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By Anidrita Saikia

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Ever since the 1980’s, the waves of militancy and insurgency that have swept across Assam, have been a hindrance and a matter of debate to the state’s development, economy, and social stability. While many separatists groups have emerged in the state, the role of the ULFA was seen as the most prominent group, with thousands of youth joining the outlawed outfit since its inception in 1979.


The stronghold of the ULFA outfit was centered mostly in the northern part of the state, in the districts of Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur, Sibsagar, and Tinsukia areas. This part of Assam with these districts are often collectively called the upper Assam. It is noteworthy to add here, that the large numbers of youth, mostly from the rural and peripheral parts of these districts were recruited and reports indicate these youth were joining the outfit willingly. By the late 1980’s, official records stated that these districts held the highest record of over 2 lacs youth joining the outfit showing their dedication towards the movement. At that time, ULFA was a battalion of about roughly 3 lacs cadres and counting under numerous commanders in units spread across the state. Rumor has it that the battalion force went as high as over 5 lacs of cadre strength, making it as one of the largest that the state has witnessed, as compared to other native militant forces. It was a matter of pride for the native of upper Assam to applaud the commitment of the youth that made it to the ULFA’s battalion strength. Even the founders of the ULFA with leaders like Arabinda Rajkhowa, Anup Chetia and Paresh Baruah belong to the same neck of the woods, and the collective experiences of belonging to nearby towns and villages, and having links or being a part of indigenous communities and tribes, like the Ahoms, added a meaningful justification to the initial quest of separatism. Many local tribes and communities had been displaced by the British colonial state, and with the overthrow of the Ahom monarchy, a simmering discontentment found a willing channel in the cause of insurgency. Clan and class networks too, were much easier to forge, as recruitment often took through the lines of clan, tribe, and familiarity. Hence, the organization (that once) started out as a revolutionary one, had gradually succumbed to violence, and penetrated decades of civilian unrest in the state and mostly the northern part of Assam with series of bomb-blasts causing great deal of internal security threats.


The recruitment drives were often corroborated with the ULFA’s need to maintain anonymity, that would cut off communication easily to the capital – which is why sites of remote villages near dense forest terrain were deemed ideal to run or operate their activities from. The mode of guerilla warfare that these youth were trained with were the tactics for survival. They were trained to carry out as an essential necessity to navigate in the terrain making use of thick forest as their cover to plan and strike operations, which became easy, along with the option of crossing borders to leave the nation’s jurisdiction, and easily enter into the unknown forest sites of Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh. While the insurgency movement has also lost its sheen to the common people by early 2000s, it is pertinent to note that sporadic incidents of youths joining the ULFA still make it to news headlines, most of which are from the upper Assamese districts, like Tinsukia and Dibrugarh as of current reports.


The deployment of army units and security forces heavily stationed in Tinsukia and Dibrugarh, is an effort by the authority to keep the districts in tight check. Hence, it is viable to argue that the ULFA outfit as a movement had already lost its appeal of credibility, and the strength started plummeting in no time. To combat the disheartening numbers of recruitments in ULFA coming from districts of upper Assam; the ULFA also initiated a massive recruitment drive from the districts of lower Assam, however, the response was lukewarm at best that proved the demographic strengths and weaknesses of the ULFA.


Now, with the split of the ULFA in pro-talk, and ULFA (I) anti-talk faction; the Paresh Baruah led ULFA (I) outfit are recruiting youth from Tinsukia and Dibrugarh with fewer left handlers are constantly declining as well despite the news of a ceasefire. It held no significance to the mass and youth in joining the failed movement that saw several splits within commanders’ self-decorated personal agenda operating within several camps in neighboring countries. Another possible argument of it could be that, while lower Assam was no stranger to insurgency and militant activities as the presence of the nearby Bodo dominated areas with the Bodoland movement and the National Democratic Bodoland Front and the Bodo Liberation Tigers Force, revealed the demographic and topographical divisions of militancy. The recruitment operation held by fewer ULFA (I) handlers are only to create delusions of their stronghold and attempt to break the myth of unilateral ceasefire announcement by the ULFA factions.


The ULFA’s activities that became more terrorist in nature than ever before, with gunning down targets of innocent civilians also resulted into many cadres resigning or surrendering themselves. In the last decade, the numbers of surrendered and captured cadres were mostly from these districts too. As with reports of highest joining, it is obvious to match the number of surrenders. In the last five years, with many insurgent groups taking the peace path, and other historical events of mass cadres surrendering from ULFA led by senior commander Lohit Deori in 2000 before the government spoke volumes of their progressive mindset to resolve the prolonged insurgency, and desire to work unitedly for developing Assam and building the future of the youth in the state. That year, over 800 cadres gave up their guns from the ULFA. And, the mentioned of news on some senior commanders intervened by other senior commanders within the outfit were brutally murdered who wanted to come forward for mass surrender. Conflicting discrepancies existing within the activated commanders in the outfit, is another factor for the separatism movement to fail.


Now, with ULFA (I) refusal to join the peace process, it is pertinent for the administration to keep a close watch on the upper Assam side, and the operation of capturing cadres is an inevitable direction. The occasional reports of youth as low as 5 to 10 in numbers in their fresh recruits list are often busted while transitioning to neighboring borders like Myanmar and Bangladesh. This is a sign that tells how this outfit operates in meager numbers which is doubtful holding a strength of hardly 200 in numbers in current date to sustain the separatism movement.


It is no longer relevant which district was once the hot-bed for recruitment for these outlawed outfits such as ULFA (I). What matters now is which district will live up to the civilian-driven governance approach of who are capable of making the pro-life choices, and vouching for policies that actually matter in harnessing their developmental goals to set a peaceful future, that could be unbeknownst to years of Assam stricken by terror, bloodshed and lives of countless youth lost in time. While ULFA (I) rallied cry for the sake of the indigenous Assamese echoed through the Brahmaputra valleys of upper Assam for decades – today it must, and is overridden by the aspiration of a whole collective Assam movement,  a direction that is seeking the need to end the grievances of the different sections of the Assamese – and build a new face of Assam.


Disclaimer: Anidrita Saikia, the contributor of this article is a MPhil. Research Scholar at Delhi University. Views expressed in this article is a work of personal opinion and research. It is not part of any organizational endorsement.

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