arms in Cambodia, paying for these in hard currency routed through Nepal. The ISI also ‘introduced’ ULFA to LTTE transporters who, for a fee, undertook to transport arms from Southeast Asia into Myanmar.
The ULFA, in the meantime, established a number of camps in Bangladesh. The ISI and the Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI) of Bangladesh are agencies which reportedly facilitate the ULFA’s presence and operations. Apart from running training camps, ULFA launched several income-generating projects in Bangladesh. It set up a number of firms in Dhaka, including media consultancies and soft drink manufacturing units. Besides, it is reported to own three hotels, a private clinic, and two motor driving schools in Dhaka. Paresh Baruah is reported to personally own or has controlling interests in several businesses in Bangladesh, including a tannery, a chain of departmental stores, garment factories, travel agencies, shrimp trawlers and transport and investment companies.
Arrested ULFA cadres have claimed that Baruah used to smuggle heroin, procured in Myanmar, into Assam as part of “a personal operation”. According to surrendered ULFA cadres, the ULFA terrorists had also crossed over into China via Bhutan and established contact with the Chinese Army. In fact, until Bhutan flushed out the ULFA camps in 2003, the outfit had more than 30 camps in that country.
All these years, the ULFA has killed more than 10,000 civilians and military personnel. It unleashed a reign of terror among the businessmen in Assam, including the mighty Tatas through extortions and abductions. Obviously, and this is important to note, the ULFA, contraray to all its tall claims, has not exactly enjoyed the popular support in Assam. It drew its main support from only the upper Assam districts of Lakhimpur, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Karbi Anglong, Golaghat and Sonitpur. Many of the ULFA leaders are from these districts. Even there, of late, it had been increasingly unpopular because of its violent and extortionist activities.
Against this background, the government’s present policy of offering carrots to the organisation invites more questions than answers. The released Rajkhowa has been measured in all his comments since becoming a free man. He has not said a word meaning that the organisation has given up the demand of a sovereign state. All he has said is that he will negotiate with the government on points that he would be able to chalk out after a meeting with his cadres, including Jatia, whom the Government of India “must” extradite from Bangladesh, and Paresh Baruah. And here lies the catch. Baruah, the most powerful ULFA leader, is elusive and he reportedly is not in a mood to negotiate. That means that Rajkhowa, while enjoying all the privileges and concessions of the Indian government, will continue to distance himself from accepting the Indian Constitution. Indirectly, this would provide the elusive ULFA cadres time to recoup themselves, a dangerous prospect Bhutan and the present regime in Bangladesh are not ruling out. ULFA, it may be noted, has vowed to take revenge for Bhutan’s 2003 actions. And it once (2004) had attempted to assassinate Sheikh Hasina.
The general perception that one found out in Guwahati on the day of Rajkhowa’s release was that the Congress government in the state had deliberately timed the event so as to get the indirect or passive support of the ULFA sympathisers in Upper Assam for the forthcoming assembly elections, now that its hitherto vote-bank of Muslims (majority of them being illegal migrants from Bangladesh), constituting nearly 30 per cent of the state’s electorate, have their own but rapidly growing All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) to promote and protect their interests. If this is the case then we have yet another instance of our political leadership compromising on national security for its narrow, partisan and sort-term goals.
By Prakash Nanda