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Autumn in Springtime
The ULFA battles for survival
Jaideep Saikia*

 

Formed twenty-one years ago [1] , the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) – heir to a million stubborn mutinies – is today experiencing a crisis of character. Unable to sustain the growth pattern it was able to engineer during its heyday, the outfit’s agenda of aikya (unity), biplab (revolution), and mukti (liberation), stymied by a multitude of anxieties, is careening out of control. Indeed, with its pursuits now in the clutches of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, [2] the sole visible motivation of the banned organisation seems to be the continuance of monetary flows into its unaccounted coffers [3] and, of course, the consequent imperative of retaining at least a semblance of authority in the hinterland.

If the recent subterfuge and excesses by the ULFA [4] are anything to go by, the outfit is also trying its utmost to create a situation in Assam as a result of which the forthcoming elections to the State’s Legislative Assembly would need to be held under President’s rule. [5] On the face of it, this strategy would appear strange. President's rule in Assam would only reinvigorate the already existing state mechanism and intensify operations against the ULFA. This latest modus operandi appears to be a desperate last-ditch attempt by the organisation to create a situation that may prove conducive to its continued existence.

Why must the ULFA seek to create circumstances for the imposition of President's rule? Does it feel that, with the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta-led regime out of power during the elections, it will not only be able to negate the 'Surrendered ULFA (SULFA ) factor [6] and once again play the role of a determinant, but also to take steps (as the recent killings have indicated) to prevent an alliance shift in the traditional vote banks? Does it also feel that the security forces, despite the strict gubernatorial control they would be under, would – in the wake of Mahanta’s dismissal – be confused into submission, if not connivance? These questions, the answers to which will require the passage of time and analysis, have an important coordinate – the ULFA’s threatened existence in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. [7]

This paper will examine in some detail the ULFA’s present strength and position vis--vis its continued presence in Bhutan. It will also seek to analyse the Indian response and to put forward a security option for the State. But first, a brief aside into certain aspects which have characterised the organisation’s growth.

Sworn into a secret existence on April 7, 1979 at Sibsagar’s Rang Ghar, the ULFA was midwifed by Rajiv Rajkonwar alias Arabinda Rajkhowa (the organisation’s present Chairman), Paban Baruah alias Paresh Baruah (the 'Chief of Army Staff'), Samiran Gogoi alias Pradip Gogoi (the Vice Chairman) and Golap Barua alias Anup Chetia (the General Secretary). [8] The agitation over the influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh into Assam, spearheaded by the All Assam Student’s Union (AASU), had been launched in the same year. Although it was the student’s movement which went on to gain momentum in the succeeding years, the ULFA of the early years (it remained dormant until 1984) drew attention to itself by resorting to a heady and highly successful mix of grass root politicking and vigilantism. As a scholar notes, “[b]y the late 1980s, ULFA virtually assumed control of Assam, extorting vast sums from tea plantations and businessmen, engaging in kidnappings and assassination of key political functionaries and security personnel.” [9]

The genesis of the ULFA can perhaps be traced to the Asom Jatiyadabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP), a radical group, more systematic and active than the AASU. The AJYCP shuns the limelight and, working quietly – unlike the high profile AASU – does more for the youth of Assam than anyone actually cares to mention. As a matter of detail, Arabinda Rajkhowa, Pradip Gogoi and Anup Chetia had all worked for the AJYCP at one point of time. [10] An extended quote from a recently published work by Udayon Misra throws significant light on the emergence of the ULFA:

Though it is commonly assumed that the ULFA was a consequence of the Assam Movement, yet actually the ULFA was formed on April 7, 1979, some two months before the AASU observed its first 12-hour state-wide strike on June 8, 1979, to protest against continued infiltration of foreign nationals into the State and their only too easy inclusion into the voters roll…The ULFA leaders actively participated in the anti-foreigners stir and the first Chairman of the organisation, Bhadreswar Gohain, later on became a Deputy Speaker of the Assam Assembly as Asom Gana Parishad nominee…The AJYCP roots of the ULFA should help one in understanding the latter’s emphasis on 'scientific socialism' from time to time – something which has been picked up by social scientists and journalists to give the ULFA a Marxist or Communist veneer, while in reality it is a militaristic outfit. Just like the AJYCP, the ULFA too is said to be attempting a blend of Maoism and Assamese nationalism. For instance, the CPI(ML) leader, Vinod Misra opined that ULFA’s "faith on Mao’s thought has led them to provide a new turn to the erstwhile Assam Movement, a left turn indeed, doing away with its anti-communist, anti-left communal bias of the early 80s. [11] Thus, parties like CPI (ML) have tried to project ULFA as a "representative organisation of the Assamese people" which has adopted Mao’s ideology as its prime weapon in its fight against the all-India supra-national forces. [12]

Attempting, therefore, to steal the AASU’s thunder or what the then AASU President, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta (the present Chief Minister of Assam) would call 'the tussle between the citizens and foreigners,' one of ULFA’s major contributions (according to a noted ULFA watcher) lies in "exposing the futility of the tussle." [13] The structural contradictions, so termed, incorporate the socio-economic structure. The ULFA went on to argue that internal colonialism – by which it meant the colonial rule of India – is integral to the given economic structure.

However, the ULFA’s initial emphasis on an economic interpretation of the prevailing situation and its purported 'scientific socialism' seems unfounded. Although the early years did witness the ULFA cadres overseeing appropriate compliance by engineers and contractors in a public work site, as also public punishment of corrupt officials and such other persons involved in immoral activities – a vigilante role it took on in order to garner public support – the veneer of a class conscious organisation wore off quickly.

An analysis of the structure and class character of the ULFA does not show it either as a communist or even radical Marxist organisation, though it has been quite common for the insurgent groups of the north eastern region of the country to claim left credentials. The colonial thesis and the stress on an armed struggle to achieve one’s end have quite often been factors which have led sections of the communist left in our country to conclude that such organisations share the Maoist-Marxist ideology. Referring to the ULFA’s claims to scientific socialism, M.S. Prabhakara writes: "…characterizing itself as a party committed to 'scientific socialism', ULFA maintains that its aim of liberating Assam and making it independent is only the first stage of its two-stage revolution, the second and final stage being the implementation of the principles of scientific socialism. The literature that is available from the organisation suggests that it has a fairly simple notion of what scientific socialism is all about…" [14]

A Marxist interpretation of the ULFA’s programmes, therefore, can have only an academically demonstrative effect. The organisation has, no doubt, preambled its "commitment to put an end to anarchy" with ambitious 'socialist' clauses. Paragraph 4 of the ULFA’s 6-point 'Code of Conduct', for instance, deals with 'Education and Duties'. Included in the paragraph are the necessity of plugging loopholes in the educational system, duties that contribute to character building and training of cadres. However, the instances of implementation even among its own cadres continue to be a null set. Indeed in an interview with this writer, the ULFA leader, Lohit Deury spoke of the existence of a rather accentuated class distinction within the organisation. [15]

Another important contradiction in the ULFA agenda is the sudden tolerance with which it began to view illegal migrants from Bangladesh after it had set up its camps in the erstwhile East Pakistan. Sired as it were, by the need to rid Assam of foreigners, it would be expected that the organisation would throw in its lot to solve the vexed problem of illegal migration. But quite to the contrary, it sought to explain away the problem in a 15-page booklet which is addressed to 'The people of Assam of East Bengal Origin’. The document makes interesting reading, as it justifies the role of migrants in the life of the State:

When we refer to the Assamese, instead of meaning the Assamese-speaking people we actually mean the different inter-mixture of tribal nationalities – those who are committed towards working for the good of Assam. The mixture of nationalities that is the Assamese is, in reality, the result of immigration. We consider the immigrants from East Bengal to be a major part of the national life of the people of Assam. Our freedom struggle can never be successful without these people…the masses who earn their living through hard physical labour can never be our enemies. All the labouring masses are our friends and the main motive force of our freedom revolt. [16]

Such irreverent espousal is countered by the ULFA's continued attacks against groups of migrants. Moreover, it creates a clear conflict between the ULFA and the proponents of Assamese linguistic nationalism. What we find, however, is that the ULFA – instead of spelling out the details of its variegated version of Swadhin Asom – has begun to further the thesis that Assam was never a part of India. According to the ideologues of the organisation, the 'Treaty of Yandaboo', by which Assam was handed over to the British by the Burmese, 'was a fraud perpetrated on the people of Assam'. Seeking to forward such a theory, the ULFA resorts to a selective reading and appraisal of history, ignoring in particular any mention of Assam’s role in the struggle for independence and the contributions of leading personages such as Sankaradeva who spoke of 'Bharatavarsha' and Assam’s consciousness in the Indian ideal. Such attempts have, however, not succeeded and as Udayon Misra expresses it, "There is no dearth of revolutionary organisations and governments tampering with history, but this has been always at their own peril. Assam’s participation in the national struggle is much too recent history to be tailored to suit any particular outfit’s needs." [17]

These ideological contradictions, and the conflicts between the extended constituency it purports to reflect, however, do not undermine ULFA's status as an important force in Assam. A decade long military engagement [18] and the thousands of lives [19] that have been lost has succeeded in containing the growth of the ULFA in the region. But it has not been able to entirely marginalise the group. Indeed, the ULFA continues to strike at will and with apparent impunity and, although reports suggest an internal dissonance in the organisation, the command and control structure of the ULFA seems intact as is its recruitment rate. Moreover, despite the Royal Bhutan Assembly resolution in its 78th National Assembly session asking the ULFA to leave Bhutanese soil [20] and consequent developments, the organisation continues to sit pretty in Bhutan. And as the elections to the Assam Legislative Assembly draw near, it is expected that the ULFA will step up its activities.

 

Bhutan & the ULFA: Structures and Dynamics

 

Bhutan’s tryst with insurgency began in the early nineties when the Bhutanese government decided to flush out the Ngolops (Nepalese settlers of Southern Bhutan) or the 'economic migrants' as they were referred to. The eviction drive, however, came under criticism and the issue was raised and debated in international human rights groups as well as in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) conferences. Meanwhile, fleeing the initial surge of the Indian Army’s might, the ULFA sought shelter in the forests on the Indo-Bhutan border. It was then that the Royal Government of Bhutan decided to shelter the ULFA in Southern Bhutan as a foil to the Ngolops. Contrary to the Royal Government’s expectation, the ULFA started developing cordial relationship with the Nepalese and began to use them as guides and porters. Eventually, of course, the organisation also developed a good working relationship with personnel of the Royal Bhutan Army and Police – a nexus which ensured, among other things, a ready flow of rations, logistical support as well as aid and references for money laundering.

The ULFA set-up in Bhutan has a reported strength of around 2000 cadres assembled across the organisation’s General Head Quarters, [21] its Council Head Quarters, a Security-cum-Training Camp and a well concealed Enigma Base. Numbering around thirty- six in all, the major camps of the ULFA in Bhutan include:

1.        Mithundra

2.        Gobarkunda

3.        Panbang

4.        Diyajima

5.        Pemagatsel Complex

               i.      Khar

              ii.      Shumar

            iii.      Nakar

6.        Chaibari

7.        Marthong

8.        Gerowa

9.        Sukhni ( Marungphu ): General HQ

10.     Melange

11.     Marsala ( Dingshi Ri ): Council HQ

12.     Dalim-Koipani ( Orang )

13.     Neoli Debarli

14.     Chemari

15.     Phukatong

16.     Wangphu

Most of the camps and such other establishment of the ULFA are in Sandrup Jongkhar, a district in Southern Bhutan that borders Assam’s Nalbari district. A straight road from Sandrup Jongkhar via Darranga Mela–Tamulpur–Nalbari connects Bhutan with Assam’s capital city Guwahati and other important towns of the State. Indeed, the Darranga Mela–Tamulpur–Nalbari road from Sandrup Jongkhar can easily be considered to be the most important 'revolutionary artery' in the region. And although three crack Indian army units, a Brigade and a Divisional HQ sit on this road, [22] most of the ULFA’s cadres enter Assam through this route.

The relative success of the banned organisation in Nalbari (a district termed collectively in the Press as 'the last bastion of the ULFA’) and thereabouts is, in some measure, due to the support the ULFA enjoys among the local population. As a matter of detail, most of ULFA’s cadres (including the organisation’s 'Operations Commander', Raju Barua, whose influence in the ULFA and its operations in Bhutan is considerable) hail from this area. It is, therefore, not surprising that the ULFA, whose fortunes in other parts of the State seem to be on the wane, continues to receive support from the people of Nalbari. [23]

Southern Bhutan, however, is not the most hospitable of places. The onset of monsoon each year tells heavily on the separatists, and although Lohit Deury informed this writer that until date not a single ULFA cadre has actually succumbed to malaria in the camps, [24] intelligence reports have indicated that hospitals of Assam receive a host of ULFA cadres suffering from the disease every year. Indeed, it is important to note that most 'sympathisers' of the ULFA are, in reality, drawn from sections of the Assamese society that have benefited from the ULFA, and not necessarily people who swear by the secessionist outfit’s ideology. Confessional statements of Lohit Deury have indicated that many a business has been sponsored by the organisation, as was a system of providing loans to people.

To return to Southern Bhutan, however, the terrain in the area is anything but hospitable. As described by the author earlier:

This analyst has followed foot patrols conducted by the Indian army’s 10 Bihar Regiment stationed in the area, and still recollects the extremely hostile terrain which ascends once Aranaga (a river on the Indo-Bhutan border) and Guabari are left behind. The security forces, therefore, have an ally in the natural process which demarcates the two countries. And as one erstwhile Commander of the operating Indian army Brigade in the area informed this analyst, the security forces have 'the insurgents confined to an area where their activities can easily be monitored.' The analyst, moreover, has seen the preparedness and the degree of intelligence which the security forces have about the area. Any dislocation (of the ULFA) from Bhutan – either by way of diplomacy, bilateral pressure or hot pursuit – would only result in a scenario where the advantages (as aforesaid) would be frittered away… [25]

But the Indian army’s advantages notwithstanding, the ULFA has established a particularly well-honed network in Druk Yul, the 'land of the thunder dragon'. Lohit Deury has opined

 

On money laundering and related issues:

I was in complete charge. I could exchange thousands of US dollars in a week. Money from Assam and elsewhere was brought by various groups. Many Marwari businessmen also brought money. ULFA used to give loans to various people in Assam. It has set up a lot of businesses too in Assam under various names.

On the ULFA communication set-up:

We have three means of communication. One through telephone, fax and e-mail, the other wireless and walkie talkie, the third by messenger. The ULFA has two communications centre, Joymoti and Agnitora. I was in charge of Joymoti, which was mobile, but mostly along the border in places such as Rajabari, Goreswar (Naokata) and Guabari. I used to receive daily reports including after action reports. Agnitora deals with monetary aspects and operations. It is located at Paikarkuchi and Gobindapur. Raju Barua is in charge. [26]

The present hierarchy of the ULFA’s top leadership, as revealed by Deury, is represented in the chart below:

 

Chairman : Arabinda Rajkhowa

 


Vice Chairman : Pradip Gogoi (under arrest since 8 April, 1998)

 

 

 


Political Wing Military Wing

 

Gen Secy

Anup Chetia (under arrest)

Chief of Staff

Paresh Baruah

Paresh Baruah

Rekhiraj Singha

SO to COS

Bening Rabha

Org Secy

Ashanta Bagh Phukan

SO to COS

Robin Neog

Asstt Gen Secy

Bobon Hazarika

Chief Trg Offr

Kamal Bora

Finance Secy

Chitraban Hazarika

QM GHQ/Dir

Samarjit Chaliha

Asstt Fin Secy

Ramu Mech

OIC Arms

Chakra Gohain

Foreign Secy

Sasadhar Choudhury

Action Gp Cdr

Amal Narzary

Cultural Secy

Pranati Deka

Ops Cdr

Raju Barua

Adviser

Bhimkanta Borgohain (Father of ULFA)

Central auditor

Chintamani Hazarika

Asst Foreign Relations Offr

Navajyoti Hazarika

Office Secy

Neelu Chakraborty

Adviser Pol Wing

Bishnujyoti Buragohain

Action Gp Cdr

Tapan Baruah

Publicity Secy

Mithinga Daimary

Medical Offr

Manik Sarma

Exec member

Probin Deka

Pol Affairs Offr

Bhaskar Dutta

 

 

RT IC

Bhaskar Choudhury

 

 

Camp Adjt

Prahlad Saikia

 

 

WT IC

Manas Gogoi

 

 

Asst WT IC

Drishti Rajkhowa


The ULFA is divided into four zones. The zones and their areas of influence are enumerated below:

 

East

(Purb Mandal)

Districts

West

(Paschim Mandal) Districts

Central

(Madhya Mandal)

Districts

South

(Dakshin Mandal)

Districts

 

Lakhimpur

Dhubri

Darrang

Hailakandi

Jorhat

Kokrajhar

Karbi Anglong

NC Hills

Sibsagar

Bongaigaon

Nagaon

Cachar Hills

Tinsukia

Goalpara

Morigaon

Karimganj

Dibrugarh

Barpeta

Dhemaji

 

Bokajan div of Karbi Anglong

Nalbari

Part of Sonitpur

 

Golaghat

South Kamrup

North Kamrup

 

Part of Sonitpur

 

 

 

 

Zones are further divided into sub-zones or anchals, which are further divided into sakhas. Each sakha has one political and one military wing:

 

East West Central

 

 


Dhansiri Anchal

Manas Anchal

(7 sakhas)

Agnigarh Anchal

(5 sakhas)

Dihing Anchal

(8 sakhas)

Birjora Anchal

Kolong Kopili Anchal

(9 sakhas)

Rangpur Anchal

(8 sakhas)

Pancharatna Anchal

Kazalikut Anchal

(5 sakhas)

Subansiri Anchal

(6 sakhas)

Sankosh Anchal

(4 sakhas)

Saraighat Anchal

(10 Sakhas)

 

A proper military wing of the ULFA, the Sanjukta Mukti Fouj was formed on March 16 , 1996. The organisation has three full fledged battalions: the 7th , 28th and 709th. The remaining battalions exist only on paper – at best they have strengths of a company or so.


Sanjukta Mukti Fouj (United Liberation Army)

Military Organisation of ULFA

 

7 Bn

(HQ- Sukhni) Responsible for defence of GHQ

8 Bn

Nagaon, Morigaon, Karbi Anglong

9 Bn

Golaghat, Jorhat, Sibsagar

11 Bn

Kamrup, Nalbari

27 Bn

Barpeta, Bongaigaon, Kokrajhar

28 Bn

Tinsukia, Dibrugarh

709 Bn

Kalikhola

Note: 1,4,23 & 709 Bn currently being raised

1,4,23 & 79 Bn (under raising)

 

 
.

 

Meanwhile protests over Bhutan’s purported aid to the ULFA were growing. On June 7, 2000, the Chief Minister of Assam, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta met the Bhutanese envoy to India, Tshokey Tshering, and conveyed to him the State Government’s concern about the reported links between officials of his country and the ULFA. [27] The Chief Minister, who reportedly ‘did some plain speaking’ with the Ambassador about the alleged links, also referred to the evidence about the involvement of Bhutanese officials in the ULFA's arms procurement process. Earlier, during the Indian Parliament’s budget session, members belonging to the Asom Gana Parishad accompanied by members of the Left and some other political parties, had staged a dharna in front of the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in New Delhi. A protest march had also been organised by the citizens of Mangaldoi on May 30, 2000, against the alleged 'active support of Bhutan to the ULFA’. Around 2500 people had gathered to rally against what was termed the Bhutanese Government’s provision of transport, money, logistical support for procuring arms, and shelter to the militants.

The protests which began to gather momentum in the succeeding days had interestingly been preceded by what an editorial of a Guwahati based daily newspaper had termed ‘Bhutan’s gesture’. [28] Quoting a PTI report emanating from Dhaka, the editorial had stated:

The Government of Bhutan has given an ultimatum to the militants of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) to leave Bhutan peacefully failing which the Royal Government at Thimpu will be compelled to use force. This disclosure has been made by no other person than the Bhutanese Foreign Minister, Lyonpo Jyigme Thinley, who was on a five-day official visit to Bangladesh ten days ago. Thinley disclosed that the ULFA militants have camps in the impregnable forest areas in Bhutan close to Assam’s border. The Bhutanese Foreign Minister expressed his Government’s strong displeasure that in spite of several rounds of meeting with senior leaders of the ULFA the latter has not conveyed to Thimpu any timeframe for withdrawal from Bhutan as a result of which the Foreign Minister has been constrained to say, ‘We cannot wait indefinitely, we are getting ready to expel them by force if we have to, as the last option.' [29]

The encouraging tenor of the editorial was, however, soon belied as reports of direct Bhutanese aid began to pour in. According to a security agency a certain Bhutanese army Brigadier, V. Namgel, Security-in-Charge and Military Adviser to the Bhutanese King, has been actively helping the ULFA in obtaining arms and ammunition from foreign countries. Commenting on the security agency’s report, a Guwahati based daily newspaper had written:

A major case of such help rendered by this high official to the ULFA was on April 8, 1999 when the ULFA brought a consignment of arms from Tibet to Deothang … According to the evidence, Takin Travel Services based in Thimpu, which is a Royal Government of Bhutan’s official travel agency, facilitates the travel by ULFA’s Commander-in-Chief, Paresh Baruah – who travels in the guise of one Kamruzzaman Khan – to places like Bangkok, Singapore, Dhaka etc. The Department of Immigration and Census under the Ministry of Home Affairs, offers all facilities to the ULFA leaders and cadres to move freely in Bhutan by issuing special permits to them and even for such purposes as ‘dues collection’, as they have issued one such special permit to Tapan Baruah alias Nripen Gupta. But it is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under the direct control of Mr. Thinley, which has gone out of its way to help the ULFA in all its activities. A senior official of the Ministry, one Wangchuk Dorji, has been specifically assigned the task of helping out the top leaders of the outfit in matters of making available funds, documents etc. from abroad, arranging travel to foreign countries by faking information etc. – all under cover of diplomatic immunity. [30]

Documentary evidence suggests that Wangchuk Dorji had received Nu 40,000 from a top functionary of the outfit under the alias of one Deepak Das, for air fare, visa fee etc. from the British High Commission in New Delhi for travel to the United Kingdom on November 22, 1999. He had earlier received Nu 68,000 from the same ULFA leader, lodged at Hotel Tadin in Thimpu on April 12, 1996 'for business purpose to buy Chinese shoes.' He had also received Nu 1,18,000 for conversion to US dollars from the same ULFA leader on the same day. On March 7,1996, Wangchuk Dorji, the 'Diplomatic Mail Bag Incharge', wrote to one Kukonleg Gyaltshen, a senior Finance Ministry official, requesting the latter to 'kindly receive and send through diplomatic pouch' a packet to be sent by a top ULFA leader, under the alias, Rana Mashud to him…Again on July 18, 1999, another Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, Pasang Wangdi, wrote to Singhye Dorji of the Royal Bhutanese Consulate in Bangkok, saying that a 'packet addressed to Khurshid/Deepak containing some cash and documents was sent by diplomatic mailbag on Saturday, July 13. They have been asked to contact you and collect it. Grateful if you could hand over the packet to either of them and obtain a receipt.' [31]

The Royal Government of Bhutan has, however, in the aftermath of these revelations reportedly terminated the services of two employees of the Foreign Ministry’s protocol division – Wangchuk Dorji and Lhaba Tshering for misusing diplomatic pouches to transfer funds for the outlawed ULFA. Investigations by the Bhutan Police revealed that the two officials had transferred US $38,000 and INR 300,000 in diplomatic pouches between several destinations in Southeast Asia. The Bhutan Government has also denied reports that it had actively supported the ULFA, and asserted, further, that the two officials had acted at an individual level and their actions had nothing to do with the Royal Government.

Sustained pressure from India ultimately made the Royal Government of Bhutan take notice of the situation. In a significant development the National Assembly of Bhutan, in its 78th Session, passed a resolution authorising the Government to launch an armed operation if necessary to flush out insurgents taking shelter in the country. The four-point course of action outlined was:

   i.      cut off ration supplies to the militants;

  ii.      punish all groups and individuals found helping the militants by invoking the National Security Act;

iii.      pursue the process of dialogue with the militants to make them leave peacefully;

iv.      if all efforts fail, military action would have to be taken as a last resort.

The National Assembly resolution was, of course, preceded by several rounds of talks between the Royal Government and the ULFA leadership [32] , including the infamous breakfast diplomacy that the King hosted for the Assamese separatists.

The Home Minister of Bhutan, Thinley Gyamsto, who had held a closed-door meeting with the ULFA 'Chief of Staff', Paresh Baruah on May 7,1999, reportedly held another round of talks with the ULFA leader in the first week of July 2000. In the May 1999 meeting, Paresh Barua had apparently sought a few years time for a withdrawal from Bhutanese soil, and was able to impress upon the Home Minister that the ULFA’s presence would not affect the Bhutanese. In the July 2000 meeting, the Home Minister is said to have conveyed to the separatist leader that the Bhutanese Government had 'no option but to be tough.'

A Kuensel (Bhutan’s official newspaper) editorial, however, sought to underplay Bhutan’s responsibility in the circumstance:

We realise that the ULFA and Bodo problem is not just the case of a few thousand militants hiding behind trees. It is a part of a regional political imbroglio with complex connotations, the most significant being Bhutan’s relations with Assam and New Delhi… the financial implications of military action appeared to stun some members (of the National Assembly). Be it the cost of arms or infrastructure, what seemed to be a colossal reserve fund during peace times suddenly diminished in size when seen as a budget for military activity… Most Bhutanese believe that the solution is not in Bhutan, it is in India, and that the real solution is not military but politics. [33]

The ULFA’s initial response to Bhutan's hardening position was to seek the help of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K) to set up some of its camps in Myanmar. However, it also began to make preparations for the defence of its camps in Bhutan and, accordingly, powerful landmines are being planted around their areas of influence in that country. The ULFA leadership also reportedly directed Pradyut Gohain to increase the arsenal power of the Sukhni-based Seventh Battalion. In the Bhangtar area, the ULFA has regrouped and reorganised themselves to face any challenge from the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA). [34] The cadres are reportedly moving about freely wearing RBA ranks with rifles fixed with discharger caps for throwing grenades’ in case of an eventuality. Madhab Choudhury, who has been acting as the ULFA’s chief coordinator in the circumstances, is liasing with the RBA and despite the sabre rattles [35] the ULFA’s paraphernalia continues to remain intact. Indeed, the organisation continues to receive rations through Assam via the Neoli forest route, as also from North Bengal villages dominated by the Kamtapuris. Bhutanese youth also continue to supply foodstuff to the ULFA camps.

Adopting what has been perceived in select security circles to be a new method of defence, the ULFA has begun training non-Bhutanese youth in the use of arms in order to build up a strong resistance against the Royal Government of Bhutan. Informed sources have also reported that ULFA (against what has been felt to be all consistent logic) is considering a move deeper into the interiors of Bhutan:

Reports have suggested that 'pigs have started disappearing' from the general area of Yarphu and Halla which are due north, north-east (as the crow flies) of the ULFA camps at Sukhni and Deothang. This – combined with some ground sightings – suggests the presence of ULFA scouts in the area. In other words, the ULFA is probably planning a movement away from their present locations into the interior of Bhutan. Another report has suggested that an advance party belonging to the separatist organisation has been sighted in hotels in Tashigang which is closer to the Chinese border. The ULFA – if the above makes sense – seems to be considering a move north, deeper into Bhutan. [36]

In the meantime, the Indian army stationed in Assam – specifically the 21 Mountain Division stationed in Rangiya – has been making preparations for what could be termed a full-scale operation against the separatists holed up in Bhutan. The writer who has been witness to the scale of the Indian Amy's preparations is of the opinion that in the event of a crack-down, the ULFA will be left with no option but to surrender. Indeed, Lohit Deury who was instrumental in setting up the camps in the Himalayan kingdom informed the writer that the ULFA’s "backbone will break in the face of a concerted operation." [37]

The Indian army has mapped every single route leading up to each ULFA camp in Bhutan on immaculately marked sand models. The field intelligence unit of the Indian Army regularly monitors the separatists' movements and the communication network of the ULFA (which analysts agree is quite sophisticated) has also been penetrated to a substantial degree.

The Assam State Police, considered until recently by most as the 'poor cousin' of the Indian Army, has also begun to show its strength, and many a major operation successfully concluded in the past six months can be attributed to this Force. The Assam State Police headed by Hare Krisna Deka and his deputy, G.M. Srivastava who is in charge of all operations, has been particularly successful in infiltrating the ULFA ranks.

A recent operation of the ULFA which was planned by the organisation’s Chief of Staff, Paresh Baruah himself was foiled as a result of 'active aid’ of an insider. [38] The ULFA, moreover, has been experiencing erosion in its ranks, and although the recruitment rate continues to be almost the same, surrenders are beginning to tell heavily on the organisation’s health. Until date, the number of ULFA cadres who have surrendered to the authorities since the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta-led government came to power totals 2,128. Desertions, too, have become frequent. Indeed the ULFA newsletter Swadhinata, which is normally used for propaganda, published the names of twenty-two ULFA cadres who had deserted the organisation. It also provided a list of armaments and money the deserters had spirited away. [39] According to Lohit Deury, moreover, only 5 per cent of the ULFA cadres sent on missions to Assam return to Bhutan. They simply go back to their homes and to their earlier lives. The ULFA has also lost its support base in rural Assam to a substantial extent. And if reports and statements made by surrendered ULFA cadres are to be believed, the organisation’s personnel on missions in Assam have to pay substantial sums for food from the Assamese people, in order to survive. And cases of villagers handing over ULFA members to the security forces have increased.

The ULFA’s losses, therefore, have been considerable. Two of its important operatives, Lohit Deury and Munna Misra (the former has surrendered while the latter has reportedly been executed by the ULFA – he was reportedly on a clandestine 'mission' to Dhaka on the instruction of G.M. Srivastava) have been neutralised. The organisation’s Assistant Publicity Secretary, Swadhinata Phukan, was shot by the Police, and many of its operational-level cadres have been killed in encounters. The outfit’s monetary base has depleted and, although reports of extortion notices being served on people and kidnappings for ransom continue to be received, the ULFA is facing a serious cash crunch. Indeed, it has reportedly begun to sell some of its weapons to the People’s War Group and the Karbi United People’s Democratic Solidarity.

The recent operations of the ULFA, primarily the targeting of linguistic minorities, is a modus operandi which seems out of place in its general strategic orientation. The victims were not 'traditional targets', nor is it immediately clear as to why all of a sudden the ULFA has begun to eliminate non-Assamese speaking people. The incident of mass killing in Nalbari, where ten people belonging to a non-Assamese Hindi speaking community were eliminated, created quite a stir in the State. And although the Opposition and a section of the Press have been quick to blame 'Government secret killers,' such allegations have not provided any reason why the Government of the day would resort to, or benefit from, such acts. Had it been a case of committing a crime in order to blame another, the Government's covert agencies could well have chosen targets which would have clearly suggested the hand of the separatists.

The ULFA's reasons for creating the latest situation of disorder, however, and despite their apparent contradictions, are not beyond explanation. Its time seems to be running out in Bhutan. It is interesting that the ULFA plea to Bhutanese officials was to allow them to remain in the kingdom for another "one and a half years," coinciding precisely with the forthcoming State Assembly elections. It desperately needs a breather, which it feels can be created if the State is brought under President’s Rule. The next few years are extremely important for the ULFA, and it is naturally seeking the possibility of having a government at Dispur which may be a little more conducive to its existence. The targeting of non-Assamese people can feed the polarisation of communities. Moreover, New Delhi is apparently quicker to get shocked out of its complacence when victims happen to be Hindi speaking . Such actions can also deepen the sense of insecurity among the members of such communities, and push them towards an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, thus shifting their present mandate to the AGP government. There is also the direct benefit of intimidating the community, which predominantly comprises the business classes, into resuming generous payments to the ULFA. Whether the ULFA is also acting at the behest of some political party, as has been alleged, remains to be seen. [40]

What are the options before the ULFA today? In the face of an RBA operation, the ULFA can adopt the following courses of action:

1.        It can shift to Myanmar. And, indeed, Paresh Baruah has requested its Indo Burmese Revolutionary Front ally, the NSCN(Khaplang) for the facilitation of bases in Myanmar. But Myanmar is too far afield and, moreover, its Government has recently assured India of support in counter-insurgency efforts. This is, consequently, an increasingly unattractive option.

2.        The ULFA can move to the Tirap and Changlang areas of Arunachal Pradesh. The Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Mukut Mithi, has in fact made a statement on November 4, 2000 in Itanagar, that around 200 ULFA cadres have indeed entered the State. The thrust of the Chief Minister’s statement notwithstanding, it is felt that such lateral movements by the ULFA are not intended to set up permanent camps in the State. While it is possible that the organisation is trying to use diversionary tactics, the heavy presence of the Indian army in the region would be a considerable deterrent.

3.        The ULFA can go deeper into Bhutan. As stated above, recent movements do suggest such an intent. Unless, however, the ULFA is considering a course of action that is manifestly irrational – especially as its striking capabilities in Assam will be reduced considerably as it moves further north – the sightings belie the intention. At any rate, the Indian army is equipped to strike at places such as Tashigang in Bhutan through their 5 Mountain Division (which is a constituent of the Tezpur based IV Corps) which has an area of influence all the way up to Tawang and beyond. For obvious reasons, it is improbable that the ULFA would consider such a move.

4.        One more option available to the ULFA is to enter Assam in batches. Its communications setup, Joymoti and Agnitora, are still based inside Assam and, despite the loss of public support, beneficiaries of the ULFA will continue to harbour and aid members of the banned organisation. But the ULFA leadership is aware that the presence of security forces and erstwhile members of the organisation will not allow them a free hand. Indeed, its cadres, in the eventuality of sustained pressure on them and their families, may well choose the option of surrender. At any rate, it would be nigh impossible to re-establish an effective operational paraphernalia in Assam on the lines and the scale that currently exists in Bhutan, which would keep be necessary if they are to keep intact their relevance as a 'revolutionary organisation.'

5.       The last option with the ULFA is to return to Bangladesh. A few of its camps still survive in that country [41] . Most of its senior cadres have established a good network in Dhaka and thereabouts. With a fanatical resurgence among some of the groups within Bangladesh, it is possible that the organisation might receive the support it needs from that country. The corridor the ULFA would use in the event of a move to Bangladesh from Bhutan, moreover, would be through Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) territory, an area that has been cultivated by the ULFA for some time now. The Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan and the Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI) of Bangladesh are agencies which are amenable to the ULFA’s needs, and that also rule the roost in Bangladesh. Indeed, much of ULFA's current agenda is already reportedly controlled by the ISI. It is this option which the ULFA is most likely to take.

A former General Officer Commanding (GOC)of IV Corps has spoken of containing the ULFA in an area where its movements can be monitored. 'The white tiger must be confined to the Sunderbans,' was how the Lieutenant General expressed it. "I will be happy if it is seen in a waterhole at six in the morning, sighted killing a deer at five in the evening." [42] The accent is, therefore, on containment.

The present GOC of IV Corps, Lt. Gen. Mahesh Vij recently stated in an interview with the writer [43] that unless specifically asked to do so by the Royal Government of Bhutan, the Indian army will not venture into the kingdom in order to take on the ULFA. It is fairly evident that Bhutan will never make such a request. Indeed, a recent statement by the Royal Government of Bhutan [44] made it clear that traditional routes out of Bhutan (quite a few are through Assam), and the lives and properties of its citizens, will be endangered if it were to undertake operations against the ULFA.

The pragmatic course of action would, therefore, appear to be a containment of the ULFA within Bhutan. If strategy allows the possibility of dislodging the organisation somewhat from their present areas of influence in the kingdom, it may be undertaken. In other words, the separatist outfit can be pushed into the interiors of Bhutan to areas that are over a day's march from the border, considerably reducing its striking power. But care must be taken not to allow the ULFA to move so deep into Bhutan as to enable them to 'shake hands' with the bigger neighbour further north. Also, certain allowances to the ULFA by way of selective passage to some of its cadres and continuance of 'oxygen supply', the essentials of survival, must be allowed. It keeps the organisation 'warm enough' inside Bhutan, disallowing any disaffection and excessive frustration that may necessitate a move elsewhere, or desperate actions against the host state. Such a course would not only allow the detailed monitoring of the ULFA's activities, it would also leave the door open for separatists who wish to return home in peace.



* The writer is a Guwahati based security and political analyst.

[1] Although the ULFA was officially termed to have been formed on April 7, 1979, the organisation came into its own only in 1984.

[2] Jaideep Saikia, “The ISI reaches East: Anatomy of a conspiracy”, Faultlines, New Delhi, 6, 2000, pp. 61-78.

[3] Lohit Deury, an ULFA leader who surrendered on August 14, 2000, told this writer that till date the ULFA has neither audited nor accounted the enormous amount of money it has collected. The National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), on the other hand, keeps immaculate records of its 'revolutionary funds'. On March 19, 2000, the Indian army’s 21 Mountain Division operating in lower Assam – in the aftermath of an encounter with the NDFB – recovered the organisation’s audit report for the year 1998-99. Made available to the writer, the report contains systematic contents of the receipt and expense break-up. 'Lietenant' B. Laithun signed as the 'Chief Auditor' of the NDFB.

[4] See for instance, “Ulfa targets non-Assamese, kills seven,” Times of India, New Delhi, November 18, 2000; “10 butchered in ULFA ethnic cleansing”, Telegraph, Calcutta, October 28, 2000.

[5] The cry for President’s Rule increased after the Nalbari killings. The Chief Minister of Assam, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, speaking in the aftermath of the massacre, stated that the killings were done at the behest of a political party. See also “Cong demands PR in Assam”, Assam Tribune, Guwahati, October 29,2000.

[6] Opposition parties in Assam have been alleging that the Asom Gana Parishad will utilise the services of Surrendered ULFA (SULFA) cadres in the forthcoming elections to the State Assembly.

[7] “Leave peacefully or face force: Bhutan warns ULFA”, Sentinel, Guwahati, May 18, 2000.

[8] Sanjoy Hazarika, Strangers of the Mist, New Delhi: Penguin, 1995, p.167.The ULFA Vice Chairman, Pradip Gogoi is under judicial custody in Guwahati. The organisation’s General Secretary, Anup Chetia is in jail in Dhaka.

[9] Syed Anwar Hussain, “Internal Dynamics of South Asian Security: Ethnic dissonance”, in Nancy Jetly, ed., Regional Security in South Asia: The Ethno-sectarian dimension, New Delhi: Lancers, 1999, p. 156.

[10] Hazarika, in Strangers of the Mist, writes that Rajkhowa’s father had, in the past, in fact, headed the AJYCP, p.167.

[11] Interestingly, during the 1998 General elections, the ULFA assassinated Anil Baruah, the CPI (ML) candidate for Dibrugarh.

[12] Udayon Misra, The Periphery Strikes Back, Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2000, pp.133-34.

[13] Samir Kumar Das, ULFA – A Political Analysis, Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1994, p.29.

[14] See, Misra, The Periphery Strikes Back, p.135.

[15] Lohit Deury was the General Staff Officer II in the ULFA and the organisation’s chief coordinator with he Bhutanese establishment. He gave his first exclusive interview to the author after his surrender on August 14, 2000.

[16] Sanjukta Mukti Bahini, Asom Prachar Patra, July 1992, cited in Mishra, The Periphery Strikes Back, pp.141-2.

[17] Ibid, p. 147

[18] Counter-terrorism Operations by the Army in Assam include Operation Bajrang: November 27, 1990 –June 10, 1991; Operation Rhino I: September 15, 1991 –January 13, 1992; and Operation Rhino II: March 15, 1992 – continuing.

[19] 3,475 lives have been lost in the terrorist conflict between January 1992 and June 2000 alone. This includes 1949 civilians; 899 militants; and 527 security force personnel. See www.satp.org.

[20] Kuensel, Thimpu, October 21, 2000. In fact, the National Assembly deliberated upon the security threat posed to Bhutan by ULFA’s presence during its 76th and 77th sessions also, in 1998 and 1999 respectively. See Kuensel, September 18,1999, 77th National Assembly Supplement. Further, Bhutan’s Foreign Minister, Lyonpo Thinley, assured his Indian counterpart that his government would not allow its territory to be used for anti-India activities. See Hindu, Madras, April 28, 2000.

[21] Sentinel, October 22, 2000, reports that the General Head Quarters has been renamed as Defence Wing Office.

[22] The Indian army’s 26 Madras Regiment, 10 Bihar Regiment and 5 Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JKLI) are stationed in Darranga Mela, Tamulpur and Nalbari respectively. The HQ 107 Mountain Brigade is at Tamulpur, the HQ 21 Mountain Division is positioned at Rangiya. In the past, the 21 Mountain Division – especially under the command of Maj Gen B.K. Bopanna, a former GOC – had done commendable work in containing insurgency in the area as also promote civic actions among the populace.

[23] The district has recently shown signs of resisting the ULFA.

[24] Interview with the author after his surrender on August 14, 2000

[25] Jaideep Saikia, “India’s Neighbours and the Separatists,” Sentinel, March 30, 2000.

[26] Jaideep Saikia, “Return of the Prodigal Son,” Sentinel, August 17, 2000.

[27] “Mahanta meets Bhutan envoy”, Assam Tribune, June 8, 2000.

[28] “Bhutan’s gesture”, Assam Tribune, May 23, 2000.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Bhutan Govt actively aiding ULFA activities”, Sentinel, July 1, 2000.

[31] Ibid.

[32] At a meeting held at Bhumthag, Bhutanese Home Minister Lyonpo Thinley Gyamsto introduced this four-point course of action and added that three rounds of talks were held with ULFA and one round with NDFB in which these outfits were told that they must leave Bhutanese territory. “Bumthaps express support for National Assembly decision on the ULFA-Bodo problem”, Kuensel, October 21, 2000. www.Kuensel.com.bt/news20001021/ulfabodo.htm.

[33] "No easy solution", Kuensel, July 8, 2000.

[34] “Bhutan Army ready to oust militants”, Assam Tribune, July 12, 2000.

[35] Informed sources told this writer that the RBA has made lateral moves in the last few months. It has also reportedly cautioned the local population from aiding the ULFA. But the moves do not seem to signify anything at the operational level.

[36] Jaideep Saikia,” Return home to where the warmth is”, Sentinel, July 27, 2000.

[37] Interview with the author after Deury's surrender on August 14, 2000.

[38] Sensing decadence in the organisation, the outfit’s Chief of Staff, Paresh Baruah had instructed the Operations Commander, Raju Baruah, to cobble together a formidable strike team in order to attack a CRPF outpost in Bansbari, Barpeta. Widely understood as an 'inside job’, two of the team members, Champak Patowary and Rocket Tamuly, liquidated several members of the team in a place called Nganglam where the team was resting on the night of August 29, 2000, after which the operation was aborted (Raju Baruah was reportedly injured in the counter attack). One of the strongest ULFA action groups ever to be constituted, the strike force included Rajen Gohain, Amar Singh, Rhino, Dristi Rajkhowa, Pramod Saharia, Ramen Kalita and Rontu Bhaity among others. Raju Baruah was himself in command. Also see, Jaideep Saikia, “Anatomy of a counter-strike”, Sentinel, September 21, 2000.

[39] Swadhinata (ULFA Newsletter), February 22, 2000.

[40] Assam Tribune, October 29, 2000.

[41] See http://www.satp.org/India/Assam/Terrorist Outfits/ULFA.htm

[42] Confidential discussions with the author.

[43] Jaideep Saikia, “Generally speaking”, Sentinel, November 2, 2000.

[44] “Army action against ULFA, NDFB will spell disaster for Bhutan”, Sentinel, October 25, 2000.

 

 

 

 

 
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