The ULFA deal is a lesson on geopolitics, messaging and factionalism - Hindustan Times

Northeastern View | ULFA deal is a lesson on geopolitics, messaging and factionalism, the ultimate enemy of rebel groups

Feb 06, 2024 08:38 PM IST

The historic deal signed with the pro-talks faction of Assam’s oldest insurgency group, and India is a watered-down version of the group’s early demands

The pro-peace faction of Assam’s oldest insurgent group, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) signed a peace agreement with the Indian government in December 2023, concluding nearly three decades of difficult peacemaking by a wide range of stakeholders in Dispur and New Delhi. Union home minister, Amit Shah, called it a “golden day” for Assam.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma with members of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) during signing of a peace accord between ULFA and the central and Assam governments, in New Delhi, Friday. (PTI)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma with members of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) during signing of a peace accord between ULFA and the central and Assam governments, in New Delhi, Friday. (PTI)(HT_PRINT)

Two things, however, remain up for debate: Whether the agreement really signifies a complete end to ULFA’s armed struggle in Assam, given that an armed faction headed by the outfit’s original hardliner commander-in-chief, Paresh Baruah, continues to exist without ceasing fire, and whether it is the best deal that the outfit could have secured.

However, both these points are not the core concerns of this column. Rather, we can use this deal to better understand three aspects: how armed groups split from within, how and why they moderate their message, and how geopolitics shapes their existence.

Factionalism, splitting from within

If there is one word that suitably characterises the complicated ULFA story, then that is “factionalism.”

Just a day after the Centre signed the deal with the peace faction, Baruah, the persistent hardliner who heads the non-ceasefire ULFA-Independent (ULFA-I) faction and is said to be living somewhere close to the Myanmar-China border, announced that he would talk peace only if the “assurance of sovereignty” is on the table. One can be sure that such a sweeping demand will not be accepted by any government in Dispur or Delhi. But, Baruah’s insistence captures a whole history of internal chasms within ULFA.

By 1990, ULFA had emerged as a formidable insurgent threat to the Indian state in Assam. But, right then, things changed. Following the killing of Surendra Paul, a tea estate manager, the Central government sent 15 brigades of the Indian Army to dismantle the outfit in what was called “Operation Bajrang”. One year later, another better-planned military campaign, “Operation Rhino”, handicapped ULFA’s command structures and cadre base. All hell broke loose within the outfit.

One clique within the outfit, shepherded by its founder chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, began to contemplate negotiations with the government under the remit of the Indian Constitution. This drew the ire of the more radical faction led by Baruah. The Indian state had managed to tick an important checkbox in the standard counterinsurgency handbook: Create splits within the enemy. While the Baruah-led faction managed to subdue the pro-talks faction at that time, it failed to fix the underlying differences. Silently but surely, the cracks continued to grow, ultimately leading to a clean split down the middle by the mid-2000s.

In 2005, the Rajkhowa-led pro-talks faction constituted the civil society-led “People’s Consultative Group (PCG)”, thus formalising its aspiration to negotiate with the Indian state. Six years later, the faction signed a tripartite agreement with Dispur and New Delhi. Once again, a dramatic split hit the outfit when Baruah replaced Rajkhowa as ULFA’s chairman with Abhijit Barman.

But, even through these olive branch phases, ULFA’s violence and the state’s counter-violence endured. Four parallel developments took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s: Its senior leadership found safe havens in neighbouring countries and received training from Pakistan; the Indian state continued to close in on, and even extrajudicially kill, serving cadres of the outfit using their surrendered counterparts; it continued to attack state and non-state targets; and it began to lose popular appeal.

A combination of these factors, framed by serious disagreements among the leadership over the use of violence against civilians, gradually weakened the outfit.

Moderating the message

The ULFA story is also a complex tale of how armed groups, even the most radical ones within them, moderated their messaging. In 1992, the outfit, through a pamphlet, stunned the people of Assam by criticising the anti-foreigner Assam Movement (1979-85) and welcoming the role of “Bangladeshi immigrants” in Assam’s socioeconomic life. For a group born out of the agitational, anti-foreigner politics of the Movement, this was an astounding volte-face. But, it was done for a purely tactical reason: to appease the government in Dhaka in order to seek shelter in Bangladesh.

The other aspect in which ULFA, at least its pro-talks faction, moderated its message was the demand for “sovereignty”. Even as the internal fissures began to widen, the insistence on swadhinata — complete independence — shapeshifted into swayattasasan or autonomy. Through the second half of the 2000s, the pro-talks faction moved from rajnaitik swadhinata — political autonomy — to arthanitik swadhinata – economic autonomy. A ‘charter of demands’ published by the Rajkhowa faction in a 2011 ‘National Convention’ in Guwahati reflected these watered-down iterations of ULFA’s original demands.

The final agreement inked on December 29, 2023, reflects an even softer manifesto. Leave “independence”, even “autonomy” doesn’t appear in it. Several prominent civil society figures in Assam have criticised the outfit’s dramatic climb-down. But, Baruah’s continued insistence on “sovereignty” as a precondition for dialogue reflects the sharp contradictions that have characterised ULFA since its heydays. The moot question now is whether the ULFA-I chief, whose hardline stance remains the most lethal arrow in his shrinking quiver, will moderate his demands.

Geopolitics of an insurgency

Of all the insurgent groups in Northeast India, ULFA has probably been the most diplomatically agile. It was able to quickly adapt to changing geopolitical conditions to ensure its own survival. It successfully created strategic backyards in not one, but three of India’s closest neighbours — Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. Not just that, it was also able to get close to the highest political establishments in these countries.

In each case, ULFA identified geopolitical faultlines and strategic loopholes to make friends. Sometimes, it went alone (Bangladesh), and at other times, allied with other like-minded groups (Myanmar, Bhutan) to create safe havens. But, geopolitics, like the wind, changes direction fast. ULFA’s collapse was preordained by its slippery manoeuvrings in the neighbourhood, which could not guarantee long-term survival. Be it a change in government in Dhaka or a new security doctrine in Thimphu, the outfit’s leadership soon found itself pushed back into Assam where it was most vulnerable.

Once again, Baruah stands out as an exception here. He has not only managed to evade arrest despite geopolitical churnings in India's eastern neighbourhood but also kept himself visible in the public discourse by frequently communicating with the Assamese media and commenting on the state’s socio-political affairs from his secret hideouts. In that sense, Baruah might be a spent force but is not yet a nobody in the complicated India-versus-ULFA story. It is his return to Assam that will truly mark the end of the oldest armed group in the state’s history.

Angshuman Choudhury is an Associate Fellow with the Centre for Policy Research, and focuses on Northeast India and Myanmar. The views expressed are personal.

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