The dreaded militant group United Liberation Front of Assam is back in the news in Assam – this time following the emergence of a viral social media video. Posted by an account known for disseminating the outfit’s propaganda on October 24, the video begins with a young man wearing camouflage fatigues and sporting an AK-47 gun introducing himself as Pankaj Pratim Dutta. “I was till recently the vice-president of the Dergaon unit of AASU [All Assam Students’ Union],” he starts. “But without their knowledge, I have joined the ULFA.”
This video is noteworthy on two accounts, say analysts. First, the social media announcement of recruitment – ostensibly borrowed from the Kashmir militancy, where it is a common phenomenon – is new to Assam. More significant, though, is this alleged crossover of a mainstream student leader to armed insurgency – par for the course during the peak of militancy in the state, but increasingly unheard of in the last decade.
‘No alternative to a sovereign Assam’
Dutta is seen explaining his rationale for the move. “As a representative of the new generation, I believe there is no alternative to a sovereign Assam,” he insists, even as he apologises to his alma mater, the All Assam Students’ Union for not keeping them in the loop. “We, the Assamese, were a valorous community once, but now we have to kneel down and beg for everything in front of the Centre.” The ones who have insulted us must remember that we still have enough firepower to fight the state machinery, he adds.
Though Dutta doesn’t explicitly cite any particular reason for his decision in the video, many claim he may have driven by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s insistence on passing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The bill – which seeks to facilitate citizenship for non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan – has triggered widespread protests in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley. The Assamese fear that the Bill, if passed, would turn them into a linguistic minority through the arrival of other communities, particularly Bengali Hindus.
‘Disillusionment with the Citizenship Bill’
“The fact that he uses the word insulted very clearly points towards his disillusionment with the government regarding the Citizenship Bill,” said Lurin Jyoti Gogoi, the general secretary of the All Assam Students’ Union. “I think he was pushed over because the government has been behaving in an autocratic manner and undermining the democratic protests that have broken out across the state. When the very identity of the community is at stake, there is always a chance that some young boys may get radicalised. We are a democratic organisation, we follow the Indian constitution, but it is not unnatural for some young people to turn distraught and take the extremist route in a situation like this when the government has not paid any heed to democratic protests. I blame the government, both at the centre and state, for this.”
At the heart of the Assamese nationalist groups’ opposition to the Bill is that it is seen to override the Assam Accord of 1985, which has widespread acceptance in the state. The Accord, which ended a six-year-long, often-violent anti-foreigner movement in the state, stipulates midnight of March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for entry into the state.
The ULFA and AASU: A long but complicated relationship
The anti-foreigners’ movement, known as the Assam Movement, was largely led by the All Assam Students’ Union. The ULFA’s genesis in 1979 also lies in the same movement. Its goal was to restore Assam’s “lost independence”. In his book India Against Itself, political scientist Sanjib Baruah described the outfit as a “radical fringe” of the Assam Movement. During the eighties, though, the lines between the ULFA and the All Assam Students’ Union, were, however, often blurred. Many of its founder members were also student leaders who actively participated in the Assam Agitation.
The bonhomie was particularly true in the immediate aftermath of the Assam Accord, which many radical elements in the students’ group saw as an unsatisfactory arrangement and a cop-out by its senior leaders. Journalist Rajeev Bhattacharya, who has extensively reported on the outfit, confirms: “A large chunk of AASU leaders either joined ULFA or were active sympathisers.”
However, things changed in the nineties. “The honeymoon between the AASU and ULFA only lasted till about 1992 when the first split took place,” he said. “Almost all the senior AASU leaders walked out ...the reason being that AASU functioned in an extremely democratic culture and the ULFA did not.”
Gradually over time, the ULFA also distanced itself from the issue of migration. Increasingly, it started directing its addresses to “Axombasis” – people living in Assam – rather than the Assamese people. This, Baruah notes, was in “striking contrast from what was then the mainstream of Assamese subnational discourse”.
‘What will young people do if not take up arms?’
Yet, the group – which has since split into two factions, one pro-talks and the other “Independent” operating from the jungles of Myanmar – has vociferously spoken out against the Citizenship Bill. Anup Chetia, a top leader of the pro-talks faction of the group, also ascribed Dutta’s move from student politics to the jungles of Myanmar to the Bill. “The government trying to override the Assam Accord by passing this Citizenship Bill, it is an insult to Assamese people” he said. “What will young people do if not take up arms? The young generation is aware of these things. Mark my words, if the government continues like this, more young boys will go.”
The pro-talks faction of ULFA has been in discussions with the Centre since 2011, having discarded its demand for independence.
The state’s security administration, however, claims it has things under control. Additional Director General of Police (Special Branch) Pallav Bhattacharya insisted that it was a “one-off incident”. “Not much should be read into it,” he said. “From the 1990s to 2018, there has been a substantial decline in recruitment by the ULFA.”
The police officer also played down claims linking Dutta’s move to the Citizenship Bill. “He has been on our radar for some time now,” he said. “We had even counselled him earlier, but since he was a young boy we did not arrest him. His parents should have kept a closer eye on him.”
An intelligence officer based in Upper Assam, however, claimed that there had been several low-intensity recruitment drives by the ULFA in the last few months. “Some boys from the Moran-Motok communities, but we have been able to prevent by and large,” said the official.
In June 2017, a top former militant of the ULFA who gave up arms in 2008, had told Scroll.in that 400-500 young men from a few Upper Assam districts had crossed over to Myanmar earlier in the year. He had also pinned the blame on the Citizenship Bill.