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ULFA in disarray

 

Thirty four years after the movement was born in response to the government’s apathy to meet the aspirations of the Assamese people, the Ulfa seems to have lost its focus and the people their faith in the organization
MONALISA GOGOI | New Delhi, November 5, 2013 13:31
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The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was formed in 1979, with the aim of creating a revolutionary people's movement that would help realise the democratic aspirations of the Assamese people. Never tiring of blowing the long foghorn about Assam's neglected status in the pantheon of Indian states, Front leaders spouted revolutionary fire and brimstone and dreamt of turning Assam into a sovereign state of its own. Their uncompromising faith and fervor in wresting justice for Assam won the heart of the natives, especially the youth who felt cheated and shortchanged by the central government's wilful neglect of people's aspirations. The Front was able to tap into the growing groundswell of discontent and its leaders held aloft the hope of resolving the long simmering anguish of the people on matters of language and illegal settlement of outsiders in the state. However, over 30 years down the road of its existence, much water has flowed down the bridge and the once militant organisation that stirred hopes of bringing about a profound change in the state's political paradigm is itself facing an existential dilemma.

Today, the Front is divided into two factions -- one led by Chairman Aravinda Rajkhowa and another by the self- styled Commander-in-Chief Paresh Barua. The first major spilt that sundered the ULFA apart came way back in 1991. The state was then under the spell of the Congress party rule and was led by its fronts man and chief minister Hiteswar Saikia. Sensing brewing ideological differences within ULFA cadres, the wily Congress and its foxy leaders drove a wedge in the Front’s rank and file. With sufficient inducement to turn over and join the political mainstream, a faction of the ULFA broke away to embrace the very bourgeois values and culture, which they had traduced and fought against all along.

Then in 2008, another faction of the ULFA , which had till then remained steadfast to its revolutionary instincts and had carried the torch from the jungles, agreed to a ceasefire agreement brokered by the state government. Under the ceasefire agreement, the Mrinal Hazarika-led faction of the ULFA, which called itself the 28th battalion, joined the peace process by agreeing to forswear its armed rebellion and sought refuge by taking residence in a designated camp in Tinsukia where it has been lodged ever since. Prominent ULFA leaders such as Jiten Dutta and Prabal Neog, who were a part of this faction, were thus seen to have been co-opted by the government under its peace initiative.

Dutta says that the 28th battalion is still hopeful of successfully negotiating the long pending demands of the Front and its constituents. “Our first and foremost demand at the time of the Front's formation was to get a sovereign state for Assam. Over the years we have had eight rounds of talks with the central government. And though we have failed to get a sovereign status for the state we are sure that we will get the government to accept and recognize the rights of the indigenous people of Assam.” According to Dutta, considering the changed scenario in Assam today, demanding sovereign status for the status is of lesser importance than focusing on the “foreigners” issue. “Illegal migrants from neighboring countries have today become the majority in more than eight districts in the state,” he says.

Factions such as the 28th battalion and others are now part of the Aravinda Rajkhowa group, considered to be pro-peace and favourably disposed towards engagement with the government. It concluded its latest round of talks with central government representatives in July in which it pushed for greater autonomy for Assam along the lines of Jammu and Kashmir. It has also called for the expeditious extradition of arrested ULFA leader Anup Chetia from Bangladesh as it wants him to be a member of the on-going peace talks with the Centre. “Anup Chetia alias Golap Barua is a senior leader and he has a lot of experience. He has made a great contribution to this revolution and so his association in peace talks would help to solve the problem and fulfill the demands of the organization,” says Dutta.

Senior advocate Nekibur Zaman of Guwahati begs to differ about the perception that Chetia’s release could offer the peace process a leg up. “I do not think Anup Chetia’s entry to the talk process will help because he has been jail for so many years. I do not think any single faction of ULFA can solve the problem.” According to Zaman, faction-wise discussions with the government will fail to bring up a comprehensive set of solutions for the people of Assam and the Assamese are now beginning to grow weary of such pow-wows, as they have proved futile in throwing up solutions that can meet the expectations of the people. “Even other outfits in Assam such as the AASU and AJYCP have been demanding protection for the indigenous people. Then why should the common people of the state put their hopes behind the ULFA alone?” he asks.

Zaman’s views could well reflect the gut instincts of the indigenous Assamese today. After all, the ULFA is pale shadow of the force it once was and its image in the state has taken a serious knock. The youths who make up the Front’s cadre today have no grasp of the concept that once powered this mighty movement. Even its once tall leaders have come off their ideological pedestal and are now more interested in gilding their own futures. ‘’The ULFA leaders who had surrendered are now engaged in a syndicate culture , so how do you expect the people of Assam to put their hopes for a better future on these people,” asks Zaman.

If fragmentation of the Front has dealt a heavy blow to the ULFA, the dissensions and divisions within its myriad factions is eating away whatever little strength is left among its cadres. The Rajkhowa camp itself is composed of many small ULFA cliques that are not given to singing from the same song sheet. To add to Rajkhowa’s woes, a section of the pro-talk faction’s cadres and middle ranking leaders are openly expressing their displeasure with the way the peace process has progressed. For instance, even the leaders of the 28 Battalion, the strike force of the outfit, are miffed with the “secrecy” maintained by the members of the central executive committee led by Rajkhowa.

On the other hand the Paresh Barua-led faction of the ULFA is opposed to any deal with the Centre, wants sovereign status for Assam and has managed to keep the outfit’s revolutionary embers burning in upper Assam, where it is still an active and formidable force. Barua is known to crisscross across camps located close to the Myanmar-China border with hundreds of his heavily-armed fighters. His faction has steadfastedly refused to be drawn into the ongoing negotiation as the key demand of sovereignty for Assam is no longer on the table. The hardline faction is also totally against Chetia’s extradition and is believed to be doing its best to scupper Chetia’s extradition from Bangladesh. It may be mentioned that that both Chetia and Baruah were once close associates for years and it was Chetia who brought Baruah to the ULFA.

Given the atrophy that has set within the rank and file of the Ulfa, the once charismatic force is now wasting away under the weight of its own contradictions and factionalism. Reclaiming the command and respect that it once enjoyed now appears a distant and retreating prospect for the Front. Only a galvanic course-correction and coalescing of its different factions around a common central agenda can put the wind back into the Front’s deflated sails.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017