On December 29, 2023, the Indian government signed an agreement with the pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). Founded with the goal of establishing an independent sovereign state of Assam through armed struggle, ULFA became active in the 1980s and was declared a terrorist organization in 1990. Robust counterinsurgency operations by the Indian security forces followed. Although its military capability and public support weakened over the decades, ULFA has survived, albeit divided, thanks to support and sanctuary from India’s neighboring countries.
In his new book “ULFA: The Mirage of Dawn” (Harper Collins, 2023), noted Indian journalist Rajeev Bhattacharyya (and The Diplomat’s correspondent in India’s Northeast) examines ULFA’s evolution over the decades. Drawing on his conversations with ULFA leaders and fighters and his travels in the region, he provides insights into the group’s close ties with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and China, among other countries. In an interview with The Diplomat’s South Asia editor Sudha Ramachandran, Bhattacharyya said the recent agreement was possible because many ULFA leaders in Indian custody joined the talks process. However, “the anti-talks faction led by Paresh Baruah, which has camps in Myanmar, is still engaged in the campaign for securing Assam’s sovereignty and independence,” Bhattacharyya warned.
Before the recent agreement between the government of India and ULFA, there were several efforts to reach a negotiated settlement, but these failed. Why did the latest effort succeed?
The first initiative for talks between the Indian government and ULFA was in 1992, following Operations Bajrang and Rhino. There was no headway because an overwhelming majority of ULFA functionaries were against the initiative. The second effort was in 2005-07, which began with high expectations but floundered since many stakeholders were against taking the process to a logical conclusion. From the government side, only then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was genuinely interested in the talks. ULFA’s Chief of Staff Paresh Baruah was not interested. When I met him in Taga in Myanmar in 2011-2012, Baruah told me that he “wanted to see how far the Indian government would go on the ULFA demand for talks on Assam’s sovereignty.”
The next peace initiative was in 2008, when two companies of ULFA’s 28 Battalion revolted in Myanmar and came overground after a ceasefire with the Indian government. They expressed a desire for a negotiated settlement, but the government was reluctant as none of the senior leaders, who were in Bangladesh, had joined the peace process.
The latest initiative was successful because all the senior functionaries, except Baruah, agreed to talks, and they were also in the government’s custody after being repatriated from Bangladesh. In addition, the peace process had the support of many civil society groups across Assam.
What difficulties will likely arise in implementing the accord and ushering in peace?
This accord is with the pro-talks faction of ULFA. The anti-talks faction led by Baruah, which has camps in Myanmar, is still engaged in the campaign for securing Assam’s sovereignty and independence. It is severely weakened but still has the capacity to carry out violent attacks.
So far as implementation of the accord is concerned, it must be pointed out that the Indian government has a poor track record of fulfilling its promises made in the agreements with armed organizations in the Northeast. This is best evidenced by the Assam Accord (1985) that brought an end to the historic six-year agitation against foreign nationals in the state.
This failure to implement accords is because the Indian state is ad hoc in nature, besides being “soft” as noted Swedish academic Gunnar Myrdal observed, without any long-term plans for anything. Something is seriously wrong with the Indian bureaucracy.
Before it firmed up the goal of Assam’s sovereignty, ULFA’s agenda was to drive out Bangladeshi immigrants from Assam. However, this did not prevent it from seeking sanctuary in Bangladesh. How did ULFA explain this dichotomy to the Assamese people?
ULFA decided to carve out a base in Bangladesh because the country was secure for separatist outfits from India’s Northeast. To secure its presence in Bangladesh, ULFA issued a booklet in 1992 — it provoked a sharp reaction from the Assamese intelligentsia — where it condemned the Assam Agitation (1979-1985) against foreign nationals in Assam as one “based on emotions.” Indeed, it went all out to appreciate the role of the Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam.
You point out in your book that ULFA was second only to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in establishing an international network. Could you explain the nature of these links and the impact they had on ULFA’s evolution?
In a long process that began in the early 1980s, ULFA’s network expanded to include several countries such as Singapore, China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and some in Europe as well. There are reports that its functionaries had also gone to Chechnya and Kazakhstan. The nature of the links varied from country to country. The deepest links were forged with Bangladesh and Pakistan, which extended to government officials, political functionaries, and intelligence agencies.
ULFA’s links with Pakistan began in 1991 when its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), trained some batches of ULFA functionaries on its territory. The second batch was trained in 1996-2002, with more outfits from India’s Northeast being taken to Pakistan. Subsequently, the ISI extended ULFA funds, weapons, and explosives. Soon, ULFA was so dependent on the ISI that the latter was dictating terms to it. It was on the ISI’s direction, for instance, that ULFA targeted Hindi-speaking people in Assam, a tactic that precipitated clashes between Baruah and the rest of the ULFA leaders.
Sanctuary in Bangladesh was critical in ULFA’s survival for so long. Soon after arriving in Bangladesh in 1991, ULFA established two camps at Satcherri and Sherpur, in addition to hideouts in Dhaka. These functioned untouched by authorities not only when the pro-Pakistan Bangladesh Nationalist Party was in power but also under the pro-India Awami League (AL)-led government in 1996-2001. ULFA had close ties with political functionaries of the BNP and other parties, including the AL. Some ULFA leaders were engaged in business ventures in Bangladesh. The situation in the country was such that it was never difficult to offload consignments of weapons from the sea to the coastal city of Cox’s Bazar till 2004.
The situation began to change only in 2009 when the AL-led government cracked the whip on several rebel outfits from India’s Northeast.
How did ULFA’s presence in Bhutan proliferate?
Three outlawed groups, ULFA, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), and the Kamatapur Liberation Organization (KLO) set up camps in Bhutan. The Bhutan government turned a blind eye to these camps initially, not because it supported their separatist agenda but because, in all likelihood, it assumed that the presence of the rebels in the southern districts could be a shield against the settlement of illegal immigrants from Nepal. In addition — though this became apparent much later — the government was unsure if it had the resources to compel these outfits to vacate the country. So, the camps proliferated in many districts without any hindrance from the government.
Many of these camps were strategically located, enabling rebel functionaries to execute operations in Assam and then retreat to the safe zones by crossing the border. It was easier to transfer funds extorted or collected as taxes to the camps in Bhutan and for leaders to reach the country from Bangladesh by flight. It was during the Bhutan phase (1991-2003), that ULFA reached its maximum strength with active combatants estimated to be around 1,800-2,000; the organizational structure was revamped; new specialized units such as Volcano, Military Intelligence Unit (MIU) and Enigma were launched. ULFA and the NDFB also managed to cultivate close links with some highly placed government officials in Thimpu.
However, things changed for ULFA in the early 2000s, when efforts by the Nepali Maoists to spread wings in Bhutan’s border region convinced Thimphu that a military crackdown was necessary. In a series of operations codenamed Operation All Clear that began on December 15, 2003, all the camps were dismantled. Many functionaries were apprehended and handed over to the Assam government, and many are still missing, including a few leaders.
India has built strong ties with the Myanmar military. Yet the junta is allowing ULFA and other anti-India groups to operate from its soil.
ULFA and other separatist outfits from India’s Northeast were and are still able to retain their camps and training facilities in Myanmar primarily due to the domestic turmoil in the country. Since 1983, when it started its overseas journey by setting up base in Myanmar, ULFA has maintained its presence there continuously, although the number and size of the camps have reduced. The anti-talks faction of ULFA has been able to sustain itself only because of the camps in Myanmar.
The camps continue to exist there not because the military regime has an agenda against India but because it does not have the resources to launch operations against these outfits. These groups, and especially those in the lower Sagaing Region, are a source of extortion for a section of the military. Now, there are confirmed inputs that functionaries of some of these outfits are actively assisting the junta in the war against the resistance groups. The presence of these outfits has also been beneficial to the junta. So, there is no reason why the military regime would dismantle these camps at a time when it is engaged in a brutal war against the resistance movement.
There has been a sharp decline in public support for ULFA over the decades. Could you share with us some of the issues or incidents that triggered mass anger with the outfit?
Sentiment against Bengal-origin communities — both Hindus and Muslims — runs high in Assam owing to the unchecked immigration that has taken place since colonial times. Therefore, ULFA’s decision to take refuge in Bangladesh triggered public revulsion against the group. The Assamese middle class and intelligentsia became indifferent towards the outfit, although it managed to sustain support in a large part of the state in the rural and semi-rural areas of Assam
The disappearance and death of noted activist Sanjoy Ghose from Majuli, where he was working on anti-erosion schemes, in 1997, damaged ULFA’s image and provoked large-scale criticism not only in Assam but all over the country. Ghose was believed to have been abducted and killed by ULFA. My research reveals that Ghose could have drowned in the Brahmaputra River. Whatever might have been the actual reason, the incident dealt a severe blow to ULFA’s support.
Then, during the India-Pakistan near war at Kargil in 1999, ULFA appealed to the people of Assam to support Pakistan. It triggered a blast on a railway track at Siliguri in West Bengal, a sliver of territory that connects the Northeast with the rest of India. ULFA’s appeal and attack evoked a hostile response from the Assamese people. There were reports of some ULFA functionaries being lynched as well.
The worst damage to ULFA’s image came in 2004, when ULFA triggered a blast at Dhemaji on India’s Independence Day that left 13 people, including 10 schoolchildren, dead. It was an operation gone wrong as the district administration decided to shift the venue of the celebrations to a place where the bomb was planted. It did serious damage to ULFA’s image.
In your book, you draw attention to many mistakes that Baruah made in his assessment of situations (for instance, regarding the Bhutan government’s willingness to launch military operations against the group in 2003). He doesn’t seem to have read China’s objectives in the Northeast too well either. Yet his grip on ULFA is strong.
Paresh Baruah is a great survivor and a tactician par excellence but never a strategist with a long-term vision.
For a variety of reasons, most of the ULFA leaders never understood the nature of the Indian state. They failed to delve deep into the reasons for the ills afflicting Assam. Why Baruah was under the impression that there would be no military operations in Bhutan to dismantle ULFA camps, despite indications to the contrary, remains a mystery to me.
So far as China is concerned, it is not possible that Baruah has not been able to comprehend the country’s objectives in the region. He understands that well. Perhaps, he has to say certain things that are dictated by his Chinese handlers. In 2017, for instance, ULFA warned the Dalai Lama against issuing anti-China statements during his visit to Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
If Baruah had been able to maintain an effective grip over ULFA, there would have been no split in the organization. He failed to see the writing on the wall, which explains why there were no ameliorative steps to remedy the internal conditions in the outfit. My assessment is that it will be difficult for the anti-talks faction headed by Baruah to revive and reach the position of strength it attained in the late 1980s and 1990s. But it still can execute operations in India.
What does the title of your book, “ULFA: The Mirage of Dawn,” mean? Do you feel ULFA’s dream is a mirage or is peace in Assam an illusion?
ULFA’s flag depicts seven rays of the sun indicating the seven states of India’s Northeast. It is a rising sun anticipating a new dawn for Assam and the entire region after it is liberated from India. It was a goal that prompted thousands of people to join the armed campaign and thousands have lost their lives. So, the goal remains a mirage that continues to attract people to the movement, albeit in smaller numbers.
People’s aspirations have changed everywhere and the unresolved issues of the region are being viewed from a different perspective now. As an academic observed some time ago, ULFA is more powerful as an idea in Assam than as an insurgent outfit. The idea is still embedded deep in the minds of the people, but the responses have undergone a vast transformation.