No End To ULFA

ULFA, active since 1979, clearly has its back against the wall, but is adopting survival tactics which are yet to be neutralised by an effective strategy of response. Its fighting days are far from over.

No End To ULFA

The military offensive that began on September 24, 2006, in Assam’s northernmost orupper Assam districts and the adjoining state of Arunachal Pradesh, after the governmentof India called off a six-week ceasefire with the United Liberation Front of Asom(ULFA), blaming the militant outfit for stepping up violence and extortion, is said to have achieved ‘significant success’. Till April 15, 2007, 48 ULFA cadres had been killed (including 20 top militants of ULFA’s ‘28th battalion’), 81 arrested and another 88 had surrendered. Given the fact that the group’s fighting cadres are estimated to be no more than 500, the neutralisation of 217 of these can be considered a serious setback. Regrettably, there are several indications that the fighting days ofULFA, active since 1979, are far from over.

The upper Assam districts of Tinsukia, Sivasagar and Dibrugarh have been the traditional hunting grounds of theULFA, especially its ‘28th battalion’, which is headquartered in Myanmar. While the group’s top leadership and bulk of its fighting cadres are sourced from thesedistricts, the bordering and densely forested areas of Arunachal Pradesh serve as a link between Assam and ULFA’s camps in Myanmar. ULFA’s cadres, traversing the thickets and mountains between Myanmar and Assam, have used Arunachal Pradesh to set up a chain of transit bases and also escape routes in the wake of security force operations in Assam. ULFA’s January 2007 operations targeting Hindi-speaking migrant labourers in theupper Assam districts were mainly carried out by the ‘28th Battalion’ temporarily based in the Manabhum Reserve Forest in ArunachalPradesh. ULFA’s other surviving unit, the 709th battalion, led by Hira Sarania, remains active incentral and lower Assam districts, including Kamrup in which the capital Dispur and adjoining city ofGuwahati, are located. The battalion, however, is no longer considered to be an operationally significant entity. 

The objectives of the current military manoeuvres, simultaneously targeting areas under frequent militant attacks and the principal militant routes, in the words of the Assam Chief Minister TarunGogoi, were to "clear separatist bases in the jungles and to restore normalcy andinstil confidence among the people". To this effect, a total of 140 companies of centralpara-military forces (CPMFs), consisting of about 14,000 personnel, were engaged in operations along with battalions of the Assam Police. Armypara-troopers were being air-dropped at different points of the Manabhum Reserve Forest in ArunachalPradesh. Troops are being backed by a fleet of helicopters for reconnaissance missions, to track the militants located in forested and other remote areas. Sophisticated jamming devices have been used to block ULFA's communication signals. The Army also claims to have cut off ULFA’s supply lines for rations, medicines and weapons. 

Achievements of the rather elaborate ongoing military exercise have been significant, in terms of elimination of senior cadres of the 28th battalion. On April 10, 2007, troops killed eight ULFA cadres, including two women, in an encounter near Lathou in the Lohitdistrict of Arunachal Pradesh. The dead included two top ULFA leaders: ‘Corporal’ Jun Bhuyan and ‘Sergeant’ Pranab Rajkhowa of the ‘28th Battalion’s C company’. Previously, on March 30, Himesawr Borsaikia alias RameshwarBorsaikia, ‘commander’ of the ‘C company’ of the ‘28th battalion’, along with another cadre, Bapu Moran, was killed in the Manabhum reserve forest area in ArunachalPradesh, near the inter-state boundary with Assam’s Tinsukia district. On April 13, 2007, hardcore ULFA cadre Pradip Gogoi was shot dead at Nagaon Tiniali in the Tinsukiadistrict. A day later, on April 14, ‘sergeant major’ Jaan Hazarika alias Arup Arandhara aliasBhadu, was arrested by troops of the 7/11 Gorkha Rifles in the Khouji area of Tinsukiadistrict. 

Even before the successes of the ongoing military manoeuvres, ULFA’s sporadic activities, largely consisting of blasts on oil pipelines in deserted areas and the killing of unprotected and unarmed migrant workers, provided substantial indications of the group’s largely diminished ability to carry out ‘high-quality’ attacks. This indicated significant reversals in an outfit that has not only been in business for nearly three decades, but is also known to have been backed up by the Inter-Services Intelligence(ISI) of Pakistan and the Bangladeshi Directorate General of Forces Intelligence(DGFI), for a considerable period. This has lent credence to the assertions by the security forces(SFs) that, while ULFA has weakened over years, the current operations would incapacitate it even further. ULFA’s meek reactions to recent strikes against its interests underline the SF claims of declining insurgent capacity. In the only incident of its type, on April 16, 2007, suspected motorcycle-borne ULFA militants hurled a grenade at stationery Army vehicles at the sub-divisional township of Namsai in the Lohitdistrict of Arunachal Pradesh. The grenade missed its target and hit an auto rickshaw injuring one person. 

Carrying out recruitment drives, largely involving hunts for potential fighters through existing cadres using a combination of threat and enticement, has been the conventional ULFA response to the depletion of its strength during military operations. ULFA is known to have carried out several such drives in the Upper Assamdistricts this time as well. The Army, however, maintains that it would be operationally difficult to replace the neutralised trained cadres with new recruits. 

Indeed, of late, ULFA has been forced to rely on a brand of young recruits lacking in adequate preparation and insufficiently trained to use sophisticated weapons and explosives. While accessing high quality weapons and explosives appears to be a limited problem for the outfit, due to its ‘contacts’ in Bangladesh, its mostly ill-trained cadres have been constrained to use low capacity hand grenades and crude explosives, failing to engineer attacks on high value targets. This has been a matter of great frustration for ULFA’s sponsors in the ISI and the DGFI and has also led to situations where semi-trained or untrained ULFA cadres have themselves been killed while carrying crude explosives, most recently in the April 8 incident, when an ULFA operative was killed after the explosives he was carrying detonated when his motorcycle collided with an autorickshaw in Guwahati’s Kumarapara locality. 

It will, however, be premature to predict the end of ULFA. The group clearly has its back against the wall, but is adopting survival tactics which are yet to be neutralised by an effective strategy of response. It is using local businessmen to channel revenues from extortion to the outfit’s top leadership, as was revealed with the April 4, 2007, arrest of DebendraLahoti, a resident of Nazira town in the Sivasagar district. Lahoti was channelling extortion revenues into the militant group’s coffers on instructions from the group’s ‘B Company’ ‘chief’ Ram Singh. Several other businessmen in thedistrict are also suspected to be involved in similar rackets, though arrests are yet to be effected. The Police are, however, in the process of gathering evidence. 

Similarly, ULFA is also known to be using newly formed groups like the All Adivasi National Liberation Army(AANLA) to carry out extortion in the tea estates in the ‘tea districts’, includingGolaghat. The AANLA – believed to have been armed by the ULFA, and which claims to be fighting to safeguard the tribal culture of the plantation workers – is said to have 100 cadres working in about 40 teaestates. It passes off a major chunk of the monies it extorts to the ULFA in return for arms and training support. Assam Police’s reported inability to control such extortion has led several business houses and trade bodies, including those representing the tea industry, to approach theunion ministry of home affairs (MHA) directly in March 2007, seeking greater protection. 

ULFA has also been ‘outsourcing’ its operational activities in recent times. While it has been customary for ULFA’s cadres to avoid direct confrontation with the security forces, the group is now hiring unemployed youth and even school children to lob grenades, distribute extortion notes and collect ransom. For example, ULFA hired the services of two dacoits, paying them INR 50,000, to carry out two explosions in Jorhatdistrict on March 15, 2007. The explosions damaged power transformers on the outskirts of thedistrict headquarters. 

In a major embarrassment to the police, on April 17, 2007, ULFA militants abducted Food Corporation of India(FCI) Executive Director and head of FCI’s Northeastern region, P.C. Ram, from Guwahati’s Ulubari area and, on April 19, demanded a ransom of INR 210 million. The Police learned of the abduction only after Ram used a mobile phone in ULFA’s possession to call up his son who, in turn informed the Police. The failure to create an adequate security net for senior Public Sector officials in the most protected town of thestate underlines the lack of Police preparedness in dealing with the long-standing insurgency. Ram’s driver, who was also abducted, has since been released.

Freak incidents like these, however, neither represent an augmentation of the outfit’s strength, nor underline its ability to sustain its low-scale random operations. ULFA’s survival tactics, unless aided by an ill-conceived political move to again relax the operational pressure on the outfit and allow it to regroup, are expected to remain just that – tactics that ensure bare survival. Alarmiststatements emerging from high echelons of the Army and other official sources linking ULFA with the jehadi elements in Bangladesh mirror similar claims by the ULFA’s top leadership and are, at this stage, declarations of uncertain intent, and are yet to be reflected in operational arrangements on the ground. Similarly, the MHA’s ‘assessment report’, which has found ready mention in many newspapers, linking ULFA with the ‘Muslim groups’ such as Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam(MULTA) and the Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULFA) vastly exaggerate the realities of such ‘tie ups’. MULFA ceased to exist within the first year of its formation in the mid-nineties, and MULTA has never, in the history of its existence since 1996, posed any significant threat to Assam and its people. These are, at worst, notional groups at this juncture, and building their operational capacities to a level where they can contribute measurably to an ULFA resurgence.

Assam has recorded a measure of improvement in militancy-related fatalities in recent years. Compared to 315 fatalities in 2004 and 254 in 2005, 242 people died in militant violence in 2006. While this has been termed as an achievement by theMHA, militancy-related incidents actually increased from 267 to 398 and further to 413 over the corresponding years. Clearly, ULFA’s intent remains unaltered, though its operational capacities have evidently suffered a measure of decline. 

Bibhu Prasad Routray is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict ManagementCourtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.