Anti-CAA stir is raging to new heights, turning into a movement. Disappearance of youths, especially from upper Assam, is raising concerns. ULFA-I in the works?
Tinsukia: From reports of youngsters joining the banned outfit to low-intensity serial blasts on Republic Day, the signs of resurgence of United Liberation Front of Assam (Independent) (ULFA-I) is becoming more and more apparent amid huge outrage against Citizenship (Amendment) Act (C(A)A) among the indigenous people of Assam.
The development comes within a span of 45 days of a report by an European think tank, European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS), warning India against re-ignition of insurgency in the Northeast over the recently enacted CAA.
According to the report, the genesis of the militant outfit United Liberation Front of Asom, which has plagued the state for 30 years, lay in the struggles of "anti-foreigner movement" that was launched in 1979 by the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) for the detection of illegal immigrants, their deletion from the voter's list, and their deportation to Bangladesh.
"The AASU is again at the forefront of the ongoing anti-CAA protests in Assam. ULFA (Independent) is, meanwhile, watching keenly from its bases in Myanmar and China, desperate to resurrect itself by capitalising on any instability and signs of disaffection in Assam," the EFSAS report said.
The controversial legislation, which provides Indian citizenship to non-Muslim refugees of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, who arrived in India on or before December 31, 2014, was enacted by Parliament on December 11 last year, resulting in a violent backlash and a series of non stop protests in Assam.
Impact of CAA
The enactment of the controversial legislation has apparently turned the sentiments of indigenous people of Assam against the government.
The anti-CAA stir is raging to new heights, with a new dawn, across the state of Assam for over 50 days now. The support of important personalities, from various walks of life, has just added flavour to the protests, which seem to be turning into a movement.
Intellectuals and student leaders, including the elite educated and artist class, touring the state to speak and perform at protest venues, is turning a milestone in projecting the bad face of the government, which in turn is playing a crucial role in galvanising the sentiments of the youths.
A speech by a professor claiming to be faculty of Dibrugarh University, who despite being on wheelchair following a surgery, attended a rally organised by AASU in Dibrugarh to share her emotions and anger against the government.
"Dibrugarh Chowkidingee khel pathar ot sonmilit hua hongrami raiz ok mur pranam (My ‘pranam’ to the protesters who have gathered at Chowkidingee field). I had decided not to attend this rally as my health was not permitting, but when I came across a post of a powerful minister of Assam on social media, who addressed the martyrs as miscreants, my blood boiled. Five youngsters laid down their life. The ministers want us to address them as martyrs only after government declares them martyr. What a pathetic mentality; it shook my mother's heart within me and I decided to come here. This government has murdered 16-year-old kid and now they have the courage to say that these kids are not martyrs. It is so painful," she said, receiving a huge round of applause and buzzing the open playground with a gathering of over 70,000 persons. That was a living example to understand the connect with the protesters.
These youths, who are apparently feeling frustrated, cheated and ignored by the BJP government, which came riding to power on the promise of safeguarding 'jati, mati and bheti' (community, land and base), has become a perfect opportunity for Paresh Baruah, the commander-in-chief of ULFA-I, to bank on and invest in these youths by attracting them to their ideology.
From award-winning film director Jahnu Barua to senior advocate and professors, a battery of artists and singers have taken the lead role in performing at protests spearheaded by All Assam Students' Union (AASU). The list of intellectuals, who are coming out openly in support of the anti-CAA movement, is only growing with every passing day.
Fear found voice
On a Sunday in December last year, days after the Bill was enacted into a law, when the artists gathered at the Chandmari field in Guwahati to register their protest against CAA, the fear found a voice.
Bipin Chawdang sang: "Pepanhti tur bojailo, du donor pachhot bongaliye ronor hinga bojaabo, du donor pachhot bangladeshik mukhyomatri patibo (Play on your flute for now, in a couple of days Bengali will blow the war trumpet. After a couple of days they will make a Bangladeshi the chief minister).”
The anti-CAA songs sung, most of them scripted in recent weeks are spontaneous creations, are not only having far reaching and long lasting impact, but is also connecting with the protesters heart and mind.
In January this year, popular singer Manas Robin made protesters dance to his anti-CAA tune. The protesters, mainly women, moved their bodies in sync with the musical voice, reciting the song loudly with Robin.
Disappearance of youths
The disappearance of several youths amid the wide spread anger and anti-CAA protest has set off alarm bells among the security agencies, who are finding it difficult to track their locations.
According to a senior official in intelligence agency, the number of missing youths has surged to 35 ever since the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was passed in Parliament. "The areas affected include Tinsukia, Charaideo, Golaghat, Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Sivasagar, Nagaon and some districts of lower Assam," the official said.
"A batch of above 40 youths is undergoing training at the ‘Everest camp’ of ULFA-I in Myanmar," the official told this correspondent.
However, as per figures that have been come out in the open, eight youths have disappeared so far -- six from Tinsukia and two from Dibrugarh.
On January 3, an AASU member from Pengeree went missing after attending a protest rally in Tinsukia. Biju Gogoi's disappearance confirmation came a couple of days later. This was followed with disappearance of Gyandeep Borpatrogohain from neighbouring Dibrugarh district. Although Gogoi remains untraced, Dibrugarh police confirmed Borpatrogohain's joining the banned outfit.
A week later, five youths -- Dimpu Gogoi, 22, Champak Jyoti, 23, Priyank Gogoi, 23, Dichanka Gogoi, 22, and Jintu Dowara, 26 -- all residents of Panitola in Tinsukia district went missing. Days later, report of disappearance of a 23-year-old youth, Tapuban Gohain, from Jerai gaon -- the native village of ULFA-I supremo Paresh Baruah -- in Assam's Dibrugarh district poured in. They all remain untraced.
When questioned, the intelligence officer said that the police will never tell you the figures. "In fact, they are unaware about some of the youths missing from lower Assam as inputs suggest," the official said.
The input from our channels has just mentioned "the Assamese accent of four youths suggests that they are from a particular district in lower Assam" but it doesn't appear in any official communication between agencies. "We are trying to find out who are the youths and which district they hail from," the officer said, citing an example of how some cases remain to be officially reported.
A WhatsApp message sent to additional director general of police (law and order) GP Singh, requesting him to share the details available with Assam police on the total number of youths who have gone missing since December last year, and the ones who have joined ULFA-I, is yet to find a response even 15 days on.
ULFA-I's growing over ground worker network
Ever since the Central government announced its intention to bring Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in 2016, the announcement was greeted with a series of protest in the land of great leaders like Lachit Borphukan, a name often heard in many anti-CAA protest meetings this correspondent covered.
But it was only in late 2017, when the government made a push, ULFA (Independent) started fishing in the undercurrent visible in this once insurgency-torn state. They not just succeeded in new recruitment, but according to inputs, the outfit also expanded their overground worker (OGW) network and gained strength.
This became evident in a grenade blast in Guwahati in May last year in which 12 persons, including two SSB personnel, were injured. Thirteen persons have been so far arrested in the investigation that followed. But out of 13, there was only 1 ULFA-I rebel, Bijoy Asom. The rest were part of a network of OGW, which included people from celebrity to educated class -- Assamese actress Jahnabi Saikia, 65-year-old retired school teacher Prakash Rajkonwar and Guwahati University post graduate Students' Union president Sanjib Talukdar, unlike unemployed youths, engaged for such jobs on several previous occasions.
The blast came at a time when most security and agencies claimed that ULFA-I has lost its plot and is limited to two districts of upper Assam.
Again, this R-Day, ULFA-I took on all agencies by surprise by a series of low-intensity blasts in multiple districts an hour before the national flag was to be hoisted. Inputs suggest ULFA-I OGW also played a vital role in the serial blasts.
"It seems that the outfit has used its OGW to carry out serial blasts in a span of 10 minutes," a senior official of Assam police told EastMojo.
Security forces have arrested two ULFA-I cadres claiming their involvement in the blasts. The interrogation is likely to spill the bean.
Ulfa's recruitment drive: Desperate attempt to resurrect itself by capitalizing on the current instability following anti-CAA protests
According to sources in the intelligence agencies, the ULFA-I has stepped up its recruitment drive in last two years.
In 2019 alone, around 90 youths joined ULFA-I. "There are reports of almost 36 more cadres who have joined the outfit after the Bill was passed," if a senior officer in an intelligence agency is to be believed. However, the recruitment is noteworthy on two accounts, say analysts. First, ULFA-I is gaining strength through new recruits. More significantly, several youths who joined ULFA-I are educated ones, and are using social media to spread their message more effectively.
Abhijit Gogoi stands as a classic example. Gogoi, a software engineer who worked in Bengaluru, posted a 3.59-minute video shot in the deep jungles in December 2018.
"I left everything to join the revolution, revolutionary fight. I had to join the fight for Asomiya jaati (Assamese community) and it's identity," Gogoi, seen in army camouflage with an AK rifle, said in the video.
A couple of months earlier in October 2018, Pankaj Pratim Dutta appeared in a video in army fatigues with AK weapon in hand identifying himself as vice-president of Dergaon unit of AASU until recently.
A month later, in November 2018, report of a nephew of commander-in-chief of ULFA-I joining the outfit emerged. Munna Baruah (22), son of Paresh Baruah's elder brother Bimal, worked as an apprentice at Indian Oil Corporation Digboi refinery.
In December last year, six minor students, all aged between 15-17 years, hailing from Ritu Kathalguri, Kujupather and Miholiritu areas in Bordumsa under Tinsukia district were detained by Assam police for planning to join ULFA-I.
Reason for worry for the state
Recruitment by militant group Ulfa is not something new in Assam.
Recruitments were happening over the years, sometime less and sometime more. What is worrying, this time though, is the crossover of educated youths from mainstream to armed insurgency, something seen when militancy was at its initial stages in 1980s, and largely unheard over a decade.
ULFA's social media use to tap frustrated youngsters
The social media use -- ostensibly borrowed from Jammu & Kashmir -- for announcement by Ulfa (I) was first witnessed in October 2018, amid ongoing protests against Citizenship Amendment Bill, which by then was passed in Lok Sabha, with release of Pankaj Pratim Dutta's video.
This was a new phenomenon in Assam's militancy history. The medium brought its target youths closer to them.
ULFA's present strength
Though there is no official word on the present strength of the outfit, which security and intelligence agencies claimed had lost its stem ever since ULFA's 28 battalion declared unilateral ceasefire in 2008.
If some agencies are to be believed, they were ready to write them off.
However, according to a inputs from a source in the intelligence agency, there has been a surge in the outfit's strength. "The present strength of ULFA-I is likely have crossed over 400," the source added.
Despite a massive crackdown Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) on militant groups in the TaGa area of Myanmar, the banned United Liberation Front of Assam-Independent (ULFA-I) has managed to established new camps along the international border.
Paresh Baruah, one of the most wanted militants in India, has set up its new camps in the deep forests along the border inside Myanmar.
According to sources in the intelligence agencies, at present ULFA has three camps -- Nilgiri, Everest and Arakan -- well away from international border in Myanmar, opposite Tirap and Changlang districts in Arunachal Pradesh and Mon in Nagaland.
The training of a group of new tech-savvy recruits is undergoing at Everest camp.
Political blame game
In the throes of the 'anti-foreigner agitation' of Assam in the early 1980s, insurgency had surfaced and hundreds of Assamese youths had taken up arms. It a repetition of that era, claims Pradyut Bordoloi, a Congress MP from Nagoan and a former powerful minister of the state.
He blamed the BJP-led governments at the state and the Centre for snubbing the sentiments of the indigenous youths of Assam, by forcing Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) on them, which has allegedly led to the rise in youths joining the banned ULFA (Independent), claiming it to be "tip of iceberg".
Bordoloi tweeted on January 13 at 6.39 pm: “Been repeatedly warning against your snubbing the assamese agony and plight @AmitShah @narendramodi #SarbanandaSonowal, new reports pouring in of scores of Assamese teenagers now going to the jungles. Sad !!”
Squarely blaming the BJP government, Bordoloi told EastMojo, "In the throes of the 'Anti Foreigner Agitation' of Assam in the early 80's, the insurgency had surfaced and hundreds of Assamese youths had taken up arms. This is what I dread and apprehend when you remain insensitive to the periphery.”
"BJP has snubbed the people of Assam by forcing Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) on them which has put their identity at stake. The youths are frustrated and now reports are coming that around 50 youths have gone missing and likely joined ULFA-I," Bordoloi alleged.
Hope vs sovereign Assam demand
Meanwhile, there have been reports of a good number of youths, among the ones who went missing, returning, bringing a ray of hope and advice to other frustrated youths who are standing on the borders to jump over.
According to sources, around 30 youths who joined ULFA-I in 2019 have since then returned and joined the mainstream.
However, in a recent interview to a regional satellite channel, ULFA-I supremo Baruah made it ample clear that there will be no "peace" talks with "sovereign Assam" in the agenda.
The statement has underlined that the militancy in Assam is far from over, the disillusionment in the indigenous populace with CAA, is going to make situation more challenging for the grid of security and intelligence agency, to keep Paresh Baruah-led ULFA-I at bay.