It is the women cadre that kept ULFA “alive” during the days of Operation Bajrang and Operation Rhino, says Santana Phukan Baruah who enlisted for the ULFA in 1990 when she was a student, and worked for the underground outfit for almost two decades. “We used to give cover to men when they had to move from one hideout to another. We hid pistols in the clothes we were wearing and transported them for the boys. We kept up the communication network between camps and leaders by carrying letters and even passing oral messages about discussions, plans and development of the out t from one leader to another. We took active part in organisation work.” Acting as a courier of letters demands utmost secrecy and the women showed they were good at it. “The letters, including the address on the envelope, are in code. Even the courier does not know the letter’s final destination. She only knows who has handed it to her and who she has to give it to. This she has to keep secret and not disclose to even another cadre person.”

Her daring exploits show why guerrilla leaders farm out certain underground assignments exclusively to women. Women are considered the best to gather information, furtively ferry arms and ammunition, act as couriers of missives and operate safe houses.

It was sometime in 1991, when Santana was travelling from Morigaon district to Nagaon district in Assam, that her bus was stopped at the Bebezi police checkpost. Her heart skipped a beat. Hidden in her blouse was a letter for Anup Chetia, the ULFA general secretary. The army men asked everyone to disembark for a search. Santana, known in the outfit as Rimu Mohan, defiantly remained sitting in the bus. Before Santana was ordered at gunpoint to get out, she had made a slit in the seat cover and pushed in the letter, hoping that it would not be discovered.

That was not all that Santana had to hide. Camouflaged by vegetables in a basket at her feet was a pistol she had to transport. It was time for Santana to put up an act. She started to behave as a student in a hurry to get to her college. Grumbling about the search, she asked the security men to hurry so that she would not be late. Displaying her books and her student identity card for all to see, she taunted the search party to even look into the basket of vegetables. Because of you all we can’t even study, she berated them, while her heart pounded so loudly that she feared it could be heard by the others. Her audacious behaviour saw her through. The pile of vegetables lay undisturbed, hiding the pistol beneath. The tear in the seat too went unnoticed.

There were several instances during 1991 when Santana had to use her wits and her acting skills. Raids and searches had put the men virtually out of action. The chances of getting nabbed were at an all-time high.

Yet communication amongst senior leaders scattered in various hideouts was imperative. It was left to the women cadre to be couriers of messages and arms besides arranging hideouts for the men during this time.

It was in the April of 1991 that Santana had to hide and nurse two of her injured comrades. They had moved in with a family of ULFA sympathisers in Dimuguri village in Nagoan district. The men were being administered a saline drip when the army, acting on information about hiding militants, encircled the village. Santana decided to act as an idle woman of the family sitting outside her home to pass the time. She saw an army vehicle driver approach her along with a soldier holding a map. The soldier asked if the pond she was sitting beside was the one marked on the map. The driver said that it did not appear to be the right one and then he gave her a conspiratorial wink. Santana nodded in agreement and sent them off in the opposite direction.

Santana was not the least surprised by the driver helping her out. ULFA operatives were often aided by sympathetic villagers and even policemen.

This was one of the main reasons, besides unfamiliarity with the local language and topography, that made it difficult for the army personnel to achieve greater success in Operation Bajrang and Operation Rhino. The likes of Santana took full advantage of this.

While she was undergoing training by ULFA seniors, she had been told the pattern an army search party follows. As one batch leaves, another follows a little later for fresh interrogation and search. She knew another batch would come in the next half hour. She rushed indoors and, using her medical training, removed the needle for the drip from the arms of the men. Then she quickly gathered the village people and asked them to help the injured escape via unmarked paths. She instructed the young boys to move out three cars, some motorcycles and six bicycles that were parked there for the use of the insurgents so she would not be asked why the family had so many vehicles.

Santana then collected the children of the family around the dining table and sat down with their books as if she was helping with their studies. She wrote out little chits for the children informing them what to say if questioned by the security forces. She also instructed the adults to pay close attention to what she would tell the army men so that they could repeat the same story when quizzed. The most important task still remained. She had with her important letters and documents meant for the ULFA leaders and they had to be hidden. Santana decided that the best place to conceal them would be in the underpants of the children!

As anticipated, the soldiers returned and asked who she was. Santana told them she was a daughter of the family and was helping the children with their school work. They searched the house looking for the ULFA insurgents and any incriminating evidence. The adults repeated Santana’s lies and the children as instructed started to wail when the house was turned upside down and the adults interrogated. The men decided to leave when they could find nothing. Santana had even been able to explain the medicines left behind by her comrades by rattling off which family member was taking which capsule for which ailment. As soon as the army left, Santana escaped and, helped by the sympathisers in the village, joined her comrades. She told the family she had been hiding with that if the security men returned to look for her, they should tell them that she had gone back to her college in Guwahati to take her exams.

“I am a good actor and that saved me many times,” Santana says with a smile. The very next morning Santana made another cheeky escape. Required by her seniors to attend the ULFA Raising Day celebration on April 7, 1991 in Shillong in Meghalaya, she decided to use public transport to go to Guwahati. Hidden in her bag was a pistol and an angocha (traditional scarf) to present to her leader at the event. She flagged down a bus. As she got in, she realised that all the passengers in the bus were uniformed security personnel. Santana knew that she would arouse suspicion if she hurried out of the bus. She decided to travel with them, casually placing the bag near her seat. Luckily for her the bus was going only up to Sonitpur, a destination just twenty minutes away.

When she learnt this she started to chide the driver for not telling her that the bus was not Guwahati-bound. The men in the bus tried to pacify her. Fearing that this would lead to a conversation in which she may be asked uncomfortable questions, Santana started to complain of motion sickness caused by the drive. She declined the water offered to her and placed her head on the headrest of the seat in front of her. Then she shut her eyes and waited desperately for the moment she could hop off the bus. When the bus reached its scheduled destination she complained to the driver even more for effect. Santana took another bus and travelled undetected to Guwahati and further on to Shillong.

It is with some pride that Santana declares that she has never been arrested or killed anyone.

“I was trained by experts like Meghali Kharguria and Moni Hazarika. The girls in ULFA are daring and motivated. They are in the military wing too. They are also given sentry duty in the camps like the boys. Most of the leaders have women guards. Many have died fighting security forces to enable leaders to escape. I remember one of the girls from the military wing, Mommy, was killed in a confrontation with security forces while on guard duty. These women joined before me. Among the first batch of women cadre was Shanti Rajkumari alias Tara Bujar Baruah. Boys and girls are treated the same in the organisation. Everyone cooks, washes clothes or does whatever chores are required in the camp. Like the boys, the women are sent either to the operational wing or the political wing according to their capabilities.”

Besides protection duty (guarding leaders), ULFA women have taken part in combat operations like the 2006 Moran encounter with the police. Two to three women were in the Moran encounter but managed to escape. Two years later, ULFA’s Teji Mala Rabha was arrested and wounded when there was an encounter with the police and army at Gambil Apel. In August of 2008, the self-styled lance corporal of ULFA’s military wing was arrested while she was moving with explosives. Mamoni alias Kusum Dihingia, a second lieutenant in ULFA, was arrested with her eight-year-old child in the bomb blast in Guwahati’s Fancy Bazar. ULFA’s 28th Battalion, the most lethal and dreaded of its battalions, had women fighters. Almost two per cent of the battalion’s strength was made up of women who were trained killers.

In 1999, during the Khanapara (Guwahati) encounter, the police were baffled when they saw an ULFA operative firing with one hand while looking ahead instead of at the men behind. In the fading evening light, it seemed the person was protectively carrying a bundle in the other hand.

The police thought it unusual that the person was firing without looking back and running to make a quick getaway, and was not letting go the bundle to make escape easier. Since the person was heading towards a dead-end, the policemen were ordered by their senior not to shoot to kill. When they caught up with the armed insurgent they discovered it was a woman and the bundle she was carrying was her infant child.

Excerpted with permission from She Goes To War: Women Militants of India, Rashmi Saksena, Speaking Tiger.