Confronting the State: ULFA's Quest for Sovereignty


Nani Gopal Mahanta

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    To my parents and brother, Rantu Da


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    List of Tables

    • 1.1 Representation of Assam in Cabinet Mission 17
    • 1.2 Production Capacities of Refineries in India, 1983–84 28
    • 2.1 Violent Incidents during Assam Movement 48
    • 3.1 Incentives for Surrender of Arms 96
    • 6.1 Should Insurgency Be Suppressed or Resolved through Negotiation? 174
    • 6.2 While Others Identify Themselves Only with Their State Identity, How Do You Identify Yourself? 174
    • 6.3 Militants Captured and Handed Over to Police by Public 190
    • 7.1 Representation of Morans in Various Private Companies 207
    • 7.2 Human Development Indicators, Assam and Its Districts, 2001 215
    • 7.3 Human Development Indicators, Assam and Its Districts, 2001, by Rank 217
    • 8.1 Population Variation in India and Assam (in per cent) 231
    • 8.2 Proportion of Muslim Population in India and Assam (in per cent) 232
    • 9.1 Whether to Negotiate with Insurgents or to Suppress Them 289
    • 9.2 Solving Insurgency Problem by the government Alone or by Involving the greater Society 289
    • 9.3 Causes behind Insurgency in North East India 290
    • 10.1 How Does One Identify in Assam? 304
    • 11.1 Nature of Displacement from Big Dams in North East India 327
    • 11.2 Non-military Insecurity Indicators 331
    • 11.3 Causing Insurgency in North East India: Peoples’ Perceptions 332
    • 11.4 How Do Road Blockades and Call for Bandh Affect People's Life? 333

    List of Abbreviations

    AALOAll Assam Liberation Organisation
    AAMSUAll Assam Minority Students' Union
    AASUAll Assam Students' Union
    ABSUAll Bodo Students' Association
    ABUSSAsomiya Bhasa Unnati Sadhini Sabha
    ADSAsian Dialogue Society
    AFSPAArmed Forces (Special Powers) Act
    AGPAsom gana Parishad
    AIMAssam Institute of Management
    AJUPAsom Jatiya Unnayan Parishad
    AJYCPAsom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad
    ALAwami League
    ALAAssam Liberation Army
    APCCAssam Provincial Congress Committee
    APLAAssam People's Liberation Army
    ATTSAAssam Tea Tribes Students' Association
    AVARD-NEAssociation of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development for North East
    AXXAxam Xahitya Xabha
    BLTFBodo Liberation Tiger Force
    BNLABrachin National Liberation Army
    BNPBangladesh Nationalist Party
    BNUBrachin National Union
    BSFBorder Security Force
    CCHQCentral Command Headquarters
    CHQCentral Headquarters
    CNFChin National Front
    CPICommunist Party of India
    CPI (ML)Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)
    CRConflict Resolution
    CSDSCentre for the Study of Developing Societies
    DGFIDirectorate general of Forces Intelligence
    DHDDimasa Halong Daugah
    DRDADistrict Rural Development Agency
    GHQGeneral Headquarters
    GOCGeneral Officer Commanding
    GOIGovernment of India
    HDIHuman Development Index
    HSLCHigh School Leaving Certificate
    IASIndian Administrative Services
    IBIntelligence Bureau
    ICCPRInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
    ICESCRInternational Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
    IIEIndian Institute of Entrepreneurship
    IIFTIndian Institute of Foreign Trade
    IMDTIllegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act
    IOJIslamic Oikya Jote
    IOCIndian Oil Corporation
    IPSIndian Police Services
    ISIInter-Services Intelligence
    JCIJute Corporation of India
    JKLFJammu Kashmir Liberation Front
    JMBJama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh
    JMMBJagrata Matri Mukti Bahini
    KIAKachin Independence Army
    KIOKachin Independence Organisation
    KLOKamatapur Liberation Organisation
    KMSSKrishak Mukti Sangram Samity
    LMGLight Machine gun
    LOCLetter of Credit
    MASSManab Adhikar Sangram Samiti
    MHQMobile Headquarters
    NDFBNational Democratic Front of Bodoland
    NEEPCONorth Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited
    NERDANorth East Regional Defence Army
    NESONorth East Students' Organisation
    NHPCNational Hydroelectric Power Corporation
    NNCNaga National Council
    NRCPNational River Conservation Plan
    NSANational Security Act
    NSCN (IM)Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah)
    NSCNNational Socialist Council of Nagaland
    NSFNaga Students' Federation
    NSINational Security Intelligence
    OILOil India Limited
    OPECOrganization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
    PCGPeople's Consultative group
    PCPIAPeople's Committee for Peace Initiative in Assam
    PLAPeople's Liberation Army
    PLPPurbanchal Lok Parishad
    PREPAKPeople's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak
    PWGPeople's War group
    RAWResearch and Analysis Wing
    RBARoyal Bhutan Army
    SAARCSouth Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
    SPSuperintendent of Police
    SULASeven Unit Liberation Army
    SULFASurrendered United Liberation Front of Asom
    TADATerrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act
    TMPKTakam Mising Porin Kebang
    UCSUnified Command Structure
    ULASSUnited Liberation Army of Seven States
    ULFUnited Liberation Front
    ULFAUnited Liberation Front of Asom
    UMFUnited Minorities Front
    UNLFUnited National Liberation Front
    UNPOUnrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization
    UPDSUnited People's Democratic Solidarity
    UPSCUnion Public Service Commission
    URMCAUnited Reservationist Minority Council of Assam/United Revolutionary Minority Council of Assam


    The nation- and state-building project of India faces daunting challenges in North East India. What stifles is the simplistic, linear, development-centric approach of scholars and security experts from ‘mainstream’ India. Such a narrative neglects a host of other factors that sustain insurgency and violence in the region. It will be a gross mistake to analyse the phenomenon as only emanating from ‘greed’ factors and easy accessibility of arms in the region. These factors certainly play a decisive role—however, the centrality of analysis based on these factors does not answer many questions. As Sanjib Baruah said, poverty, underdevelopment and lack of economic opportunities are everyone's favourite bogey as causes of armed conflict.1 However, nature of state building, or the myopic vision of conflict resolution, receives scant attention from the policy maker of New Delhi. The people of the region are yet to own the Indian State. The problem lies with the legitimacy of the Indian State. North East India still remains the best experimenting ground, for what our security experts term as ‘Carrot and Stick Policy’.

    A majority of the armed rebellions in the North East region are led by people of Mongoloid origin. In other words, the indigenous North Eastern people of Mongoloid origin whose roots spread out in the South-East Asian region are yet to feel comfortable with the idioms of the Indian nation-state.

    Armed rebellion in the North Eastern region is a medium—a language, a voice—to express their grievances. While the State may have the bounden duty to confront a violent movement, it has to understand the mindset, the psyche that keeps such violence going for ages. Undeniably, the Indian State has won the war against United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

    ULFA represents a mindset, a suppressed voice which is deeply engrained in Assam's psyche. ULFA is the last source of Assam's protest against New Delhi, especially after the decline of All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and regional forces like Asom gana Parishad (AgP). The declining support base of ULFA is not to be seen in its numerical strength. It represents the unmet aspirations of the innumerable tribal and ethnic groups of Assam. It is true that the organisation is losing its base in the urban areas because of its indiscriminate bomb blasts and killings. Such deviations did take place—but what about the original issues that the organisation had raised, like the issues of resource control and of land. The ethnic groups of Assam face twin challenges—one from the unchecked illegal immigration across the border and the other from the internal migration from mainland India—which have posed serious questions to the representation and identity of the smaller communities. Their greatest fear is that they have become alien in their own historical homeland and the groups have no mechanism to give vent to their grievances. They face a State which is insensitive, corrupt and partisan—that which listens to the logic of electoral dynamics. These ethnic groups, on the other hand, do not have the numerical strength through which they can influence the state politics.

    The nature and issues of Assam's politics have remained the same from the days of the colonial period. The stalwarts of Assam have raised these issues right from the 1940s. They demanded a genuine federal structure that can protect the identities of smaller groups, through which they have a hold on their resources and can frame their own citizenship laws.

    ULFA raises certain larger issues like representation, governance, citizenship, state making and nation building and the voice of smaller ethnic groups whose immediate priority is not market and profit but issues of memory, community land and a sense of belonging to the traditional system.

    We are arguing that such politics of ULFA have limitations—after 30 years of military fight the organisation has to learn from its mistakes and take a realistic stock of the situation. They have deviated tremendously from their avowed goals and have become part of an international network. There are schisms and divisions in the organisation, both vertically and horizontally. Sovereignty or secession is not an issue so dear to the Assamese society. The majority of the people of Assam do not support the methods of ULFA. But those deviations notwithstanding, the Indian State has to address the issues raised by the organisation. The issues that ULFA raises are the issues of the people of Assam—the State cannot crush them militarily. The State may win a battle but would lose the hearts of their own people.

    Hiren Gohain, a highly celebrated intellectual of the state and instrumental in initiating peace talks between the government of India and ULFA, believes that the organisation raises certain sound principles of self-determination.2 A number of statistical surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in collaboration with the Department of Political Science, gauhati University, and our own research on Human Security (The Plight of Civilians in Conflict Zone) revealed that the people of the region want a negotiated settlement of the vexed issue of insurgency. The people may not support the violent and terrorising methods of both the State and armed groups; however, there is an overwhelming approval of the ideological issues raised by groups like ULFA, with the exception of secession. ULFA's alliance with foreign agencies like Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or Directorate general of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) is considered to be more a tactical alliance for their strategic survival. The armed group has many unique characteristics that make it different from other organisations of the state:

    • It is the only organisation that speaks about the people of Assam rather than the Assamese people.
    • It is the only organisation having representation from all communities—unlike the other caste-Hindu or ‘tribal’ and other ethnic organisations.
    • At a time when other organisations have taken a bold stand against the immigrants, it has tried to broaden the Assamese nationality by incorporating the immigrants from Bangladesh into the framework of the people of Assam.
    • It has strong anti-India, anti-Delhi stand.

    Although the organisation can claim to be the only one having representatives from all sections of the communities and groups, in the initial period the dominance of certain communities was very palpable. It is only in the post-1990s that the organisation has broadened its social base by incorporating various groups and communities into its fold. ULFA's emergence has to be seen in the context of contemporary history of Assam. ULFA is the culminating point of a movement that craves for a separate voice and identity for Assam. It is part of a movement that seeks to maintain the distinct identity of the composite Assamese people. It seeks to have control over its vast array of natural resources like land, crude oil, plywood, tea and forests. Quest for such a movement began during the period of the freedom struggle itself. During the period, the formulation of a future Assam province varied from an independent separate nation to the autonomous self-reliant state. There was always a fear of being inundated and overtaken by ‘stronger’ nationalities. Such insecurity was confronted by an articulation of a separate identity of Assamese people, which could be ensured through economic progress and cultural advancement. The protagonists of the freedom struggle in Assam contemplated a province which will be autonomous to fix its own destinations as an inseparable unit of the Indian State. ULFA is a logical conclusion of the process of denial of a space that began since the dawn of Independence. The entire trajectory moved through certain phases.

    As we have stated above, the first phase began during the period of the freedom struggle itself. The Assamese middle class in the 1920s became highly apprehensive about the continuous immigration of East Bengal people to the region. The most worrying point for the middle class was that ‘these immigrants would in due course, further tilt the provinces’ demographic, cultural and political balance in favour of the Bengalis’.3 Assam's fight with the Centre remained the core of her politics even before the attainment of Independence. In its early period of formation, the Indian political leaders were in a hurry to form the Indian nation-state. In the process, feelings and grievances of some of the communities living in the periphery remained unanswered. The Indian ruling elites had shown great insensitivity and nonchalance to some of the fundamental questions of Assam.

    The second phase of conflict (1947–85) can be considered as an attempt for assertion for resources, language and identity. The leaders of the Indian freedom struggle barring Gandhi and a few others were in a great hurry to capture power. In the process they neglected some of the genuine issues of the region. The first major difference of opinion between Assam and the Centre occurred over the question of settling the refugees from newly-created East Pakistan in the state.

    The Centre's continuous discriminatory policies reflected from the very beginning of India's independence, particularly in the exploitation of the oil sector of Assam. For ensuring a greater share of the state in the oil sector, there emerged the popular oil refinery movement which was supported by all political parties in the state. In spite of Assam's increasing crude oil production, the government of India was not interested in establishing a new refinery in Assam. Realising the apathy of the Central government, the people of Assam belonging to all communities, languages and political outlook started a movement for the establishment of a large refinery in Assam in 1957.

    According to Professor Tilottoma Misra, Assam, despite being the largest producer of tea, oil, plywood and forest products, remains one of the poorest and industrially backward states in the country.4 While the problem of continued influx and the ever-growing pressure on land coupled with the fear of the Assamese losing their socio-political identity seemed to be the immediate motivating factors of the movement, it was in actuality a popular outburst against decades of economic neglect of the state by the Central government. It is significant that the immediate popular movement which preceded the Assam Movement was the one led by the AASU on the issue of economic backwardness of the state.

    The third phase of conflict with the Indian State began through regional movements and militancy broadly from 1979 to 2005. The Assam Movement had laid down the foundation for the growth of an independent Assam by ULFA. Although some writers have expressed serious doubt about the democratic content of the Assam Movement, it is one of the most popular mass-based movement in the post-Independence period of India. A strong emotional content notwithstanding, for the majority of the Assamese this was the last fight to ensure their identity and culture. The Assam Movement surfaced the already palpable secessionist feeling in Assam.

    Majority of the leaders of the movement believed that regional political party that came out as a result of the Assam Accord failed to address the structural issues such as resource control, more powers to the state and economic development of the state, etc. The real problem is now diagnosed to be the exploitation by the Centre which could be brought to an end by an armed struggle against the State.

    However, the armed rebellion by ULFA also surfaced certain structural limitations which had come into the forefront in the fourth phase of conflict with the Indian State, i.e., from 2005 onwards. Organisations like ULFA never bothered to look into the issues of governance and day-to-day problems that the people of the state used to confront on a daily basis. Struggle over land, forest and water have acquired a new dimension after the emergence of a peasant-based movement known as Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity (KMSS) in 2005 under the leadership of RTI activist Akhil Gogoi. Before launching KMSS, Gogoi was associated with another land and forest movement in the Doyang–Tengani region of the Golaghat district in 2002–2003. When the government started evicting the settlers, two organisations named Brihhattar Tengani Unnayan Sangram Samity and Dayang Mukti Sangarm Samity were formed under the leadership of Akhil Gogoi. gradually, the movement extended its activities in the districts such as Nagoan, Dhemaji and Lakhimpur in order to raise voice for the poor peasants and forest dwellers. Thus, movements centring on people's issues have become more popular and sustainable in comparison to the armed groups who have perennially neglected these issues for a dream of independent sovereign homeland.

    However, issues remain. The ideological plank over which ULFA emerged remains unaddressed. It is to be seen how far the Indian State is sincere in accommodating the demands raised by ULFA. Or will it still rely on ‘Conflict Fatigue’ syndrome of the rebel leaders? ULFA in Assam represents what Sanjib Baruah prefers to call, in a terminology of Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, as ‘contentious politics’.5

    If we look at ULFA's ideology as ‘contentious politics’ it actually represents a continuum with other non-violent social movements, political parties and interest groups. Claimants like ULFA can acquire access to power and can adapt to institutional politics; and then they become more like interest groups or conventional political parties.6 From that point, ULFA's violence is an instrumental violence, the basic premise of which is to bring certain structural changes in the behaviour and functioning of the Indian State.

    Contemporary writings on the insurgency phenomenon in the region can be clubbed in a mutually antagonistic position. One school, constituted mostly by the security experts and scholars from the ‘mainstream’, conceptualises insurgency as a product of lack of development and unemployment. Security experts view groups like ULFA as puppets in the hands of foreign forces. Certain academics, particularly from the region, on the other hand, tend to overlook the role of external forces; there is a tendency to give salience to certain theoretical premises which hinge on the failure of the State in the region. Such mutually exclusive binary extrapolation actually tells us the half-truth.

    This book is essentially a product of my association with the topic for more than 15 years. My interest in ULFA grew after my visit to a camp of ULFA in Bhutan in 1997. I express my gratitude to my underground friends for their very insightful exposure of the organisation. Interaction with the cadres has helped me in understanding what motivates a young boy/girl to join a path which is shrouded with life-threatening risks at every step. I owe an apology to them if I have not been able to do justice or give a sympathetic treatment to their struggle as my purpose is not to get enamoured by their individual sacrifice. My fieldwork in Bangladesh was very enriching as I had the opportunity to interact with a number of intellectuals, media personality, human rights groups and NGO workers. Among them, my interaction with Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor Amena Mohsin, Professor Meghna Guha Thakurta (all from Dhaka University) was helpful in acquiring knowledge about their perception of insurgency and the role of Bangladeshi State in providing shelter to underground outfits of North East India.

    I had a wide range of discussion with various officials of government of India and Assam. In a number of occasions, I was engaged in debates and discussions with g. M. Srivastav, the ex-DGP of Assam and B. J. Mahanta, IGP (L&O), Assam Police, and also many others from the Army, Paramilitary Forces, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Special Branch (SB) who have wished to remain anonymous for their professional obligations. Many of them shared information which would have been otherwise impossible to gather. Of course, these sources were scrutinised and interrogated through the lenses of my orientation as a student of Social Sciences in general and Political Science in particular.

    I am particularly grateful to my innumerable friends in the region for their help and support. I am particularly indebted to the leaders and cadres of ULFA (many of them have surrendered). I made it a point to interview them at the very first instance of their public appearance. I express my gratitude to various civil society leaders like Lachit Bordoloi, Bubumoni Goswami (from MASS), Dilip Patgiri (PCG member and Advisor, AJYCP), Ajit Bhuyan (PCG member and a human rights activist) and many others whom I cannot name them for want of space.

    Subir Bhaumik—a prolific writer, journalist and a great admirer of the region—has always remained a great source of inspiration for me. I must thank my two dear friends—Professor Chandan Sarmah of Tezpur University and Dr Akhil Ranjan Dutta, Associate Professor of Political Science, gauhati University, for their meaningful association. Three of us dialogue, debate and discuss on contemporary issues of the region with varying perspectives.

    My esteemed colleagues in the Department of Political Science, gauhati University—Professor Monirul Hussain, Professor Niru Hazarika, Professor Sandhya Goswami, Dr Alaka Sarma, Dr Akhil R. Dutta, Dr Jayanta K. Sarma, Dr Dhruba P. Sarma, Dr Shubrajit Konwar, Dr Joana Mehjebeen and Borosa Deka—have always inspired me in my intellectual journey. My wife asked me not to be formal in expressing my acknowledgement to her. Even at the risk of antagonising her, I must acknowledge my wife Gargi, sons Mahip and Adhip and daughter Nishtha for being constant sources of inspiration to me.

    I shall always remain indebted to Professor Anuradha Dutta for her encouragement and guidance. I express my sincere gratitude and thanks to the entire family of SAGE Publications, especially Rekha Natarajan, Sugata Ghosh and Shambhu Sahu for their support. Finally, this book would not have been possible without the apt handling by Dhurjjati Sarma, the editor from SAGE.

    1 Sanjib Baruah (ed.), Beyond Counter-Insurgency: Breaking the Impasse in North East India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009), 4.

    2 Hiren Gohain, ‘Chronicle of Violence and Terror: Rise of the United Liberation Front of Assam’, Economic and Political Weekly 42, no. 12 (24 March 2007): 1012–1018.

    3 Amalendu Guha, ‘Nationalism: Pan-Indian and Regional, in a Historical Perspective’, in Nationalist Upsurge in Assam, ed. Arun Bhuyan (Guwahati: government of Assam, August 2000), 91.

    4 Tilottoma Misra, ‘Assam: A Colonial Hinterland’, Economic and Political Weekly, 15, no. 39 (9 August 1980).

    5 See Sanjib Baruah, ‘Separatist Militants and Contentious Politics in Assam, India’, Asian Survey, 49, no. 6 (2009): 951–974.

    6 Sanjib Baruah, ‘The Rise and Decline of a Separatist Insurgency: Contentious Politics in Assam, India’, in Autonomy and Ethnic Conflict in South and South-East Asia, ed. Rajat Ganguly (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 27–45.

  • About the Author

    Nani Gopal Mahanta is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Coordinator of Peace and Conflict Studies at Gauhati University, Assam, India. A former Rotary World Peace Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley (2002–04), he has published widely and has been a Visiting Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Norway. Currently, Mahanta is the President of North East India Political Science Association (NEIPSA).

    Mahanta is a regular contributor to various national and regional newspapers and journals on the contemporary conflict issues in India's North East. They include Economic and Political Weekly, Socialist Perspective, India Today, The Hindustan Times, The Telegraph, The Assam Tribune, Amar Asom and Dainik Pratidin. He is also one of the most popular television commentators in the region. Currently the editor of Journal of Political Science, he has also co-edited a book entitled Conflict Dynamics in North East India: The Shifting Terrain (with Dilip Gogoi), published in February 2012.

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