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ULFA-I Recruitment Drive: Outfit Looking for Revival

POSTED ON 2 January, 2019

Arunav Goswami, Assistant Director, CDPS &
parmita Das,
Research Assistant, CDPS

After years of relative peace, the state of Assam is once again facing the threat of another phase of violent rebellion. And, once again, it is the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) that is at the forefront of the threat. After the split of the ULFA into two factions – the pro-talk faction led by Arabinda Rajkhowa and the anti-talk faction led by Paresh Barua – the violent activities of the outfit had come down compared to its heydays.

However, a pending Bill in the Parliament has ushered in new life to the recruitment drive of the outfit. The ULFA-Independent (ULFA-I), led by Paresh Barua, is taking full advantage of the charged-up atmosphere and vociferous protests going on in Assam against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The Bill seeks to provide citizenship to illegal migrants belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian religious communities coming from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who migrated to India till 31 December 2014.

While lack of employment opportunities is a major reason why many unemployed youths join the outfit, but it is the recent uproar against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that is leading to a surge in ULFA’s popularity. Reports have been pouring in about recruitment drive of ULFA (I) in the districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Charaideo, Nalbari, Darrang, Sivasagar, and Udalguri. And this time it is not only the unemployed youths that are joining the outfit, but also engineers and management graduates.

In October 2018, Pankaj Pratim Dutta, vice-president of the Dergaon unit of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), an influential student organization of the State, joined ULFA-I. In November 2018, Karishma Mech, a sixteen year old girl, hailing from the Lekhapani area in Tinsukia District joined the outfit. In the same month, Munna Baruah, a nephew of Paresh Barua, too joined the ULFA-I. Munna, who is twenty four years old, was working as an apprentice at the Digboi Oil Refinery of the Indian Oil Corporation Limited. A Software Engineer hailing from Dibrugarh district named Abhijit Gogoi too joined the outfit in the same month. He also posted a video online saying that he had joined the outfit to “protect my Assamese Community through a revolutionary fight”. In December 2018, two Class Nine children, Ritu Raj Moran and Mantu Moran, hailing from Pengeri area of Tinsukia District, were reported to have joined the ULFA-I.

This statement was seen by many as a direct threat by the ULFA-I against the Bengalis in Assam. In fact, on 2 November, Pallab Bhattacharyya, Special DGP (Special Branch) of the Assam Police, had said, “Seven days back, there was an intelligence input about attacks in Bengali-dominated areas, but there was nothing specific.”

The killings in Tinsukia can be, to some extent, attributed to the inflammatory statements being given by some political leaders and former insurgents. Following the Guwahati blast, Shiladitya Dev, a BJP MLA from Hojai Constituency, provoked the insurgent outfit and the Bengali community with instigating remarks along communal lines.

On the number of persons joining the outfit, Assam Director General of Police (DGP) Kuladhar Saikia said, in November 2018, “There are various numbers doing the rounds. Some say it is 30, while others claim it is 100…..We have asked our officers and the special branch to conduct an enquiry.” In November 2018, Assam Police had arrested eight persons before they could leave for the rebel camps in Myanmar to join ULFA-I.

The banned militant outfit’s social media stint in Facebook too helped its recruitment drive. In June 2018, it created a Facebook page named ‘Ulfa Swadhin’, complete with the logo of the outfit and a photograph of its leaders, including ‘chief of staff’ Paresh Barua and ‘chairman’ Abhizeet Asom. In its first Facebook post, the banned militant outfit stated, “In the long demand of time and our heartfelt demand of well-wishers, we have finally arrived in social media platform Facebook. Here we would like to mention that Facebook is not a leisure activity for us. The organization’s message and the statement will be shared through this platform. It’s an experimental process.” The outfit’s social media presence is no doubt alarming but the overwhelming reaction it received is of greater concern. Within the first 20 hours, the page had received hundreds of ‘Likes’. Some of the visitors even shared their mobile numbers on the page, expressing their desire to join the outfit.

Sensing trouble, the Assam Police blocked the Facebook page. But hours later, the outfit launched a new Facebook page, named as Swadhin Asom (Independent Assam), which also contained a video of an abducted tea garden employee, requesting for his release. This page too was blocked later. Though the social presence of the banned militant outfit has been dismantled, the lingering threat of new recruitment continues to thrive.

Bolstered by its increasing strength, ULFA-I also stepped up its activities during the later part of 2018. On 13 October 2018, while the city of Guwahati was decked up for the celebration of Durga Puja, a low-intensity explosion took place along the Brahmaputra river bank in Fancy Bazaar area of the city, injuring four persons. Claiming responsibility of the blast, the Paresh Barua iterated that “We own up responsibility for the blast. We triggered it as a mark of protest against the Government of India’s attempt to settle the Bengali immigrants in Assam. The attack is also against the conspiracy against the National Register of Citizens (NRC). We will continue such protests in the coming days. We are sad that the hegemony of the locals is increasingly getting hurt”.

Then on 1 November 2018, ULFA-I militants shot dead five persons in Eastern Assam’s Tinsukia district. The horrifying incident took place at Kherbari, near the Dhola-Sadiya Bridge over the River Brahmaputra, which is the longest bridge in India covering 9.15 km and which connects Assam with Arunachal Pradesh. All the five persons who were killed belonged to the Hindu Bengali community, giving the entire incidence a colour of communal intolerance.

These violent incidents show that the ULFA-I is now once again trying to exert its influence in Assam and as more youths get attracted towards the outfit, it would try to usher in a reign of terror in the State. This negative development needs to be tackled effectively through development efforts and creation of employment avenues. The security agencies too should bolster its intelligence apparatus on the ground so as to prevent youths from joining the outfit. This will surely help curtail the recruitment drive of the outfit.