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Revolutionaries or Warlords
ULFA’s Organizational Profile
Jaideep Saikia*


Perceptions of the dynamics of anti-state movements – as they address themselves to the myriad forms of armed conflict – seldom reflect the complexities of the real ground situation. By and large, most perspectives on conflict against the state are either engineered by the state itself, or find currency as a result of direct anti-state propaganda by the parties in conflict. The result is that the discourse on such conflicts is dominated by a priori preconceptions. And, therefore, if perception of such matters is to be examined with a measure of rigour then it will have to be one, which is a posteriori in it’s outlook.

Most anti-state actors seek to project a certain ideological and theoretical coherence in their public postures. This is particularly the case at the time of the constitution and emergence of these organizations, when a great deal of attention is paid to the sartorial details of the external image. Indeed, a majority of such organizations – at least in the Indian sub-continent – have sought to decorate their cloaks with embellishments that have, in fact and subsequent practice, very remote connections with their inherent character and actions.

Public postures are, in fact, the most important aspect of the appraisal of anti-state organizations – their actions are, after all, aimed at the people watching.1 And, to this end, most such agents – whether they possess the cut and thrust of a revolutionary organization or not – introduce themselves to their audience through an extended period of demonstration.2 Such periods are invariably followed up with phases of confrontation, retribution and consolidation.

But showcasing apart, every anti-state actor – whether or not it possesses an agenda that seeks to replace the existing state apparatus with another – distinguishes itself by the methodology it adopts, and its goal orientation is often so geared that ends justify the means. It is, however, only during the phase that follows the period of consolidation that the true character of a campaign and of the organizations that carry it out, can be correctly assessed.

The primary task of this paper would be to examine whether there exists a distinction between various forms of anti-state campaigns (which, for the purpose of the paper will confine itself to insurgency, terrorism and warlordism). It will also seek to address the issue against the backdrop of the current movement by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in the State of Assam, and to examine whether the ULFA’s growth and character – past and present – can be characterized as one which stems from a distinct revolutionary agenda or one which possesses the ingredients of an outfit simply seeking to keep itself afloat by posing as a revolutionary group. This assessment is, however, preceded by a brief examination of what is described as the triadic schema of conflict.

Insurgency, Terror and Warlordism

Writing about insurgency, Paul Wilkinson notes:

Insurgency is a relatively value-neutral concept denoting a rebellion or rising against any government in power or the civil authorities…In the contemporary international system, and historically, insurgency is generally manifested as low-intensity conflict rather than as full-scale conventional warfare…3

Classifying the main types of insurgency in the contemporary international system, Wilkinson quotes a three-year survey of conflicts by PIOOM4 between 1995 and 1997 and estimates that there has been a sixty per cent increase in the total number of conflicts around the world (Table 1).

Table 1: Three-year survey of conflicts (PIOOM Survey)

` 1995 1996 1997

* LIC - Low Intensity Conflict, HIC - High Intensity Conflict, VPC- Violent Political Conflict

The PIOOM survey lists Assam, Jammu and Kashmir and Bihar in India, among others, as High Intensity Conflicts. And, although the survey has excluded Albania from the list of 17 High Intensity Conflicts5 which have all been termed as insurgencies, because it appears that the conflict there in this period was one of violence by armed criminal gangs rather than politically motivated rebellion,6 the fact of the matter is that a concerted movement of study does not seem to have been made of the conflict situation in Assam. This reflects a general neglect in the Western literature, and it is useful to take a closer look at Western perception of insurgency (and its various forms), as opposed to terrorism.

Christian P. Scherrer has drawn up an exhaustive list of the different types of armed conflict and their frequency of occurrence.7

Table 2: Frequency of different types of armed conflict 1985-1994


Type of Conflict

(as %age)


Anti-regime wars or political and ideological conflict (state vs. insurrection)



Ethnonationalist conflicts (mostly intrastate conflicts, state vs. nation)



Interstate conflicts (state vs. state )



Decolonisation war or foreign state occupations (mostly Afro-Asiatic cases)



Interethnic or tribal conflicts (communal conflicts)



Gang wars (non-state actors, mixed with criminal elements especially in state-collapse situations)



Genocide (including politicide, democide, state-organised mass murder and crimes against humanity)


Among contemporary insurgencies, conventional warfare where an insurgency possesses the manpower and range of weaponry to enable the insurgents to resort to full scale conventional military operations if and when the opportunity arises,8 is not as frequent as guerrilla warfare which has been characterized as hypermobile war.9 Indeed, writing about a guerrilla mode of warfare - conflicts in the North East of India could well claim to be representing this last mode – Wilkinson notes:

In the classic pattern the guerrilla wages a hypermobile war. It is, one could say, the natural weapon of the strategically weaker side. Rather than risking the annihilation of his own forces in a full-scale battle with his more numerous and better armed opponents the guerrilla goes over to the tactical offensive, waging what Taber has called ‘the war of the flea’ using methods, time and places of the guerrilla’s choice and constantly trying to benefit from the guerrilla’s major tactical advantage – the element of surprise…10

Indeed, almost all military operations carried out by the ULFA in Assam have followed such a methodology. In this context, it is interesting to record three operations which have been carried out by the ULFA recently: the assassination of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) Minister, Nagen Sarma11 in Nij Bahjani,12 using an Improvised Explosive Device (IED); Operation Manas, the abortive attempt by one of the strongest action groups in the ULFA to attack a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp in Bansbari13 on the outskirts of the Manas National Park in lower Assam; and the operation against members of the surrendered ULFA (SULFA) militants in Moran on June 21, 2001.

In the case of the Nij Bahjani operation, the local populace were either paid or coerced to provide support. The anatomy of the assassination has been earlier described elsewhere by this author as follows:

It was a meticulously planned affair with the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) having been planted days in advance. The fuse wire ran a good one hundred metres away into a nearby bamboo thicket, an electricity pole acting as a pointer for the triggering. The preparation could have taken days (incidentally another IED had been planted at Mukalmua, in case the minister decided to go elsewhere) and it is nigh impossible that the villagers (including members of the college which was to host the minister) could not have known of the plan…14

Indeed, the family from whose backyard the IED was exploded (Dharani, Ratul and Labanya Sarma) was absconding in the aftermath of the operation. The state was caught totally unaware.

In the case of ‘Mission Manas’, the route from Nganglam in Bhutan (which is National Democratic Front of Bodoland [NDFB] ‘country’) had to be sanitized by way of either payment to the NDFB or to the local populace. But unlike the Nij Bahjani operation, where complete surprise and secrecy was maintained, ‘Mission Manas’ failed as a result of an early warning, which has been attributed to an insider.

The ‘Moran massacre’ is interesting because (quite like the time when Hindi-speaking people were being targeted) the ULFA – in the aftermath of the killings – denied any involvement in the incident. Indeed, the ULFA ‘Chief of Staff’, Paresh Barua attributed the act to factional rivalry. But the fact remains (despite murmurs in even a section of the establishment that it was a game of control for the ‘coal belts’ between competing SULFA factions, or for the matter about dominance of the Jatiya Mahasabha) that the ULFA – sensing a possibility of a cease-fire in about a year’s time – is currently undertaking operations in order to purge any political or economic opposition. It is also systematically undertaking a course of action by which a massive finance collection drive is underway. But as far as the operational coordinates are concerned, the ULFA’s ‘28th Battalion’, with the active support of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K) scouts, planned and executed the operation. Is the ULFA not seeking an overreaction from members of the surrendered militants as had been witnessed in the aftermath of earlier such assassinations? Is the ULFA ‘seeking’ some retribution from the SULFA and thereby expecting to steal an initiative from the SULFA with which it will invariably come into direct conflict with once a cease-fire arrangement is in place? Indeed, senior Surrendered ULFA leader and former ULFA ‘Publicity Secretary’, Siddhartha Phukan (now Sunil Nath), spoke of retribution in the course of a televised interview with Star News on June 21, 2001.

Operation Moran, however, is far from clear. Indeed, the fact is that 60 members of the SULFA belonging to the Sibsagar district were asked to come to Moran, which falls within the purview of another district – Dibrugarh (which has recently been converted into a Central Paramilitary Organisations (CPO) sector, with the withdrawal of the Indian Army) – and without their Personal Security Oficers (PSO).15 It could, of course, be plain coincidence that it was a particular faction’s cadres who suffered the maximum number of casualties. (These aspects are mentioned only incidentally, and may have no direct bearing on this paper’s primary thesis).

Counter-insurgency measures by the state are mostly stimulus responses. This is true primarily for the State of Assam where the counter-insurgency operation has largely been limited to a military option. A majority of the successes achieved by government forces against the ULFA has occurred as a result of responsive operations. Very few cases have been recorded whereby the government forces (which in the State of Assam would include all forces under the ambit of the Unified Structure, namely the Indian Army, Central Paramilitary Organisations and the State Police) have taken a proactive role in order to neutralize the ULFA. And this is precisely the reason for the ULFA’s relative success. Commenting on a similar scenario in another context, Wilkinson writes:

Only when the anti-guerrilla side underestimates the guerrilla threat or simply fails to commit its full resources to the conflict does a guerrilla have a chance of achieving, unaided, long term political aims… Many theories of guerrilla warfare formulated by revolutionary leaders proclaim that counter-insurgency measures by incumbent regimes cannot be effective, and (indeed) assume that such measures will tend only to enhance popular support for the guerrillas. Guerrilla movements often use urban guerrilla and terrorist tactics in a deliberate effort to provoke the authorities into a counter-insurgent overreaction, thereby inducing an effect on domestic and international opinion favourable to the guerrillas…16

It will also be of interest to note that a former leader of the ULFA, Sunil Nath had in the course of an interview in 1990 said, "We want the army to come, to enter the villages, then they will commit atrocities because people will turn against them. ULFA will not have to do very much to make the uniform hated in the villages. Then the people will turn to us and we will be ready…"17 And, although such confidence has been belied, the fact is that the former ULFA ‘Publicity Secretary’ was merely holding forth on the ULFA’s basic method of operation. Indeed, psychological initiatives and the need to deliberately provoke the state into an overreaction (most unorthodox counter-operations in Assam have been carried out as stimulus response)18 have been the ULFA’s method right from the time of Operation Bajrang. The systematic killings of Hindi-speaking people in Assam during the closing months of the year 200019 and the assassination of the former ULFA leader Abhinash Bardoloi20 were some of the actions through which the ULFA – and, unfortunately for the state rather successfully in many an instance – engineered state overreaction. The ULFA thus operates within the confines of a methodology which combines elements of surprise, psychological initiatives and deliberate provocation.

It is important to place this methodology within the context of our concept of terrorism. According to one definition,

…An act of terrorism was first of all a crime in the classic sense such as murder or kidnapping, albeit for political motives. Even if we accepted the assertion by many terrorists that they were waging a war and were therefore soldiers – that is, privileged combatants in the strict legal sense – terrorist tactics in most cases, violated the rules that governed armed conflict – for example the deliberate targeting of non combatants or actions against hostages. We recognized that terrorism contained a psychological component – it was aimed at the people watching. The identities of the actual targets or victims of the attack often were secondary or irrelevant to the terrorist’s objective of spreading fear and alarm or gaining concessions…21

Indeed, according to Paul Wilkinson, terrorism is not a philosophy or a movement. It is a method.22 And, according to the 1979 Jonathan Institute Conference on Terrorism, it is the "deliberate and systematic murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends."23 This is the context within which the methods and activities of a separatist organization (in this case the ULFA) are to be assessed.

There is one further distinction that needs to be made, and that involves the concept of the ‘warlord’, which refers:

To the leader of an armed band, possibly numbering up to several thousand fighters, who can hold territory locally and, at the same time, act financially and politically in the international system without interference from the state in which he is based… He confronts national governments, plunders their resources, moves and exterminates uncooperative population, interdicts international relief and development, and derails peace processes. With only a few exceptions, the modern warlord lives successfully beyond the reach and jurisdiction of civil society. His ability to seek refuge in the crisis zone and the lack of international commitment to take effective action together ensure his survival…24

It is of interest, in this context, to take note of some western perceptions of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). (India’s Northeast has received only cursory attention from the West – and even this is a result of the proliferation of madrassas (religious schools) in the region – an aspect of conflict which is almost directly linked to the West’s concerns with the widening threat of extremist Islamist terror). Writing about warlordism in J&K, Alexander Evans focuses on the transnational aspects, or what he terms the presence of ‘guest militants’ and their state sponsors, as also about the failure of the state which have (as a result of a weapons race between India and Pakistan) encouraged low-intensity conflict by their very nature. He notes, against this backdrop, that in areas with unrepresentative political institutions, ‘weak warlordism’ is a likely consequence. He notes further,

Warlordism is helpful to understand the violence in Kashmir because it goes beyond the internal/external lenses of domestic politics and international relations, ‘insurgency’ and ‘intervention’, and enables analysis of the evolving situation in the Valley to take into account increasingly transnational elements. Fighters from groups such as Harkat-ul-Ansar include a spread of nationalities, but little in the way of national loyalty (either to Pakistan, their backers, or to Kashmir) …Warlordism is also useful because it sums up the core problems facing Farooq Abdullah’s state government in Jammu and Kashmir, which lacks revenues to increase spending, the authority to take control of the counter-insurgency, and the institutional credibility to represent the varying groups in the Valley. At the same time, while insurgency has inevitably degenerated into banditry, and increasing domestic disillusion with the insurgency has seen the role of ‘international’ fighter heightened, the limitations of independent ‘warlord’ authorities must be explored…25

Can a parallel be drawn with the North East? Is there a case by which the provenance of not only the ULFA but the State as well can be examined in the light of these observations, especially in terms of what has been called the ‘warlord authority’?

ULFA: The Liberal View

Perhaps, the most sympathetic view of the ULFA enterprise has been proffered by Samir Kumar Das.26 In his seminal work on the separatist organization, Das addresses the politics of the ULFA in the light of the larger problem of the state’s abdication of the responsibility of building the nation in contemporary India.27 Commenting about the genesis of the ULFA, Das writes:

ULFA’s novelty lies in pointing out that ‘the agony of Assam’ is proportional to the prosperity of New Delhi. Thus, it goes a long way by arguing that ‘regional disparity’ is the effect of internal colonialism that New Delhi has established in India. The connexion between ‘the agony of Assam’ and the prosperity of New Delhi that is pivotal to any thesis of ‘internal colonialism’ was not brought in to the limelight before ULFA’s intervention

Secondly, ULFA strongly affirms that the ‘internal colonialism’ that Assam has been subjected to, is rooted in India’s ‘capitalist’ socio-economic structure…28

As a matter of detail, this can easily be said to be the most appropriate definition of ULFA’s politics during the formative years. Spawned by the Assam agitation,29 the ULFA sprung – as it were – from the structural dissonance that was gripping the agitation. Indeed, a liberal assessment of the ULFA would be that it poses itself as an antithesis to the Indian state, which in Samir Das’ words, "is locked up in an irreconcilable contradiction with the Indian nation."30 Indeed, as Das further points, "the very logic of the Indian state puts it in opposition to the Indian nation. The world is upside down: instead of building the nation, the Indian state poses the national question."31

It must also be understood that ULFA, notwithstanding its present day character, also came to be as a result of the anger against New Delhi for what has variously been termed as exploitation, condescension and a step-motherly treatment. While it is not possible to assent to ULFA’s view that the Treaty of Yandaboo of 1826 was a fraud perpetrated on the people of Assam and must, therefore, be redressed, it is certainly the case that there has been a growing feeling of alienation among the people of Assam, who feel they have not benefited from either the Indian ethos or from Assam’s own rich natural resources, which the Indian state siphons away meticulously and with impunity. Indeed, as yet another observer of the ULFA movement opines:

Despite its rather weak ideological moorings and its militaristic character, it must be said to ULFA’s credit that it has been the first insurgent outfit of the north-eastern region which focused effectively on the colonial thesis and called for a joint armed struggle against New Delhi… By forcing the Indian State to mount two major army operations against it, and that too without much success, it brought to the fore the question of political and economic autonomy for the states within a viable federal structure…32

Thus, the fact that the ULFA phenomenon is an important coordinate in Assam’s chequered history is not in doubt. And although, it may appear surprising to people who are not especially inured to the Indian methodology, the fact is that New Delhi’s perception of Assam (as indeed of the rest of the North Eastern States) is repeatedly invoked through the image that the region is closer to Hanoi than to New Delhi.33 Symbols of this distance and neglect are manifold. Until the ULFA movement began to gain ground, there were more bridges over the Yamuna in New Delhi than there were over the Brahmaputra in the entire stretch that washes the region. Indeed, New Delhi began to take Assam more seriously only as a result of the ULFA movement. A liberal view of the ULFA would, therefore, explain the politics of ULFA in terms of the Indian state’s abdication of responsibility.

But how did the ULFA’s theoretical construct of a counter-paradigm manifest itself. How did the ULFA put theory into practice? In order to examine this, it will be useful to understand the organisation’s charter.

In its preamble, the ULFA has appended a history of Assam which is titled "The pain and sorrow of Assam."34 Talking about the post-1947 period, it says:

All the industries, industrial products and the markets came under the control of the colonial ruling class. As a result, the strategy of annihilation of nation began. Services, industries and the markets are packed with foreigners deceiving the indigenous people. They have encouraged illegal migration of millions of Indian and non-Indian foreigners into Assam and rehabilitate them. This has turned the people of Assam into street-beggars and minority in their own country. They have fabricated a portion of the foreigners as the representative of indigenous people of Assam enthroning them at Delhi and Dispur as ‘Member of Parliament’ and ‘Member of Legislative Assembly’…Above all, the Indian ruling class is executing the strategy of ‘divide and destroy’ by instigating group conflict…35

In its aims and objects, the ULFA talks about the need to "liberate Assam through armed national liberation struggle from the clutches of the illegal occupation of India and to establish a sovereign independent Assam."36 Within the ambit of liberation, it includes the question of national identity which it terms basic and fixes responsibility on Pakistan which was responsible for the influx of foreigners from the Indian sub-continent in large scale and thereby (causing) a real threat to the demographic composition of Assam…37

ULFA: The State View

Propaganda manuals offer the state view of ULFA in terms of its manifestations and activities. One such widely circulated document, Bleeding Assam: The role of the ULFA,38 asserts:

…the ULFA was formed by a set of disgruntled persons on April 7, 1979… While ULFA started its movement on an anti-immigrant plank, it changed course midway. The hostility against the Bangladeshi nationals vanished once the ULFA sought sanctuary in Bangladesh and put all the money that they had extorted into Bangladesh banks. You can’t have your money in another country and also preach a philosophy against the nationals of that country…"39

Such official tracts40 speak of the ULFA modus operandi as including:

propaganda aimed at embarrassing the elected government, Anchal Committees with the help of armed cadres carry out extortion, intimidation and abduction for ransom, use coercive influence over the print media to articulate ULFA’s interests, eliminate civilians refusing to toe ULFA’s line and among others detonate explosive devices on roads and culverts, causing the death of innocent people and creating a fear psychosis.41

Succinctly, the Indian state regards ULFA in precisely the same light that the PIOOM survey sees the conflict in Albania, and the reasons for the exclusion from its list of insurgencies would, on this account, apply to ULFA as well. Indeed, for the state, an insurgent character (in neutral PIOOM terms) is non-existent in the ULFA profile, which is similar to the Albanian aspect of armed criminal gangs masquerading as motivated political activists. This assessment, obviously, requires further examination.

The ULFA came into direct confrontation with the Indian state when the outfit was declared unlawful on November 27, 1990, and the Indian Army’s Operation Bajrang42 was initiated. At this stage, widespread reports of human rights violation by the security forces, as also of counter measures by the ULFA, emerged. One of the counter-measures that the ULFA set into motion was the setting up of certain front organizations which were intended to play a pivotal role (as, indeed, they continue to do), not only in projecting the ULFA’s ideology among the people, but also to project and mobilize public opinion on cases and allegations of violation of human rights by the state machinery.

The proscribed outfit had, however, already gone into a defensive mode. Consequently, in order to sustain at least a measure of its authority in the hinterland, it continued to carry out operations and issue dictats while masquerading as a revolutionary outfit. And, even as it continued to selectively mete out punishment to ‘erring’ members of the general population, it also sought to impose certain cultural prescriptions on the Assamese people by way of do’s and don’ts during the Bihu festival and other such matters. Indeed, former ULFA leader Lohit Deury disclosed that the ULFA organized these sundry operations only in order to make its presence felt.43

Most sympathizers of the ULFA have sought to discount the theory that the ULFA is primarily – at least, in its present incarnation – gearing itself to dominate not only the tea and oil belts of Assam, but is also seeking to appropriate as much money for itself in the interregnum leading to what might be a possible cease-fire situation. Such a hypothesis is at least partially endorsed by the latest ULFA budget for the financial year 2001-2002. A sum of Rs. 31,08,77,000 has been earmarked as the expenditure for the period as per details provided below.

United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) Budget

Presented at the ULFA General Headquarters (HQs), Sukhni Basti, Bhutan on 18-3-2001

Sl. No.


Amount (Rs)



Expenditure in Council HQs




Expenditure in General HQs




Expenditure in travels




Expenditure in Battalion HQs




Expenditure on purchase of arms




Expenditure on Foreign Missions


Also ‘Operation Hildol’. Amount to be made available to Foreign Secretary Sasha Choudhury.


Expenditure on Special Operations


To be made available to Operations Commander Raju Baruah.


Expenditure on Rations Items




Expenditure on District Committees




Expenditure on Anchalik Units




Expenditure on Social Welfare




Expenditure on Medical Services




Expenditure on Dresses and Uniform




Expenditure on Publicity Campaigns


Swadhinata, Freedom, posters, banners, leaflets etc. To be made available to Publicity Secretary, Mithinga Daimary.


Expenditure on Women Battalion




Emergency Expenditure


At the discretion of Paresh Barua and Arabindo Rajkhowa.


Expenditure on Raising Day Celebrations



Note: Expenditure on these various heads, except expenditure on Foreign Missions and Operation ‘Hildol’, Special Operations, Publicity and Emergency Expenditure, will be overseen by Finance Secretary, Chitrabon Hazarika. A six-member Audit Committee is to monitor the details of the expenditure. The Committee will comprise Capt. Swapnaneel Dekaraja, Lt. Bhaskar Choudhury, Pallabh Baruah, Capt. Trailokya Buragohain and Group Commander Amarendra Lahkar.

The ULFA – according to intelligence sources – has a total of about 1000-armed cadres (there has been speculation on this figure with certain members of the Unified Structure putting the figure at 1,200). Every armed cadre is paid a salary of Rs. 2,000 per month, which includes the cadre’s rations, etc., in the field. If the armed strength is 1,000, this works out to a ‘salary bill’ of at least Rs 2,40,00,000 in the year, leaving a remainder of Rs. 28,68,77,000. It can safely be assumed, consequently, that the ULFA leadership (and within this context, the ‘leadership’ is confined to the top three, namely ‘Chairman’ Arabindo Rajkhowa; ‘Chief of Staff’ Paresh Barua; and ‘Operations Commander’ Raju Baruah) will actually possess a surplus of Rs 28,68,77,000 for expenses other than those relating to salaries of its armed cadres. And, even on an extravagant estimate of the costs of various operations undertaken by the ULFA, including elements not enumerated in the ‘Budget’, it would be fairly clear that approximately Rs. 200 million is concentrated in the hands of the reigning triumvirate. Indeed, even operations – other than the ones that are carried out by the organisation’s ‘28th Battalion’ – are the exclusive domain of Raju Baruah. And it is widely known that almost all capital intensive investments – including the procurement of arms, purchase of goodwill, investments in the tea industry, hospitals, fisheries, oil tankers, shipping, etc., (which, incidentally, are made individually and not in the name of the organization) – are made only by the top three, or in certain cases by designated individuals (like the senior ‘Staff Officers’). In other words, the utilization of a lion’s share of the ULFA’s resources lies outside the purview of the knowledge or review of the organization’s cadres. Indeed, it is now known that the ULFA – unlike the NDFB – has never audited its accounts.45

The amount projected in the ‘Annual Budget 2001-2002’ will be collected from the tea industry, business houses, industrialists, politicians and government officials. The meeting on March 18, 2001 had also decided to collect Rs. 1 lakh from each candidate of the national parties, Rs. 50,000 from regional parties and Rs. 25,000 from independent candidates for elections to the Assam Legislative Assembly, which were held on May 10, 2001.

The astounding ‘financial statement’ necessitates certain questions vis-à-vis the current canvas of insurgency in the State. How do tea and such other companies – including Indian public sector giants operating in the State – transfer such large sums of money to the ULFA? And, where does the money – notwithstanding the break-up given in the ‘budget’ – actually go once it has been converted into US dollars in places such as Kolkata, Siliguri and Kathmandu? Is there any particular reason for commissioning Rustabh Choudhury, who reportedly runs this clandestine network from Phuntsooling? What is the role of the myriad international houses involved? And lastly, where is the ‘revolutionary mandate’ in this entire financial structure? Clearly the ULFA has a lot to answer for, as have the people and organizations that keep the ‘revolutionary-finance’ pot on the boil.

ULFA: The Adjudicated View

There is, clearly, a need to harmonize the two conflicting assessments of the ULFA – as a revolutionary organization and an extortionary-criminal enterprise – and to define the extent to which either of these views arises out of a corruption of perspectives and inherent biases, as opposed to the realities on the ground.

The liberal critique of the ULFA has substantial appeal within the scheme of the adjudicated view, and it must be agreed that the assessment of the ULFA as a ‘response to the Indian state’s abdication of responsibility in its nation building enterprise’ is adequate for the purpose of examining the genesis of the movement. The ULFA’s ideology and adherence to ‘scientific socialism’, too, can be said to be true of the organisation’s character during the period of early ‘demonstration’. The period of ‘demonstration’ (almost all non-state enterprises seek some sort of prominence in the initial phases of their activities by projecting a vigilante role and a ‘Robin Hood’ image) was characterized by consolidating its prowess by ‘introducing a blueprint’ for the creation of a scientific socialist state in Assam. For instance, the ULFA was ‘committed to put an end to the anarchy in the education system.’ Paragraph 4 of the ULFA’s 6-point ‘Code of Conduct’ deals with ‘Education and duties’. There are six directives included in the paragraph: three of them point to the necessity of plugging the loopholes in the education system. The rest are connected with duties that will contribute to character-building and cadre training.46 The ULFA also sought to promote a code of social morality and, either in the garb of the Jatiya Unnayan Parishad or on its own, dealt out severe punishment to erring and corrupt officials, bootleggers and persons committing adultery. Another common sight during the ‘demonstration’ phase was that of armed ULFA cadres overseeing compliance of senior officials, contractors and engineers at various work-sites, especially relating to the execution of developmental and infrastructure projects. The ULFA’s vigilante role also brought it into direct confrontation with what it termed the ‘big Indian bourgeoisie’. It meted out death sentences to businessmen and politicians alike – as in the case of Utsavananda Goswami of the Congress (I) for ‘his alleged involvement in the fratricidal riots at Gohpur in 1983 and in 1989; and Surendra Paul, head of the Apeejay Group and Chairman of the Assam Frontier Tea Company for allegedly ‘phasing out the ethnic Assamese from the employment registers of the company’. According to official figures of the time, the ULFA assassinated 113 people in the period 1986-1990.

The modus operandi of the ULFA was intended to project itself as a substitute for the ‘corrupt Indian state’. The ULFA also began neutralizing its opponents, and people like Manabendra Sarma, Kamala Saikia and Anil Baruah who sought to oppose its activities were assassinated. But the ULFA continued to possess the cut and thrust of an organization which had steam-rolled into a political vacuum with a distinctive agenda and all the moorings of a revolutionary outfit. It should be noted that the period of ‘demonstration’ was also the period during which the ULFA was consolidating its finances and armory; and this was also the period during which the ULFA was not a proscribed organization.

The pains that ULFA undertook to demonstrate its bonafides to the people of Assam in this initial phase go some way in answering Udayon Misra’s question, "why has the ULFA, despite its ideological weaknesses and aberrations, been able to strike a responsive chord in the hearts of the Assamese masses."47 However, this can only be a partial explanation and there are no easy answers to this extremely significant question. Unfortunately, from its perspective, with the initiation of the Indian Army’s Operation Bajrang and subsequently Operations Rhino I and II, the ULFA, ‘unable to sustain the growth pattern it was able to engineer during its heyday,’ began to careen out of control, and to acquire ingredients that would incline it increasingly to activities that brought it squarely within the scope of what have been referred to as terrorism and warlordism.

One of the most important contradictions in the ULFA movement, and one that symbolizes its increasing deviation from its revolutionary character and principles, is the sudden shift in stance that it engineered towards the illegal migrants. Indeed, the ULFA ‘Preamble’ blames illegal migrants for "turn(ing) the people of Assam into street beggars and minority in their own country."48 However, the ULFA soon realized that discretion is the better part of valour and as Udayon Misra records:

…There is reason to believe that military needs have compelled the outfit to shed much of its earlier intransigence towards foreigners and outsiders on Assam soil and adopt a position which would ensure support and sanctuary in Bangladesh. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain the 15-page booklet issued in July 1992 which is addressed to ‘the people of Assam of East Bengal origin’. Tracing the roots of migration from East Bengal into Assam, the ULFA document states that the migrants had now become a major part of the national life of the state…49

Severing all linkages with its primal raison d’ etre, the ULFA further distanced itself from the AASU-led anti-foreigners demonstrations and the AGP:

We would like to state here for everybody’s information that the movement led by the All Assam Student’s Union and the Gana Sangram Parishad from 1979 to 1985 is viewed by the ULFA as one based on emotion…50

Today, the ULFA carries out its operations from foreign soil – primarily from Bangladesh [aided actively by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan], and from Bhutan, where the organisation’s General and Council HQs as well as its Security-cum-Training Camps, are situated. A majority of its lower and middle level cadres are stationed at Sandrup Jongkhar in Bhutan. Its top leadership spends a considerable amount of time in Dhaka, Karachi and Bangkok – spiritually and physically removed not only from the aspirations of the people of Assam, but also from its own cadres. The primary rationale and motivation of its continued activities has now shifted to sustaining the monetary supply to its coffers. Indeed, the entire movement is currently geared to secure this single end.

On the physical front, the ULFA undertook a number of activities as a result of which not only did its veneer of a class-conscious organization51 wear off, but which also imperiled its own survival in the arena of subversive politics in Assam. The ULFA, thus, not only assassinated people like Sanjoy Ghose (thereby signaling the fact that it was slowly finding it difficult to resist competition)52 and Rasmi Bora,53 but also former comrades like Tapan Dutta. Whereas the first two acts determined its loss of public face,54 the assassination of Tapan Dutta brought out the hatchet, upsetting the hitherto harmonious relationship between the ULFA and the SULFA. Until the Tapan Dutta incident, the ULFA had a comfortable arrangement with their former comrades, with industries and areas of operational and commercial influence carved out on the basis of an obvious unwritten agreement.

The crisis within the organization was compounded manifold as a result of the carnage perpetrated in the closing months of the year 2000, when ULFA began to target Hindi-speaking people in Assam in what was later discovered to be operations jointly conducted by the ULFA and the Islamic Chatra Shibir, the youth wing of Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami. ULFA’s agenda is now increasingly controlled by foreign agencies including Pakistan’s ISI and Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI). The killings, which were carried out from Nalbari in lower Assam to Tinsukia in upper Assam, have finally convinced ULFA watchers of the ‘non-revolutionary’ character of the outfit. The ULFA is clearly slipping into a terrorist mode, its agenda governed by the whims and fancies of a ‘warlord’ leadership. Indeed, John Mackinlay’s definition of a ‘warlord’ appears to apply increasingly and clearly to the ULFA leader: ‘he holds territory locally’ – Southern Bhutan and in areas in Bangladesh; ‘acts financially and politically in the international system without interference’ – Paresh Barua, ULFA’s ‘Chief of Staff’, for instance, possesses various identities, including that of Kamaruddin Zaman Khan, and has free access to various cities of the world, including Karachi, and includes complex liaisons with state agencies in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Bhutan (the liaisons with the ISI, DGFI and the monarchy of Bhutan are too well known for further elaboration here).

Clearly, the ULFA has – in its twenty-two years of existence - witnessed varying degrees of ebb and flow, as it meandered from an ideological perspective to a terrorist identity. The consolidation of its character as a terrorist group headed by a leadership that increasingly reflects the profile of ‘warlordism’ has had concomitant impact on the state’s responses to the organization and its activities, and these are now overwhelmingly dealt with, not as the activities of an insurrectionary political group, but more as those of a large organized criminal entity or warlord faction. The ULFA’s quest for Swadhin Asom has obviously been pushed into the remote background by the character of its current activities and associations, and its present agenda is at complete variance – indeed, appears to have nothing to do with the weighty ideologies, visions, principles and popular aspiration to which it ascribes its origins.


* Jaideep Saikia is a Guwahati-based political and security analyst.
  1. Ian O. Lesser, et al, Rand (Project Air Force), Countering the New Terrorism, 1999, p.v.
  2. Samir Kumar Das, in ULFA – A Political Analysis, Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1994, speaks of periods of consolidation, demonstration, retribution, confrontation, reassertion and disintegration in the ULFA’s chequered history.
  3. Paul Wilkinson, Terrorism Versus Democracy: The Liberal State Response, Great Britain, 2000.
  4. The Leiden University based Interdisciplinary Research Programme on Causes of Human Rights Violations. Cited in Wilkinson, Terrorism Versus Democracy.
  5. Congo-Zaire, Afghanistan, Algeria, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Colombia, Albania, Kashmir, Burma, Burundi, Iraq, Assam, Bihar and Tajikistan are the seventeen High Intensity Conflicts according to the PIOOM survey.
  6. Wilkinson, Terrorism Versus Democracy.
  7. Christian P. Scherrer, Ethinonationalismus in Weltsystem, Munster: Agenda Verlag, 1997.
  8. Wilkinson, Terrorism Versus Democracy, p. 10.
  9. Ibid., p. 10
  10. Ibid., p. 10
  11. Nagen Sarma, the Minister for Forests and Public Works Development in the erstwhile Prafulla Kumar Mahanta led AGP ministry and four other persons were killed on February 27, 2000. See " Assam minister among 5 killed",
  12. Nij Bahjani is a hamlet in Assam’s Nalbari district.
  13. Relative successes achieved by the ULFA in its attack on a CRPF camp in Kokrajhar’s Ultapani had reportedly emboldened the ULFA to choose a CRPF camp as a target. Also see Jaideep Saikia, Contours, Guwahati: Sagittarius Print, 2001, pp. 89-91.
  14. Jaideep Saikia, "Sitrep", Sentinel, Guwahati, April 6, 2000.
  15. On June 21, 2001, suspected United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) terrorists attacked and killed 13 SULFA cadres and injured 10 more at Moran in Dibrugarh district. See
  16. Wilkinson, Terrorism, pp. 10-11.
  17. Sanjoy Hazarika, ULFA-Playing a waiting game, Indian Express, New Delhi, February 24, 1991.
  18. This is particularly true of the non orthodox operations which have been recorded by ‘secret operatives’ who allegedly belong to the state or surrogates of the state
  19. See Assessment 2001, Assam,
  20. Abinash Bordoloi was killed on January 2, 2001in the Nalbari district.
  21. Lesser, et al, Countering the New Terrorism, Rand Corporation (Project Air Force), 1999, p. v.
  22. Wilkinson, Terrorism Versus Democracy, p. 13.
  23. Cited in Benjamin Netanyahu, Defining Terrorism in Netanyahu ed., Terrorism, How the West Can Win, London: Weiderfeld and Nicolson, 1986, p. 9.
  24. Defining Warlords: Published in Monograph 46, "Building Stability in Africa, Challenges for the New Millennium", February 2000.
  25. Alexander Evans, Warlordism and Political Violence in Jammu and Kashmir, 1988-97: Gun Rule? in Warlords in International Relations, Paul B.Rich, ed., London: Macmillan, 1999.
  26. Das, ULFA.
  27. Das, ULFA, See Preface.
  28. Das, ULFA, p. 34.
  29. The Assam agitation began on June 8, 1979 and concluded on August 15, 1985 when the Assam Accord was signed.
  30. Samir Kumar Das, "State Against Nation: Regional Movements in Contemporary India", Socialist Perspective, vol. 17, no.4, March 1990, p. 258.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Udayon Misra, The Periphery Strikes Back, Shimla: Indian Institute of Advance Study, 2000, p 144.
  33. Sanjoy Hazarika, Strangers of the Mist:Tales of War and Peace from India’s Northeast, New Delhi: Viking, 1995, p.xv.
  34. See the ULFA home page,
  35. The pain and sorrow of Assam
  36. Ibid
  37. Ibid.
  38. Bleeding Assam: The Role of the ULFA, Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt. of India.
  39. Ibid.
  40. This paper has taken recourse to these publications because they are openly available and can, therefore, be easily accessed and examined.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Counter-insurgency operations by the Indian 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.
  43. Former surrendered leader Lohit Deury in conversation with the author.
  44. Made available to the author by confidential sources.
  45. Lohit Deury, in conversation with the author.
  46. Cited in Das, ULFA, p. 50.
  47. Misra, The Periphery Strikes Back.
  48. See the ULFA home page,
  49. Misra,The Periphery Strikes Back.
  50. Cited in Ibid.
  51. Lohit Deury, during a conversation with the author, spoke of a rather accentuated class distinction among the ULFA cadres. Indeed, cadres of the ULFA in its GHQ had gone on a hunger strike protesting class disparity.
  52. The ULFA had published a clarification about the Case of Sanjoy Ghose. In the clarification it has said: "The ULFA has been observing for almost two years the covert activities and subtle propaganda of Mr. Sanjoy Ghose operating from his base at the Majuli river islands against the liberation struggle of the people of Assam. When the matter was first reported to the higher authorities, a Two-Man Special Inquiry team headed by the Zonal Commander was instituted on 4 November, 1996 to conduct a thorough investigation on his activities. On the basis of the report submitted by the Inquiry team, Mr. Ghosh was arrested on 4 July 1997 in connection with the following charges against him:
    That Mr Sanjoy Ghosh maintained close contact with Lt Gen S.K. Sawhney, Commander of IV Corps of the Indian army…and Inspector General of Police, Bipul Kalita. There is confirmed report that the two major operations conducted by the Indian army in the Majuli islands to arrest ULFA leaders was on the basis of information given by Mr Ghosh. Either this is a case of being an informer or an agent planted by the Indian intelligence agencies using the NGO as cover…"
  53. Rasmi Bora was a sixteen year old girl hailing from Raidangia, Nagaon. Rashmi, a High School student and an upcoming artiste was kidnapped from her house and killed on charges of being an Army informer. "Rashmi’s killer held at Nagaon,"
  54. ULFA’s attempts to explain the killings of Sanjoy Ghose and Rasmi Bora as ‘localized aberrations’, and the claim that those responsible were punished, do not hold water. Indeed, Fatik Hatimota, the man responsible for Ghose’s killing, and Fifty for Bora’s death, are still at large – among the very populace within which the crimes were perpetrated.






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