Conflict Fatigue?

Recent surrenders may be dismissed as nothing but 'dramas' stage managed by the government, but with its strength manifestly depleted, ULFA may well be on its way to orchestrate some 'drama' of its own. Watch out for 'stealth bombings' on soft target

Conflict Fatigue?

In the ongoing battles to win the 'war' between the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the security forces in Assam, thegovernment seems to have registered a distinct advantage. There is a growing impression that the ULFA--among theregion's most potent insurgent groups--has been hit by a possible 'conflictfatigue', resulting in its cadres surrendering to the authorities by the dozens. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has disclosed that between September 24, 2006--when a temporary truce between the authorities and the ULFA ended--and October 31, 2007, a total of 655 ULFA militants have surrendered to the authorities across thestate.

The latest mass surrender took place on November 1, 2007, when 64 ULFA militants, including UjjwalGohain, 'finance secretary' of the group's crack Myanmar-headquartered fighting unit called the'28th battalion', gave up before Police, Army and civil administration officials at an Assam Police base in Guwahati. A week earlier, on October 23, 2007, 31 ULFA rebels had surrendered in a function at an Army brigade headquarters near Guwahati. Fourteen militants each from the ULFA had surrendered on two earlier occasions--at theArmy's 2nd Mountain Division headquarters in eastern Assam's Dibrugarh district on October 29, 2007, and before the Assam Police in Guwahati on September 6, 2007.

The ULFA may prefer to dismiss these surrenders as nothing but 'dramas' stage managed by thegovernment, but the rebel group cannot ignore the fact that it is fast losing its cadre strength. In addition to the surrenders, quite a large number of ULFA militants have either been killed by security forces or arrested. In just a year, starting September 2006, in the three easterndistricts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivasagar, under the jurisdiction of the 2nd Mountain Division (and not in the whole of Assam), Army troopers on the ULFA trail killed 51 militants from the group and captured 95 others. The police and the paramilitary have also neutralized a number of ULFA militants in independent operations. It must be noted that more than 90 per cent of the militants neutralized over this period belong to the'28th battalion,' which has staging areas across the international border in Myanmar, according to Army sources.

"You must take note of the fact that ULFA rebels are surrendering despite the peace efforts breakingdown," Chief Minister Gogoi told this writer. The government is evidently suggesting that the ULFA rank-and-file are tiring out with no end in sight to the insurrection for an independent homeland that is already 28 year old. Strategists within thegovernment and its security agencies would like to believe that the ULFA is cracking up because the authorities have given out enough indications that they are not in any hurry to resume the peace process with the rebel group. Fresh appeals to thegovernment by groups and individuals known to be pro-ULFA have, so far, been ignored both by the central and thestate governments. Peace efforts, which began in September 2005 with the ULFA appointing an 11-member negotiation panel called thePeople's Consultative Group (PCG), broke down a year later, after three rounds of talks, with both sides putting up conditions and counter-conditions.

A complex of factors is believed to have triggered the present spate of surrenders, including:

  • An apparent disconnect between the group's topmost leaders, based outside Assam, and local commanders;
  • The apparent failure to hold the ULFA's 'general council' meeting since 1998, and the failure to reassure Assam-based leaders through telephonic contacts with 'general council' members;
  • The absence of safe sanctuaries, after the ULFA's expulsion from Bhutan following the Royal Bhutan Army blitzkrieg in December 2003;
  • The inability to consolidate ULFA bases in Myanmar because of improving ties between New Delhi and Yangon;
  • The unpredictable response of the new Army-backed dispensation in Bangladesh, making long-term operational plans from sanctuaries in that country difficult;
  • The attraction of the government's new rehabilitation policy, in place since April 2005, which provides each surrendered rebel a monthly stipend of Rs 2,000 for a period of three years, training in a vocational skill of choice, and a fixed deposit of Rs 1,50,000 for each surrendered militant, under the care of security agencies, to be made available at the end of the three year period.

The cumulative reverses faced by the ULFA are expected to impact on the organization in a number of ways. Security agencies are of the opinion that the rebel group has already been'outsourcing' risky jobs like planting explosive devices to prevent its cadres from being killed or captured. The group could also be forced to recruit cadres who may not be ideologically motivated to be a part of its operations, and who may, consequently, quit at any time. Moreover, reports of surrenders at regular intervals have the potential to give out signals that could make even theULFA's unflinching over-ground supporters lose faith in the organization, and force the leadership to engage in a measure of introspection.

In any analysis of the ULFA's strengths and weaknesses, it is important to arrive at a figure of the number of cadres in the group. Some reports, quoting Army sources, had put the number of ULFA rebels at 3,000 at one stage, while others reports have put the number at anything between 4,000 and 6,000. By contrast, however, official Assam Police figures (obtained by formerstate Home Commissioner T.L. Baruah under the Right to Information Act) claim that between 1998 and 2005, a total of 3,324 ULFA militants had surrendered to the authorities. Adding to these the number of ULFA militants who surrendered between September 2006 and October 31, 2007 (655, asstated by the Chief Minister), the total comes close to 4,000. In this simple arithmetic, militants who may have surrendered between January and September 2006 have not been taken into account, nor have the numbers of militant captured been included. Further, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal database, a total of 1,950 militants were killed over the 1998-2007 period (till October 31, 2007), a large majority of them belonging to the ULFA. Clearly, with a constantly shrinking recruitment base, this scale of attritional losses will bring unbearable pressure to bear on the organization and its capacities to sustain the insurgency. 

Evidently, the ULFA will have to orchestrate some 'drama' of its own if it is to survive. The probabilities of high intensity strikes, even if these involve'stealth bombings' on soft targets to demonstrate its strike potential, would, consequently, increase in the proximate future. There may also be a vigorous demand for resumption of the peace process by certain groups across Assam. There is an obvious uncertainty regarding what will follow, though it is clear that the continuing reverses do not spell a necessary beginning of the end for the ULFA insurgency in Assam. That is principally because the issues behind the rise of the ULFA, ever since its formation on April 7, 1979, still remain to be tackled. And thegroup's slogan of the 'political' and 'economic' independence of Assam can only be met or addressed politically. Had a purely military solution been possible, the ULFA militancy should have been dead and gone after 17 years of a sustained counter-insurgency offensive under a Unified Headquarters of the Army, Police and Paramilitary Forces. Nevertheless, thegovernment now appears to be in a position of dominance, and it remains to be seen if this can be translated into a final resolution of the problem, or will prove to be just one of the transient dips in the trajectory of insurgency in thestate. 

Wasbir Hussain is Member, National Security Advisory Board, India; Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi.Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.