In Ulfa camps that struck truce, a sense of cautious optimism | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

In Ulfa camps that struck truce, a sense of cautious optimism

Jan 17, 2024 09:45 AM IST

The government of India, government of Assam, and the pro-talks faction of Ulfa signed a historic agreement for permanent peace in Assam.

Dayrong (Goalpara, Assam) It is an early January morning at Dayrong in Assam’s Goalpara district, 120km west of Guwahati; early enough for the winter mist to obscure the pock-marked red and green board that announces the name of the compound: Nava Nirman Kendra. Sixty-two-year-old Kakiram Rabha, the lines on his face battle-hardened both by age and a life of conflict, is staring at his phone that has not stopped ringing since the sun began peeking through the sky. He answers some calls and lets others be. For even he, the most senior man at the designated camp for surrendered cadres of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), has very few answers.

Members of the pro-talks faction of Ulfa, which has a cadre of close to 700 people. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
Members of the pro-talks faction of Ulfa, which has a cadre of close to 700 people. (HT Photo)

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On December 29, in what all sides called a historic agreement that will push Assam further along on the road to permanent peace, the government of India, the government of Assam, and the pro-talks faction of Ulfa signed a tripartite memorandum of settlement that saw the militant group officially lay down arms after a violent 43-year movement. The pro-talks faction which has close to 700 cadres, has been confined to nine designated camps, called Nava Nirman Kendras, since 2011 when they first sat across a negotiating table and signed a suspension of operations deal. The Ulfa (Independent), led by fugitive leader Paresh Baruah, has close to 200 armed cadres, however, is still operational, with camps in remote parts of the North-East and across the border in Myanmar.

In the deal, the Union government promised a clutch of projects for Assam worth around 1.5 lakh crore. Ulfa, represented by 16 senior signatories, was also promised an ex gratia payment to its cadres, economic support, vocational and government jobs “depending on eligibility”. In return, the memorandum said, Ulfa agreed to surrender all arms, submit a list of all cadres, and empty its designated camps within a month.

For the Ulfa cadres in these camps, this means a cataclysmic change in their lives, their futures, and their identities. And yet, there is more confusion than clarity. “Most call and ask for details of the deal, and we are not sure what it means for us individually. Some ask if we will get around 4 lakh, others ask if it is 10 lakh. I am a senior member, and since even I am unaware, I avoid answering calls and queries,” Rabha said.

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The Ulfa cadres

As a child growing up in an Assam torn apart by violence, Rabha remembers this guttural desire to be one with an armed force, and to wear a uniform. It didn’t matter if it was the green of the police or the patchwork fatigues of Ulfa. He studied till Class 8 in his village of Dwarka Mojapara, and then dropped out. In 1984, bang in the middle of the Assam agitation against illegal immigrants that birthed Ulfa, he appeared for a test for a constable’s job in the Assam Police in 1984. He did not get in. He worked as a home guard for six months but returned to his village to help his family in its small rubber cultivation.

His ideas were unformed, his politics unclear, but the “lure of the uniform” saw Rabha join Ulfa, a designated terror outfit formed in 1979 with the stated goal of a sovereign Assam, in 1987. “I was not sure what a sovereign Assam meant, but the desire to do whatever was needed for my state and its people made me join the outfit. In 1989, I went with a group of other cadres to Myanmar and got arms training. Life there was harsh, and on many occasions, we survived eating only leaves. I became severely unwell and returned to Assam in 1990 for treatment,” Rabha said.

Once he recovered, Rabha was put in charge of Ulfa’s activities in Goalpara, occasionally travelling to other parts of the state, his new role was to collect money from people and transfer it to the organisation. By 1995, Rabha had become a sergeant in the Ulfa hierarchy, but even as the Assam Police upped its operations against the group, he fled to Bhutan. Rabha was therefore in a camp across the border in December 2003 when the Royal Bhutan Army launched “Operation All Clear”, a military offensive to flush out close to 3,000 cadres of Ulfa, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation(KLO).

Rabha says he and several colleagues were captured by RBA and handed over to Indian authorities. He spent two years in Goalpara jail under charges that included extortion and contravention of the Arms Act. In 2006, he was released on bail. “I moved to Meghalaya and carried on with Ulfa’s activities. In 2008, I went to Bangladesh, originally for treatment of my teeth, but that country too had Ulfa influence,” he said. He was married in January 2010 but stayed separately from his wife to avoid being arrested together before returning to India in September 2011 when the pro-talks faction of Ulfa decided to sit across the negotiating table. Since then, Rabha and his wife have both made the Dayrong camp their home.

Life in the camps

Once past the rusty red and green board, the Dayrong Nava Nirman Kendra is a patchwork of small, typically Assamese structures of concrete walls and a tin roof. The rooms are tiny, but they are surrounded by tall trees on the periphery, protecting the camp from prying eyes. Inside, the camp has a small field covered by unruly grass, a row of rooms, and a vegetable garden at the back.

Under the contours of the 2011 suspension of operations agreement, Ulfa cadres were meant to stay in the nine designated camps, but in reality, with hostilities decreasing over the past decade, many left, married and went on to stay with their families outside. The camp in Goalpara once had 45 cadres and their families. In January 2023, only five cadre and their families remain.

Some are old hands such as Rabha but there are others, like the 43-year-old Jishu Das who have spent more time in the designated camp, and less being an active Ulfa cadre. Born in Barabeta in Baksa district, Das joined the Ulfa in 2007, four years before the suspension of operations was signed. In those four years, he did odd jobs, was trained in Bangladesh and then, in turn, assisted in teaching new recruits. Since 2011, Das has lived at the Dayrong camp, got married to a local woman in 2013, and has an eight-year-old daughter who studies in a school at Krishnai, 3km away from the camp.

For inmates, the camp has one-room apartments with an attached kitchen. But there was little room even for his small family, so Das built a small concrete and bamboo structure separately within the compound. He once trained in using automatic weapons in Bangladesh, but now keeps himself busy with a vegetable garden that sustains his family where he grows seasonal vegetables, papaya and turmeric.

Under the 2011 suspension of operations agreement, Das gets a monthly dole of 3,000 from the state government and 6,000 from the Centre as a monthly stipend. “We basically manage with this dole. It is difficult to manage a family with such a meagre amount but there is no choice.” As a surrendered militant who had not yet signed a final settlement with the government, he was unfit to be employed elsewhere.

Now, that could change, but Das isn’t necessarily enthused by the possibility.

He says that the settlement signed in Delhi was a “big climbdown” from the goal of an independent Assam. “I am not very happy with it. But we are small cadres, and don’t have a say in what the big leaders have done,” Das, an Ulfa lance corporal said.

Rabha, the camp in-charge who lives in a larger four-room accommodation separate from the others, says that since 2011, the Assam government gives 1.75 lakh per month for maintenance of the camp, with the Centre giving 60,000 more. “But the funds aren’t regular,” Rabha said.

If the new deal is implemented in its fine print, Rabha, Das and the others who have made the camps their homes will likely have to look for alternative accommodation within a month and that possibility fills them with dread. There is but one clause, that says “designated camps will be considered for allotment by the state government for homeless ULFA members”, that they are still hopeful about.

But Anup Chetia, Ulfa general secretary and a prominent signatory to the deal, said: “That option can be availed only where designated camps are not located on village grazing reserve (VGR), professional grazing reserve (PGR) and reserve forests. The camp at Krishnai is in forest land. The inmates of that camp can stay there for the time being, but we won’t be able to do anything if they are removed from there as part of a government eviction drive in the future.”

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Anticipation amid uncertainty

Namita Rabha’s husband Baneshwar Rabha, a captain in ULFA, was killed in an army operation in Meghalaya in 2004. Since then, the 48-year-old has raised her two sons in Haligaon in Goalpara, living off the family’s small paddy farm near the village. Her eldest son is now in Chennai doing his MA, and the youngest is studying for his BA in Delhi.

For her, all the settlement means is the promise of a government job for her sons. “I have no idea what the settlement means for people like me, and there have been no discussions with us. But I want my sons to have permanent jobs,” she said.

Chetia said that they are still in talks with the government to increase the cash incentives for cadres. “We have demanded more from both the Centre and the state government. Whether they agree to it or not can’t be said immediately. I am aware that most of our cadres in the nine designated camps and those staying outside are at a loss on what the deal means for them. We will have a meeting with them to discuss the details after mid-January.”

The December settlement says that a state government committee, headed by an additional DGP (special branch) of the Assam Police, Hiren Chandra Nath, will assess the rehabilitation needs of cadres based on their age, educational qualification and area of residence. “Army, paramilitary, central armed police forces and Assam Police will organise recruitment rallies for eligible cadres of Ulfa,” the settlement read.

“The cadres will get cash and other benefits as per existing policies. The governments at the Centre and state are sensitive to their issues and are open to discussions on more incentives based on whether the Ulfa leadership can formulate such projects for rehabilitation. We can’t say yet if that will happen. The cadres can avail themselves of all flagship schemes of the government and get assimilated in the mainstream,” said Nath.

In his little corner in the camp, Das looks at his vegetable patch in the knowledge that this may not be home for much longer. “We didn’t join Ulfa seeking a job or compensation. But since the deal is already signed, we can’t do anything about it now. If the deal allows, I will hope to get a job so that my family’s future is secured. If not, we will have to leave the camp, take up rented accommodation and look for some profession,” Das said.

It is now 1pm, and beneath the red and green board, there is now an influx of former Ulfa cadre, all seeking information; all landing at Kakiram Rabha’s quarters for answers. But he is not at home. He has set off for a stroll, leaving the questions behind, his future as uncertain as that of the rest of them.

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    Utpal is a Senior Assistant Editor based in Guwahati. He covers seven states of North-East India and heads the editorial team for the region. He was previously based in Kathmandu, Dehradun and Delhi with Hindustan Times.

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