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January 18, 2001
The Rediff Special
Why has ULFA made Assam a killing field? Why has it allowed Pakistan's ISI to dictate terms? Why is it not prepared to talk to the Indian government? Roving Editor Ramesh Menon, who travelled to Assam recently, searches for the answers.
Part I: Pay up or die!
Mahanta knows the state assembly election, to be held in May, could have disastrous consequences for his Asom Gana Parishad party if the violence continues. He is aware that interrogation of recently arrested militants revealed a plan to attack him.
Says G K Pillai, the Union home ministry's joint secretary in charge of the northeast: "The Assamese know (ULFA leader) Paresh Barua's line on sovereignty for Assam will not take them anywhere. All they want is peace, security and development. We are prepared for talks (with ULFA) without any conditions. We are ready to hear whatever it has to say."
ULFA's lack of response to this offer is, in a way, logical. There is nothing ULFA can ask for. Its only demand has been sovereignty. Fortytwo-year-old Barua knows it is a demand that will never be met. At the moment, he is apparently more worried about his business interests in Bangladesh and the pressure that the Indian government will soon mount on Bangladesh and Bhutan to flush his outfit out of their countries.
Initially, Barua insisted a third country and an UN observer to participate in the talks. Now, he has set these two conditions aside and says he is only ready for a 'scientific dialogue for sovereignty.' It is a demand home ministry officials are unclear about.
Luhit Deuri, a top ULFA leader who surrendered to the police recently, told rediff.com that Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence directorate dictates ULFA's every move at the moment. Home ministry sources say Barua often visits Pakistan on fake passports provided by the ISI. He is suspected to have 13 Pakistan passports in different names.
The ISI is today the biggest sponsor of terrorism in the northeast. The Assam police has evidence of how the ISI tries to recruit agents. It helps ULFA operate in the state by giving it arms, shelter and training in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Bipul Singha, an autorickshaw driver in Guwahati, says: "The soft-spoken Assamese cannot be so vicious. But ULFA insurgents are such mindless killers because the ISI has made them like that to destroy this state."
The current violence has Assam's business community deeply worried. The Rs 2,000 crore (Rs 20 billion) tea trade is the state economy's mainstay. The labourers working in the tea gardens are largely migrants from Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. It will not take them much time to flee if the killings spread to the migrant labour in the gardens.
ULFA is one of the largest militant outfits in the northeast. Despite so many surrenders of its cadres, it still has a strength of over a thousand members. ULFA activists are well-trained and well-equipped, thanks to Pakistan and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. They have sophisticated firearms like automatic Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled guns, submachine guns and small weapons.
Last year, about 700 new recruits were drafted into ULFA; they are presently undergoing training in various camps in Bhutan, Myanmar, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. As ULFA expects the Indian government to persuade Bangladesh and Bhutan to stop sheltering its cadres, it wants to establish new camps in Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya.
In August 1990, the home ministry suggested that the Disturbed Areas Act be clamped on areas like Darrang, Dibrugarh, Nalbari, Nowgong and Tinsukia where ULFA operates. Mahanta could not convince his cabinet to agree. Had the DAA had been imposed, ULFA would probably not have grown to become such a large organisation.
ULFA was banned when its terror tactics spread to various parts of the state. The army launched Operation Bajrang in 1990, followed by Operation Rhino. With the army on its trail, ULFA felt the heat for the first time.
Since May 1996, there have been 2,667 surrenders by ULFA cadres. Of these, 1,900 occurred last year alone. Points out Khogen Sharma, deputy inspector general of police, Special Branch: "ULFA has degenerated into a group known only for its extortion. As we stepped up action, life got tough for them. Surrender was the only option to stay alive."
Many SULFA (surrendered cadres are referred to locally as SULFA) members were allowed to keep their arms, ostensibly for protecting themselves against ULFA's vengeance. They were also given compensation packages running into around Rs 200,000.
This resulted in many fake surrenders. Many of those who surrendered continued to live a life of crime. It became another headache for the state government.
Many suspect that the surrendered militants are now being used to eliminate ULFA cadres and their families. Relatives of some top ULFA leaders were killed recently by unknown assailants. Such vengeance crimes are commonplace in Assam.
Masked men suddenly appear outside homes of ULFA militants and gun down their families. Who are these masked men? State Director General of Police Hari Krishna Deka says he does not know and adds that these killings are being investigated.
ULFA hit back killing some surrendered militants, suspecting they were helping the police eliminate its leaders's relatives. A surrendered militant, who now lives in Guwahati, told rediff.com that he lived in fear. "None of us know how long we will live," he said.
Some former ULFA militants are today affluent businessmen. Says Luhit Deuri, the senior ULFA leader who surrendered recently: "Many of those who surrendered are today big businessmen."
Deuri himself plans to become an Internet Service Provider in Assam. State police commandos guard him round the clock. When he surrendered, the police were elated as he was a member of ULFA's top leadership and very close to commander-in-chief Paresh Barua.
It is not the best of times for ULFA. Chairman Arbinda Rajkhowa is abroad. So are Paresh Barua, Raju Barua, its deputy commander, and foreign secretary Sasha Chaudhary. General secretary Anup Chetia and vice-chairman Pradeep Gogoi are in jail.
But the recent killings, intelligence sources say, have been committed by a group kept away from ULFA cadres. These are cold blooded killers, they claim, who just follow orders. That is not good news for Assam.
She is not the only one who has suddenly been pushed into the penumbra of uncertainty. There are scores of others. People who shuffled through life happily. Till a bullet ripped into a close relative and changed their lives forever.
In the last 20 years, nearly 10,000 people have lost their lives in Assam. Some fear the senseless killings of late are only the beginning of a greater tragedy for the state.
Photographs: Chinmoy Roy. Design: Dominic Xavier.
Part III: 'Our future has been destroyed'
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