Mr Hiteshwar Saikia told me: “These ULFA boys do not understand that they can not achieve their aim. They can only create hardships for the people of Assam. Where will they get such a large quantity of arms and ammunition from to fight the Army? And how will they bring it into Assam? With such geographical handicaps, will they be ever able to face the might of the Army? They are mistaken if they think they can carve out Vietnam-type or Afghanistan-type victories. The case there was different. Assam is neither Afghanistan nor Vietnam, and Indian Army is not an occupation army.”
Assam, had a population figure of 3.1 million. Applying an all India population growth factor of 13 percent annual increase, its population in 2001 should have been 12.43 million and not 26.6 million as the census of 2001 reveals. Out of this, the Muslim population today is 30.9 percent which was barely 8-9 percent in 1950.
India has been a victim of WOM (war by Other Means) launched by our western neighbour since 1989, but we have failed to read the writings on the wall. The attack on Mumbai through the sea on 26 November 2008 has further demonstrated the sophistication of the architects and soldiers of WOM. A handful of well-trained and regimented ‘irregular soldiers’ of WOM brought Mumbai to standstill, nay the whole of India. The WOM does not need regular soldiers ‘monkey dancing’ across the opposing borders. The old concept of war has now been made redundant due to ‘nuclearisation’ of South Asia and rapid globalization. The WOM is fought by ‘irregular soldiers’ called militants/terrorists; ‘Smart Soldiers’, called ‘Spin Doctors’ and ‘Cyber Soldiers’ called the ‘Techies’. WOM has no ‘front’, no ‘rear’. The whole of India is a battlefield.
Inherent weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the Indian Nation in the form of religious, regional, lingual, economic and social cleavages, along its length and breadth, present themselves for exploitation by the architects of WOM against India. Our poor national leadership and wrong national policies, since independence, have allowed these inherent ‘pin holes’ in our ’structural unity’ to become wide gaps for our enemies to sneak in. From Assam to J&K and Mumbai to Singur the story has a universal script. Add to it, Jaipur, New Delhi, Ahemdabad, Bangalore, Kanpur, Lucknow, Hyderabad and the entire Northeast; you have a very gloomy picture of India. These weaknesses and vulnerabilities act as localized ‘niches’ of conflict. I would like to call them as the ‘designer conflicts’. Our isolated approach of treating it as law & order problems or communal violence or even as militancy, allows them to keep simmering. Thus, the ISI of Pakistan continues to torment India from Mumbai to Kashmir and Assam to Bangalore with regular periodicity. To deal with WOM and ‘designer conflicts’, we need an integrated approach at the national level – not merely a so called NIA (National Investigating Agency).
Assam is a victim of such ‘niche war’ unleashed by ULFA but supported by the ISI of Pakistan. Nine serial blasts in Assam on 30th October 2008 have highlighted the fact that militancy and insurgency in Assam has not only upgraded itself but has also acquired operational sophistication and great degree of inter-organization coordination. The situation is now becoming worse than the period when militancy started some three decades back. ULFA militants have become more aggressive and violent. It also speaks of their foreign nexus and the arsenal at their command including the expertise to carry out such serial blasts.
It is claimed that these blasts are a closely coordinated act of ULFA, HUJI and NDFB. If this nexus exists, then ULFA militancy has come to stay in Assam. We could have avoided all this.
ULFA insurgency in Assam, through the decades of eighties and nineties, did not spring up suddenly and overnight. It graduated from ‘honeymoon dream’ of a few frustrated youths into a fire-ogling monster. Like an expanding torrent, it devoured the public mind; it nibbled at the efficacy of the state administration; it undermined and neutralized the state police, and its writ began to run all over Assam. Kidnappings at will; extortions in broad-day light and summary executions of people under the very nose of state administrative machinery, left no doubt in the minds of the people as to who the real masters were. ULFA had become a house-hold name in Assam by the end of eighties.
As it ever happens, when everything failed, the Army was called upon to clear up the mess created by ULFA. Thus, in November, 90, began the story of the twists and turns in the Army operations which were first conducted in two phases under code names ‘Operation Bajrang’ and ‘Operation Rhino’ from November 1990 to May 1992. Then followed a period of four years calm and tranquility when ULFA disappeared from the scene and an illusion of peace was created. But peace remains a distant dream for Assam and as such India.
The bubble of peace burst in June 1996 when ULFA again raised its inexorable head which continues to do so even in the year 2009, some 13 years later. To understand the sustainability of ULFA militancy we ought to understand the genesis of the ASSAM problem.
Shrinking Land Mass: Bloating Population
If we consider the census figures of 1901, then it would be realized that the landmass that currently constitutes Assam, had a population figure of 3.1 million. Applying an all India population growth factor of 13 percent annual increase, its population in 2001 should have been 12.43 million and not 26.6 million as the census of 2001 reveals. Out of this, the Muslim population today is 30.9 percent which was barely 8-9 percent in 1950. This abnormal increase is primarily due to influx of outsiders, which has affected the demography of Assam.
It is to the credit of its sharp intelligence and visionary intellect that ULFA leadership has been able to save itself twice from a total collapse under the weight of two well launched Army Operations, i.e. “˜Operation Bajrang and “˜Operation Rhino. Each time it salvaged itself with great cunning and shrewd strategy.
Compare this with the corresponding decrease in the landmass. In 1912, when chief commissioner-ship of Assam was established by annulling the partition of Bengal (affected in 1905) the total area of Assam was approximately 2, 24,600 square kilometers. Ever since independence, the land mass has been shrinking and today it stands at approximately 78,000 square kilometers which is just one-third of its pre-partition size.
Thus, the shrinking landmass and an increasing influx of outsiders created unique demographic bulges which threatened to submerge the indigenous population of Assam. Obviously, this was bound to create tension and give rise to a movement, which sought to remove these imbalances. As a result, in 1979, a student’s agitation, spearheaded by all Assam Student Union, (AASU), was launched to voice the concern against the increasing influx of foreigners in Assam. This foreigner’s issue engendered the growth of militancy in Assam.
The influx of foreigners into Assam was in two phases, i.e. pre-independence phase and the post-independence phase. The pre-independence influx started in 1826 with the beginning of British rule in Assam. This phase can be further divided into two periods, i.e. 1826 to1905 and 1905 to 1947. In the first period the influx of outsiders pertained to three classes of people – tea plantation laboruers from Bihar and Orissa; office employees from Bengal who came with the British administration and tradesmen from Rajasthan and Bengal. Then in 1905 Bengal was partitioned and a separate province of East Bengal and Assam was established. This triggered the influx of Muslim peasants from East Bengal into Assam who began settling in the rural areas of Assam.
Though the partition of Bengal was annulled in 1912, the trend carried on till 1947. Also, during this period, Bengali Hindus poured into Assamese towns. Thus by 1947 there were three million non-indigenous people in a total population of about seven million, which amounts to 43.8 percent.
The second phase of influx began in 1947. A large number of Bengali Hindus migrated to Assam during partition. Even after the partition the influx continued, and by 1963, millions of people from East Bengal and Nepal had settled in Assam. It got checked for a short period but restarted in 1970. While the influx of outsiders continued, the state of Assam was fragmented. In 1963 Nagaland was carved out, and in 1972 Mizoram and Meghalaya were established as seperate entities. There was general resentment against such political divisions.
Shrinking landmass and continuous influx of outsiders affected social and political life in Assam. The indigenous people of Assam felt that they may be reduced to a minority and thus lose their say in the governance of Assam. The changing demographic pattern even threatened the cultural and ethnic identities of the tribal people. This created general frustration and disenchantment against the authorities, particularly the central government.
Assam Agitation and Foreigners’ Issue
Further, such a large influx of outsiders also affected the economy of Assam and created chronic problems of unemployment and under-employment. Ecology too was affected. The Bangladeshis and Nepalese settled in the prohibited lands near the forests, disturbing the ecological balance. Besides, the indigenous people have become a minority in a number of places thereby changing demography and social structure. These changes gave rise to resentment and frustration among the indigenous people.
Shrinking landmass and continuous influx of outsiders affected social and political life in Assam. The indigenous people of Assam felt that they may be reduced to a minority and thus lose their say in the governance of Assam.
The official response to these concerns of the people was indifferent and mute. The ‘Immigration Expulsion Act’ of 1950 was not implemented and in 1957 it was repealed. The ‘Passport Act’ of 1951 was also not put into effect. Truly speaking, the immigrants were serving as ‘vote banks’ of some political masters and as such the post-independence election arithmetic of some political parties encouraged this.
In fact, the foreigner’s issue has been misunderstood. Deliberately or otherwise, some vested interests have interpreted it as a movement to drive out non-Assamese Indians. The reality is exactly the opposite. The demands of the movement had been only to drive out Bangladesh and Nepalese. The movement leaders had spelt out that the issue of citizenship of foreigner could be decided on the basis of National Register of Citizen of 1931 or the Voters List of 1952. But this point has been deliberately ignored by concerned authorities. Such colossal neglect and indifference was bound to agitate the public mind.
In March 1979, a by-election was to be held in the Mangaldoi constituency of Darrang district. When the voter’s list was updated, out of six lakh names, objections were raised against 70,000 names, allegedly foreigners. On the direction of the Chief Election Commissioner, a tribunal was set up, which declared 45,000 as foreigners. The magnitude of the presence of foreigners in one constituency at such a large scale shocked the people of Assam.
This gave birth to the Assam agitation, which was spearheaded by “All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad” (AAGSP), formed on 27 August 1979. AAGSP was essentially a political mouthpiece of All Assam Students Union (AASU). It soon spread its tentacles all over Assam, particularly in the Brahmaputra Valley. This led to a series of statewide demonstrations, blockades and agitations which disturbed normal life in Assam. It ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985.
Creation of United Liberation Front Of Assam (ULFA)
At about the time when AASU launched the political movement on foreigners’ issue, some student leaders did not see any wisdom in these political movements. Four of them, i.e. Rajiv Raj Kanwar alias Arbindo Raj Khowa, Anup Chetia Golap alias Barua, Samiram Gohain Alias Pardeep Gogoi and Paresh Barua (not really a student leader but a railway employee thrown out of service for forgery and fraud) met at Rangghar near Sibsagar on 07 April 1979 and floated an organization called “United Liberation Front of Assam” or ULFA. Today, only Arbindo Raj Khowa and Paresh Barua are with the organization. The other two have surrendered or have been arrested. The aim of this organization was to liberate Assam and the people of the state from the so-called machinations of Indian colonial rule. They decided to do so by an armed uprising. Thus the seeds of militancy in Assam were sown.
Discontentment of the indigenous people of Assam about the foreigner’s issue in general and the movement launched by AASU, in particular, provided valuable opportunity to ULFA to spread its wings. The AASU movement had paralyzed the state administration and brought all political activities to a standstill. In 1977, like the rest of India, Congress had been thrown out of power and it had only eight members in the state legislature. The non-Congress government could not last long. On 12 December 1979, President’s Rule was imposed in Assam to check the lawlessness created by the AASU movement. However, when the President’s Rule was withdrawn in 1980, some 43 legislatures defected to Congress and its government was installed with Mrs Anwara Taimur as the Chief Minister.
This further alienated the people and it became a plank for the ASSU and AAGSP to expose the machinations of the central government at Delhi. Thus, Assam agitation on foreigners’ issue turned violent, which gave a fillip to the ULFA cause. By the time Assam Accord was signed in August 1985, ULFA had become a household name in 15 districts of upper and lower Assam.
Strategic short-sightedness and lack of comprehension of the problem at the national level allowed ULFA to consolidate its position through the decade of the ‘eighties’. And its ‘Godzilla’ like rise was only realized in November 1990 when ‘Operation Bajrang’ was launched by the Army.
It was only then it became evident that ULFA was not only a very well-knit organization but it possessed a very sharp and intelligent leadership, along with a large crop of trained and committed activists. Besides, the organization had amassed huge funds at its disposal through coercion and extortions, which were used to pay for the training of its activists and acquiring sophisticated weapons.
Nature of ULFA Militancy and its Strategy
Very often, the nature of ULFA militancy has been misunderstood because of the passivity of activists in the wake of ‘Operation Bajrang’ and ‘Operation Rhino’. In certain quarters a view prevails that ULFA militants were not as aggressive and violent as the militants of Punjab, J&K and Nagaland.
Geography and social stratagem of Assam disallow ULFA from pursuing a strategy of high voltage militancy. This has always been the basic consideration for it to adopt a posture of controlled confrontation with the security forces so as to tire them out in a prolonged game of hide and seek.
This is a misplaced view. The nature and type of ULFA militancy has to be seen in view of long drawn strategy of ULFA leadership and assessments of its strengths and weaknesses. It must be noted that ULFA leadership never wanted to be so foolhardy as to openly challenge the security forces, as did perhaps the militant’s leader of Punjab, J&K and Nagaland, and wipe itself out in the bargain. It is to the credit of its sharp intelligence and visionary intellect that ULFA leadership has been able to save itself twice from a total collapse under the weight of two well launched Army Operations, i.e. ‘Operation Bajrang’ and ‘Operation Rhino’. Each time it salvaged itself with great cunning and shrewd strategy. In fact ‘Operation Rhino’ had almost wiped it out, but then it acted in most clever manner to get the Army off its back.
Therefore ULFA militancy needs to be examined in its unfathomed capacity to survive and sustain itself against all odds unlike a foolhardy organization of militants elsewhere who commit ‘Hara-kiri’ when they involve themselves in direct confrontation with security forces. Lessons of history of successful insurgencies are very clear. Che Gauvera, an authority on conducting successful insurgency in Cuba, talks about seven sins of insurgents. And vanity, according to him, is the most serious sin. More often than not, insurgency fails because of the vanity of its leadership. This is a trait that the ULFA leadership in 90-92 did not suffer from. It is this aspect of ULFA militancy which needs to be seriously attended.
To dismiss it as an organization of city bred youth, fond of soft living, incapable of leading hard-rugged life and lacking in physical courage would only tantamount to serve the aim and purpose of the ULFA leadership. It has been my experience that whatever they may lack in physical prowess and physical courage they more than make it up by their sharp intellect, mental agility and fox-like shrewdness.
Undoubtedly the ULFA has been successful in waging a protracted war. The cornerstone of ULFA strategy had been to ’save-itself-today-to-fight-it-big-another-day’. And it had successfully executed this strategy every time it learnt its lessons and got reorganized and regrouped into a more vibrant and flexible organization. Having lied low for four years since May 1992, it again began to exert itself in June 1996. As one gleans through news items in the news papers, it is becoming evident that ULFA has modified its strategy from total passivity to controlled aggression. This is a sure indication of a violent phase of militancy in Assam. But given the intellect and the intelligence its leadership has, it will not be foolhardy to engage itself in a total military confrontation with the Army. Should it do so, it will meet the same fate as the Punjab and J&K militants.
Geography and social stratagem of Assam disallow ULFA from pursuing a strategy of high voltage militancy. This has always been the basic consideration for it to adopt a posture of controlled confrontation with the security forces so as to tire them out in a prolonged game of hide and seek. But this itself is not adequate as the security forces can not only heal its wounds but replace its wounded limbs from its vast reservoir. Therefore ULFA must reduce this capability of the security forces. And the only way to do this is to tie down security forces over an extended space, not only transcending into the entire northeast but cutting across to other regions of the country.
I reminded him of ULFAs strategy of achieving an independent Assam through weakening the centre by having tie-ups with other militant organizations in various other states of India. He angrily burst out, “That is rubbish. A figment of imagination! In any case, should it ever happen, we dont need the ULFA, then”.
Thus, ULFA would develop and fasten its ties with other militant organizations, flourishing in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, UP, Bihar, Punjab, J&K, West Bengal and the sister states of the northeast. It would also open up channels with international organizations that support and prop up such militancy. It is already believed to have established links with the ISI. All this is being done to offset its military disadvantage against the security forces. It is this major factor which forces it to adopt a ‘bleeding-war-hypothesis’ as its principal strategy against the security forces of India. It is in keeping with the ISI strategy of ‘bleeding India to death through thousand cuts’.
The ‘bleeding war hypothesis’ of ULFA hinges upon certain basic pre-requisites. These are:-
- ‘Military will and capability’ to cause sufficient attrition to security forces, which is prohibitive in cost over a longer period of time.
- Enlarge the space of engagement with the security forces from the Brahmaputra Valley to the entire Northeast and to other parts of the country, thus rendering security forces incapable of rest and replenishment.
- Preserve and sustain itself for an infinite period of struggle which will manifest itself in the form of :-
- Attempt to gain international recognition.
- Militarization and regimentation of Assamese society selectively, and also to ensure continuous flow of mentally hardened and extremely motivated youth towards it.
- Infiltrate political and administrative echelons of the state government to reduce effectiveness of the security forces.
- Wage ‘no-holds-barred’ Psy-war against the security forces through its over-ground organizations. It will entail an extensive use of print and electronic media.
The Army could pick-up ULFA cadres without really disturbing the haystack which upset the applecart of ULFA strategy. Constant running and hiding had demoralized its carders, who after sheer frustration, surrendered in large numbers.
The recent spurt in ULFA activities and its professed and pronounced aggression against the armed forces is in fact an extension of its past strategy of compelling the Army to go needle searching in the hay stack. The only difference is while earlier the needle lay hidden and inactive; this time it is moving inside the haystack and actively pricking the searchers. ULFA had realized the drawbacks of total passivity in the earlier rounds with the army. Therefore it was bound to apply the corrections. The present spate of its violent activities against the Army is aimed at making the needle-search a painful experience to impose caution on the Army operations. It will not be however a head – on collusion with the Army, but controlled violence.
When we say controlled violence, it means ULFA will pick up soft targets in isolated places. Spraying bullets on Army personnel visiting public places and markets will be the key to this. They may also blow off a single vehicle here and there. The aim is to keep causing slow pin-pricks to provoke the Army to lose control and turn the hay stack upside down. This is what the Army has to quard against. The pin-pricking against soft targets of the Army has number of objectives.
The first is to build a spirit of ‘Ramboism’ amongst its cadres, which has been hitherto lacking due to its compulsions of social psyche of the youth. It will also have far-reaching consequences for the Assamese society in the long run. The thought-regimentation and militarization of the people by altering the basic character of the people is hard to achieve. Come peace and prosperity, they will manifestly exhibit their distinct features of peace – fun and frolic, dance and music. All the same, ULFA’s game plan is to change this fundamental character of Assamese society.
The second objective of ULFA is to make ‘needle – searching’ a difficult task as compared to earlier Army operations. In so doing, it wants to conserve and preserve itself for a protracted war. Its earlier approach of ‘total passivity’, after initial hiccups made Army operations easier. The Army could pick-up ULFA cadres without really disturbing the haystack which upset the applecart of ULFA strategy. Constant running and hiding had demoralized its carders, who after sheer frustration, surrendered in large numbers. Most of them were well-trained and ULFA had spent lakhs of rupees on their training.
As per a study in the late 90s there are 12.4 lakhs unemployed youth in Assam. These people are easy targets for exploitation. Unemployment and poor economic condition facilitate militancy.
What good was the training if they had to play hide and seek with the security forces? What more, most of the regional and district level leadership had got neutralized. It was a big setback to the ULFA. This time around it wants to avoid losing its cadres. It is a matter of survival for the ULFA. There will be no fourth resurrection for it. Its survival lies in prolonged struggle. And when at a future date, if it ever happens, the central government loses its grip over the states and the Indian Union weakens, ULFA would be there with its cadres to fill the void in Assam. Till that happens, the ULFA must carry on waging a slow and steady battle with the security forces.
The third objective of soft-target approach against the Army is to boost its public image. In the earlier engagements with the Army, people raised doubts on ULFA’s capabilities. Therefore, in a careful manner it would like to reverse this impression. An incident here or there would be highlighted in the media and much would be made out of these incidents. Take the case of few isolated killings of some unlucky officers in the recent past. Local press and national media have already starting glorifying ULFA. In fact what ULFA is looking forward through this soft-target-killing is to establish its credibility in the eyes of other militant organizations and more particularly their master, i.e. ISI. In the bargain, if encounter takes place, then a few ULFA cadres killed would be made martyrs, which it is desperately looking for, to not only rally the people around its organization, but also tell other militant organisation that it can sacrifice for its cause. A few youth sacrificed would not dry up its source of recruitments.
As per a study (Lakdawala Study) in the late 90s there are 12.4 lakhs unemployed youth in Assam. These people are easy targets for exploitation. Unemployment and poor economic condition facilitate militancy. As Lakdawala Study tells us, Assam, for that matter the entire Northeast region, abounds in this. Surely, the Army can not tackle this. With the help of the civil administration and then Chief Minister, late Mr Hiteshwar Saikia, I did manage to help out a needy few. Incidentally, it was Mr Hiteshwar Saikia who took up a case with the Planning Commission and got Rs 110 Crores earmarked for the resettlement and rehabilitation of SULFA (Surrendered ULFA). Sadly enough Mr. Hiteshwar Saikia is no more today, but one must admit that he understood ULFA strategy thoroughly and knew their handicaps and compulsions very well. A number of times he discussed with me the ULFA’s likely methods and intentions. On one occasion in March 1992, he was particularly incensed with ULFA for its volte-face on talks with Central Government.
To implement its strategy of “˜war of attrition and “˜war of nerves ULFA may face practical problems, as bestowed upon it by the disadvantages of geography and social structure of Assam. In order to overcome these, it will seek ties with other militant organisations in the region and also broaden its relations with foreign India-baiter outfits.
At a dinner, the Chief Minister discussed the ULFA issue with me for an hour. He asked me bluntly as to whether ULFA would surrender by 31 March 1992. In fact the same very day I had been tipped off by my sources inside the ULFA that Arbindo Raj Khowa had decided to go back on his offer of talks. I told him that Golap Barua alias Anup Chetia along with Pardeep Gogoi alias Samiran Gohain had crossed over to Bangladesh recently. I said, in no uncertain terms, that ULFA would now back out. He got furious. One could see anguish on his face. He lashed out at ULFA leadership. He said: “These ULFA boys do not understand that they can not achieve their aim. They can only create hardships for the people of Assam. Where will they get such a large quantity of arms and ammunition from to fight the Army? And how will they bring it into Assam? With such geographical handicaps, will they be ever able to face the might of the Army? They are mistaken if they think they can carve out Vietnam-type or Afghanistan-type victories. The case there was different. Assam is neither Afghanistan nor Vietnam, and Indian Army is not an occupation army.
This was realized by Mizos rebels when I was governor there. This has been realized by the Naga rebels, too. In fact the ULFA – highhandedness has given rise to Bodo and Karbi problems. They will break up Assam into penny packets as has happened over the past few decades after the independence. Why don’t they get their heads in the right place and realize that a landlocked valley of Brahmaputra can never be a separate nation. And it is never in the interests of Assam.” I intervened to say, “Sir, but ULFA boys feel they would get an independent state of Assam if India breaks up like the Soviet Union.” He cut me short, “Don’t draw wrong conclusions. India and Soviet Union are totally different entities. India may have its problems of emotional integration, but the question of its unity was settled 45 years back, not through the force of the gun but by the voluntary acceptance of the union by people of all hue and cries. Remember how Mr Gopinath Bardoloi saved Assam from going over to Pakistan in 1947. Do these boys understand this?
If Assam had any single advantage of becoming an independent nation, Mr Gopinath Bardoloi would have been the first man to press for it. It is the sad part of Assamese history and Indian history too, correct me if I am wrong, that we lost our freedom in the past because we were multitudes of smaller independent states that were subdued and subjugated one by one by foreign invaders. ULFA has wrong sense of history”. I again reminded him of ULFA’s strategy of achieving an independent Assam through weakening the centre by having tie-ups with other militant organizations in various other states of India. He angrily burst out, “That is rubbish. A figment of imagination! In any case, should it ever happen, we don’t need the ULFA, then”.
Narcotics and militancy have both caused upheavals to the societies of the region. There are reports that the Northeast region is fast becoming a breeding place of the dreaded HIV-virus. The militants perhaps do not realize the harm they are causing to their people through such nefarious activities.
I thought he was a bit angry with himself too. He said that he had taken a decision in haste when he accepted ULFA’s offer for talks in January 1992. He felt it was a decoy by ULFA to get out of the dire situation it had got into due to the success of Operation Rhino. It maneuvered for time when it was in the final stages of extinction. I couldn’t agree more with him. He asked me what if ULFA does not accept to surrender by 31 March 1992. I said spontaneously, “Let us break it up, Sir. I know people who would like to surrender. They may not be top level leaders of ULFA but they are the ground commanders and if they surrender it will break its spinal chord”. Thus, were sown the seeds of the SULFA, who formed a steering panel and made a unilateral declaration on 31 March 1992.
Incidentally, on 29 March 1992, Arbindo Raj Khowa had announced that ULFA would no more talk to the central government and continue its armed struggle. Two days earlier, i.e. on 27 march 1992, two of the ULFA leaders from our area, spoke to Mr Hiteshwar Saikia on the telephone from my office in Lichubari (Jorhat) in the presence of District Collector (DC) of Jorhat and Superintendent of Police. A draft resolution was prepared which was to be passed by the steering committee of SULFA on 31st March 1992. A copy of resolution to be adopted was handed over to me by a source of mine on 27 March 1992.
All said and done, Mr Hiteshwar Saikia was never happy with himself for having allowed ULFA to get off the hook. But under the circumstances this was the best course of action for him. He knew that one day the ULFA menace would rock the Brahmaputra valley again. He was therefore very keen to make SULFA strong so as to pit them against ULFA when it resurfaces. But his death orphaned SULFA. He used to often say that the next resurrection of ULFA would be more ugly and violent. He wanted it to be checked and controlled by the people of Assam through SULFA. He never wanted Army to be launched in such a big manner as it was done during Bajrang and Rhino. He maintained that the Army, if at all re-deployed, must be for a very short duration to carry out a surgical operation when the situation becomes uncontrollable. He saw inherent dangers in the prolonged stay of the Army. He told me once, “Isn’t it ironical that I, who, brought the Army in, want it to go out but ULFA doesn’t”. I was surprised.
I asked him,” Sir! Are you unhappy with the Army?” “NO” he said emphatically,” but longer you stay deployed in Assam it creates a psychological irritation amongst the people and helps the ULFA cause. Army is trained, equipped and organized to fight the external enemy and not law and order problems of terrorism and militancy. Though it may be supported from outside, yet it involves our own people – however misguided, but they can not be treated as the enemy. This needs minimum use of force. This needs almost restraint by all. Here, the battlefield is your own home and not the enemy territory. Overuse of force causes damage to own property and own people. You can not be restrained for long. It is not your fault. You are trained to fight and kill or be killed. We don’t want that either. Terrorism and militancy need restraint and minimum use of force. You get provoked very easily which leads to some administrative complications”.
It is becoming evident that ULFA has modified its strategy from total passivity to controlled aggression. This is a sure indication of a violent phase of militancy in Assam. But given the intellect and the intelligence its leadership has, it will not be foolhardy to engage itself in a total military confrontation with the Army.
I thought he made a very valid observation. But obviously he had Mangaldoi and Nalbari incidents at the back of his mind. In April 1992 the Army launched massive operations to trace out some militants responsible for shoot-out at Mangaldoi and blowing off an Army vehicle at Nalbari. Army did take certain harsh measures which caused inconvenience to the public and there was a huge hue and cry.
The fourth objective of soft-target killing approach of ULFA is to create a feeling amongst the people of what Mr Hiteshwar Saikia called ‘psychological irritation’. There are two ways of doing this. Firstly, through the prolonged stay of the Army and secondly, provoking the Army to intensify its operations. Once the Army does this it will turn the country side upside down. Large scale cordon and search operations, followed by road blocks and frequency to suspected hideouts, will cause inconvenience to general public. Through its acts of soft-target-killing ULFA is inviting the Army to do all this. Prolonged stay of the Army will definitely enhance the ordeals of the people. It is a psychological battle which the ULFA is fighting so as to turn the general public against the Army. Should it happen, ULFA would have gained an upper hand. Therefore it is in the best interests of the Army to avoid large scale and conventional operations. It must go needle-searching in a more pragmatic manner. Key to this is target-based-operations in an inconspicuous manner.
If the soft-target approach is going to be the apple-cart of ULFAs new found strategy then what are the likely targets for this? No doubts as discussed earlier, isolated Army personnel and vehicles would be central to this strategy. But police and civil government officials will also be high on the hit lists, followed by business people and officials of the industry. Disruptions of rail-road communications through blasts and sabotage would be a common feature. Night travel will be made unsafe and insecure. Shoot-outs in the crowded markets or busy highways will be cleverly executed to provoke the Army.
The aim is to bargain for a few civilian causalities and also react to these isolated incidents. Adoption of a reactive strategy will lead to unwanted imposition of harsh measures such as curfews, road bocks and search operations. This will cause hardships to the people, which may be exploited to launch mass agitations and protest-marches. Press will be activated and stories of alleged army atrocities will be freely circulated. Media will be cleverly used to denigrate the security forces.
Local and vernacular press will be the key to this media policy of the ULFA. National and the English medium press is not what the matters to ULFA. To create instant the impressions amongst people, it will always exploit its local contacts with vernacular press, who easily fall prey to intimidation of militants. Somehow security forces need to evolve a careful policy on its press rebuttals. Issue of these denials and rebuttals in English form Divisional or Corps Headquarters do not have their desired effects on the local populace.
External security force be trimmed and made capable of fighting Smart and Designer Wars or the Niche War like in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and J&K. In so doing, there is a requirement of great coordination amongst the three services.
To beat ULFA at its game of clever use of the Fourth Estate, unit and sub – unit commanders on the spot must be empowered to develop relations with local press-barons. A clever psychological campaign must be launched. Press, both local and national, is always hungry for sensational information. Unit commanders can provide a number of such stories on the militants. Supported by evidence and facts, these stories can play havoc with ‘The Robin hood’ image of militants.
Thus, it would be apparent that under the present set of conditions, the grand strategy of ULFA appears to follow a two tracked policy of ‘war of nerves’ and ‘war of attrition’ to achieve what it can not do by the force of guns. The sole purpose is to impose caution on the Army in such a manner that ‘needle-searching’ is made an awesome and unpleasant exercise thereby making the Army idle and ineffective. But the Army has a job to do. If it is inactive, it may remain holed up for a longer period. Inactive and idle soldiers may get involved at times, in certain acts of indiscipline. This may cause friction and may embitter civil-military relations. And when all this happens, the third dimension of ULFA strategy, i.e. to use the press, will unfold itself. Finally, it will like to create similar scenario in the North-East region or even in the rest of country, though it may be a distant dream.
To implement its strategy of ‘war of attrition’ and ‘war of nerves’ ULFA may face practical problems, as bestowed upon it by the disadvantages of geography and social structure of Assam. In order to overcome these, it will seek ties with other militant organisations in the region and also broaden its relations with foreign India-baiter outfits. Basically there are four problem areas. First, is the uninterrupted flow of arms. Second pertains to the inability of its cadres to take on the Army. Third concern is of financial backing. And the fourth problem area is to sustain its protracted war and internationalize its cause.
Its concern for continued supply of arms and ammunition is further handicapped by the lack of international arms market in the immediate vicinity of the borders of Assam. It has to look for arms in the Middle East, China, Southeast Asia and Western Europe. Having acquired these weapons from such far away places, it will need transit facilities in the proximity of Assam borders. Myanmar and Bangladesh could serve as arms supply nodes. But it has to be in a very clandestine manner. The scenario can not be compared to Afghanistan where Pakistan served as a conduit for arms supply in a big way. Nevertheless arms could still trickle-in in penny packets. Even if limited bases are found in these countries, ULFA faces a huge problem of importing them into Assam from Bangladesh and Myanmar. It has to deal with Nagas, Manipur and Tripura rebels. They will extort a definite price for facilitating such movement of arms.
To beat ULFA at its game of clever use of the Fourth Estate, unit and sub ““ unit commanders on the spot must be empowered to develop relations with local press-barons. A clever psychological campaign must be launched.
Possessing arms is one thing but using them against the Army is another? This highlights the second problem of the ULFA. It needs mentally hardened and highly motivated militant cadres who can undertake the risk of engaging the Army in shoot-out battles. This can not be done overnight. It needs a total militarization of the social psyche of the youth. This transformation needs time, which is what ULFA is hoping to do through its soft-target-killings approach. However, protempore, ULFA will look for hired mercenaries of other militant organizations. It will go for ‘contract-killings’ of selected Army officers, police officials, government officials and SULFA cadres. Hired mercenaries will not only do ULFA’s job of contract-killings but also provide adequate training and expertise to ULFA cadres.
As for the financial problem, it will be further compounded. The purchase of sophisticated weapons and their carriage and transportation to Assam will undoubtedly demand huge funds at its disposal. Also add to it the cost of hired mercenaries who will ask for huge sums. Besides, the training and recruitment of its cadres will place further financial burden. All this will force ULFA to extract funds from the business community and tea-gardens. It may also levy taxes on general public and collect them regularly. This is where the ULFA would run into problems with the people of Assam. If the problem persists, business will come to a standstill and its source of finances will dry up. It may also resort to drug-trafficking and other such clandestine activities to muster funds. It is no surprise that the Northeast region has fallen prey to the narcotics menace due to active involvement of various militant organisations in such activities.
Narcotics and militancy have both caused upheavals to the societies of the region. There are reports that the Northeast region is fast becoming a breeding place of the dreaded HIV-virus. The militants perhaps do not realize the harm they are causing to their people through such nefarious activities. Finally, ULFA will like to wage a protracted war and internationalize its cause. To wage a protracted war it ought to preserve itself. It must make the job of the Army difficult by active aggression. And ‘active aggression’ will be sustained by large scale import of arms and hired mercenaries.
Shoot-out-battles will create ULFA-martyrs, who will eventually be the rallying points. ‘Bandhs’, protests and agitations against such actions of the Army would be organized to further slow down Army operations. Media will be extensively used to launch a disinformation campaign. The ’spin-doctor’ of ULFA will spread rumours on the alleged atrocities of the Army. At the same time, it will seek foreign platforms and forums through its alleged links with ISI to internationalize the crisis. All this will be a long drawn strategy, hoping that other regions and states cause similar pinpricks in the rest of the country. The ULFA would hope that one day a Soviet type collapse may occur and the bleeding Army has no strength left to combat it.
Nothing can be done unless there is peace and harmony. Growth and development can take place only if our homes are safe and secure. Today, the danger to our security is more from internal foes. We have to focus on internal security. We have a large number of cleavages in terms of region, religion, language, and ethinicity, which are vulnerable to exploitation by our enemies. We ought to pay more attention to WOM. I do not think NIA (National Investigation Agency) alone will measure up to the threats of WOM and Terrorism. Some of the measures that need to be taken are :-
External security force be trimmed and made capable of fighting Smart and Designer Wars or the Niche War like in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and J&K. In so doing, there is a requirement of great coordination amongst the three services.
- Creation of Unified Command and its Nodes. There is a need to create a more effective and balanced Unified Command, both at the national level and its nodes in various regions affected by insurgency/militancy/terrorism. Separate forces including civil and military intelligence agencies, combating WOM must come under this. There is no need to create separate infrastructure, the current geographical extents of existing Army Commands can work as the Regional Nodes. At the national level, it ought to be under yet to be appointed CDS (Chief of Defence Staff). But, till it is formalized, we can place it under the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). Similarly, at each regional node staffing should be done at the levels of the Command HO, Corps HQ , Division HQ and Brigade HQ. With the implementation of Phase -2 of AVS committee report, all the new upgradations of the ranks of Colonels/Brigadiers and Major Generals can be easily consumed.
- Vitalize and reorganize internal security forces. In the long run, we might have to do a rethink on the reorganization of state police mechanism to enable it to tackle violence, riots and terrorism, whether external or internal. We must concentrate on WOM because an all-out-war of 1971 type is currently ruled out unless we want to go for nuclear exchange in the subcontinent. The Rashtriya Rifles could form the nucleus of such a force. This force must become an all India Internal Security Force, with all the powers of Police and those provided by the Armed Forces Disturbed Area Act of 1958. Its caders must be on all India basis. Each district of India should have a battalion of 1000 personnel placed along with the district police.
- Law and order must not be exclusively state subject. The power of the police should be curtailed to only investigation and filing of criminal complaints. It must be made mandatory for each police station to file FIR in every case. The FIR lodging procedures must be simplified.
- Intelligence agencies be made more responsive to the modern day problems of violence, riots and terrorism. There should be only one agency controlling all kind of intelligence in the state. It should become a single window through which all intelligence related to national security must flow.
- External security force be trimmed and made capable of fighting Smart and Designer Wars or the Niche War like in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and J&K. In so doing, there is a requirement of great coordination amongst the three services. Thus, the post of CDS needs to be created to closely and intimately control Army, Navy and Air force , Internal Security Force and NIA. His status should be at par with the NSA (National Security Adviser). The roles should be defined. According to me, the NSA should involve himself with the strategic aspects of national security and CDS should act on the executional aspects. In other words where the job of NSA ends, the job of CDS begins.
- Defence ministry be bifurcated into two wings i.e. IS (Internal Security) wing and ES (external security) Wing. Each wing must be placed under a minister of state for defence.
- Corrupt and Derelicting public servants. Corruption is the main cause of WOM flourishing in India. Corrupt officials are equally to be blamed for terrorist acts. There is a need to fix responsibility on bureaucracy, i.e. IAS, IPS and PCS cadres. They just get away by blaming the politicians. The Deputy Commissioners and Sub-Divisional Magistrates (SDMs) must be made accountable for any act of violence in their areas of responsibility. To dispel insecurity from the public minds, public servants, including MLAs and MPS, ought to be summarily dismissed if found indulging in corrupt practices. All public servants must be asked to file annual return on purchase of items worth Rs 20,000 or more. Non-filing should invite not only confiscation but also dismissal.
- Media to be made responsible and a partner in nation-building. They must not disclose vital information from the scene of incident which may jeopardize operations. Guidelines for self control must be laid down by the central government. The media ought to be debarred from propping up criminals and terrorists in the name of freedom of speech.