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Engaging ULFA in Assam

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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  • November 23, 2006

    Efforts by the Government of India on the one hand and by non-governmental organizations on the other to bring the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) to the negotiating table have not progressed very far. The rebel group continues its subversive agenda, targeting security forces personnel, bombing crowded market places, oil and gas pipelines and various state establishments and installations.

    In one of the latest incidents of violence in Assam, at least 15 people were killed and close to 50 others were wounded on November 5, 2006 in two separate incidents of bomb blasts at the crowded Fancy Bazaar and Noonmati area of Guwahati city. Though there is no evidence yet to establish that the ULFA was involved in the twin blasts, however, going by its past track record, the needle of suspicion points towards it. There is wide speculation that some 'jihadi' groups might have extended support to the ULFA in carrying out the attacks.

    It may not be out of context to note that since this incident the ULFA has intensified its subversive agenda. Between November 6 and 16, 2006, at least seven persons including two ULFA militants, two soldiers and three civilians were killed. At the same time there have been at least seven incidents of bomb explosions targeting mainly oil and gas pipelines that run through the eastern oil producing districts of Dibrugarh and Tinsukia. Incidents of bomb explosions in the State have been increasing in the past few years. There were just about 76 blasts in 2004, as against 121 in 2005 and as many as 100 blasts this year as of November 17.

    Assam Police sources have claimed that the ULFA has switched over from "difficult and risky" military combat to the more damaging but easy-to-execute jihadi-type operations in urban areas. This change of strategy has been mainly due to stepped up counter-insurgency operations coupled with the ULFA's diminishing cadre strength. These sources have also stated that the outfit gave a crash course to new recruits in handling explosives at its transit bases in the jungles of adjoining Arunachal Pradesh, Garo Hills of Meghalaya and the border areas of Bhutan. In the words of one Assam police official, "planting explosives and lobbing grenades in public places, preferably under cover of darkness, constitute the new modus operandi of ULFA operations."

    Pursuant to the Government of India's policy of engaging with any group that abjures the path of violence and seeks resolution of grievances within the framework of the Indian Constitution, several militant groups have come forward for talks. Presently, at least three militant groups in Assam - Dima Halim Daogah (DHD), United People's Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) - have entered into a ceasefire/suspension of operations agreements with the Union Government. When the ULFA-backed People's Consultative Group (PCG) was constituted in September 2005, there were high hopes among Assamese that the much-cherished peace may finally return to Assam. Unfortunately, the peace initiative to facilitate direct talks between the ULFA and the Union Government has remained a non-starter. The Union Government suspended army operations against the ULFA on August 13, 2006, but called it off just over a month later on September 24 following the ULFA's continued violations of the truce. The final provocation came when ULFA killed a tea estate manager, Harendranath Das, at Digboi town in Tinsukia District on September 23. A day earlier, a policeman was shot dead at Than Gaon village in Dibrugarh District.

    ULFA has indeed used the brief ceasefire period to regroup itself rather than prepare for a dialogue with the government. Consequently, intelligence agencies have warned security forces of a series of possible attacks by the ULFA on oil installations, rail tracks and various government-owned institutions. Moreover, there are alarming reports of ULFA trying to re-establish its camps and hideouts in Bhutan, though Bhutanese authorities have denied outright such claims.

    Meanwhile, the ULFA described the recent November 14 meeting of the People's Consultative Group (PCG) members, Indira Goswami and Rebati Phukan, with National Security Advisor M. K. Narayanan as a "fraudulent endeavour" aimed at ensuring that the forthcoming Republic Day passed off without any violent incident. The outfit stated in its publication Freedom that "Sovereignty is the only way for restoration of peace in Asom. To bring the negotiation process back on track the Government of India must send a formal proposal through the PCG, and the core issue of the talks should be restoration of sovereignty in Asom." Moreover, on November 18, the rebel group issued an "appeal" to sportspersons to stay away from the forthcoming National Games scheduled to be held in Guwahati in February 2007, saying that it was being organised by "occupational forces" that are not serious about the resolution of the "Indo-Asom conflict".

    In the aftermath of the recent bomb blasts, the security forces have stepped up counter-insurgency operations against the ULFA though with a modified strategy. The effectiveness of such counter-insurgency operation, however, remains doubtful in view of the ULFA'S easy access to neighbouring countries, principally Bangladesh and Myanmar. Top ULFA leaders, including Paresh Barua and Arabinda Rajkhowa, who are widely believed to be operating out of Bangladesh, are in the grip of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and Bangladesh's Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI). These agencies would not easily let the ULFA escape their control and talk peace with New Delhi.