January 18, 2020
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The Thorny Path Home

A group of ULFA and Bodo rebels surrender—and try to start life afresh in the paramilitary forces

The Thorny Path Home

SAHIB hum naukri nahin karega (I will not do a routine job, sir)", the man of indeterminate age pleads in halting Hindi with Brig. Gaganjit of the 4 Corps. For Bhaktu (not his real name), the shift from the jungles of Bhutan to the comforts of Army barracks is a partial boon, tinged with uncertainty. Having spent 11 years as an underground activist of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Bhaktu is not inclined to take up a job that has been offered to him under the army's much-touted rehabilitation package.

His hesitancy is understandable. Bhaktu, who was a "sergeant major" (a fairly high rank) in the ULFA before he came overground with 132 others on August 13, is not qualified. He fears that others, much junior to him in the militant outfit but better qualified, would end up in a senior position in the paramilitary forces where the government has offered these "returnees" jobs.

The former "sergeant major" is not alone in being disinclined to take up a job. At least 20 others want to go back to their villages and begin life afresh after having renounced arms at a "rehabilitation ceremony" in Upper Assam's Jorhat district, two days before Independence day. The 140 militants, including seven Bodos belonging to two different outfits, the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), were part of the second batch of militants to have come overground—51 denounced arms on July 24. "The flood-gates have been opened and it is only a matter of time before several more come to us," says Lt Gen. N.C. Vij, commander of the 4 Corps.

Lt Gen. Vij is, however, waiting for a final rehabilitation package apparently being worked out by the Centre. "Under this scheme, the militants would not only be offered jobs in the paramilitary forces but also in public sector undertakings and departments like railways," he told Outlook. "Once a concrete structure is evolved, more militants would give up arms."

 When pointed out that none of the top leaders of the outfit were part of the rehabilitation (the army and the state government is scrupulously avoiding terming it as surrender), the 4 Corps commander said: "The top leaders are living in cushy comforts in south Asian countries. They have no reason to come out. Therefore, we are concentrating on the middle and lower level cadres. The idea is to separate the head from the body so that the head would be useless." Lt Gen. Vij says in the second batch, there are 21 action group commanders, or leaders of the outfit's strike force.

CHIEF minister Prafulla Kumar Maha-nta kept away from the first ceremony on July 24, but governor Lt Gen.(Retd) S.K. Sinha managed to persuade him to attend the second function, thereby removing misgivings about differences. Sinha, in fact, denies there's a communication gap. Mahanta, under pressure over the deteriorating law and order situation, was strangely subdued and uncomfortable at the function and seemed to have reconciled to the army's rehabilitation scheme.

Mahanta has reasons to be sceptical. If the rehabilitation does not go through as planned, he will be accused of creating a body of disgruntled former rebels. The ULFA expectedly terms the returnees as "fake members". Paresh Baruah, its military chief, said most of them were "thieves and dacoits".

The ceremony over, the army brass got down to getting the big group into a routine. Since security of these militants remains the main concern, they have been housed at a high-security army base, put up in barracks and are made to go through a daily regimen. The day begins with morning PT, followed by breakfast and a string of vocational classes. About 25 of them, who understand Hindi but can't speak it, are taught the language since Hindi is the lingua franca in the forces. These boys are also being taught general knowledge. Says a JCO, in charge of these classes: "These boys are even unaware of basic facts like how many continents are there in the world, or even how many states India has, so we have had to start from scratch."

Others like Dilip Kalita, a science graduate from one of Guwahati's well-known colleges and an ULFA member for four years, are allowed to train on computers while a few have been handed out typewriters. Says Kalita: "For the first time in life, one is realising that there is more to life than uncertainty. At last I am learning something constructive. This computer training will give me an advantage when I go for a job." Some former militants like Anjan Deka simply want to return to their villages. But the army, aware of the threats to their lives, is not ready to send them back, especially after a spate of fratricidal clashes (see box). Despite the threat, it was touching to see most of the boys pleading with Brig. Gaganjit, who was instrumental in getting the process of rehabilitation off the ground, to reunite them with their families. Given the threat perception, however, it will be some time before their dream comes true.

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