Allies in the Closet
Almost every form of terrorism – be it of the separatist variety or otherwise – evinces, on inception, the need for over ground sister movements to support and pad out the underground aspects of their agenda. Indeed, overground organisations are constituted in order to aid, abet and facilitate the terrorist agenda by exploiting a variety of methods available in the very system that they seek to terrorise or overthrow. The various methods and instruments that are commandeered in this context include the free press, the judiciary and a variety of democratic means that constitute the processes and organisation of a civil society. And this has been seen to be the case universally – ironically attesting to the fact that most underground movements have a parasitic existence on the systems they seek to destroy.
Overground organisations or fronts of terrorist outfits are constituted primarily for the easy facilitation of the terrorist agenda, or obstruction of the state’s response. Modes of facilitation which could pre-occupy such an agenda might include fronts for recruitment, mobilisation of public opinion (against the state and its constituents) and prevention of an effective state-engineered response to the terrorist agenda and activities. Such organisations also act as conduit for information to and from parent underground organisations, facilitating easy access to coordinates which have infiltrated state organisations. On various occasions such fronts come into being for perfectly valid reasons, as for instance to record, protest and redress human rights violation by the state, a brief which is frequently exploited by underground movements, not only to protest actual human rights violations, but also as a force multiplier to tie down state action and in their quest for legitimacy within and outside their parish. Indeed, terrorist organisations, especially those that have separatism as an element in their agenda – cannot afford to neglect the establishment and use of such fronts. These overground agencies constitute a very important system of interface with the masses. Nevertheless, it is the case that, through the very character of their operations, the utility of such fronts lies in the fact that they act not only as facilitators of the underground agenda, but also as essential buffers between the state and their parent militant organisations.
The history of such agents and organisations in India’s Northeast extends to all the theatres of insurgency in the region. The multiplicity of separatist movements that have proliferated in the region since Independence has, each, created its own inimitable network of overground entities. This has, at least in some measure, been a consequence of the patterns, causes and context of separatism in the region. The initial Nagalim (Greater Nagaland) movement1 launched by Angami Zapu Phizo, for instance, had its genesis in the insensitivity with which the state sought to deal with the uncertainties and aspirations of its people. The neglect or abdication of basic responsibilities by the state has been, on most counts, the necessary cause of the multiplicity of the ‘little wars’ in the region. Indeed, despite the occasional foreign connection, these conflicts have, almost without exception, arisen out of the dissonance between the existing nation-state and its periphery, and the inability of successive regimes to evolve a coherent doctrine and mechanism for the management of the unending diversity that is India. They have, consequently, often arisen out of legitimate political movements, with their concomitant organisational structures and paraphernalia, articulating public grievances and aspirations. When these movements spiral into violence, they leave intact their antecedent political structures – though an apparent dichotomy between the violent and the legitimate is established. The distance between these poles may be little or great, but the strands of sympathy and of shared ideologies often transcend fundamental differences of methods and morality. Given their antecedents in legitimate grievances and political movements constructed around these, it would, consequently, be incorrect to dismiss these as the constructs of ‘underground engineering’ by militant or subversive groups.
The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) provides a useful and sophisticated model of a complex agenda that combines underground and overground activities. Despite the assimilation of the State of Assam with the rest of India - primarily through participation in the Independence movement as also its largely Indo-centric socio-religious structure – the ULFA has been able to sustain the separatist agenda. Indeed, a well known political analyst opines why has the United Liberation Front of Asom, despite its ideological weaknesses and aberrations, been able to strike a responsive chord in the hearts of the Assamese masses is a question which has no easy answer.2 (emphasis added) Sympathisers – which have now paved way to beneficiaries – were existent in sufficient number for the ULFA to establish overground fronts. Indeed, during the period of ‘consolidation’,3 the ULFA – which was not even banned – had no reasons to have overground fronts. Consequent to the Indian Army’s Operation Bajrang4 such overground fronts have become a necessity for the ULFA. It was necessitated primarily due to the ULFA’s need to possess a conduit to the populace as also to effectively counter the Indian Army operations.5
This paper will seek to analyse and document the ULFA’s attempts at establishing overground fronts as also the methodology adopted to engineer such attempts. It will also seek to render a general picture of the degree of collusion the movement has or had with various aspects of the visible coordinates of civil society. Indeed, the case of the ULFA is unique in the fact that it is perhaps the only movement in modern India wherein an underground organisation was able to, at a particular point of time, infiltrate almost every level of governance and society.
A caveat, however, is necessary at this juncture. The student’s agitiation6 in Assam occupies a unique place in the history of popular movements in India. It evoked sentiments not only because of its enormous popular support, but because it was a movement focussed on at least one aspect – that of the matter of illegal migration from Bangladesh – which, if ignored, would have had serious long-term implications for the nation at large. Moreover, movements of such magnitude, which unfold over a period of more than half a decade, and where countless lives are lost as a result of the cycles they unleash, give rise to myriad forms of instability and chauvinism.
The calls for boycott of elections, the work of the All Assam Student’s Union (AASU) and Asom Gana Sangram Parishad (AGSP) during the agitation years, and the consequent popular compliance by the people at that time, were all very natural outpourings of political sentiment in a disturbed milieu. It is significant, even at this stage, that notwithstanding the fact that the AASU leadership was quite clear of the non-violent status of the movement, certain cases of highhandedness and violence were reported. Assam: A crisis of identity by Sanjayya documents one such case:
But such cases – including the infamous Nellie massacre9 – can hardly be said to have had a premeditated agenda. Indeed, these were only aberrant products of the charged atmosphere of the day. The student’s agitation was otherwise a movement with enormous mass support. Women and children were in the forefront and as a report in the Assam Tribune recorded (in a report about a 4,000-strong picket in Narengi), "female picketers, including old ladies, outnumbered their male counterparts in the picketing for the last few days." Indeed, women and children took part in the movement with a sense of charged camaraderie. Accusations that the ‘leaders of the movement were cowards and were taking shelter behind women and children,’ especially by the then Chief Secretary of Assam, R. S. Paramasivam10 were, therefore, unfair.
A nascent ULFA also came into being during the period – almost as a sort of antithesis to the agitation’s methodology. Much of its recruitment base was the same as that of the AASU and the AGSP, the two organisations that had spearheaded the anti-foreigner movement. It was, therefore, only to be expected that certain constituents of these three organisations were members of a common set. This commonality of the substratum gave rise to a solidarity of sorts in the early years, not only of the agitation but also of the AGP government.11 This was, in some measure, inevitable, but does not signify a commonality of agenda. Indeed, the present Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government’s tough stance against the ULFA – in stark contrast to its earlier avatar – confirms the deep chasm between its agenda and that of the ULFA.
But history holds its own, and the confluence of history located the ULFA, the AASU and the AGP in the same socio-temporal frame. Consequently, notwithstanding the fact that there have always been fundamental ideological and methodological differences between the three, the fact is that all of them were midwifed (at least initially) by similar concerns. As Udayon Misra, indeed, claims a deeper association:
In order to create such a unifying ethos among the people or to effect other necessary changes,13 the ULFA needed time and space, both of which were provided by the AGP during its first term in office:
K.M.L. Chhabra reaffirms the very serious allegations of a nexus between the ULFA and the AGP, and the ‘ambivalent apporach’ of the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta’s government that encouraged the growth of the ULFA. Chhabra notes that former Home Minister Bhrigu Kumar Phukan admitted to this nexus in his interview to The Economic Times of January 11, 1991, when he said that he had documentary evidence about the AGP’s links with the ULFA ‘boys’, adding: "Many colleagues often urged me not to take action against the arrested ULFA boys."17
These linkages persisted even after the split in the AGP, and, during the elections of 1991, while the ULFA decided to keep away from the poll process, the election was widely seen as an ‘election full of ULFA,’18 and the militants certainly pulled the strings from behind the curtain. The general projection was of ‘unity, order and resolve amidst disunity, disorder and indiscipline that plagued the Assamese political life.’ The ULFA also had deep stakes in AGP unity. As Samir Das expressed it:
This equation, however, was inherently unstable. The sheer imperatives of growth and organisational survival would eventually push the ULFA into a course of action at variance, if not in direct conflict, with the AGP, and this had already begun during the the ULFA’s period of ‘demonstration’ (1983-85) which witnessed organised political killings and robbery:
Beyond these expedient or accidental associations, however, a concerted effort at engineering an overground agenda by the ULFA appears to have been initiated only during the Nineteen Nineties, or what has been termed as a period of ‘reassertion’ (January-August 1991).21 In some measure, this course of action was forced on the organisation, primarily in order to ‘regain lost ground’ after the reverses it suffered during the Indian Army’s Operation Bajrang. In its bid to silently consolidate and regroup, the ULFA began to arm itself to the teeth not to frontally combat the Indian state, but to continue the process of military preparedness that would one day pose a challenge to the credibility of the military potential of the Indian state.22 But this was not all. A simultaneous effort to directly secure legitimacy among the masses, to muster popular support and to create a network of overground support also commenced. During this phase, ULFA militants engaged in and catalysed a wide range of developmental activities. A prominent front organisation, the Jatiya Unnayan Parishad, also established its credentials during this phase and in ‘the most novel experiment’ of its kind,
This, however, was far from a permanent strategy or commitment to larger developmental goals. It served a transitional objective of deepening linkages through a range of legitimate functions and organisations, and also helped to create a limited challenge to the legitimacy of the government by offering ‘public goods’ through alternative delivery mechanisms controlled by the underground. In the wake of Operation Bajrang, these activities were quickly pushed into the background. They had, however, served an important purpose, and Operation Bajrang failed substantially because, hours before it was launched, the ULFA leaders and cadres went underground, making full use of the network and support they had generated through the mass contact programme they had nourished over the preceding years.24 This support base came in further use when the Army was accused of committing some excesses25 during operations, and the ULFA successfully exploited these to mobilise public opinion in its favour. The harsh measures resorted to by the state resulted in further consolidation of the ULFA’s position among the masses:
After this phase, naturally, the conditions were ripe for the rapid development of ULFA’s overground support network, which would create ‘galvanizing stations’ for a people’s resurgence against the state. The mobilisation of mass protests against ‘Army excesses’ became frequent, and ULFA’s agent provocateurs established highly effective techniques and procedures to obstruct or immobilise the state through public action.
The general mode of operation was the widespread use of womenfolk against the Indian Army. This was sharply at variance with the patterns of popular and mixed participation in the AASU-AAGSP agitation. Almost in every case where an ULFA militant was apprehended by the Army, a gherao27 of the particular battalion/company where the cadre was held, would be organised. The cordon invariably comprised women and children, who demanded the immediate handing over of the cadre to the local police. This pattern established itself in the initial phases of Operation Rhino-I, when several allegations of custodial death and false encounters were current. At this stage, some of these protests were spontaneous. But the ULFA adopted the method as a weapon against the Indian Army long after the excesses had stopped.28 Another method of mass mobilisation against the state machinery adopted by the ULFA was the orchestration of large funeral marches and funeral orations in the wake of the killing of senior ULFA cadres. In its bid to evoke sympathy for itself, the ULFA also encouraged chauvinistic sentiments among the people, and several senior Assamese government functionaries confessed to their ‘sympathy’ for the ‘boys’ because ‘after all they are our own’.29 Although such a sense of fellow feeling is on the wane today, the fact remains that the ULFA and its ideologues were able to manipulate such sentiments to the hilt. Thus,
This ‘orchestration’, however, had a strong basis in the reigning public sentiment, and the loss of this support has had visible impact on the ULFA’s capabilities to engineer similar incidents today. Thus, when ULFA’s Assistant Publicity Secretary and Central Committee member, Swadhinata Phukan alias Kabiranjan Saikia was killed in Assam’s Jorhat district on May 26, 2000,31 the public response was feeble in comparison to the funeral procession and the tension that gripped the State following the death of Hirakjyoti Mahanta. Funeral processions were also organised after the ‘secret killings’ of members of the families of the ULFA in January 2001.32 But, as in the case of Swadhinata Phukan, the ULFA failed to capitalise on these events to the extent that was possible in the early 1990s.
Allegations of rape, vigorously pursued and publicised by overground groupings, have also been a potent weapon to strike at the state. The case of Maniki Bezbaruah is significant in this context. According to reports emanating from a section of the press, Maniki Bezbaruah was allegedly raped by an Indian Army soldier of the 25 Punjab Regiment on October 2, 1998, at Bijulighat in the Nalbari district.33 However, on detailed examination it was found that the case was false, and that Maniki Bezbaruah had been coerced by certain parties to make out a case of rape.34 The Indian Army’s 25 Punjab Regiment which was stationed in Bijulighat was a critical obstacle to the movement of the separatists along the arterial route to and from Bhutan. The institution of such a case with active support of overground organizations was an attempt to harry, immobilise or secure the withdrawal of the unit which had succeeded in dominating the area, rendering the movement of ULFA cadres extremely difficult.
The conspiracy to lodge the false report was eventually exposed during investigations. In a letter to the Director General of Police, Assam, the Superintendent of Police, Nalbari stated:
Even where actual violations or rights have occurred, however, the ULFA is finding it progressively difficult to exploit the incidents for propaganda or mass mobilisation, at least in some measure because of a more sensitised approach on the part of the state, and particularly of Army authorities. Thus, an incident of rape of a woman by two Indian Army soldiers in Nalbari’s Paikarkuchi on June 16, 1998, aroused widespread emotion and acted as a rallying point for the people of lower Assam. Organisations such as the Sanmilita Mahila Suraksha Parishad launched an agitation, with many of their members announcing a ‘fast-unto-death’ to protest the rape. The local Press also gave wide coverage to the fasting members and other meetings organised by various organisations, including MASS. Among the many demands of the agitators was that the Governor of Assam, Lt.Gen. (Retd) S.K. Sinha visit the fasting women. Relatively humane handling by Major General B. K. Bopanna, the General Officer Commanding of the 21 Mountain Division, helped diffuse tensions. General Bopanna visited the rape victim along with his wife and apologised to her and assured her that the perpetrators would be punished. This initiative secured significant public appreciation. Later, a court martial found the two soldiers guilty of rape, dismissed them from service, and awarded a sentence of 10 years rigorous imprsonment.38
The use and abuse of democratic and legal processes and institutions by the ULFA has, nevertheless, remained an integral element of the organisation’s strategy. In this they have been aided by several overground entities, including MASS, who have, however, on many occasions recorded and sought to redress perfectly valid cases of human rights violation as well. It is, indeed, this ambiguity that lends credence to such activities and institutions, and makes them more effective. An assessment of the activities and organisations record of MASS is interesting in this context.
MASS came into being on November 2, 1991, in the aftermath of Operation Bajrang. At this stage, ULFA had secured considerable support among the people. Sources suggest that the ULFA Chairman, Arabindo Rajkhowa, with the active assistance of the organisation’s ‘Foreign Secretary’, Sasha Choudhury, allegedly motivated certain prominent members of the citizenry to set up an organisation in order to raise the issue of human rights violations by the Forces, and to initiate a campaign against the imposition of the Disturbed Areas Act in Assam. Accordingly, Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, Parag Das and Niloy Dutta created MASS, and took charge as its Chairman, General Secretary and Adviser respectively. MASS launched its agenda by highlighting human rights violations in Assam and by taking concerted steps to build up mass protests against such violations. It also established correspondence and linkages with human rights and other groups such as Amnesty International, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO), and South East Asian Cooperation on Human Rights (SEACHR). Parag Das is said to have met ULFA leaders in Bangkok in 1996. He also met rebels from the Shan State in Central Myanmar, who were sympathetic to the ULFA. Indeed, it is alleged that the Shans refer to the ULFA as ‘kutum’ signifying familial affinity. The accent of these meetings was to build up a support base against what has been termed ‘Indian colonialism’. In the interregnum, MASS motivated the establishment of the Krishak Adhikar Surakhya Samiti and the Nari Adhikar Sangram Samiti as well. Among other activities, MASS was reported to have established three ‘model’ farms on ‘socialist’ lines near Kaki in Nagaon, which were allegedly intended to act as ‘shelters’ for the ULFA.39
MASS has, nevertheless, also established its credentials as an important human rights organisation in Assam (indeed, it has ably recorded and registered many a valid case of human rights violation by the state and its agencies). Its bonafides as an independent organisation are, nevertheless, far from clear. Some letters recovered by the Assam Police from the possession of ULFA’s Assistant Publicity Secretary, Swadhinata Phukan, after his death confirm some sort of a nexus between the MASS and the ULFA. In a letter dated November 23, 1995, Swadhinata Phukan writes to the Vice President, Nagaon District Committee of ULFA:
In another letter dated Novemeber 28, 1995, the Vice President, Nagaon District Committee, ULFA, Assam writes to MASS, Nagaon District Committee:
Several persons of eminence attended a joint meeting of MASS and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), held at Gauri Sadan, Guwahati, on February 1, 2001. The meeting discussed the proposed talks between the ULFA and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Government of India. Some of the observations made at the meeting are significant:
Clearly, MASS’ support to the cause of self-determination of Assam and its open support to ULFA in its bid to hold talks with the Government of India is a fact that needs no reiteration.42 However, whether it is acting in this as a puppet of or front for ULFA is a matter that cannot be decided on the evidence presently available. The fact remains that MASS retains its considerable stature as a major human rights organisation in Assam.
Equally insidious and ambivalent is the alleged nexus between ULFA and the major political institutions in the State. The commonalities and collusive arrangements of the past between the ruling AGP and ULFA have already been examined in some detail. These, however, do not exhaust the range of ULFA’s connections in the complex structure of democratic politics in Assam. An assessment of these is also critical to arrive at a valid estimate of the militant group’s influence, and of the character and impact of the current linkages between underground militancies and overground political activities and organisations.
On September 2, 2000, Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, stated in the Assam State Legislative Assembly that the Congress-I was maintaining a financial nexus with the ULFA. Replying to an adjournment motion moved by Bimalangshu Roy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the question of law and order in the State, Mahanta said,
Mahanta further stated that the Congress party also agreed to pay Rs 50 lakh to the ULFA for the provision of security and other assisatnce. However, the Chief Minister did not clarify whether the Congress had reached this understanding with the ULFA in the preceding elections, or for those that were due.43
Later, in November, 2000, a BJP panel44 report charged the AGP-led State government with ‘hobnobbing with the ULFA’ and claimed that this association was the principal cause for the AGP government’s failure to combat insurgency in the State. The report further stated that both the Congress and the AGP were blaming each other of having a nexus with the ULFA. While concluding that the role of the Congress party was dubious, the team also observed that even the general public believed that the AGP, directly or indirectly, maintained strong links with the ULFA.45
Within Assam, it is widely acknowledged that during the elections to the State Legislative Assembly in 1996 – when the AGP romped home with 63 of the 126 Legislative Assembly seats – a covert alliance had been established between the AGP and ULFA. Lohit Deury of the ULFA, who surrendered before the authorities on August 14, 2000, corroborated this among a number of other alliances in an interview.46
Q: What sort of relationship does the ULFA have with political parties in Assam?
A: Bhumidhar Barman (of the Congress party, a former Chief Minister) had a relationship with Raju Baruah.47 This continued until 1996-97.
Q: What about Tarun Gogoi?48
A: I do not know whether he had any connection with Raju Baruah.
Q: Did he have any connection with Paresh Baruah?49
A: It is possible, I am not certain.
Q: Why is the ULFA against P. K. Mahanta? The ULFA has tried to assassinate him, it has killed one of his ministers, Nagen Sarma50…
A: ULFA wanted to utilise the AGP as an over ground political party in the first instance, just before the elections of 1996. Accordingly, various pressure groups were sent down from the ULFA’s General Head Quarters51 to ‘press’ the people. These pressure groups met many AGP MLAs and ministers52 and held talks. Some sort of decision was arrived at and consequently the word went around that the AGP is to be supported. It was expected that the AGP will pressure the Centre on the issue of self-determination. But this the AGP did not do. As a result a decision was taken to assassinate Mahanta.
Recently, the Congress-I has also published an abhiyugnama (pamphlet) containing 36 pages of ‘accusation’ against the AGP and the BJP for what it termed their ‘anti-people ministrations’.53 On its twenty-sixth page, the abhiyugnama lists twenty-three points under the heading "Who has a relationship with the ULFA?" This was clearly an attempt by the Party to absolve itself of the charges made against it by Mahanta. The points primarily related to :
The rest of the points related to ‘newspaper reports’ and allegations of AGP Ministers having either paid or met ULFA cadres. One point also related to Paresh Barua accusing Mahanta of ‘betrayal’. The Congress party’s abhiyugnama, however, did not bring any direct charge against Mahanta. The ‘charge sheet’ was prefaced by a defence of Tarun Gogoi, President of the Assam State Congress Committee, who had, in 1993-94, rented out his residential house in Guwahati to a Tata Tea official, Brojen Gogoi, who was charged with a liaison with ULFA.56
An objective assessment of the evidence would force the conclusion that almost all political parties – regardless of ideology and affiliation – have, at one time or the other, maintained some sort of relationship with the ULFA. This, however, was never a matter of declared party policy. This is true even of the allegations of support that the AGP received from the ULFA in 1996. Indeed, the attempt by the ULFA to justify the killing of AGP Minister Nagen Sarma and the attempt on Chief Minister Mahanta on grounds of any ‘breach of trust’ committed by the AGP towards the ULFA is far fetched, and the alliances that have emerged from time to time, particularly around elections, have largely been matters of expediency in a generally murky politics. It is, indeed, more probably that Chief Minister Mahanta’s current ‘hardline’ against the ULFA provoked the killing and the attempted assassination.57 The matter, however, is still complicated, and there are elements within the AGP who urge a soft line on ULFA, and are even today – allegedly for reasons of political prudence – building bridges with the outlawed organisation. The senior AGP leadership – notwithstanding their stance during its first term in office – has nevertheless considerably changed its position. Indeed, the earlier dependance on the ULFA could – in addition to the common substratum of support that they shared in the agitation years – well be written off to the political and administrative inexperience of the AGP during its earlier tenure. The AGP leadership, in that period, appeared to have lacked the will or ability to rein in its errant members.
Alliances with other parties in the State have also followed a purely opportunistic pattern. However, amidst accusations and counter-accusations, one aspect is becoming progressively clearer. All political parties in Assam are now seeking to distance themselves from the ULFA – a sound barometer of the waning influence of the banned organisation.
The overground connections with a range of human rights, ‘voluntary’ and non-governmental organisations, however, signify premeditated courses of action. ULFA continues to pursue proposals to constitute such organisations which may be amenable to its needs and objectives, and appears unwilling to rely exclusively on the support of independent, though possibly sympathetic organisations such as MASS. ULFA, moreover, has always had a steady corpus of facilitators in society, including lawyers, doctors and businessmen who have benefited from the under ground organisation’s agenda and support.
ULFA’s initial success and the support it received from overground actors was based on the chauvinistic sentiments it had triggered among the Assamese, and to the widespread sense of alienation that had been generated in the Assamese psyche through the students’ agitation and the ensuing political mobilisation. With conventional politics taking over, these factors have declined and the combined impact and scope of such affiliations and alliances is now on the wane as the popular base of ULFA’s agenda suffers continuous erosion.