The Phantom of the Opera
"I am neither in the dark, nor in the knowhow, I am somewhere in-between", was Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi's response when I asked him about the coordinates of Arabinda Rajkhowa. This was two days before Rajkhowa was handcuffed and produced at a Guwahati Court on December 5.
Over the last few weeks, conspiracy theories, plots and sub-plots about the status of one of India's most wanted militants - Arabinda Rajkhowa, chairman of the banned militant outfit, United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), have been flying thick and fast and from all quarters. One was made to believe that he was willing to talk peace, to put an end to the three-decade-long history of violence in Assam.
The prospect of a face-to-face dialogue with the ULFA was, in itself, a significant step forward. It was obvious that something was happening, but there also seemed to be important parts of the story of which only a select few were aware.
In 1979, goes the urban legend, the ULFA had been formed by six young men in their twenties, standing outside the Rang Ghar, a royal pavilion constructed during the Ahom era.
Bhimakanta Buragohain, Rajiv Rajkonwar alias Arabinda Rajkhowa, Golap Baruah alias Anup Chetia, Samiran Gogoi alias Pradip Gogoi, Bhadreswar Gohain and Paresh Barua decided to float the idea of a "sovereign socialist Assam" through armed struggle.
There was a perfect mix of the symbolic and the romantic in the genesis of this so-called socialist struggle backgrounded by a pavilion constructed by the very Ahom kings who had defeated the Mughals at the battle of Saraighat in 1671.
What would follow, however, would be killings, counter-killings, extortions, abductions and huge disruptions in the lives of ordinary people and countless families, brought on by both ULFA and the state.
ULFA was a byproduct of the agitation led by the All Assam Students' Union. It was initially an agitation against illegal immigrants - families who had crossed over from Bangladesh and Nepal and settled in Assam. Between 1979 and 1985, Assam experienced an agitation that unleashed violence, creating bloody partisan vendettas and leading to the subsequent formation and strengthening of the political party Asom Gano Parishad (AGP), and the intensification of ULFA activities.
A hate campaign against the Bengali speaking Muslim community was started, sowing the seeds for an unfortunate future of mutual suspicion. In 1983, 2,191 Muslims from Nellie were butchered by the supporters of the Assam agitation because they went out to vote, defying a boycott call against the elections.
This phase of the agitation came to an end in 1985, when a young Rajiv Gandhi (41), a younger Prafulla Mahanta (33) and an even younger Bhrigu Phukan (29) signed the Assam Accord. The Accord promised the detection and transportation of illegal immigrants back to Bangladesh.
The political party Asom Gano Parishad was floated in 1985 from the All Assam Students' Union. The AGP swept the December Assembly elections, with Mahanta at 33 becoming the youngest Chief Minister in the history of the Indian state.
Meanwhile, the ULFA had also grown from strength to strength, and by 1985 had the tacit support of a large number of people in the state. Almost running a parallel administration, the Front was in control, and nothing could upstage them. It became increasingly clear that the state administration under Prafulla Mahanta had effectively failed to contain the disruptive activities of the ULFA in Assam.
By 1986, the ULFA had established contact with both the Kachin Independence Army in Myanmar, and the Naga insurgents. Around 1988, their brutality reached a peak under Hirakjyoti Mahanta. Between 1990 and 1993, the organization established clear contact with the Inter Services Intelligence in Pakistan. In 1990, ULFA's movement took a new turn; On May 5, 1990, they killed Surendra Paul, a leading tea planter and brother of Lord Swaraj Paul.
There was almost immediately a mass exodus from the tea gardens of the state. As a result of the killing and its aftermath, Prafulla Mahanta's government was dismissed, and President's rule imposed on November 27. New Delhi banned the ULFA, and the Indian Army launched Operation Bajrang, the first all-out counter offensive against the ULFA; a game of cat-and-mouse that continues to this day. In these three decades, violence has claimed the lives of at least 15,000 innocent people.
Many viewed the news of Arabinda Rajkhowa's detention with hope; some were more skeptical. I met Sunil Nath, who had in 1992 been part of a group meeting the then Home Minister SB Chavan. Nath had allegedly accompanied Paresh Barua to Pakistan to receive training from the ISI. To date, Nath has neither denied nor acknowledged purportedly moving around under the alias of Siddhartha Phukan.
"I am sorry, but I don't think this will help until and unless Paresh Barua comes on board. Every time something like this has happened without Paresh Barua, peace efforts have fallen through," Nath says. After all, didn't it all begin in 1992 with the idea of "unconditional talks"? Contrary to popular perception, Arabinda Rajkhowa was not present in Delhi during the talks. But Rajkhowa and Anup Chetia had initiated the idea, and Chetia was in Delhi.
"When things were proceeding in Delhi, we got a call from Paresh Barua. Those were not the days of cell phone. I remember, there was a knock and we were informed about a call. Paresh Barua did not agree, and the talks fell through. So this time if Paresh Barua is not agreeing and talking about sovereignty, it would be difficult: hardly any chance. ULFA is hardly politics now. It is all bombs and guns".
The idea that Commander-in-Chief Paresh Barua equals ULFA is imprinted on the minds of the people of Assam. The rebels might not have much public support anymore, but that equation, and a sense of fear, is prevalent in the citizenry. What is also true is that the ULFA is a terror group like any other terror group in the world. It is a banned terrorist organization, responsible for 15,000 deaths in 30 years.
It has links with the ISI in Pakistan; it had an association with the LTTE; and possibly still has connections with the dreaded Harakt-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI).
So behind the curtain of romanticisation and admiration for the ULFA in the popular culture of the state, there is also a yearning for peace. Too many families in Assam have experienced the reality behind the romantic image.. "Generation after generation has been lost in this. I have come to the court just to catch a glimpse of Rajkhowa. The government is all-supreme. If the government wants, they can get peace to Assam", I was told by an elderly gentleman waiting with the media outside the Chief Judicial Magistrate Courthouse.
The ULFA was launched on the platform of a demand for an independent Assam. The front also originally wanted third party mediation and intervention from the UN, which they have subsequently given up. But the demand of independence from India remains. This is not without precedent; such a desire for separation was also central to the Naga cause. But in the case of Nagaland, the political desire to be an independent entity dominated any other facet of the movement. In the case of the ULFA, however, the situation is somewhat different.
The military wing under Paresh Barua is supreme, and the idea of establishing a "sovereign socialist Assam through armed struggle" is considered a non-negotiable. It is primarily this sovereignty roadblock that is responsible for the breakdown of talks.
The character of any movement changes over time, and questions that were earlier difficult to ask are now being tabled. Is Assam the exclusive preserve of the ULFA? The people of Assam might not want to throw in their lot with a guerrilla outfit capable of unleashing mindless violence, under Paresh Barua.
The economic exploitation of Assam had been cited as the original cause of the movement. That argument asked why Assam was being neglected by the central government, when it supplied the rest of the nation with oil and tea. The idea of "Tej dim, tel na dim" (will give blood, but will not part with oil) that began three decades ago with the All Assam Students' Union, has indirectly sustained the ULFA's domination of the Assamese mind-space for many years now. But individual dreams and aspirations can find better and newer platforms in the present era of globalisation.
There are now relatively few people who would want to give up contemporary paths of progress for the ULFA, or for ideas that might look regressive in the world of today. And also, why would one associate with an outfit that reportedly runs a profitable narcotics business in Myanmar and Thailand? Why would one associate with an outfit that supported Pakistan during the war in Kargil?
No one knows for sure what is going on with the ULFA on its home territory. But some of the information that is available can be pieced together to form a pattern.
We know that Bangladesh is cracking down on terrorists and taking action against all the militant outfits operating within its borders -the National Liberation Front of Tripura, the Ranjan Daimary faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, and the ULFA. Sheikh Hasina's government is making an effort to live up to her election promise of not permitting the land of Bangladesh to be used for militant activities. This move is very important to the control of terrorism in South Asia.
It is Bangladesh's anti-terrorism move that seems the most significant and effective on the Indian subcontinent at this time, and is, in fact, probably more important than Obama's Af-Pak puzzle.
As a result of this crackdown, ULFA's chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, its deputy commander-in-chief Raju Barua, finance secretary Sashadhar Chowdhury and foreign secretary Chitrabon Hazarika are all in the custody of the Assam Police. Paresh Barua has fled Bangladesh, and is allegedly somewhere along the Myanmar-China border.
At this point then, these are the most important questions: Is Baruah really interested in coming out of hiding for talks? Other than the clear influence that he has in certain quarters of Assam, what is his strength on the ground? Why is the government not zeroing in on him? Or are they, but in a manner that is not known to the common citizen? Is it possible that Paresh Barua's life has finally accelerated beyond his control?
Two years ago, I was in conversation with GM Srivastava, Former DGP, Assam and Tripura - the man who had once shot and wounded Paresh Barua, and a key player in the operation against the ULFA.
"Any chance of them coming on board, Mr Srivastava?"
"They have properties worth crores and they enjoy a lifestyle from which it is difficult to come out. They will never come out"
It was a cynical assessment, painting a picture of ULFA leadership as a bunch of opportunists who had used the movement to their own advantage. And if that is the semi-official belief, then it is possible that the entire 'Rajkhowa-Raju Baruah coming for talks' exercise was a trick, and part of a wider game plan to isolate Barua in order to be seen to eliminate the hand that reputedly controls it all.
Exaggerated political capital may also be being given to Arabinda Rajkhowa as part of the same gameplan - he was handcuffed and produced in court for the world to see, possibly for a good reason. This may be happening so that Rajkhowa is perceived as an important leader of the ULFA in the perception of the people of Assam.
All the top leaders of the ULFA are in jail together and, very possibly, talking to each other. Perhaps all of this was well-planned. But every time there have been such efforts in the past, or the ULFA has been reduced in strength for some reason, it has regrouped and rearmed itself. This time, it seems that there is a possibility for peace. But that might be more difficult than it seems.
Operations have also begun in Myanmar, where most of the ULFA get their training. India's silence with regard to the Myanmar junta seems to have paid off. A few days ago, an NSCN-Khaplang faction camp was rounded up by the Myanmar Army.
ULFA has three main camps in Myanmar-the headquarters of the 28 battalion, the Naga base, which is maintained along with members of the NSCN (K) and the Aarakan camp. Jiban Moran, Bijoy Chinese alias Bijoy Das, Antu Chowdang, Haren Phukan and Sujit Mohan are the ULFA leaders located in Myanmar. Chowdang, who is reportedly close to Paresh Barua, is believed to be the mastermind behind the outfit's upper Assam operations.
There used to be three full fledged battalions of the ULFA, the 7th, the 28th and 709th. Of these battalions, the A and C companies of the 28th Battalion - two potent striking units - have given up both the demand for sovereignty and arms, and moved to government appointed areas also known as 'designated camps' for this very purpose.
The Phantom of the Opera
For the batch of politicians waiting in the wings to take control after Gogoi, having ULFA leaders on board in the political system (after an honourable peace agreement), might eventually prove to be counter-productive. The phantom of the opera might be not be just Paresh Barua, but also many more people within the system, who make money from terrorism and have a stake in its survival.
There are a few things that one must not forget on the subject of complicity and the ULFA. There is, for example, the allegation against Tata Tea, of bearing the expenses of ULFA's cultural secretary Pranati Deka's treatment at Jaslok Hospital in Bombay in 1997. Also not to be forgotten are the 'secret killings' carried out during the Prafulla Mahanta's second term (1996-2001).
During these years, family members of the ULFA were systematically exterminated. Nor should be forgotten the state-organized surrender of ULFA militants during 1992 (Congress Saikia Government) and again in 1998 (AGP Mahanta Government). , At the time, each militant was given loans of Rs 2.5 lakh and Rs 1.5 lakh cash; this money was never returned.
They were also allowed to retain weapons. In 1998, a new scheme gave money in exchange for surrendered weapons. These schemes gave rise to groups like the Mafia Syndicate - gangs that served the interests of political parties during elections. These are some instances which Assam should remember.
So what do we do now? Wait, and watch, and hope that peace returns to Assam. The platform is being prepared for Arabinda Rajkhowa and the backroom boys (or at least that's what it seems), and they are playing their roles to perfection. There are also different Peace Groups who are fighting to take the lead in this effort.
As one journalist noted, Assam has suffered too much and for too long, at the hands of a very few people. It is time to play the end game and put a stop to this violence.