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Ghosts of the past - The Indian Express

Samudra Gupta Kashyap ()
27 August 1997

Title: Ghosts of the past
Author: Samudra Gupta Kashyap
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: August 27, 1997

Seventeen years ago, when a group of youths met in the Rang-ghar, a 17th
century Ahom amphitheatre in Sibsagar in upper Assam and announced the
formation of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), hardly had the
government and the intelligence agencies anticipated that this group would
one day rise to become a major secessionist force.

Today, three spells of President's rule and nine chief ministers later, the
authorities are still struggling to find out a solution to the insurgency
problem and restore peace in the State.

When the ULFA was born, Assam was passing through a phase of total
political instability, as the . post-Emergency Janata Party government
headed by Golap Barbora was threatened with defections. The government fell
and as many as three governments were installed within a span of just 28

The ULFA is not an off-shoot of the Assam agitation over the issue of
influx of Bangladeshis, which is led by the AB Assam Students' Union
(AASU). It was born at least six months before the AASU agitation took off.

But the militants did not raise their heads until the organisation received
training under the National Security Council of Nagaland (NSCN)?????, and a
bank robbery at Namrup in upper Assam in 1985 is believed to be its first
public appearance. It was Hiteshwar Saikia's Congress which was in power then.

It is, however, true that the militants saw a friend in the AASU agitators,
as they had the common slogan: Assam was being exploited by the Centre and
overwhelmed by the 'outsiders'. When the agitation leaders assumed power
following the Assam Accord, the ULFA decided it was time they really arrived.

Several batches of recruits got trained in Nagaland as well as Manipur,
while the senior leaders began organising training camps within the State
as a young Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, fresh from his university hostel, was
still struggling to learn the intricacies of running a government.

ULFA chairman Arbinda Rajkhowa (real name Rajiv Rajkonwar), a school
teacher and son of freedom fighter from near Mazira, appointed Paresh
Barua, a football player and railway employee as the chief of the ULFAs
military wing, and killings began slowly, but steadily, beginning with the
chairman of the United Minorities Front (UMF), a pro-migrants political
group, in 1986.

By 1989, the ULFA had already grown up, and even began taking journalists
to their hideouts, aiming at publicity both within and outside the State.
Meanwhile, killings increased, as also extortions, while links were
established with the ISI, which provided some of their leaders with
Bangladeshi and Pakistani passports to travel abroad.

But it was only when the big tea houses were affected, that the governments
in the State as well as the Centre woke up. Surendra Paul, brother of
Swraj Paul and chief of the Apeejay Group was shot dead, several others
abducted, and Doomdooma India Tea Co., a subsidiary of the London-based
Unilever Group was forced to air-lift their executives in late 1990.

The last incident spelt doom for Mahanta, who was just short of a few weeks
to complete his tenure, and the Congress, which was then calling the shots
by supporting the minority government of Chandra Shekhar from outside, got
him dismissed.

The President's Rule and 'Operation Bajrang' which followed, however,
failed to address the real issues, and even before the operations could be
effectively completed, elections were announced. The Congress government
which came to power resorted to a divide-and-rule policy, leading to more
confusion and chaos.

Reviewing the situation, the then union minister of state for home affairs,
Rajesh Pilot, blamed lack of coordination among the security and
intelligence agencies, a song which has since been repeated several times.
Union Home Secretary & Padmanabhaiah, who reviewed the issues last weekend
once again talked of "better" coordination among the same agencies.
Meanwhile, the ULFA and the relatively younger but more dangerous Bodo
militant groups continue to strike at will.

While Mahanta during his first term as chief minister miserably failed to
see the real dangers posed by the militant groups, Saikia's government
(1991-96) turned out to be even worse. The split which Saikia engineered in
the ULFA in 1993 only made the residual faction stronger and increase its

Saikia spent more time finding ways to consolidate his position, while
thousands of ULFA activists who surrendered turned out to be a new pack of
anti-socials, as his government hardly cared for making them surrender
their arms. Meanwhile, a huge amount of money, given as loans for
rehabilitating the surrendered militants, remained unrecovered.

The ULFA in the process became more effective, as recruitment became
stricter, and going by intelligence reports, about 600 new cadres joined
the ULFA and received arms training in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan
during Saikia's reign. The Army, for which the people of Assam had made
sacrifices during the wars, began to be perceived as the enemy of the people.

As militant groups began highlighting the alleged human rights violations
and economic exploitation, a section of the local press became softer
towards the ULFA. Large-scale corruption added fuel to the fire, as a huge
sum of money meant for developmental activities found its way into the
hands of the militants.

Mahanta, who had promised during the election to send back the Army, had to
change his stand and emphasise on keeping the Army, Though it meant losing
the support of the masses, the chief minister has become tough and has
decided to bring back K.P.S.Gill, once the bete noire of AASU. "That was a
democratic movement but today the militants have threatened the very
integrity and sovereignity of India," Mahanta says.

Fortunately for Mahanta, public pressure is building up against the ULFA.
For instance. after the Sanjay Ghose tragedy, the entire population of
Majuli island has turned against the militant outfit. And now the chances
of the ULFA leaders coming forward for talks does not look very remote.

And if the government - and the Congress which is partly responsible for
the growth of the ULFA and is still playing precarious political games to
pull down the Mahanta government - realise the change in the mood of the
people, Assam could well be put on the track to a more peaceful phase.

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