THE wheel has come full circle in Assam in less than two years. After openly canvassing for Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) candidates in the April 1996 elections, militants of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) have this time decided to target the ruling party with a vengeance. On February 11, at least three militants attacked the AGP vice-president and municipal administration minister Biraj Sarma in the heart of Guwahati, critically injuring him. One of his personal security officers, Dipak Gogoi, was killed and three others injured.
The attack on Sarma came on the same day a CPI(ML) candidate for the Dibrugarh Lok Sabha seat, Anil Kumar Barua, was shot dead from point-blank range even as he stood up to address a meeting in the upper Assam town of Naharkatiya. It is believed that Barua was killed because his party had criticised ULFA's boycott call.
The two incidents have sent the alarm bells ringing in the state administration. Chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, campaigning for his wife in the Nagaon Lok Sabha seat, rushed back to Guwahati late at night and visited Sarma at the Guwahati Medical College Hospital. Hours before the attack on the minister, the strategic group of the unified command system had met in Guwahati to review the situation in the state.
The meeting followed reports that ULFA had planned major attacks throughout Assam, particularly in Guwahati. The capital, which was taken out of the purview of the unified command along with Jorhat late last year, has been witness to a serious of incidents in the past couple of months. Indeed, even as officials were discussing the possibility of reviewing the system, militants struck in a big way.
ULFA's logic is simple: the AGP, which according to its publicity chief Mithinga Daimary, took help from the outfit in the last elections, did not fulfil the promises made to the people ( see interview ). Therefore, parliamentary elections hold no meaning in Assam and hence they must be boycotted. The AGP, at the receiving end of the ULFA threat, has alleged a nexus between the militants and the Congress. Says Mahanta. "The Congress is hand-in-glove with ULFA. Only AGP workers are being harassed while the Congress has been able to carry out its campaign without any hindrance." The Congress denies the charge and party spokesman Pankaj Bora terms Mahanta's allegations as "wild and baseless". "Everyone knows who gave a boost to the ULFA," he says meaningfully.
Boost or no boost, ULFA is determined to disrupt the elections. Having received such reports, the state government has been asking for more paramilitary forces or rescheduling of the polls in two phases but neither the Election Commission nor the Union home ministry seemed to have taken the issue seriously. An angry Mahanta told Outlook : "We were promised additional paramilitary companies on February 12, but till today (February 12) not a single company has arrived. If the forces come 36 hours before the polls, they will be of no use. The Election Commission has also failed to respond to our request for a two-phase election. I must say that the Centre continues to ignore the Northeast." In fact, the Election Commission categorically rejected the Assam government's request for a change in the polling schedule.
As of now the state has a mere 69 companies against the projected requirement of over 600. Although the army is deployed in counter-insurgency mode throughout the state, it cannot be accorded election duty but ultimately the state government may have to depend upon the troops to maintain a semblance of law and order. The 25,000 troops deployed in Assam may have a tough task on hand when polling takes places on February 16 for the 14 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Intelligence reports have indicated that small batches of highly mobile action groups of the outfit have entered the state in the past week with a view to disrupting the poll. The army has laid siege on the India-Bhutan border, but despite the strong vigil, rebels of both ULFA and the banned National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) have sneaked in. Given the situation, large-scale violence on the day of the polling is expected and voting is likely to be as low as in the 1983 elections. As for the Dibrugarh seat, from where the slain CPI(ML) candidate had filed his papers, elections have not been countermanded as the CPI(ML) is not a registered political party. This has elicited warnings of agitation from the party. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Tripura, too, violence threatens to disrupt the polls. On February 11, the BJP candidate from Simna Assembly constituency in West Tripura district escaped an attempt on his life by militants. Clearly, on the eve of the polls, such terror-inducing strikes could reduce the polls to a farce.