On 11th September 2021, the Government of Assam released a press statement announcing that “in exercise of the powers conferred by Section 3 of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958”, it is declaring the entire state of Assam as a “Disturbed Area” for another six months coming into effect from 28th August 2021. In recent years, Assam has witnessed a large number of insurgent outfits coming overground, surrendering their arms and entering into peace negotiations with the state or central governments. The United Liberation Front of Asom – Independent (ULFA-I) unilaterally declared the ceasefire and its chief Paresh Baruah announced his willingness to join peace-talks if the Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma mediated the same. This was followed by the Dimasa National Liberation Army (DNLA) declaring another unilateral ceasefire after the overtures for peace made by Sarma. For some sections of the paramilitary security forces stationed in the state, a continuation of AFSPA is generally favourable. Though the state government has not justified the decision yet, this must be viewed among other statements by Chief Ministers across the Northeast along with the Union Home Minister Amit Shah – all of whom have repeatedly declared that peace has returned to the region due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of an “insurgency-free, prosperous Northeast.” On 4th September 2021, Shah announced that a tripartite agreement between six insurgent groups active in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, the state and the Centre; which was preceded by a similar agreement in February 2020 between the Centre and representatives of all factions of the Bodo militant group – the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).
As more and more militant outfits come forward and express their interests in peace negotiations and ceasefires, human rights organizations and activists have intensified their demand that the AFSPA be removed from the state. They underline the history of this “draconian law” that continues to be “misused for political gains” by the government who continues to claim that Assam is peaceful. In their opinion, if the government has triumphantly declared that the state is now peaceful, the justification for extending AFSPA is no longer valid; and the only reason that it is still perpetuated is to maintain the flow of central funds into the state “in the name of eliminating terror.” The AFSPA has been in force in Assam since 1990s when the government first launched army operation against the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), and has consistently been extended every six months even though both the central and state government possess concurrent powers to revoke the Act. The 213th Report of the Department Related Standing Committee of Home Affairs entitled ‘Security Situation in North-Eastern States of India” that was tabled in both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha in July 2018, has stressed upon the clear dichotomy between the claims of peace and the accompanying continuation of AFSPA in Assam. The Report stated that it was difficult to comprehend “the divergent perceptions of the situation in Assam” – where while the government reiterates the improvement in the conditions of security in the state, the areas that are declared “Disturbed” have increased. In what seems to be a “paradoxical situation that needs to be resolved”, the Report recommended that the state and central governments engage in extensive discussions on the issue to focus their perceptions on the need for AFSPA in Assam. In 2019, G. Kishan Reddy – the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs – stated in a Lok Sabha speech that the conditions of security in the Northeast had “improved substantially’ since 2014 with a 66% drop in insurgency-related incidents. This was corroborated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) data that found terror-related killings in Assam had fallen from 138 in 2014 to only 7 in 2020, though there have been 10 insurgency-related killings in 2021 till date. According to the state government, though conditions of peace are close, the ULFA and the NSCN (I-M) are still active elsewhere in the Northeast, necessitating the perpetuation of AFSPA to maintain law and order conditions. In Sarma’s opinion, however, the continuation of the AFSPA “does not prevent the Union and State governments to pursue peaceful negotiations with militant organisations.” The Centre annually reviews the situation in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland and decides whether to continue AFSPA or not. However, Assam and Manipur have been notifying “Disturbed Areas” as a prerequisite for imposing AFSPA since 2017. The Parliamentary Standing Committee Report in 2018 observed that the withdrawal of AFSPA in Tripura has been quite successful in maintaining conditions of peace and stability. For human rights activists, the legal immunity provided to defence forces in areas of armed resistance through Section 4 that allows unbridled arrest capabilities against any person reasonably suspected to commit a cognizable offence, Section 6 which grants forces immunity from prosecution or other legal proceedings when discharging their duties under AFSPA, and other Sections that allow the military to destroy suspicious structures that may be utilized as hideouts or training camps, or to open fire regardless of consequences if assembly of more than five persons are prohibited – all have fomented sweeping violations of human rights. Assam had 21 cases of sexual violence allegedly committed by the armed forces between 2000 and 2020, the highest in the list compiled by the Report of the National Campaign Against Torture.
Meanwhile, during a speech addressing officers at the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington in Tamil Nadu in August 2021, the Director General of the Assam Rifles (AR) Lt. Gen. Pradeep Chandran Nair stated that though levels of insurgency in the Northeast have been reduced in the last few years, the movement of contraband and illegally-smuggled goods has increased exponentially. He reported that in 2020, the Assam contingent of the AR confiscated INR 876 crores worth of contraband, which is 61% more than what was confiscated in 2019. In 2021, despite the raging COVID-19 pandemic, more than INR 761 crores worth of contraband was confiscated as of 31st July. Lt. Gen. Nair also described the history of the AR at the forefront of anti-insurgency operations and asserted that they face a host of challenges in dispensing their duties including treacherous terrains, lack of police outposts on the Indo-Myanmar border, the lack of police powers allowed to the AR who are the only border force without the same, ethnic loyalties and deeply porous border. He also stressed that the deteriorating conditions of stability and security in Myanmar are likely to worsen the situation not only in Assam but across the Northeast, though the AR are countering these additional challenges by the sophistication of technology and dynamic deployment of forces, upgradation in armaments and equipment and through a focus on socio-economic development in the region.
When incidents of insurgency arose in Assam, they shocked the central government because Assam’s inclusion into the country after Independence had been relatively conflict-free. Indeed, since 1824 when the area was occupied by the British forces after the First-Anglo Burmese War, 1919 when under the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms the Assam Legislative Council was created, 1935 when the Government of India Act provided provincial autonomy and elections were conducted for the newly-created Assam Legislative Assembly where the Indian National Congress won, until 15th August 1947 when Assam became an official part of the Dominion of India – the question of whether this area is originally a part of the Indian State has generally been uncontroversial. Unlike elsewhere in the Northeast, where differing perceptions of assimilation and integration by the British colonial administration and by the Indian government, as well dynamic ideas regarding autonomy and self-determination of the tribal populations have led to conditions of continuing insurgency, the case of Assam is different. The movement of the Ahomiyas began some decades after Independence, and though the ULFA became one of the most feared insurgent outfits operating in the Northeast, their reasons were different as well. The purpose of this article is to examine these reasons, through a historical analysis of Ahomiya insurgency in Assam. First, it will examine the growth and the decline of the ULFA over the years accompanied by a study of the peace accords currently in place. Finally, it will scrutinize the various force-multipliers that have led to increased insurgency and violence in the state, including the domestic and international linkages of the insurgent movement.
Growth and Retreat of ULFA
For most scholars, the birth of insurgency in Assam – a state that had largely been untouched by violence and was a part of the ‘Indian mainstream – was due to the mass influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh since India’s Partition in 1947. Thus, though this kind of demographic transformation was in motion even before Bangladesh was formed, it only became more acute after the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Until 1974, the locals in Assam hesitated to protest the illegal migration because the victory over Pakistan in 1971 was still a point of pride for most Indians and Bangladesh was thought to be a partner in that. These amicable relations began to worsen after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was replaced by an administration that was not as supportive of India and the hostility towards the Bangladeshis began to simmer. It was tempered by the announcement of Emergency in 1975 as the movement in Assam redirected their focus to the “save democracy project”, but returned in full force after Emergency was lifted and Bangladesh had seemingly gravitated towards an Islamic order acrimonious to India. In 1979, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) was formed that raised the issue of the threat that such illegal migration posed to the cultural, political, social and economic lives of the Assamese (the Ahomiya); and estimating that the population of these “foreigners” was more than 4 million, demanded that their names be deleted from the voter’s list and that they be deported. They also insisted that the process of delineation as to who would be deported should cover all migrants who entered India after 1951, which the Indian government disagreed to and countered with the ‘cut-off date’ of 1971 for the identification of illegal aliens. This has continued to be a conflictual flashpoint in the socio-political milieu in Assam. For the AASU – most of whom were youths facing the pressures of poverty and unemployment – the only reason that Assam continued to be a “backward state” despite being endowed with rich natural resources was because of the exploitation of those resources by the “foreigners.” Thus began the Assam agitation that continued for the next six years and brought Assamese-speaking people together across the Brahmaputra Valley. The talks between the AASU-AAGSP (All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad) and the Centre broke down, and as even government employees joined the movement slowing state administration to a halt, President’s Rule was imposed on Assam in December 1979. At this time, several militant organizations like the Assam Fighter’s Union, and Assam People’s Liberation Army were formed. Among these, the ULFA which was founded in 1979 with the professed aim of “liberating Assam from Indian colonial rule and forming a sovereign, socialist Assam through an armed struggle” became the most powerful one, with Paresh Baruah at its helm. Though the ULFA declared that its goal was secession from India on the basis of two arguments – that Assam was not historically ever a part of India, and that the Indian government had followed the British Raj in exploiting Assam’s natural resources without allowing any corresponding benefits to the local public – it adopted the anti-foreigner rhetoric which was gripping Assam at that time and operated within the AASU-AAGSP agitations. On 20th March 1980, the army was deployed to the state to restore conditions of law and order and all of Assam (except the Cachar and North Cachar Hills districts) was declared a “disturbed area.” On 6th April 1980, the state was brought under both the Assam Disturbed Areas Act, 1955, and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. Though the Centre engaged in several rounds of talks with the Assam agitation between 1980 and 1983, they failed to come to fruition.
Then, the government decided to hold elections to the State Legislature in February 1983 despite the boycott by the agitators. On 18th February 1980, more than 600 Bangladeshi settlers, including women and children, were massacred in Nellie, Nagaon district. These violent Assembly elections marked a turning-point for the ULFA which began to mobilise public opinion through a program of armed propaganda. In their opinion, the government had forcibly held these elections to resolve the controversy over electoral rolls – which, prepared in 1979, included the names of thousands of illegal aliens. Despite these hostilities, the Congress (I) government led by Hiteswar Saikia came into power, which for ethnic Assamese was an illegitimate usurping of power. The claim that Delhi was unconcerned about the public’s wishes and interests in Assam allowed the ULFA to make significant political inroads in this period marked by burgeoning unemployment and local frustration. Finally, when the Rajiv Gandhi government came to power and called for fresh elections, the Assam Accord was signed on 15th August 1985 with the agreement that all illegal immigrants into Assam after 25th March 1971 be detected and deported. The new Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government was created after the Assembly election in December 1985, which brought together many leaders of the agitation and crowned Prafulla Kumar Mahanta as the Chief Minister. At this point, the ULFA had begun to intensify their hostilities since they found the Assam Accord as inimical to their struggle. The state administration either did not or could not check the growth of ULFA terrorism though they knew about the growing cadre and weapon strength (estimated at 3000 militants with access to some 2,000 weapons of various makes) as well as the militant group’s relationships with the ISI, NSCN (I-M) and the KIA. The “misrule” of the state government allowed the ULFA to harass economic targets, disrupt communication, kidnap prominent businessmen, and murder government officials – all of which reached unprecedented heights in 1990.
The Centre realized that the AGAP government had completely lost control of the law and order situation and after Subodh Kant Sahay (then-Minister of State for Home of Union Government) commented about the state government – “The whole state machinery is with the ULFA.” – the Centre imposed President’s Rule on 28th November 1990 and banned ULFA under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. The army was reintroduced into the state and Operation Banjrang was launched between September 1990 and April 1991, which arrested more than 209 hardcore militants, a large quantity of arms and more than 48 million cash earned from extortion, and eventually restored a measure of peace and normalcy into the state. Assembly elections were held again in 1991, the Congress (I) with Saikia returned to power on 1st July 1991. The ULFA resumed its violent campaign soon, causing the army to launch Operation Rhino in September 1991 where 15 ULFA camps were destroyed, 2,578 hardcore militants were nabbed, along with large quantities of arms and Rs. 780,000 in cash. Saikia suspended army operations in January 1992 and announced an amnesty for all surrendered ULFA cadre, which resulted in more than 4000 militants surrendering by March 1992. Though the ULFA remained resilient and established camps in Myanmar and Bhutan, the Indian and Myanmarese forces jointly organized Operation Golden Bird in April-May 1995 leading to death of 50 militants and seizure of large quantities of arms and ammunition. After the AGP returned to power in May 1997, the Unified Command Structure (UCS) was set up on 20th January 1997 aiming to the activities of the police, paramilitary and army personnel carrying out operations against the insurgents.
The ULFA began to lose steam as many of its top leaders began to surrender to the authorities, with more than 242 of it cadres led by Lohit Deori laying down their arms to the Assam Chief Minister on 14th August, 2000. The organization was also losing control of its ground-level activists who became disillusioned with the violence, extortion and terrorism perpetrated by the outfit, as well as its closeness with the ISI especially because locals found it difficult to understand why ULFA cadre would fight alongside Pakistan against India during the Kargil War. Earlier in 2000, on April 4th, 532 ULFA militants surrendered at Rong Ghar (the birthplace of the ULFA). As the ULFA tried to recruit youths from the lower Assam districts, they encountered a public no longer in total support of them as many mobilized in open peace rallies and newspapers printed editorials condemning the ULFA for its violence. When the organization called for a plebiscite under the supervision of the United Nations (UN), more than 70% of the state’s voters defied ULFA’s calls for boycott of the 1999 Lok Sabha Elections and even members of top leaders’ families voted. As ULFA family members began to join the peace rallies and then-Union Home Minister LK Advani clarified that the government would no longer entertain unconditional talks with the insurgent outfit, it became clear that the ULFA had lost not only the support of the public but also its ideological base. In December 2003, a Bhutanese military operation formed after years of the Bhutanese government attempting peace negotiations, dislodged ULFA camps in Bhutan. On 11th November 2007, the 28th battalion of the ULFA (its most powerful strike unit) was disrupted when moving between Assam and Myanmar through Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland – a route they had used multiple times before. Though the NSCN (I-M) and the ULFA were previously close, the former carried out an ambush on the latter’s cadre travelling through Nagaland’s Mon district, killing two cadres and imprisoning two others as hostages. This seemed to be due to the ULFA’s growing relations with the NSCN (K), as the NSCN (I-M) refused the ULFA any right of movement through Nagaland on pain of death. The ULFA could no longer easily move into Myanmar, though its route through Meghalaya into Bangladesh remained undisrupted. In 2007, the ULFA also secured strategic alliances with the KLNLF (Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front) and the AANLA (All Adivasi National Liberation Army) and supported (and even participated in) the August 2007 violent movement carried out against the Hindi-speaking trading community in the Karbi-Anglong district by the former, while transforming the latter from a small terrorist organization into an organized group possessing sophisticated weapons. On 24th June 2008, the Alfa and Charlie companies of ULFA’s 28th battalion based in Myanmar declared unilateral ceasefire and came overground for peace-talks. This ‘Pro-Talk ULFA’ announced their distance from violent movements seeking the sovereignty of Assam and professed their interest towards working towards greater autonomy within constitutional methods. On 1st February 2010, the Union Government proposed peace negotiations which ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa rejected because he was still in custody. Baruah also rejected talks due to Indian government’s lack of interest in discussing the issue of sovereignty. Thus, the government released Raju Baruah, Pranati Deka, Bhimkanta Buragohain and Pradip Gogoi in the same year, while also releasing both Rajkhowa and Shashadhar Chowdhury on 1st January 2011 and 11th January 2011 respectively, to facilitate peace-talks. On 5th February 2011, Gogoi, Chowdhury and Mithinga Daimary announced that the outfit’s 5th General Council (GC) had assented to the resolution of the Central Executive Council (CEC) to unconditionally enter into peace-talks with the central government, and declared a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire on 12th July 2011. Baruah declared the GC unconstitutional and the resolution as null and void, therefore precipitating a formal split in August 2012 between the ULFA- Anti-Talks faction or ULFA-Independent (ULFA-ATF or ULFA-I) and Pro-Talks faction of ULFA (ULFA-PTF), led by Paresh Baruah and Arabinda Rajkhowa respectively. On 23rd November 2011, the ULFA-I announced a 16-member Central Committee with Abhijeet Barman as In-Charge chairman, Baruah as Commander-in-Chief and Jiban Moran as Assistant General Secretary’ and In-Charge Finance Secretary.
With the growing protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 overtaking Assam, the ULFA-I began to strengthen its cadre numbers and organizational capacities, recruiting youths in upper Assam’s Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts. Four persons were injured in a low-intensity explosion in Guwahati on the banks of the Brahmaputra River on 13th October 2018 and five were gunned down in Tinsukia on 1st November 2018. The ULFA-I claimed responsibility for both these attacks.
Overtures of Peace
The Indian government has responded with an amalgamation of hard and soft strategies including military operations, developmental packages, surrender schemes, peace overtures and emphasis on harnessing the economic potential of the region to contain the insurgency in the Northeast.
Until 2001, the ULFA maintained that they would only consider talks with the government if they occurred outside India under the supervision of the UN with the sovereignty of Assam as the core issue – all three conditions were unacceptable to the Centre. By 2005 however, the ULFA had abandoned the first two demands and were only pressing for the recognition of sovereignty. The ULFA formed the People’s Conservative Group (PCG) on 8th September 2005 to prepare the foundation for an eventual talk with the government. Though the PCG did hold three rounds of dialogue with the government over a year where the latter announced a six-week ceasefire, but the truce was called off on 26th September 2006 as both sides refused to compromise on their original positions. The ULFA demanded the release of five of its leaders, and the government demanded written communication that the outfit was indeed interested in peace. ULFA’s hostility towards the peace process made the efforts of civil society groups such as AASU, Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP), Assam Sahitya Sabha (ASS) and individuals like Bhupen Hazarika to facilitate the same, extremely difficult. While the ULFA saw organiations like the Assam Public Works (APW) as pro-government, the government found ULFA-supported organizations like the PCG and the PCIPIA (People’s Committee for Peace Initiatives in Assam – an umbrella group of 27 Assamese human rights and action groups) unacceptable. After the June 2008 ceasefire, the ULFA-PTF met with the intelligentsia and student bodies in the state, held various meetings to gauge public consciousness, and eventually presented the Prime Minister with a charter of demands primarily stating that a solution to the “Assam-India conflict” was only possible through full autonomy and self-determination achieved within the constitutional framework, in 2009. In April 2011, Hiren Gohain formed a State Level Convention, Sanmilita Jatiya Abhivartan (SJA) which issued a draft resolution calling upon the Centre and ULFA to facilitate an environment for unconditional peace-talks and to allow free passage to imprisoned ULFA leaders to come to the negotiating table in Delhi. This was unacceptable to Baruah, who sent an email criticising and condemning the organization’s lack of knowledge about the “freedom movement” and asserting that the core demand of sovereignty still remained. Though the Assam State Cabinet in 26th May 2010 had agreed to commence the talks without Baruah, the ULFA General Council met on 28th May 2010 in Guwahati Central Jail and decided that no talks would be held without the Commander-in-Chief and without the release of Central Committee members (which was ULFA’s policymaking organ). On 22nd June 2010, a delegation of the SJA met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to revive peace-talks and recommended the release of ULFA leaders – which the government did not agree to, after which it appointed PC Haldar (former IB Director) as the interlocutor in the ULFA peace process. After the unilateral ceasefire announced by Chowdhury in July 2011, the ULFA led by Rajkhowa handed over a charter of demands – ‘‘Framework of Charter for Negotiations to Resolve the Issues between Assam and India’ – to Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, which underlined 12 broad themes under which negotiations were to begin. These included recognition of the legitimacy of ULFA’s struggle; information on missing ULFA cadre; constitutional and political reform arrangements to protect the Ahomiya identity; financial and economic arrangements to settle all royalties on mines and minerals; proscription of illegal migration through more effective sealing of borders and river patrolling; settlement of border disputes, educational, health, disaster management agricultural and rural development coupled with industrial and human resource development; amnesty, reintegration and rehabilitation of released ULFA cadre; and, protection of indigenous Ahomiya culture and traditions. A tripartite Suspension of Operations (SoO) was signed between the Centre and ULFA on 3rd September 2011, after which the first round of formal political dialogue occurred on the basis of the Charter on 25th October 2011. After the formal split in the organization, top ULFA-PTF leaders met with Home Minister P. Chidambaram to formally discuss the Charter of demands; after which a tripartite meeting was held in New Delhi between ULFA led by Rajkhowa and representatives of the state and central governments under the Chairmanship of Mr R.K. Singh (then-Union Home Secretary) on 26th June 2013 to review the progress made in peace negotiations. After Anup Chetia (ULFA General Secretary) was extradited from Bangladesh in November 2015, the ULFA-PTF insisted that peace negotiations involve Chetia, allowing the latter to attend peace-talks from March 2016. In the talks on 8th June 2017, the organization demanded that the constitution be amended to protect the indigenous Ahomiya identity and the cut-off for citizenship be reverted to 1951. Chetia headed a seven-member ULFA-PTF delegation that met with the Centre in the presence of interlocutor Dineswar Sharma in December 2017 and decided in broad consensus that the final settlement to the issue would occur only after the completion of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Force Multipliers of Insurgency
Though the growth and retreat of the ULFA determine much of the conditions of peace or instability in Assam, its presence within the state is not the only issue of concern. The insurgent outfit has interlinkages with other insurgent groups not only within the Northeast but internationally as well.
The ULFA was a disorganized group when it was formed, and though it had a clear objective it lacked the methods to achieve it. It was transformed into an organized insurgent outfit under the tutelage of the NSCN (I-M) which trained the first batch of ULFA activists in September 1984. The Kachin Independent Army (KIA) also continues to provide support to the underground insurgents all across the Northeast, including the ULFA in Assam. In the opinion of Lt. Gen. VK Nayyar, there were “confirmed reports” of both the KIA and NSCN providing weapons and training to the ULFA over the years, and of the ULFA transferring parts of their profits from smuggling and extortion to them. Though the joint military operations of the Indian and Myanmarese armies in April-May 1995 did exert some pressure on the group, the ULFA joined the NSCN (K), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the North-east Student Liberation Organization (NESO) to constitute an umbrella organization – United Liberation Front of Seven Sisters (ULFSS). The ULFSS has the stated aim of perpetrating violent activities through joint operations in the Northeast. It also joined its forces with the MULTA (Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam) to carry out attack in areas dominated by immigrant populations. ULFA also has established links with militants in Punjab and Kashmir, as well as with other organizations in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. Though it tried to enter the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples’ Organisation, its attempt was blocked by India which could not however stop the ULFA Chairman from attending the annual session of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Population in Geneva in 1997. The ULFA has also used the ‘good offices’ of the NSCN (I-M) to establish several safe-houses and liaison offices for arms procurement in Thailand.
There are several ULFA training camps in Bangladesh since 1990, and often allegedly in the full knowledge of the Bangladesh local administration and the Bangladesh Rifles. It was also found that Chetia and Rajkhowa had also cultivated ties with Islamist fundamentalist elements reportedly facilitated by the ISI and the Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI) of Bangladesh. When Anup Chetia was arrested by Bangladesh authorities on 21st December 1997 on the charges of illegal entry into Bangladesh, possession of two forged Bangladeshi passports, of an unauthorised satellite telephone and of foreign currency of countries including US, UK, Switzerland, Thailand, Philippines, Spain, Nepal, Bhutan, Belgium and Singapore – more information about ULFA in Bangladesh was revealed. It was found that apart from training camps, the ULFA had also installed several spurious but profitable income-generating projects in Dhaka, Mymensingh, Narshingdi and Sylhet which were funded by subscriptions in tea gardens and donations from sympathetic agencies. Indeed, Baruah seems to have personally owned or possessed controlling interests in several such businesses in Bangladesh, including a chain of departmental stores, tanneries, garment factories, travel agencies, investments companies and shrimp trawlers. In Dhaka, the ULFA set up media consultancies, soft drink manufacturing units, hotels, a private clinic and motor driving schools in order to live in luxury while in hiding. Similarly, in Sylhet they operated several grocery and drug stores, in Mymensingh some poultry farms, and in Narshingdi two schools. When the Sheikh Hasina government increased pressure on ULFA to leave Bangladesh territory, Baruah in an interview with the BBC threatened that if the Bangladesh government pursued such an ‘”anti-ULFA” stance, the ULFA would target lakhs of “Bangladesh-origin” people in Assam. The arrest and handover of ULFA’s ‘foreign secretary’ Sashadhar Choudhury and ‘finance secretary’ Chitraban Hazarika to Indian authorities on November 6th 2009, and of ULFA ‘Chairman’ Arabinda Rajkhowa and ‘Deputy commander-in-chief’ Raju Baruah on 4th December 2009 severely weakened their strength. This was further intensified by Baruah expelling Arabinda Rajkhowa after his arrest. Still, for the ULFA, Bangladesh has evolved from a safe haven and training location with 13-14 camps initially, to a tightly-bound network that coordinates the receipt and shipment of weapons before they enter India. The MULTA and the MULFA (Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam) are the primary suppliers of arms for the ULFA, though the increased scrutiny along the known smuggling routes caused them to set up bases in Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills to coordinate the movement of arms from Bangladesh.
In the early 1990s, the ULFA found shelter in the numerous forests on the Indo-Bhutan border and instituted several training camps in Sandrup Jongkhar in southern Bhutan. Over the years, it allegedly fostered linkages with several officers and personnel of the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) and Police which allowed them the uninterrupted flow of rations, logistical assistance, monetary aid and contacts for money laundering. At its most powerful, the ULFA in Bhutan comprised of more than 2000 cadres inhabiting its ‘General Head Quarters’, it’s ‘Council Head Quarters’, a ‘Security-cum-Training Camp’ and a covert ‘Enigma Base’. Reportedly, the ULFA had established 13 major camps in Bhutan – Mithundra, Gobarkunda, Panbang, Diyajima, Pemagatsel Complex (Khar, Shumar and Nakar), Chaibari, Marthong, Gerowa, Sukhni (Merungphu), Melange, Phukapton, Dalim-Koipani (Orang), and Neoli Debarli. After the Bhutanese government’s crackdown, the ULFA’s Central Council Headquarters were moved to the ‘Rupohi Ashroy Sibir’ in Bakapura, Sherpur district, and finally to Myanmar.
The transnational linkages of various insurgent outfits in the Northeast were formalized by the formation of the Indo-Burmese Revolutionary Front (IBRF) in 1989, which initially comprised of the NSCN (K), United Liberation Front of Bodoland, Kuki National Front (KNF) and ULFA from India and the Chin National Front (CNF) from Myanmar. Reportedly, Baruah paid a considerable sum to the KIA for the first large consignment of weapons transported from Thailand, through the Karen National Union’s (KNU) stronghold in Manerplaw in lower Myanmar on the Myanmar-Thailand border. In 1993, the KNU and the KIA reportedly delivered AK-56 rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled guns and anti-tank rifles from the Cambodian illegal arms market to the ULFA. Surrendered ULFA cadres also identified an ethnic Kachin arms dealer who was also the wife of assassinated Manipuri rebel Themba Song. The Communist Party of Burma also gifted the ULFA and the NSCN (I-M) with Chinese-made M10 rifles. These cadres also claimed that Baruah also ran a “personal operation” to smuggle heroin produced in Myanmar into Assam, and that ULFA terrorists had crossed over into China from Bhutan and secured contact with the Chinese Army. Consequently, in March 1995 and later in 1997, they met with a Chinese ship on high seas and acquired heavy weapons consignments. The ULFA also established a profitable narcotics enterprise in Myanmar and Thailand, and established close links with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who also reportedly trained ULFA cadres. Since the 1980s, Myanmar authorities have pursued periodic onslaughts against the ULFA, UNLF and the NSCN (K) though most resolutions have been transitory.
The linkages between the ISI and ULFA have only strengthened over the years, as the former has continued to train the latter in terrorist tactics, counter intelligence, disinformation and use of weapons in several training centres on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. More than 300 ULFA cadres apparently received training in Rawalpindi and other locations across Pakistan, with courses in the use of rocket launchers, explosives and assault weapons. Baruah also met with Osama bin Laden in 1996 in one of the camps on the Afghanistan border, and received promises of assurance not only in terms of arms and ammunition but also of cooperation and logistical support from the International Jehad Council, the Tehrik-ul-Jehad, Harkat-ul-Jehadi-e-Islami (HuJI), apart from the al Qaeda. Pakistan also issued Baruah and other ULFA leaders several passports for their travel to Singapore, Thailand and other countries. Reportedly, these ULFA leaders received the assistance of certain officers in the Pakistan High Commission in Bangladesh who arranged these forged passports and for their travel to Karachi from where they were taken to several terrorist training centres run by the ISI. On 6th April 2001, the Assam Assembly was informed of these connections through a photocopy of Baruah’s fake passport issued in the name of Kamaruddin Zaman Khan, obtained with the help of an official of the Pakistan High Commission in Bangladesh. There were also reports of several ISI-sponsored madrasas/seminaries in Cox Bazar and Sylhet that were utilized to hoard and transfer arms procured by the ULFA from Thailand and Myanmar. Funds from the ISI also allowed the ULFA to purchase arms produced in Cambodia using hard currency routed through Nepal. The ULFA-LTTE relationship was also facilitated by the ISI who transported ULFA’s arms from Southeast Asia into Myanmar. The Bangladesh authorities seized more than 500 AK-47 rifles, 80 machineguns, 50 rocket launchers and 2,000 grenades from two ships off Cox’s Bazaar and arrested four LTTE cadres in April 1996. Indeed, the close relationship between Pakistan and ULFA was also made obvious through the latter’s public declaration of support for Pakistan during the Kargil War, describing Pakistani intruders – Pakistan Army regulars and Afghan mercenaries – as ‘freedom fighters’. This misguided rhetoric of “freedom” was also enunciated in the ULFA’s monthly newsletter Swadhinata which received editorial support from Pakistan-based ISI agents. Reports were also found of children of top ULFA leaders studying in the USA and Canada under the protection of the ISI.
The Indian media has reported intermittently for the past several years that China has continued to covertly support Baruah by allowing him to inhabit and operate out of Ruili in China’s south-western province of Yunnan. Especially after the proscription of ULFA (Anti Talks) by the Indian government and the death warrant out on his name by the Bangladesh government for his role in the Chittagong Arms Haul, surrendered ULFA cadres have reported that Baruah is deeply concealed in Yunnan. This “deniable covert support” to Baruah from China complements the “larger design” of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and proposed China-Myanmar Economic Corridor according to Retd. Brigadier Rumel Dahiya, as China is able to keep India “strategically imbalanced without taking an overtly hostile stance against it.” As India becomes more determined about its geopolitical interests in the Indo-Pacific, China’s concealment of Baruah does seem to fit well into the narrative. In 2019, Baruah also admitted to The Week in an interview that he enjoyed “cordial ties with China” in an interview that was later uploaded online. ULFA had initiated its ties with China in the late 1980s when its second batch was receiving training and procuring weapons in Kachin. Surrendered ULFA cadres stated that a covert agency named Blackhouse in Yunnan facilitated the interaction between Baruah and government officers and arms dealers at Ruili, though China was unwilling to overtly support the group in the 1960s and 1970s. Though China had facilitated the training of Manipur’s PLA assisted by the KIA in Kachin, it is unclear whether China was involved in the ULFA receiving similar training between 1987 and 1990. In 1995, Baruah contacted retired officials of the North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) – China’s ordnance unit – with the assistance of the ISI to negotiate an arms deal which was delivered to Cox Bazar and ferried to Assam and Bhutan through various routes. This grey market for Chinese weapons in Yunnan that are then transported to Assam and elsewhere in the Northeast seem to have been instituted by retired PLA or NORINCO personnel. In 2008, Baruah met with the leaders of one of the largest rebel groups in Myanmar, also active across the border in China’s Shan State – the United Wa State Army (UWSA) – with requests for assistance. Though the ULFA was powerful in Bangladesh, Baruah was aware that the army-backed pro-India Awami League would win a sweeping victory in the approaching elections and weed out multiple training camps through a brutal military crackdown. Thus, by the time the crackdown commenced in Bangladesh, Baruah had already made alternative arrangements and was able to escape via air in April 2009. In 2011, reports were found of him having travelled to Yunnan from Shan State.
The problem of mass unemployment is another exacerbating factor for insurgency in Assam as it creates a vicious cycle that continues to worsen. High rates of violence and socio-political instability have caused the state to be blacklisted by industries as conditions of peace and predictability are integral to the smooth conduct of business. The lack of industries has increased rates of unemployment, which has in turn created a large population of unemployed youths who then become easy targets for recruitment into insurgent outfits. Indeed, some scholars believe that the ULFA and other such groups in Assam continue to make development impossible so as to have a continuous flow of youths into their cadres. Another factor making industrial investment and development difficult in Assam is the extortion activities perpetrated by insurgent groups from everywhere, including highways, educational institutions, and places of worship. Such activities have continued to disrupt development projects in the state. On 22nd November 2013, the then-Union Home Minister had also highlighted the spread of Maoism (CPI-Maoist) across the Golaghat, Dhemaji, Lakhimpur and Tinsukia Districts of Assam – which also complicate the issue further.
These force-multipliers make the Assam question a difficult and complicated one. The transnational and domestic linkages enjoyed by the ULFA make this an issue that involves various militant and criminal elements all over South Asia. The geopolitics of trade, immigration and self-determination further vitiate the chances for peace and stability in the Northeast. For most scholars, only a focused, clear and viable South Asia diplomatic and military policy will allow the successful rooting-out of insurgency from the Northeast, especially Assam.
- Bhattacharyya, R. (2020, February 26). Why Has China Given Shelter to a Rebel Leader From India’s Northeast? The Diplomat.
- Deka, K. (2021, September 17). AFSPA: War or peace? India Today.
- Kotwal, D. (2001). The Contours of Assam Insurgency. Strategic Analysis.
- Press Trust of India. (2021, August 27). Insurgency in North East declined but smuggling rose in 5 years, says Assam Rifles chief. The Print.
- Singh, B. (2011, September 11). Assam extends ‘disturbed area’ status for six more months. The Economic Times.