Can a separatist militant group survive without public support? Is the government waiting for the natural death of some ethnic insurgent groups engaged in low-scale terrorism with some ageing leaders at the helm of affairs?
These questions and many more may be raised in the case of the United Liberation Front of Assam (Independent), formed by Paresh Barua, after top Ulfa leaders, headed by Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, surrendered to Bangladeshi authorities in December 2009 and were later handed over to India.
There are many in Assam who still believe that the Ulfa must exist to support them in various aspects. Even most local media outlets have a soft corner for militants irrespective of their relentless disruptive activities. It’s a typical Assamese psyche one finds only in this part of the world.
And a veteran like Paresh Barua knows how to play with sentiments. Over 60, Barua alias Paresh Asom alias Kamruj Zaman alias Zaman Bhai, functions as the self-styled commander-in-chief of Ulfa (Independent) and runs his hideouts somewhere along the Myanmar-China border. Barua is among the top three rebels that the National Investigation Agency has charge-sheeted for waging a war against India.
The other two accused rebels are Dr Abhijit Asom, who is the new chairman of Ulfa (I) and Gagan Hazarika alias Joydeep Cheleng. Dr Abhijit alias Abhizeet Barman alias Mukul Hazaria hails from Nagaon in central Assam and lives in London. Gagan Hazarika is now in police custody.
Many Ulfa leaders have left the outfit and joined the peace process. The formal talks with Ulfa leaders headed by Rajkhowa started in February 2011 but in the last two or three years, little is heard of progress, if any. After submitting their demands, Ulfa leaders claim the ball is now in the Centre’s court. That said Barua is unrelenting. He has made it abundantly clear that unless peace talks include the sovereignty agenda, he will never be part of it.
When Rajkhowa demanded that for quick decision-making, the presence of Ulfa general secretary Anup Chetia was necessary and the Centre obliged by extraditing him some months ago and released him on bail. Chetia was in Dhaka’s safe custody after serving a seven- year prison term for entering Bangladesh without valid documents. He was also wanted in India in the alleged murder case of a Kolkata- based tea planter in 1991 and was arrested from the city the same year. But then Assam chief minister Hiteswar Saikia released him to contact Ulfa top leaders who had gone underground following the Army’s “Operation Rhino” in 1991. In fact, most top Ulfa leaders are now on bail and waiting for the final settlement.
Paresh Barua and Dr Abhijit maintain that Assam must be free from the colonial Indian forces. Rejected by most Assamese citizens, Barua now runs his camps with Chinese support and its cadres are active mostly in eastern Assam.
After coming to Guwahati, Cheria remarked that Barua’s presence was necessary for any fruitful peace initiative. In fact, it was Chetia who had influenced Barua, one of his close relatives, to join the Ulfa and hence he carries goodwill of the hardliner rebel. But even then, Chetia has not succeeded in persuading Barua to join the peace process.
Chetia has categorically said that in the days of Islamist terrorism today, one cannot sustain ethnic armed struggles. Now people will compare their activities with ISIS or similar religious terror outfits. So, insurgent leaders for any ethnic or regional cause may find it difficult to sustain the revolution as people will simply call them terrorists.
The Ulfa leaders, even though most of them took shelter in Bang-ladesh, maintain their character of pluralism. They have neither introduced themselves as Hindus nor expressed hatred against any other religion. They continue their preaching for a homeland for the indigenous populace of Assam irrespective of their religious practices.
But when the leaders, along with their families were in Bangladesh, they did not say anything against illegal migrants in Assam and in other parts of North-east India. Rather, they argued that everyone, who is not indigenous to the region, must leave. They often targeted the sizable Hindi- speaking population in Assam as outsiders.
But after the Bangladesh government took a tough stand against North-east militants taking shelter in their land, the Ulfa started criticising illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam. However, that did not deter the Bangladeshi government led by Sheikh Hasina to prosecute Barua in an arm-smuggling case. In fact, Barua today faces a court order for capital punishment in that country.
Now enjoying Beijing’s patronage, he often issues media statements saying that China was never an enemy of Assam, and that they the Chinese would be helpful for the indigenous people of Assam in various aspects, once they get separated from India.
During the recent visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang, the Ulfa (I) issued a statement warning the Nobel Peace laureate against making any anti-China comments. Rather it urged the Dalai Lama to help the native people get their due political rights from New Delhi as the militants believe Assam was an independent country till the British signed the Yandabu agreement with Burmese invaders in 1826.
Earlier, in a statement the same outfit asserted that China is a true friend to Assam and any kind of anti-Beijing propaganda would not be tolerated in the region. Rather it urged the people of the North-east to avoid supporting the Tibetan movement against China for a free Tibet. Its open support to the Chinese domination over Tibet shows that Barua is under Beijing’s absolute influence, if not control.
Lately Barua became vocal against those who had recently called the people to boycott all kinds of Chinese goods. The original call was forwarded by a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh wing across the country, which was followed up by a few patriotic individuals of Assam. They issued media statements and staged demonstrations urging the people to boycott any kind of China-made commodities.
The media-savvy militant leader recently talked to a few Guwahati- based news channels where he said those individuals who take anti-China stand are puppets of New Delhi. Barua also alleged that they were doing this for selfish purposes overlooking Assam’s broader interest, comprising the indigenous population.
Of course, the ground reality is different. Many Assamese-speaking people with nationalistic spirit in hearts issued a statement claiming that China was always a foe to India and Beijing had shown its true colours with the illegal occupation of Tibet. They also asked Barua to rethink his ties with China.
The Patriotic People’s Front Assam even urged New Delhi to change its policy towards China and support the Tibetan movement for an independent Tibet, which should be the real neighbour to India (not China). The PPFA also commented that Beijing was secretly using Barua against New Delhi as a tool to exact revenge for India’s support to the Tibetan exile government at Dhara-mshala.
The writer is The Statesman’s Guwahati- based special representative.