My Meeting With a Former ULFA

Imagine my absolute happiness when a former wannabe ULFA and actual AASU Agitator who got packed off to study architecture in Chandigarh (and so didn’t join ULFA), was more than happy to introduce me to his friend, S.

Mr. S. it seems was a member of All Assam Students Union, got tired and read a little Marx, moved on to the United Liberation Front of Assam which engaged the Indian government in a low intensity armed conflict for almost two decades. He was the official spokesperson for the ULFA. When ULFA wanted to make a statement, Mr. S spoke for them to the press (all in undisclosed locations).

So Mr. S. walked into our rendezvous that was set up by my architect friend. He arrived in a great big SUV, and apparently had a few others to keep this SUV company. He was pretty nice and welcoming. He chain-smoked but that didn’t bother me. I wanted the stories.

So we started talking. He jumped right in. “When we were young”, he says, “we were tired of the center’s neglect. There are no jobs, where is Assam for the Assamese? The Chinese come in and take the region over and the only thing Nehru can say, “My heart goes out for the people of Assam.” That’s it! When the GOI couldn’t protect us, we had to protect ourselves. The language agitation galvanizes us. AASU comes out of this history of protest. We realize AASU itself is pretty middle-class set-up and at the same time ULFA comes in.”

The CPI(ML) apparently had an important role to play in the ULFA indoctrination. The ideas of class-conflict and the deprivation of indigenous peoples of Assam by the Bengali middle class was a common refrain in the movement.

The Assam Agitation came directly out of the language agitation of the 1960’s in the state. The forced imposition of Bengali as the language of the state was not a move welcomed by anyone. According to me it introduced a certain level of insecurity and uncertainty in the lives of ordinary folk. If the language of the administration and that of employment were to change overnight, those who did not speak the tongue would lose out.

It seems to me that many such movements acquire a momentum of their own. The language agitation directly affected students. The students mobilized against this condition of uncertainty and in doing so inadvertently galvanized another movement. They dissent against the central Indian state that has historically been guilty of neglecting this region of the country politically, administratively and developmentally. But AASU also reacts to the threat posed by Bangladeshi migrants which today are numbered at about 49 -50 lakh. A number which has been kep under wraps till very recently.

This dissent against the existing political structure fed off the energy of young people. During the years from 1978 – 1985 everyone was part of AASU. You didn’t have to be a registered member. And then again the movement branched out into a moderate and extremist line. When I spoke to some people, they mentioned how this was similar to the two strands that existed in India during the national movement – the naram dal (soft bloc) and the garam dal (hot blooded bloc). The ULFA was a direct outcome of the hardliner stance taken against the Indian state. Assam for Assamese, it cried!

There was free-floating membership of each organization. Two of the people I spoke to had started out as AASU members. One had progressed to the Asom Jatiyawadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP) and then onto ULFA. Many of the top leaders of the ULFA came from the AJYCP. Then others moved from AASU directly to ULFA. They thought AASU was too moderate and was unable to capture the center’s attention. But ULFA itself had a couple of factions. It seemed that some of the top leaders of ULFA (Gogoi, for one) belonged to the old Ahom feudal class and aristocracy. The others joined ULFA because they truly believed in a socialist Assam. A third group of people joined as they were economically deprived and joining in the insurgency made for good business in the absence of employment opportunities.

My interviewee surrendered when he realized that the top leadership was feudal and envisioned a neo-kingdom of sorts for Assam, which would reinstate their own lost positions of power and privilege. Assam was only for the aristocratic Assamese, in their vision.

It seems surrendering to the Indian forces itself was a great strategy for most insurgents. Many realized there would be hell to pay once the bumbling Indian forces did catch up with them, they began planning group surrenders. But they had a strong incentive. The Government had announced a reward of 2 lakh rupees and no prosecution under the Criminal Code. The money was to help them reintegrate back into society. And many jumped at the chance. In fact this law made it possible for poor men from villages to join ULFA, wave a gun around for a while and then go stand in front of a police station in surrender. They pocketed the sum and went back home.

But the legacy of their involvement in ULFA lived on. They came to be feared in society, became entrepreneurs and because they embodied a certain threat of violence or monopoly over coercion, they got hard to get licenses and were able to become ‘local notables’. This group of people came to be known as SULFA or Surrendered ULFA. I was told that many of the big malls, Cineplex’s and even the Big Bazaar in Guwahati were owned by SULFA. They began to command a high prize in the marriage market. Women from noted families were willing to marry a SULFA because of the social capital SULFA had as a group, and the money and ‘connections’ it entailed for them. Today the SULFA is part of what a couple of people have referred to as a ‘legalized mafia’. Everyone knows who they are, but they are also incredibly influential in politics and society.

ULFA still exists with a highly depleted force which today stands at about 500 combatants. It has apparently changed tactics now. ULFA’s leaders live in Bangladesh and remote control operations in India from there. They have significant backing amongst political parties in Bangladesh because they fund them. Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, which admittedly has a presence in Bangladesh has begun steering the ULFA. While this may seem to be an overstatement for many, it nonetheless has some element of truth if Intelligence Bureau reports and security analysts that I spoke to are to be believed. ULFA leaders are deeply entrenched in Bangladeshi politics and in many ways their source of rent continues to be extortion based and now, contributions from the ISI.

According to a bio-diversity expert here in Guwhati, ULFA has also changed its strategy. Now instead of cadres it recruits mercenary-type villagers, who are given responsibility to plant a bomb here and arrange a lockout there. A one-time deal! This way there are no backward linkages that might compromise the top leadership.

At the height of their power ULFA made money by forced contributions (read extortion) made by tea estates, shopkeepers and business men, factory owners and some genuine sympathizers pumped in money to the outfit. Extorting from tea estates was relatively easy. Most estates are located in extremely remote areas and access is not very easy. The CRPF and army mostly sent periodic patrols. Once a manager received an extortion note, he had to drive 45 kms away to the nearest police station and file an FIR. After which, he got protection for 48 hours. The ULFA simply waited for the policemen to leave and went and got their money including a raised fee for calling the cops.

Interestingly, the tea estate management could never count on protection from their workers, usually tribal men and women. This is because, according to Rakhee Kalita (a professor of English at Cotton College), the managers kept a very strict distance between themselves and the workers, following an age-old British pattern of separating themselves from natives or commoners. This separation not only occurred in manager-worker relations, but also in terms of living quarters and campuses for ‘officers’ as opposed to those for ‘workers’. Simply speaking, most tribal workers did not bother themselves with the fate of the management. If the ULFA extorted, so be it. The ULFA at the end of the day was on the workers’ side.

Assam is undoubtedly in a state of crisis. The ULFA story is only one dimension. In Assam caste breaks down in the face of the influx issue, language and tribe. With the arrival on the scene of the right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party, the influx issue has moved beyond concentrating on numbers of migrants to the number of Muslim migrants – colloquially called the ‘ali’s’. Most student organizations in the state with the exception of AASU are tribal in nature. While someone who sides with Huntington will argue that this is evidence of a revival of tribalism and/or primordialism, I think I may have a slightly evolved explanation of the same phenomenon hinging on states of insecurity and institutional design throwing up certain incentives for political parties on the one hand and students and communities on the other. 

Interview with a surrendered militant in Assam

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Great read.  itis hard to

Great read.  itis hard to find well writtenanalysis of the events n Assam, or "Axom" as  soem  of our "hard-core" NRI Assamese in  the USA like.  to spell it!!!

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