A bit of a background first for people who do not have CCCF (Conceptual Clarity and Contextual Familiarity) on the subject. ULFA or the United Liberation Front of Assam is a terrorist organization. It was founded in 1979 by members of the AASU (All Assam
Students Union) to act like a Robinhood-esqe outfit that would implement a socialist structure in the state of Assam and also drive away all ‘foreigners’ which basically means non-Assamese inhabitants of Assam like Bengalis (particularly the ones who had come to Assam
after the partition of Bangladesh), Marwaris and Biharis. The logic was of the ULFA leaders and their supporters, whether armed or just the regular guy, was simple, and one oft-repeated by most such xenophobic groups; the ‘foreigners’ have taken a hold on our land, they run the offices, they own the shops and businesses and we can let this happen, we can’t let them ‘rule’ us and therefore we want them out of the state. You can see similar sentiments echoed by MNS too and by the Nazis. The ULFA wanted a separate sovereign ‘country’ of Assam which would have a socialist government and where no ‘foreigners’ would be allowed.
In the initial days, they enjoyed great popularity as they extorted
money from the rich and ‘supposedly’ distributed among the poor Assamese people.It received arms and ammunition from the Kachin Independence Army(KIA), a terrorist organization in Myanmar(then Burma) and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland(NSCN). By the late 80s it had launched a bloody campaign against non Assamese with willful killings, bombings, executions and kidnappings. It was declared a terrorist organization in 1984 by the Government of India under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act of 1967.
Most of the above information has been gathered from Wikipedia and other online sources (because I wasn’t even born then) and little bit from what I learnt growing up as a kid. I still remember, when I was around 8 or 10, my mom asking me to lower my voice when I mentioned the name ‘Ulfa’ in a public place; I was a kid then and I didn’t really understand. Growing up, ULFA has been synonymous to me with bombing and killings. In Assam, not a day passes without some bombing somewhere, and if you are lucky to be in the state capital(Dispur/Guwahati) or in Upper Assam, where the ULFA has a stronger hold, your town would pretty much regularly make up the above statistics of 1 bombing a week. Sometimes, one bombing a week is not enough (particularly if there has been a lull for long in which case the ULFA needs to set the statistics right) and so you can have serial bombings a day, even in the very same city/town.
Fast Forward to mid 90s (the time I can remember); everything before that is a little hazy as I was too young then to remember or comprehend much. By now, the old animosities and xenophobia between Assamese and Bengalis (and Marwaris who owned most of the businesses and were rich) were fast vanishing. A new generation had grown up, with people like myself (I am a Bengali), who did not see any difference between the Bengali kid in the playground and the Assamese kid beyond the fact that those kids had a funny accent and their food was little different, a little less spicy. Among the grownups too, things had mellowed down considerably. An Assamese girl marrying a Bengali guy (or vice versa) was no longer the catastrophe that it was considered to be; yes eyebrows were raised but it wasn’t that much of a big deal. The three communities (Assamese, Bengalis and Marwaris) invited each other in their festivals and things had gotten much much better. Of course, there was the occasional xenophobe on either side or the racist teacher or two at school, but his/her influence was much reduced by now. This may not be the complete picture of things, but this is how I, a kid growing up in those times, saw and heard it.
Also the ULFA had taken to planting bombs at markets, Independence day parades, buses; name a public place and they had planted a bomb there. By now, their targets were no more Bengalis or Marwaris, Assamese too were victim of their attacks. They had lost much of their support among the people and their only means to stay in the minds of the people was unbridled terror. Blasts at Durga Puja pandals were common and they would even call up doctors to warn them before hand and dare them to prevent it. Bandhs were regular, and shops would be destroyed if they remained open. A flag outside your house on Independence Day could invite their wrath. Rampant extortion from and kidnapping of rich businessman , high ranking officials of the very few businesses that existed in Assam (or their family members) or just about anyone who bought a new car (even a Maruti 800) resulted in dwindling support for this outfit. By the end of the 90s, they were a nuisance at best and a public enemy at worse. Of course, they still had links with some of the political parties. Nevertheless, military offensive against them were at a all time high and it’s key leaders had long taken to living across the border in neighbouring Bangladesh; living in the country of the same Bangladeshis they wanted to drive out, an irony if there ever was one.
The only way now to remain relevant was to carry out blasts across the state and once in a while raise the issue of driving out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, a genuine concern of the people or the occasional violence against Biharis, who had settled in the state in good number doing mostly marginal jobs like barbers and small time shop keepers. Operation All Clear and Operation Rhino 2 carried out by the Indian state against the ULFA in co-operation with Myanmar since 2003 had been particularly effective. Rattled by the offensive of the Indian Army, the ULFA called for a truce, brokered by eminent people including Mamoni Raisom Goswami, to get to the negotiation table, in the meanwhile buying time to either flee the country or prepare for more terrorist activities. Once their farce was caught, the talks broke and the Indian Army resumed its operations against the ULFA. Besides, diplomatic channels with Bangladesh were used.ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, deputy military chief Raju Barua, finance secretary Chitraban Hazarika and foreign secretary Sashadhar Choudhury and Rajkhowa’s bodyguard Raja Bora were arrested in tacit co-operation with Bangladesh and the Indian government is pushing for more arrests right now.
As things stand now, the ULFA has called for a truce again. They have drawn their agenda and a list of demands asking for more autonomy in the state, something similar to J&K. I am not sure how these talks will work out but it sure is a nice change from constant fear of bomb blasts.
But the larger question is, who are the ULFA negotiating for? Is it the people of Assam? Do the people of Assam want secession from the Indian state or even partial autonomy? Do the people of Assam truly think of themselves as not a part of India? Does the average Assamese, who now increasingly send their kids to study in Bangalore, Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai really think of the non-Assamese as foreigners? Does the average Assamese youth who is very likely doing a job at some IT firm down south think of India as a country hostile to their interests? Does the average Assamese think it necessary to get the UN involved in resolving issues with the Indian Union as the ULFA has demanded? Does the average Assamese think that Assam will be safer if the arrested ULFA cadres and their leaders are released?
The way I see it, and most people of Assam would agree, the ULFA do not represent the wishes of the people of Assam in any way whatsoever. They are a terrorist outfit, a cause of decades of fear in the minds of the people and responsible for over 20,000 deaths. They don’t deserve a truce; they deserve a bullet between their eyes, humanitarian considerations be damned. It is because of them that businesses are afraid to operate in the state, it is because of them that shops and restaurants close by 9pm in most places of Assam. It is because of them that a lot of innocent lives have been lost, irrespective of which language those dead bodies spoke. The peace talks, therefore are a farce. If factions can gain legitimacy and the right to decide for a entire state just by the power of the gun, then I am really worried for the future of my country. You cannot let every other terrorist group speak on behalf of the people. Guns and bombs don’t build consensus.
Yes, Assam does have a lot of problem. Lack of development, high unemployment and poverty are the major ones (more on the development issues in another post I suppose). But we don’t need a ULFA to fix that up. They are part of the problem, not the solution.
In this peace talk, they are representing their own interests and not that of the people of Assam. And we don’t need nor want them to talk on our behalf. Period.