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PATRIOTS OR TERRORISTS
Sidnacius | 07 Apr 2008

28 years of its existence but has the organization really worked for the state's sovereignty as it loudly claims.

The United Liberation Front of Asom is a militant group from Assam, among many other such groups in North-East India. It seeks to establish a sovereign Assam via an armed struggle. The Government of India had banned the organization in 1990 and classifies it as a terrorist group, while the US State Department lists it under "Other groups of concern". ULFA claims to have been founded at the site of Rang Ghar on April 7, 1979, a historic structure from the Ahom kingdom. According to Sunil Nath, the ULFA established relationships with Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1983 and with KIA, operating in Myanmar, in 1987. It was permitted to establish camps in Bangladesh in 1989 and initiated major violent activities in 1990. Military operations against it by the Indian Army that began in 1990 continues till present. The major leaders of the organisation are: Paresh Baruah (Commander-in-Chief), Arabinda Rajkhowa (Chairman), Anup Chetia (General Secretary) (in Government of Bangladesh custody), Pradip Gogoi (Vice-Chairman) (in Government of Assam custody)
 
The ULFA considers itself a "revolutionary political organization" engaged in a "liberation struggle" against India for the establishment of a sovereign, independent Assam. It does not consider itself a secessionist organization, as it claims that Assam was never a part of India. It claims that among the various problems that people of Assam are confronting, the problem of national identity is the most basic, and therefore it seeks to represent "independent minded struggling peoples" irrespective of race, tribe, caste, religion and nationality.
 
The Government of India (GOI) has classified it as a terrorist organization and had banned it under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in 1990. Concurrently, GOI started a military offensive against it, named Operation Bajrang lead by the Indian Army. The operation continues at present under the Unified Command Structure. The Government of India accuses ULFA of maintaining links with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan and the DGFI of Bangladesh, and waging a proxy war on their behalf against India. ULFA has a Communist ideology and is known to have relations with Maoists and it claims that some of its cadres were trained in Pakistan. Former Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes once claimed that ULFA was supported by China through provision of arms. Intelligence reports have noted that "Chinese support to insurgency in the Northeast has not fully dried up".
 
Some of the major assassinations by ULFA include that of Surendra Paul in May 1990, the brother of businessman Lord Swraj Paul, that precipitated a situation leading to the sacking of the Government of Assam under Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and the beginning of Operation Bajrang. In 1991 a Russian engineer was kidnapped along with others and killed. In 1997, Sanjay Ghose, a social activist and a relative of a high ranking Indian diplomat, was kidnapped and killed. The highest government officer assassinated by the group was local AGP minister Nagen Sharma in 2000. An unsuccessful assassination attempt was made on AGP Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta in 1997. A mass grave, discovered at a destroyed ULFA camp in Lakhipathar forest, showed evidence of executions committed by ULFA. ULFA continues to attempt ambushes and sporadic attacks on government security forces. In 2003, the ULFA was accused of killing labourers from Bihar in response to molestation and raping of many Assamese girls in a train in Bihar. This incident sparked off anti-Bihar sentiment in Assam, which withered away after some months though. On August 15, 2004, an explosion occurred in Assam in which 10-15 people died, including some school children. This explosion was reportedly carried out by ULFA. The ULFA has obliquely accepted responsibility for the blast. This appears to be the first instance of ULFA admitting to public killings with an incendiary device. In January 2007, the ULFA once again struck in Assam killing approximately 62 Hindi speaking migrant workers mostly from Bihar. On March 15, 2007, ULFA triggered a blast in Guwahati, injuring six persons as it celebrated its 'army day'. The ULFA has claimed responsibility for bombings of economic targets like crude oil pipelines, freight trains and government buildings, including the 7 August 2005 attack.
 
There are regular media reports of ULFA recruitment drives, especially in the rural areas. Even though many times the estimated original membership have either been captured, killed or have surrendered to government agencies, the continuing presence of ULFA members suggest that these reports are true.
After 1985 and before it was banned in 1990, ULFA was credited in the media with many public activities. Soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the ULFA was reported to have stopped Hindu-Muslim riots in the Hojai region of Nagaon district by displaying arms openly. It has continued a public discourse of sorts through the local media (newspapers), occasionally publishing its position on political issues centered around the nationality question. It has participated in public debates with public personalities from Assam. During the last two local elections the ULFA had called for boycotts, though media reports suggest that it had intimidated activists of the then ruling parties (Congress and AGP respectively). The ULFA is credited with some bank robberies during its initial stages. Now it is widely reported to extort businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians for collecting funds. In 1997, the Chief Minister of Assam accused Tata Tea of paying the medical bills of the ULFA cultural secretary Pranati Deka at a Mumbai hospital.
 
The ULFA is reported to maintain a number of camps in Bangladesh, where members are trained and sheltered away from Indian security forces. Until recently, they had maintained camps in Bhutan, which were destroyed by the Royal Bhutan Army aided by the Special Frontier Force in December, 2003. These camps housed combatants and non-combatant families of ULFA members. The ULFA maintains close relationships with other separatist organizations like NDFB, KLO and NSCN(Khaplang). The Indian Army notes that, “ The ULFA is fighting the jihadi war on behalf of the ISI and taking help from jihadi elements. No doubt they (ULFA leaders) are in a foreign land and are under the control of the ISI which is calling the shots and asking them to do what the ISI wants.
Beginning in 1990, the Government of India has attempted to wean away members of the ULFA. This occurred due to the death of the ULFA's deputy C-in-C Heerak Jyoti Mahanta on December 31st, 1991. Mr. Mahanta strongly stood against any kind of surrendering, but after his death it nevertheless happened. In 1992 a large section of second rung leaders and members surrendered to government authorities. These former members were allowed to retain their weapons to defend themselves against their former colleagues and were offered bank loans without any liabilities. This loose group, now called SULFA, has become an important element in the armed politics and business of Assam. However there have been cases of surrenderings being staged for political and economical reasons by local and national governments. The total number of ULFA cadres to have laid down arms has gone up to 8,718. 4,993 cadres surrendered between 1991 and 1998. 3,435 surrendered between 1998 and 2005 when a new policy to deal with the ULFA was unveiled. During the government of AGP leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, a number of family members of ULFA leaders were assassinated by unidentified gunmen. With the fall of this government following elections in 2001, the secret killings stopped. Investigations into the killings culminated in the report of the "Saika Commission", presented to the Assam Assembly November 15, 2007. The report provides details about the killings, which were organized by Prafulla Mahanta in his role as the Assam Home Minister, and executed by the police, with cooperation from the Indian Army. The actual killers were surrendered elements of the ULFA, who would approach their targets at home, at night, knocking on the door and calling out in Assamese to allay suspicion. When the victims answered the door, they were shot or kidnapped to be shot elsewhere.
 
The ULFA has put forward a set of three pre-conditions for talks and negotiations with the Indian government. The government has rejected these pre-conditions. The pre-conditions are:
  1. The talks should be held in a third country.
  2. The talks should be held under United Nations supervision.
  3. The agenda of the talks should include the sovereignty of Assam.
In 2004, the ULFA dropped the first two pre-conditions and offered to talk with the government. The Government of India was not ready to negotiate on the issue of sovereignty. Still some progress was made when the ULFA formed a "People's Consultative Group" in September 2005 to prepare the grounds for an eventual negotiation between the government and ULFA, which the government has welcomed. According to the India Times, talks were first held in December 2005 at the residence of the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. There were three rounds of peace talks with the 11-member PCG, headed by noted Assamese writer Indira Goswami, leading to a temporary truce in August 2006. However the truce broke down by September 26 of the same year.
            And today the 7th day of April, 2008 it has attained its 28 years of existence. What remains to be seen is that how sovereign is the organization that is working for Assam’s sovereignty. During these years of bloodshed between ULFA and the Govt. it’s the common people who suffered the most. However, during these very years it was also able to generate a cross-section of the citizens to its side. Whatever be the result or the reason what Assam really wants at this point of time is peace and during this raising Day of ULFA, people of Assam are looking forward for the talks between ULFA and the government. But what remains to be seen is that whether the govt tries to negotiate with ULFA for peace or will it just open a chapter of fresh violence in Assam?