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Cracks in the ULFA

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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  • July 02, 2008

    The central leadership of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) is under pressure following the announcement of a unilateral ceasefire by a section of its cadres. ULFA’s top leaders are likely to have a tough time ahead in keeping their outfit together. However, for the sake of peace and security of Assam, it is advisable for the Government of India to pursue the peace dialogue with a united ULFA rather than with a breakaway faction.

    It may be recalled that the central government suspended Army operations against ULFA on August 13, 2006. The suspension of operation was, however, revoked on September 24, 2006, following alleged violations of the truce by the outfit. The ULFA-constituted People’s Consultative Group (PCG) held at least three rounds of talks with the government to bring the outfit to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, these efforts proved futile and the PCG pulled out of the peace process on September 27, 2006. The government has been insisting that ULFA provide a written assurance about its readiness to hold direct talks and that its top leadership would participate in it. This was one of the conditions the government wanted to be fulfilled for the release of five of ULFA’s top leaders – Pradip Gogoi, Bhimkanta Buragohain, Mithinga Daimary, Pranati Deka and Ramu Mech – from jail as demanded by the outfit. At that time, rumors of division within ULFA over the proposed peace dialogue had surfaced, and some security analysts had even predicted a possible break up of the outfit.

    On June 24, 2008, a section of ULFA belonging to the Alpha and Charlie companies of the 28 battalion declared a unilateral ceasefire without any preconditions. The moderate faction accuses its central leadership of not being interested in a negotiated settlement. Leaders of the moderate faction allege that the unilateral ceasefire is aimed at exerting pressure on the outfit’s central leadership to initiate unconditional talks with the government. Mrinal Hazarika, leader of the moderate faction, stated: “We do not want to sit in the peace talks but we want the ULFA central committee to sit across the table with the government of India ‘unconditionally’. Our move of announcing the ceasefire is aimed at exerting pressure on our central leadership only.”

    The ULFA has four battalions (27, 28, 109 and 709), with each comprising of three companies. The 28 battalion emerged as the outfit’s most dreaded military unit in the aftermath of the Bhutan military operation in 2003. The Alpha and Charlie companies are estimated to have about 150 active cadres.

    Though the ULFA has suffered many setbacks since its formation in 1979, this is the first time that the authority of its central leadership is being openly challenged. Its first major setback came in the wake of ‘Operation Bajrang’ launched by Army in November 1990, which led to in the subsequent year to the surrender of several ULFA cadres. Again, when the military operations in Bhutan dismantled its General Headquarters, several of its leaders and cadres were either killed or arrested or surrendered. In recent times, the 28 battalion suffered severe setbacks due to counter-insurgency operations. It is worth noting that at least 70 militants, mostly belonging to ULFA, had been killed in Assam this year alone. Further, more than 250 militants, again mostly belonging to ULFA, have surrendered this year.

    In the aftermath of the unilateral ceasefire, the Assam government has decided to halt counter-insurgency operations against the cadres of Alpha and Charlie companies and has also offered safe passage to ULFA members who are desirous to come over-ground in response to the unilateral ceasefire. For its part, the Mrinal Hazarika-led moderate faction is optimistic of convincing a large chunk of ULFA cadres to join the unilateral ceasefire. But so far their efforts have yielded very little success.

    In the meantime, the ULFA leadership has announced the disbanding of its Alpha, Bravo and Charlie companies. ULFA’s ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah has warned that there cannot be any peace talks with the central government without ‘sovereignty of Asom’ being on the agenda. Talking to noted Assamese writer Mamoni Raisom Goswami over telephone on June 29, Paresh Barua said: “There can’t be any peace talks with the government of India without discussing the issue of sovereignty.” The statement came a day after ULFA’s publicity secretary Mithinga Daimary made it clear that it does not welcome the unilateral ceasefire.

    But Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi noted that peace talks with the ULFA can be carried forward without participation of Paresh Barua if a majority of its leaders agree to take part. Talking to newsmen in Guwahati on June 25, Mr. Gogoi said: “When majority of leaders of a group are against the decision of the chief (Paresh Barua), it is considered as revolt, and the present situation in the ULFA is no different from that.”

    Without doubt, the fissures within represent an open challenge to the ULFA’s top leadership who will have to make concerted efforts to hold the outfit together. It also exposes how disillusioned the cadres are over the way the central leadership is functioning. However, the fissure is unlikely to completely sideline the hardline faction led by Paresh Barua and Arabinda Rajkhowa. This is so because, firstly, the leaders of the moderate faction comprise of mainly local level commanders, whose influence is limited only to certain pockets of the state. Secondly, there are many of Paresh Barua’s trusted lieutenants currently active in the state and they are known to be very loyal to the central leadership. Thirdly, most of the central committee members are solidly under the control of Paresh Barua and Arabinda Rajkhowa and they are expected to stand united. And, fourthly, many of the ULFA cadres who are believed to be in Myanmar and Bangladesh might not dissociate from the central leadership.

    The unilateral ceasefire by a section of ULFA is not likely to lead to a permanent solution of the ULFA problem. All that it will do is weaken the outfit’s central leadership further. The Indian government must act cautiously before starting negotiations with the Mrinal Hazarika-led moderate faction. It must first see whether the moderate faction is able to mobilise other battalions of the outfit and the response of the ULFA’s central leadership. It also needs to assess the public response to the development before concretising its next step. For the sake of peace and development of Assam, it is advisable to initiate dialogue with a united ULFA rather than only with a breakaway faction. Any precipitate move will only compound the problem further.

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