Just a decade ago, there was near-unanimous agreement among the people of Assam that the cadre of the United Liberation Front of Assam/ Ahom (ULFA) should lay down arms and join the ‘mainstream’, a euphemism used by the Government and pro-establishment intellectuals to mean surrender. And so, many of the ULFA ‘boys’ did, to become known as the Sulfa, an abbreviation of “surrendered ULFA”.
Today, there is an about turn in the public’s attitude, and a cross-section of the Assamese population now says that, given a choice between the two, it would prefer the ULFA to its surrendered counterparts, the Sulfa. If an opinion poll were conducted now in the state, the diffuse grouping known as the Sulfa would probably come out on the top only in a measure of unpopularity. Indeed, it is an interesting phenomenon when nearly everyone continues to urge the ULFA cadres to surrender while abhorring the ULFA boys who have in fact surrendered. Understanding how this came to happen will provide a window on the state of the insurgency in Assam today, and the complicated nexus between the politician, political parties and the insurgents, which makes the problem so much more than a simple fight of good versus bad.
The Assamese middle class played the role of Frankenstein when it applauded from the gallery at an emerging ULFA, which rapidly grew in strength during the late 1980s in the adulatory atmosphere created by the middle-class led Assamese media. When the ULFA started to threaten seriously the integrity of the Indian union, the central Government swung into action by proscribing the organisation and carrying out a military crackdown. However, Paresh Barua, the crafty commander of the ULFA, managed to earn a respite from the military operation, code-named ‘Operation Bajrang’, by promising not to disrupt or interfere in the ensuing general elections to the State Assembly.
Immediately after the new state Government assumed office in May 1991, the ULFA struck back by resorting to numerous kidnappings in different various parts of the state. The victims included senior bureaucrats and foreign engineers. The Government, after initial attempts at buying peace by releasing some jailed ULFA cadres, retaliated by re-launching the suspended military operation. This time, the Indian Army’s counterinsurgency action went all the way and a significant number of the ULFA’s second-rung cadres were either killed or captured.
Chief Minister’s boys
Though the Assamese people were by and large still sympathetic towards the ULFA, with the Army continuing its effective action, popular sentiment veered towards a negotiated settlement. Public meetings were held all over the state to issue appeals to the “misguided youths” to rejoin the mainstream. The pressure exerted by the military operations and the built-up public opinion took its toll on the militants’ morale. A section of ULFA cadres laid down their weapons en-masse before the state government in March 1992, the surrendered militants claiming that they in fact represented a split in the organisation and that they carried with them half of the total cadre-strength of the ULFA.
The ULFA reacted by labeling the deserters, ‘betrayers,’ and expelling them from the organisation. The role played at the time by the Congress Chief Minister of Assam, Hiteswar Saikia, in splitting the ULFA contributed towards immediate vilification of the surrendered ULFA members. Saikia bestowed ‘blueeyed’ status on the surrendered boys, granting them all kinds of proper and improper favours. Very soon the term ‘Syndicate’, referring to its mafia-style mode of operations, became synonymous with the Sulfa. The label ‘Sulfa’, coined by the local media, itself took on a pejorative connotation.
Though the majority of the surrendered ULFA members returned to their homes and rejoined normal lives, there were quite a few who took advantage of the state government’s patronage and barged into all avenues of moneymaking. Their status as the favoured brats of the Chief Minister made it easy for them to enter into collusion with unscrupulous bureaucrats and police officers, thus evading the normal process of law. Their conspicuous consumption and open display of suddenly-acquired riches, meanwhile, helped the government in getting more surrenders from the disillusioned ULFA ranks.
The threat of large-scale desertion loomed before the ULFA leadership, for it was beginning to appear as if renegade members were getting the best of everything while the loyal had to be on the run. After some hesitation, the ULFA hit back, systematically attacking its erstwhile members. Once the surrendered boys, wallowing in their new found riches, realised that they were now at the top of the ULFA’s hit-list, they started grouping together. Offence was the best form of defence, these militants-turned-goondas concluded, and they found that the government was ever ready to help. The military and police officers could hardly suppress their glee when they found eager volunteers amongst the Sulfa boys, with their insider’s knowledge, in the fight against ULFA.
The results started pouring in soon enough. The combined onslaught of the Sulfa and the security forces took their toll on an already-weakened ULFA. The battle on the ground was being won by the Government, but it was paying a heavy price politically. The Sulfa did not exactly follow the book in its actions, and the excesses mounted. In some places, over-enthusiastic security officers allowed the Sulfa boys to operate by themselves, and this added to the mushrooming public resentment. Another outcome of this self-serving amity between the authorities and the Sulfa was that the police began turning a blind eye to the Sulfa boys’ coercive business practices. It became an unwritten code that to engage in any business, construction contract, or trade in Assam, one had to pay a fixed percentage in commission to the local Sulfa chief. The public was becoming increasingly uneasy, although few dared to speak up openly for fear of being branded an active supporter of ULFA — the consequence could be incarceration, or even liquidation.
The people had their revenge in the next general elections, held in February 1996. A snowballing anti-incumbency sentiment saw the Congress ousted and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) ushered in as the ruling party. The AGP government, led by Prafulla Mahanta, the erstwhile student leader who had been the Chief Minister of Assam from 1985 to 1990, started off by distancing the Government from the Sulfa. With the Sulfa keeping a low profile in the absence of official patronage, the ULFA reappeared on the scene with a vengeance. The killings and violence were such that at times the statewide scene resembled that of a banana republic after a military coup. With the escalating violence, and some added arm-twisting by New Delhi, which threatened to impose central rule citing administrative breakdown, Mahanta’s government was forced to change its stance regarding the insurgency.
Within six months of the AGP’s coming to power, the bonhomie between the state government and the ULFA turned to bitter enmity. The turning point was reached when the ULFA tried to bomb the car of Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta while he was traveling with his six-year-old daughter. After that, Mahanta started taking the anti-ULFA operations very seriously and some senior police officers known more for their shoot-from the- hip philosophy than their adherence to the blue book were brought back into Assam.
As soon as this new counter-insurgency chapter started, the government re-discovered the virtues of the Sulfa. The boys were brought back to centre-stage on a red carpet, and the aftermath was a rehearsal of the earlier episode. The only difference was in the heightened scale of blood-letting. The second cycle of fighting between the ULFA on the one side and the security forces and the Sulfa on the other saw the emergence of ‘secret killers’, unknown assailants who would raid the houses of ULFA members and assassinate them to exact revenge for their kin’s rebellion. This cycle also witnessed a sharp rise in the ‘syndicate’ style monopoly exercised by some Sulfa groups over nearly all the high-profit business activities in the state. The AGP authorities gave the former rebels a free hand to create monopoly structures as long as they served in counter-insurgency operations. However, the end result was that the AGP was practically wiped out during the next elections in July 2001, when the opposition Congress made it back to the seat of government.
Assam is now at the beginning of the third cycle in this play between the state government, ULFA and Sulfa. The new government is wary of being perceived as patronising the Sulfa, and this has meant that the powerful boys are now on the run. A few top leaders have left the state, and others are maintaining a very low profile. The only discernable change this time is in the strategy being practiced by the ULFA. Whereas, it behaved like a victorious junta after the 1996 elections that brought the Prafulla Mahanta-led AGP to power, in these past months they have been more conspicuous by their low profile.
However, it could be that the ULFA is on an extensive extortion drive, as reported in a section of the Guwahati media. Indeed, the military and the central intelligence agencies operating in Assam believe that ULFA has adopted a cunning strategy to exploit the situation -on the one hand they are giving the Congress government of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi hope of coming in for talks, while on the other they are collecting money recruits and resources that had been depleted after the period of hard-hitting counter-insurgency operations under the previous regime.
In the meantime, this is not a good time to be a Sulfa cadre. With a seemingly less sympathetic if not outrightly hostile government in place, the former rebels are now at the mercy of their dreaded adversary, the ULFA. The senior leaders of the ULFA have lost quite a few family members to the bullets of secret killers, who it believes are none other than some Sulfa boys. Therefore, once the need for maintaining a facade of peace is over, the ULFA is sure to hit out at Sulfa. It is not a question of what will happen, rather one of when it will happen .
On the larger plane of strategy, however, the Sulfa is but an irritant for ULFA, whose raison d’etre is fighting the Indian state. And the tone of the insurgent’s regular newsletter, titled Freedom, does not indicate that the ULFA is ready to bury the hatchet with New Delhi.The present facade of peace in Assam is just that, and we are living through a lull before it is ripped away by one more surge of violence.
If the ULFA launches any major armed operation against the security forces, as this writer believes it will, the state Government would have to initiate tougher measures. It has happened twice and from all indications it will happen again that the state Government and the ULFA will be involved in a bitter conflict. It is more than certain that the security forces will be needing the services of former rebels to enhance their performance. The Sulfa does not come cheap. It will exact its own price for cooperating with the Government. Syndicates will crop up all over the state again. It is indeed a nightmarish scenario for the average citizen caught between the devil of insurgents and the deep sea of counter-insurgency forces.
The saner elements amongst the Sulfa have suggested that since every government has ultimately felt the need for their services, the unofficial and unholy system of providing remuneration through ‘syndicates’ should be replaced with an official and transparent system. Elsewhere in India, ex-rebels have been absorbed into paramilitary battalions called IRBs (Indian Reserve Battalions). In Nagaland, Manipur, Punjab and Kashmir, these IRBs have proved their worth as effective counter-insurgency forces. However, being state-sanctioned units, these battalions are bound by rules and are answerable to codes of conduct as combatants. Such a transformation of the Sulfa will make them more responsible and less like vigilantes and warlords.
This issue was raised at a recent meeting between the State Home Minister Paradgul Bordoloi and some Sulfa leaders. The government says that it accepts the proposal in principle and has approached the central Government for necessary permission and funds. What actually transpires will be known only when it happens.
Though it is true that the Sulfa has fully earned its notoriety, going by recent Government statistics the fact is that more than seven thousand militants have surrendered in Assam. The present cadre strength of the ULFA is thought to be no more than five thousand. If there had been no surrenders, the underground ULFA would have twice the number of cadres it has now. Then there is the moral question — when somebody is hunted down by the State it is also natural justice that he should be given a chance to surrender rather than be killed in an encounter. It is also important to keep in mind that the State is dealing not with hardcore criminals, but misguided teenagers teenagers bowled over by ideology and the romanticism of holding a gun.
There is a false perception amongst many that the surrendered boys are granted amnesty for all their crimes. The fact is that the Indian Constitution and the country’s legal system has no provision for the grant of amnesty. There is a provision for granting pardons, but that happens only after conviction in a court of law. There is simply no provision for granting amnesty before trial and conviction. Thus, all the surrendered ULFA members have to regularly appear before courts to stand trial for cases registered against them while they were in the ULFA. Another common misperception is that the majority of the surrendered militants are a mischievous lot, but the truth is that more than half of those who left ULFA have gone back to normal nonmilitant lives. Possibly no more than seven hundred Sulfa members have been engaged in counterinsurgency and/or are living luxurious lives at a cost to the State. It would be a travesty to hold ninety percent responsible for the deeds of ten percent.
As long as insurgency maintains steam in Assam, surrenders will remain its inevitable by-product. The lure of adventure, and escape from an apparently hopeless future in economically stagnant Assam, will continue to draw the young into the militant organisation. While some will become hardcore insurgents, others become disillusioned soon enough. It would be morally and tactically unsound to disallow such cadre to return and repent. While this writer strongly believes that there should be no special privilege for the surrendered militants, at the same time they should not be permanently despised. Sticking a derogatory label to each and every surrendered ULFA member only creates another group that is psychologically kept outside civil society. This is a potentially dangerous situation both for the surrendered militants and the civil society.
Elected governments are influenced by strong and expressed public opinion. The public of Assam has proved more than once that it disapproves of the clandestine use of Sulfa to counter insurgency in the state. The message from the people of Assam to the government of Assam should be heard loud and clear. And the instruction is: officially induct the Sulfa boys in the security forces if you need their service, otherwise keep your hands off them. No special privilege and no special service!