ULFA: A Persistent Threat

By Athul Menath

Two ULFA cadres guarding a camp in Tinsukia district, in the northeast Indian state of Assam. (Source: AFP)

 

Since 1979, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) has been at the forefront of insurgent violence in the Indian state of Assam. The group sprang up during the ‘anti-outsider’ agitation which demanded the expulsion of ethnic Bengalis whose large scale influx had impacted the local demography of Assam. Soon the movement started showing a secessionist character, resulting in the birth of ULFA, under the leadership of Paresh Baruah. The group has been demanding session from the Union of India, claiming that Assam has been ‘colonised by New Delhi’. Although created in 1979, the group became active in 1982, when it killed a well-known Bengali lawyer, Kalipada Sen.

An undivided ULFA was estimated to have a cadre strength of about 5,000. Following a split in 2012, two factions emerged. The first is the Pro-talk faction of ULFA (ULFA-PTF), which  conducts peace talks with the Government of India. The second is the Independent faction of (ULFA-I), which is based in Myanmar and has a capacity of about three hundred cadres.

The article is an attempt to chronicle the renewed activity of ULFA-I and  to identify the underlying reason for its longevity in the plethora of insurgent outfits in the often under-reported and misunderstood Northeast India.

 

Recent activities

On January 13, 2018 an ULFA-I cadre was arrested from Chabua in the Dibrugarh District. He was reportedly tasked by ULFA-I to collect information on aviation-carrying turbine fuel (ATF) tankers entering Chabua Air Force station. The alleged purpose was to place an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) on ATF tankers entering the air base.

The month before, on the 8th December 2017, six militants of ULFA-I entered the Kunapathar Tea Estate in Bordumsa, Tinsukia District and opened fire at the estate manager, notably after the authorities refused to pay extortion money that the militants had previously demanded from the planters a couple of weeks prior. A few days later, on the 11th, the ULFA-I militants shot dead a Village Defense Party (VDP) President – identified as Anteswar Mahanta – and his son Karun at Dirak-Hunjan, Tinsukia District. The killing resulted in wide spread protests and demonstrations in the District, with civilians claiming that state Government had failed to provide security.

Additionally, reports in January 2018 indicate that ULFA-I and the Khaplang faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) were planning attacks in India. For instance, it has been reported that ULFA-I leaders have found a location near the Namdapha National Park in Changlang of Arunachal Pradesh to set up a transit camp for about seventy cadres. Furthermore, the same report also claims that once the camp is ready, parts of Assam close to the south-east of Arunachal Pradesh will witness a rise in violence.

The insurgent group is also conducting ‘recruitment drive’ in Udalguri and Darrang, as well as Tinsukia, Shivsagar and Dibrugarh, the districts which have been their strongholds.

There is evidence to suggest that ULFA has revamped its abduction for ransom activities within the region. For example, they abducted the son of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) local leader of Tinsukia District, for INR 20 million. He was released on the 25th December, after ten days in captivity, although his family stated that they did not give any extortion money. However, Assam Police argues that ULFA-I could target more tea gardens and the business community in Upper Assam for extortion, given the area was facing a severe financial crisis.

 

Official statements- From Dismissive to cautious

The resurgence in ULFA-I activity follows briefly after the Assam Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, stated that the strength of ULFA was “no more” and there is “no law and order problem” in Assam. Although the state only witnessed twenty-six insurgency-related fatalities (five civilians, three Special Forces and eighteen militants) in 2017, compared to eighty-six in 2016 (thirty-three civilians, four SFs and forty-nine militants), the threat of armed outfits are persistent in the state.

Despite the Chief Minister’s statement, Assam Director General of Police (DGP) was more cautious about dismissing the group as a spent force. He stated that ULFA-I “was down but not out”. He also added that the militants were using neighboring states of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh to enter Assam from Myanmar. The recent dormancy of ULFA-I, although interpreted by governing authorities as a sign of weakness, suggest that the organisation has been lying low to recover the losses it had incurred, and realign its strategy according to the evolving context in Assam.

The aforementioned contradictory statements may well be an indicator of the way by which inter-departmental coordination function at the state level. On the one hand, the political class may be attempting to convert the brief lull in to political gain as well as to claim the break in violence as a governmental achievement. On the other hand, however, the security establishment calls for a more cautious approach.

 

Secret of Longevity- Alliances

As Winston Churchill once said, there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.

The armed group has been able to keep itself alive over the years by developing a nexus with other militant groups in the region. Given that ULFA is a part of the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA), a conglomerate of militant groups in north east India provides further credence that the group is yet to be defeated. UNLFWSEA was responsible for the June 2015 Paralon ambush in Manipur, where eighteen Army soldiers were killed. Also, the group was more recently involved in a joint insurgency attack in the same region, with another conglomerate group from a neighboring state and Coordination Committee (CorCom) – on the 22nd January 2017, it killed two SFs and two militants. It is also reportedly supported by Inter service Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan.

The connection takes place with other militant groups active in India such as the aforementioned NSCN-IM and the NSCN-K, as well as with Myanmar based militant groups such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which was instrumental in imparting insurgent tactics to ULFA cadres. Such an endeavour has helped the secessionist militant group to sustain itself for more than three decades, by securing safe havens and bases outside of India. The connection it had with Bangladesh’s Directorate of Field Intelligence (DGFI) also helped not only about safe havens but also to set up income generating projects. ULFA reportedly had number of firms including media consultancies and soft drink manufacturing units. Moreover, it was reported to own three hotels, a private clinic, and two motor driving schools in Dhaka. Paresh Barua was reported to personally own or has controlling interests in several businesses in Bangladesh, including a tannery, a chain of departmental stores, garment factories, travel agencies, shrimp trawlers and transport and investment companies.

 

Indian security forces with the suspected ULFA member arrested in Chabua (Credit: Avik Chakraborty)

 

Significance of the recent reinvigoration

The latest reinvigoration by ULFA-I comes at a politically sensitive time for Assam, after the first draft of National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published. The NRC aims to identify the ‘illegal migrants’ in the state, an issue which ignited the armed separatist movement in Assam in the first place. The second draft will be published following the Supreme Court’s order later in 2018. Additionally, Assam is scheduled to host a Global Investors’ summit from the 3rd-4th February 2018, in an attempt to seduce investors. The summit is expected to attract both major domestic and international investors. Moreover, the reported plan to attack the air base might indicate an attempt from ULFA to significantly escalate the level of violence. Targets would no longer be limited to SF patrols or perceived ‘outsiders’, but would also include defence and infrastructural installations.

 

Conclusion

In light of the aforementioned events, the possibility of a high impact militant attack resulting in mass fatalities cannot be ruled out. Also, such an attack would send a message to the business community that the law and order in the state remains unstable and insurgent groups cannot be written off completely.

Additionally, it is important not to rule out how ULFA uses the NRC to indulge in ethnic violence against those perceived to be ‘non-Assamese’. Any ethnic violence would act as a huge boost for ULFA and simultaneously increase the amount of cadres in its ranks. This surge could result in the revival of militancy in Assam. Hitherto, the highest number of deaths occurred in 1998 and 2000, with 783 and 758 fatalities respectively.

This festering rebellion also highlights the limits of the Indian Government’s security-centric approach towards internal insurgencies. Indeed, it heavily relies on armed forces to bring about a military solution to the crisis. Whilst this strategy may help in reducing or containing militant violence, it is incapable of addressing the political motivations that initially fuel insurgents. As a result, while militant groups are tactically defeated, the underlying political grievances (real or perceived) pave the way for insurgents to revive themselves periodically.

 


Athul Menath is a security analyst at the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP). His focus is the Insurgency in Northeast India. You can follow him on Twitter @loner/56.


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