Assam: ULFA’s Rerun of Violence against Migrant Workers

Paper no. 2257 30.05.2007
Assam: ULFA’s Rerun of Violence against Migrant Workers

Guest Column by Dr. Anand Kumar

After all the negative publicity ULFA received in the wake of Dheemaji blasts, which killed several school children, the terror outfit has been looking for other soft targets. In this quest of ULFA, the Hindi-speaking migrant workers of Assam fitted the bill perfectly. These hapless people have been facing the wrath of the outfit since January this year for none of their fault. In the month of May, there has been an upsurge in violence leaving nearly twenty people dead and hundreds of others injured. This upsurge in violence has presented a serious challenge to the law enforcement agencies in the state, who claim that ULFA was able to strike with impunity as their strength was reduced due to Uttar Pradesh elections, where soldiers were deployed on election duty.

Even in the past, the minority Hindi-speaking migrant workers have been the easiest targets for  ULFA whenever it wanted to register its presence in the state. By attacking these hapless people, the outfit tries to present itself as the saviour of native Assamese population. Ironically, the people whom ULFA is attacking never posed any threat to the local population. In fact, they have mingled with the Assamese society and are providing useful service to it.

ULFA is not interested in the positive contribution of this community. On the other hand, it finds these people sitting ducks who can be killed at will. It has been triggering blasts in Assam with uniform regularity setting off seven explosive devices, including five in the capital city, Guwahati in the month of May. In these incidents nearly twenty people were killed and hundreds of others were injured.

  • On May 26, 2007 ULFA triggered the explosion of a powerful bomb concealed inside an auto-rickshaw near Marwari Maternity Hospital at the commercial Athgaon area, killing seven persons and injuring 30 others.
  • On May 18, ULFA set off a bomb in Fancy Bazar injuring 20.
  • Athgaon has witnessed blasts carried out by ULFA twice earlier, one on May 6 in which 19 persons were injured, and the other on May 14, in which two persons were killed and eight others injured.
  • On May 3, ULFA exploded a bomb in the premises of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godown in Guwahati injuring two of its employees.
  • On May 10, seven persons were injured in Upper Assam’s Sibsagar town when one of ULFA’s women cadres left a bag containing an explosive device inside a pathological centre.
  • On May 21, the banned outfit injured 14 persons in a powerful bomb explosion in Lower Assam’s Bongaigaon district.

These blasts have caused a lot of resentment among the local people. The business community suspected that some ULFA members, in an attempt at land-grabbing in the prime commercial area of Fancy Bazar and nearby Athgaon, were triggering blasts to create a fear psychosis.

Clash between Tea Plantation Workers and Indigenous Assamese

To create a situation of lawlessness ULFA has also been inciting the local population. It tried to capitalize over the killing of Buddheswar Moran in eastern Assam’s Tinsukia district. Hundreds of local Assamese blocked the highway linking Assam with neighboring Arunachal Pradesh state since May 6 after army troops searching for separatist insurgents shot and killed a local youth on the premise that  he was a militant. However, locals said he was an innocent civilian.

This blockade resulted in violence on May 13 in which five people were killed and more than a dozen injured in Tinsukia when a group of tea plantation workers, armed with traditional bows and arrows, attacked hundreds of ethnic Assamese demonstrators, who had been blocking  the main highway for more than a week to protest the army killing. The tea plantation workers were apparently agitated after their estates began running out of food and medicine supplies due to the highway blockade. Police later separated the groups by firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

ULFA Used Clash as a Pretext to Indulge In Violence

ULFA used this clash to legitimize its violence against the Hindi-speaking people. On May 15, a caller, identifying himself as commander Jiten Dutta of the ULFA’s 28th battalion, told the local media that the outfit would target “migrant Indians” to avenge the death of “indigenous people in fratricidal clashes engineered by occupational forces at Doomdooma” in Tinsukia district. Next day, suspected militants of the ULFA gunned down three more Hindi-speaking traders at Dergaon in upper Assam’s Golaghat district.

Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi held the People’s Committee for Peace Initiative, Assam (PCPIA) and the ULFA responsible for the May 13 incident in Doomdooma areas and warned legal action against those instigating people for ‘unjustified’ agitational  programmes. Gogoi also alleged that people were threatened to take part in the road blockade programme. He claimed that there was no justification for a weeklong road blockade programme in the wake of the killing of Budheswar Moran by the Army, as the State Government had already announced a Commissioner-level inquiry into the incident. Pointing out the difficulties in tackling the insurgents he stated that whenever a person is arrested on charges of being a militant, people start making hue and cry demanding the person to be innocent. He also condemned the killing of six Hindi-speaking persons by the ULFA in Doomdooma areas and made an appeal to the militant outfit to give up violence.

ULFA which has been loosing appeal in Assam appears to have regained some of its strength. There are several reasons for it.

ULFA Moves into New Areas

Though the army has increased pressure on ULFA, the threat posed by the terror outfit is far from over. In fact, the latest maps handed over by the BSF to the Bangladeshi authorities indicate that the ULFA is moving into new areas which are difficult to reach or monitor. Sensing the military-backed government in Bangladesh ordering a crackdown on cross border insurgency, militant outfits have started shifting their militant camps to safer areas where detection becomes not only difficult but logistically inaccessible as well. The ULFA has started moving to Mymensingh and Chittagong. Earlier, in these places they had a presence, but clearly the concentration has increased recently. Both these areas have dense population and porous borders that aid gunrunning, drug peddling into and out of India. This has helped ULFA to spread its operation from Bangladesh. It is also looking to consolidate its presence in Myanmar.

Change in Extortion Tactics

Most rebel groups in the northeast, including the ULFA, depend on extortion to purchase weapons to run their campaigns against security forces. In the past, ULFA has been extorting huge amounts of money only from big businesses and tea plantations. Tea industry unofficially admit to having coughed up an estimated Rs.200 million as ransom to secure the release of abducted executives since insurgency took roots in Assam in the early 1980s. In contrast, the outfit is now serving extortion notices to even petty traders.

Police and intelligence officials believe the change in tactics by the ULFA to extort small amounts of money came after many people refused their demands and reported such matters to authorities. In the case of small extortion people generally try to settle the matter without involving police. Reports have indicated that ULFA rebels are even forcing villagers to donate bicycles and motorcycles besides mobile phone handsets. In one instance, a villager was asked to donate five bicycles whereas in another case a small time trader was asked to give five mobile SIM cards.

Change in Terror Tactics

Apart from the change in fund raising drive, ULFA has also changed its terror tactics. It has shifted from the conventional hit-and-run strikes on security forces to urban guerrilla warfare. ULFA is now triggering explosions in crowded cities and towns by strapping bombs on motorcycles. They simply come and park their motorcycles in a parking lot and vanish.

Changing Cadre Profile of ULFA

To increase its support base ULFA has now altered its recruitment pattern. It is tapping communities that are not part of its traditional support base to make up for the loss of prospective urban recruits. ULFA earlier used to recruit youths mostly from the tribes inhabiting Upper Assam and the general Assamese community. Now the change in cadre profile is reflected in the growing presence of the tea tribes, Bodos and minority Muslims in the militant group’s ranks.

Security agencies have also noticed that the urban youths are now completely alienated from the terror outfit. According to police, recruitment to the ULFA ranks is now “purely from the rural areas”. Economic development in the towns during the past few years has worked against ULFA’s effort to retain or replenish its urban cadre base. This has also increased awareness among the people about the futility of a violent campaign.

ULFA is reportedly operating in tandem with outfits like the Adivasi National Liberation Army in some pockets of the state and with the support of “disgruntled” Bodo militants elsewhere in areas dominated by the community. In Bodo areas, ULFA is roping in youths who were previously associated with Bodo militant groups. The unemployed rural youths are getting attracted to militancy due to the easy lure of money. The increasing political and economic aspirations of the tea tribes and the failure of the tea industry to cope with their demands is another reason behind the emergence of the Adivasi National Liberation Army as ULFA’s ally.

The increase in strength of ULFA has resulted into increased violent activities in Assam. To check this authorities have announced a massive military crackdown.

Cash Award for Information on ULFA Leaders

To contain the violence unleashed by ULFA and to pacify people whose ire is growing against the state government, Assam police  has started on May 19 a poster campaign seeking information about the culprits. Dispur also announced a reward of Rs 5 lakh in cash for anyone who can provide authentic information about the two dreaded ULFA activists- Hira Sarania and Akash Thapa.

Police believe that Hira Sarania and Akash Thapa, had masterminded and organised the recent bomb explosions in Guwahati. Hira Sarania, the commander of ULFA’s 709 Battalion, and his aide Akash Thapa, are reported to be operating in these areas. Sarania is believed to be a key lieutenant of ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah. At present, Sarania is an important operational head of the rebel outfit in Lower Assam, and his ambit of activities includes Guwahati. According to police, Sarania was instrumental in rebuilding the network of the militant outfit in Lower Assam, mainly in areas bordering Bhutan, after ULFA suffered serious reverses as a result of Operation All Clear in 2003. Sarania and Thapa are also considered to be responsible for the outfit’s extortion drive in Guwahati.

Government Mulling Alternative Strategy

Besides intensifying counter-insurgency operations in Assam, the state government is also planning a sustained employment-generation and development programme in “troubled” areas of the state to wean away prospective recruits and sympathisers of militant groups. This decision was taken after analyzing the factors leading to protests over the killing of Budheswar Moran and subsequent clash between the protesters and members of the tea community. The authorities were surprised by the clashes as these two communities had co-existed peacefully for decades. It was felt that the fallout of counter-insurgency operations is not the only reason why people from certain pockets of the state are taking to the streets with monotonous regularity. A major reason behind this clash was frustration over unemployment and the lack of development in these areas. This situation is being exploited by forces inimical to the state to keep the militancy pot boiling.

Conclusion

ULFA has adopted some new strategies to fund its terror operations and expand its support base. It is also using propaganda to incite local population to rise against the state. This propaganda of ULFA is putting the state on the defensive and hampering the efforts of law enforcement agencies. The terror tactics of ULFA has also changed. It is now using methods generally used by Jehadi outfits. It is targeting certain communities to create social tension in the state. These designs of ULFA have to be defeated. The government is now coming round to the view that neither intensive counter-insurgency operations nor administrative changes at the district level will be of any use unless these are supplemented with a sustained development process in select areas. With this objective government is now thinking to take measures to create job opportunities and improve connectivity in troubled areas. The home department intends to first identify areas/pockets that require “targeted intervention” before approaching Dispur with a formal proposal. These development programmes will take some time before they start showing results. Assam for the time being appears to be heading for more turbulent times.

(The views expressed by the author are his own.  The author can be reached at e-mail anandkrai@yahoo.co.in)

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