The anti-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) is attempting to make a comeback in Assam through coercive tactics. Last week, the faction’s Commander-in-Chief, Paresh Barua, Assistant General Secretary, Jibon Moran, and Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Drishti Rajkhowa, all made calls from Myanmar to various locations in Assam demanding money. According to intelligence sources, the trio is also calling up lower-rung cadres of the pro-talk ULFA, led by Arabinda Rajkhowa, in order to wean them to the anti-talk faction and derail the cease-fire process underway with the Government of India. To add credibility to his claims of a comeback, besides sending emails and conducting interviews with local newspapers, Barua aims to use “bomb blasts” as a tool to demonstrate his power capability to the Indian state. This aspect came to light when four of his men were detained in Dibrugarh on February 19 in possession of five Chinese grenades and 150 bullets.
However, this tactic orchestrated by Barua has a distinct flip side, one that the rebel leader may not have anticipated in present day Assam. First, there is growing lack of tolerance in Assam towards indiscriminate violence and killing of civilians. The ULFA, led by Arabinda Rajkhowa, despite enjoying support from Assamese society from the 1970s to the 1990s, lost popular appeal after it killed Sanjoy Ghosh, noted civil society activist in 1997. Setting off bombs in civilian places further eroded popular support. Hence, any use of indiscriminate violence by Barua will only discredit him further and alienate his faction from Assamese public perception. Second, the extortion notices issued by Barua are being viewed as the handiwork of an opportunist. It is a well known fact in Assam that Barua owns shares worth crores of rupees in real estate, finance, and the hotel businesses inside Bangladesh. Also, after the arrest of Anthony Shimray, the main arms procurement leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isak Muviah (NSCN-IM), by Indian authorities, Barua has emerged as the most lucrative arms dealer in the North-East. He obtains his supplies from China’s state owned China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO). This fact came to light after arrested leaders of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) revealed that they recently paid Rs 6 crore to Barua for supplying them with ammunition. The involvement of NORINCO in the illegal trade of small arms to North-East India was discovered in 2004 when ammunition ordered by Barua from NORINCO—including assault rifles, RPGs, grenades and T-85 sub-machine guns—were seized at the Chittagong Port. ULFA’s involvement in the illegal arms trade via Myanmar into North-East India has further sullied its image in Assam. Barua is now being seen more as a clever businessman, rather than as a revolutionary leader of Assam.
There is also speculation that Paresh Barua is tying up with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of Manipur to increase his fire power. It was reported in July last year that Barua had pushed in two heavily armed groups of about 30 men each from Myanmar, via the Mon district of Nagaland, into Assam to carry out strikes on oil installations and railway tankers, among other targets. PLA cadres were also reported to be part of these two groups. If this is indeed true, then Barua stands to gain for three specific reasons. First, the PLA operates in the Kachin area of Myanmar, and, consequently, the anti-talk ULFA stands to gain from a well honed local network that the PLA has established there. Second, the PLA could offer a route to Barua via Manipur into Assam. Third, the PLA is the only major armed group in the North-East that has never faced a split. Hence, this connection could strengthen Barua’s strategic learning and tactics by adding on the PLA’s own experiences of armed organisation.
Yet, such cooperation is inconceivable for several reasons. First, while there is the possibility that PLA could offer training and arms to the anti-talk ULFA faction for a price, the ethnic differences between them stands in the way of the two outfits functioning together efficiently. Given the ethnic animosity between both NSCN factions and the PLA, it is doubtful that the PLA would risk its cadres by letting them venture into the NSCN-Khaplang dominated Mon district, as suggested by the news reports. Second, the PLA is a highly secretive outfit; and to open up its closed structures to Paresh Barua is likely to be improbable. Third, it is doubtful that the PLA will spread its wings to Assam and over-stretch itself. Offering to train ULFA cadres for a payment is plausible; the chances of the PLA sending its own cadres to fight for the sake of ULFA are remote.
One must, therefore, keep in mind the difference between rhetoric and reality when it comes to weakened armed groups like the ULFA factions. It is, of course, in Paresh Barua’s interest to feed the media information about his ability to revive and revitalise the ULFA and striking India from Myanmar. Given the hostility of Assamese society to indiscriminate violence and the sullied image of the ULFA leaders due to their amassing of wealth through extortions, it is unlikely that the anti-talk ULFA faction would be able to make a determined comeback.