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Assam under siege

Dr. M. Amarjeet Singh is Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution, School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Banglore, India. Prior to this he was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 18, 2007

    With the attempt at peace negotiations between the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Government of India stumbling, the insurgent group has once again chosen the path of violence. It has selectively targeted civilians belonging to a particular community to arm-twist the ruling authorities into conceding some of its immediate demands including talks on 'sovereignty of Assam'. Such violence once again exposes the ULFA's utter disregard for the most fundamental human right -- the right to life.

    The ULFA was formed on April 7, 1979 with the basic demand to establish a 'Swadhin Asom' - an independent and sovereign Assam, but it had also included anti-immigrant rhetoric in its propaganda. However, over the years its attention has focused much more on the objective of independence rather than on the immigrant issue.

    In Assam, the ULFA continues its subversive agenda targeting security forces personnel, bombing markets, oil and gas pipelines and other state installations. The fragile peace process, initiated in September 2005, to facilitate direct talks between ULFA and the Government of India broke down in September 2006, following the group's continued violation of the truce. For instance, between January and October 2006, at least 92 civilians were killed in about 100 explosions across Assam. And when the peace process broke down, ULFA's violence has escalated further. As the patterns of violence indicate, the ULFA has switched over from 'difficult and risky' military combat to attacks on soft targets. This change of strategy appeared mainly due to pressures exerted by the security forces coupled with the group's diminishing cadre strength. Again, during the last six-week truce (August 13, 2006 to September 24, 2006), the ULFA was believed to have recruited new cadres and used the interregnum to consolidate itself.

    Between January 5 and 8, at least 65 non-Assamese migrant labourers belonging to a particular community were murdered and several others wounded in about a dozen separate incidents of indiscriminate firing by ULFA militants in five districts of Assam - Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Dhemaji, Golaghat and Sibsagar. The scale of violence was highest in Tinsukia district where 34 people were killed. These incidents have once again revived memories of similar carnage engineered by the outfit in 2000 and 2003.

    These incidents were the first major attacks after the breakdown of the peace process in September last year. Earlier on November 5, 2006, at least 14 civilians - mostly Hindi speaking people - were also killed in two separate bomb blasts at Fancy Bazaar and Noonmati area in Guwahati.

    The latest killings came a day after India's top home ministry official V.K. Duggal reviewed security arrangements for the 33rd National Games - India's biggest sports event - scheduled to be held in Assam in February 2007. Duggal undertook the review following an ULFA call to boycott the event 'so long as the Assam-India conflict is not resolved'. Significantly, these attacks also coincided with the result of an opinion poll conducted by a local non-governmental organization, Assam Public Works, in nine districts of the state where an overwhelming majority (95 per cent) of those surveyed rejected the ULFA's campaign for an independent Assam.

    As the timing of these incidents indicates, the ULFA's move could be a well calculated strategy to convey the message that it is still in a position to strike 'virtually at will' and to persuade the Government to concede to some of its immediate demands, including the release of five of its detained leaders (Pradip Gogoi, Bhimkanta Buragohain, Mithinga Daimary, Pranati Deka and Ramu Mech), halt to the counter-insurgency offensive, and perhaps, force the Government to resume peace talks though on terms more favourable to itself. At the same time, the ULFA was trying to make sure that its call for a boycott of the upcoming National Games was taken seriously.

    Overall, by selectively targeting Hindi-speaking people, ULFA again hopes to exert maximum pressure on the central leadership to take it more seriously. To most of the separatist groups of the region including the ULFA, Hindi speaking people are often categorized as aliens. The ULFA's in-house publication Freedom had recently reiterated that infiltration from mainland India was more dangerous for Assam than the so-called infiltration from neighbouring Bangladesh and called for the ouster of these people. Thus, as in the recent past, violence against civilians has primarily been concentrated on Hindi-speaking people.

    But, at the same time, there is growing concern that such killings could also be part of a conspiracy hatched by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) to derail the peace initiative, to disturb communal harmony, and subsequently to enable Bangladeshi migrants to fill the vacuum created by the departure of Hindi speaking people. The Indian security establishment has gathered evidence that indicate an ISI hand in sponsoring terrorism in this part of India. The ULFA-ISI nexus goes back to the early 1990s. Over the past few years, the Assam Police had managed to arrest several ISI agents from different parts of the State. One such arrest took place on May 15, 2005, when a team of Assam and Meghalaya Police arrested an alleged ISI agent, Mohammed Hasifuddin, from a spot along the Assam-Meghalaya border. He was alleged to have supplied explosives to ULFA for the 2004 Independence Day (August 15) bomb blast at Dhemaji town, which altogether killed 17 persons.

    ULFA's dastardly killings warrant stringent action to curb its terrorism and establish the rule of law. However, military means alone would not be sufficient to tackle the 28 year-old-insurgency, especially given the outfit's easy access to neighbouring countries, principally Bangladesh and Myanmar. But at the same time, it is also true that military means are necessary for a successful counter-insurgency effort. This has to be coupled with efforts to persuade the group to come forward for a political dialogue. Obviously, such a political dialogue cannot take place unless the ULFA eschews the path of violence.