January 17, 2001


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The Rediff Special

Ramesh Menon's series on ULFA
ULFA's ideology: pay up or die!

The United Liberation Front of Asom has given a bloody name to Assam. In the last few weeks, over a hundred people have been shot dead in this northeastern state. Many of them were innocent migrant labourers from Bihar. Others who lost their lives included Marwari businessmen, relatives of ULFA insurgents and security personnel.

There was a time when ULFA enjoyed widespread sympathy all over Assam. How did ULFA grow into such a big force? What was it that endeared the organisation to the people? Why do Assamese now protest against ULFA and demand that it be dealt with strongly? Where does ULFA's demand for Assam's sovereignty stand? Do the Assamese want their state to be independent?

Roving Editor Ramesh Menon travelled to Assam to find some answers.

How times change!

ULFA militants at the surrender ceremony in Assam
ULFA militants at the surrender
ceremony in Assam
In April 1979, a group of young college students got together and decided armed revolution was the only way to cleanse the Assamese political system. They called themselves the United Liberation Front of Asom. In the early eighties, ULFA sent its first ripples though the state by dispensing self-styled justice to bootleggers, corrupt government officials and anti-social elements.

They raised issues like how outsiders were swamping the state, ruining the economy, denying jobs to sons of the soil. They wanted to know why Assam, a state rich in natural resources like oil, continued to be poor and undeveloped? ULFA's main plank was illegal Bangladeshi infiltration that, it said, was changing the state's demography.

ULFA echoed the real concerns of the Assamese.

A heavily guarded Mahanta in Nalbari after ULFA went on a rampage
A heavily guarded
Mahanta in Nalbari after
ULFA went on a rampage
College students saw them as revolutionaries. The elderly saw them as youngsters who wanted to challenge the decaying, corrupt system. Everyone was happy. Even Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta's Asom Gana Parishad government looked the other way.

In 1987, ULFA sent around 200 boys to Kachin, Myanmar, for armed training. The Assamese boys were not able to adjust to living in the tropical forest, to the long marches and the malaria; 27 of them died. National Socialist Council Of Nagaland leaders wondered how ULFA would ever become an insurgent force if its members collapsed under the pressure of military training.

Down the years, however, they learnt. To wield the gun. To use it to spread terror. For extortion. So much so that, today, almost 15 years later, ULFA is not a clean word.

ULFA no longer talks about the Bangladeshi immigrant problem, though it is the most serious issue in Assam today. Instead, its camps are in Bangladesh and Bhutan. Its commander-in-chief, Paresh Barua, a former goalkeeper for the Assam junior football team, reportedly has financial interests in Bangladesh.

Over the years, ULFA leaders have allegedly made a lot of money. They use it to run their outfit, buy arms and build their personal wealth. Alleges a senior police officer: "Joining ULFA has become a shortcut to quick and easy money for many unemployed youngsters."

Home ministry sources put ULFA's wealth at between Rs 150 crores to Rs 200 crores (Rs 1.5 billion to Rs 2 billion). Notices demanding extortion payments are dispatched regularly. Sometimes, youngsters land up at a business establishment and demand money, saying they have been sent by ULFA.

One incident that cemented ULFA's change in this direction occurred on June 28, 1990. ULFA leaders summoned 20 tea barons to Dibrugarh and asked them to pay a tax of Re 1 per kilo of tea. For the tea barons, it was a huge amount; the 350 million kilos generated by Assam's gardens totals 55 per cent of India's tea production. Yet, there was no escaping ULFA's demand -- earlier, they had murdered Surendra Paul, British Labour peer Swaraj Paul's younger brother, a planter in Dibrugarh.

ULFA had sent a clear message to the tea industry: Pay up or die.

Extortion is now a way of life for ULFA cadres; thousands of rupees are paid to any youngster who claims to be attached to the insurgent group.

Public sympathy for them has waned. Earlier, if the police picked up people on the suspicion that they were involved with ULFA, the villagers would gherao them and free the youngsters. If security forces killed an ULFA insurgent, there would be long funeral processions. Not anymore.

Today, there are numerous instances of how the public has gathered courage to apprehend ULFA activists and hand them over to the police. In recent times, villagers handed over 35 ULFA insurgents to security forces; 17 rebels were lynched in Jorhat, Nowgaon and Morigaon.

In the last few weeks, there have been numerous public meetings and processions protesting the culture of violence in Assam. Assamese writers and intellectuals flood newspapers and magazines with articles protesting the bloodshed in the state. Police sources claim ULFA leaders have asked their cadres to stop reading Assamese newspapers.

The distraught Sharma family
The distraught Sharmas
The Assamese are appalled at the senseless killings. Take, for instance, the incident when ULFA insurgents sprayed bullets on the streets where Marwari businessmen lived. "Why did ULFA kill my husband? We were a small business family that had roots only in Assam," says Premlata Sharma, 38, whose husband Savarmal was riddled with bullets while the family was celebrating Diwali.

In another incident, vegetable sellers, quilt makers and semi-skilled workers of Bihari origin were returning from a weekly market when the truck they were travelling in was stopped. They were dragged out and made to stand in a line. In a couple of minutes, 28 people were dead. Over a dozen were seriously injured.

ULFA's aim was to make the Centre sit up and take notice. Killing the non-Assamese, ULFA leaders thought, would get the Centre's attention. It did, but not in the way they wanted.

"The tide is turning. The people of Assam do not want violence and senseless killings. This sentiment will help us tackle what little is left of ULFA," says state Director General of Police Hari Krishna Deka.

What probably turned public opinion against ULFA was the 1997 murder of social activist Sanjoy Ghose. Before his death, Ghose was working towards empowering the people of Majuli, a riverine island on the Brahmaputra river. He showed the locals how to cut costs. This cut into the commissions that ULFA earned from the contractors. They got rid of Ghose after kidnapping him.

The anger against ULFA continued to build as thousands of teachers, government employees, businessmen, tea garden owners and petty hawkers fell victim to ULFA's extortion. Umesh Rabha, a former Border Security Force jawan who had settled in Tamulpur on the Assam-Bhutan border, then decided to stand up to ULFA.

Rabha began to rally the villagers against exploitation by ULFA insurgents who came to the area from camps in southern Bhutan. He went on bicycle trips to mobilise the people. ULFA retaliated by shooting at him. He was seriously injured, but continued his campaign as soon as he recovered. He was shot at again, but survived.

Tamalpur is part of Nalbari district, an ULFA stronghold. The insurgents did not want a counter-revolution in their own backyard. Rabha was clearly a threat since he had, by now, garnered public support. This time, their attempt was successful. Rabha was posthumously awarded the Shaurya Chakra last year; the only civilian to be so honoured.

Businessmen in Assam are not prepared to go on record about the continuing exploitation that has marked their bank balances for the last 20 years. In fact, ULFA is now seen as a group of bloodthirsty killers whose only ideology is to make quick money.

A perception that Luhit Deuri -- the organisation's number 3 leader who recently surrendered to the police -- admits is true. "The only ideology within ULFA is now to make money," he said.

Photographs: Chinmoy Roy. Design: Dominic Xavier.

Part II: Assamís killing fields

ULFA not interested in talks with Centre
'Nobody in Assam takes ULFA lightly': Sunil Nath
Sunil Nath offers to broker peace talks
ULFA renegades make peace overtures to militants
ULFA leaders's parents want their sons to return
'National security is being threatened': Lt General (retd) S K Sinha
'Tata Tea are difficult customers': Paresh Barua
'People have lost all faith': Bhupen Hazarika
Tea and Terror

The Rediff Specials

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