On April 13, a day ahead of the beginning of Rongali Bihu, the Assamese New Year festivities, news of 13 young men from across Assam joining the banned separatist outfit United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) hit headlines in the state.
Though the number was on the higher side for a single day, this wasn’t the first such news in recent weeks and months. As per unofficial estimates, this year 234 people have left their homes and families to join the outfit, which is in a state of unilateral ceasefire since last year.
On Sunday, news emerged that Janardan Gogoi, the vice president of Congress’s Tinsukia district youth unit, had left his home in Sadiya to join the ULFA-I camps located in neighbouring Myanmar. Gogoi announced his move on social media platforms.
“There is a conspiracy by some people to obliterate Assamese society…I can’t be a mute witness to destruction of my community…To protect Assamese society from extinction and to bring back its glory, there’s no other option apart from armed struggle,” Gogoi ‘wrote’ on his Facebook page on Sunday.
The news of Gogoi and others joining ULFA-I, a banned terror outfit, which had declared an unilateral ceasefire since May 2021, has caused some alarm in the corridors of power in Guwahati since this has happened at a time when there are indications of the outfit’s leadership sitting for peace talks with New Delhi.
“Youths leaving their homes and going to join terror outfits like ULFA-I have been happening every year. There seems to be an upsurge in that in the recent past. Significantly, many of these youths also return,” said additional DGP (special branch) Hiren Nath.
“In 2020, 64 young men who had left homes to join ULFA-I returned to the mainstream. Most of these youths join the outfit not because of ideological leanings but because of family or personal issues. Poverty and unemployment could also be reasons for such a move,” he added.
Insurgency in Assam started in April, 1979 with the formation of ULFA—as an offshoot of the anti-foreigner’s agitation against inflow of illegal immigrants to the state from Bangladesh (former East Pakistan). The stated aim of the outfit was to create an independent Assam.
In February, 2011, ULFA split into two groups—one group led by chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa that decided to give up its violent past and sit for talks with the Centre without any condition and another led by commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah, which decided against talks and rebranded as ULFA-Independent.
According to police and intelligence officials, with the possibility of peace talks with ULFA-I taking place, many unemployed youths who have family problems are starting to join the outfit with the hope of gaining some benefit through rehabilitation packages if a peace deal is signed in the near future.
Some say that recruitment amid a unilateral ceasefire could be a ploy by ULFA-I to have an upper hand if negotiations take place during the peace talks with the government of India.
“This trend of youths leaving homes to join ULFA-I will continue till the organisation is active. Though ULFA-I had indicated that they could sit down for peace talks, the government in New Delhi hasn’t shown much interest,” said Anup Chetia, general secretary of the pro-talks faction of ULFA.
“The government at the Centre hasn’t shown any initiative in holding talks with us (those who left ULFA and agreed to sit for peace talks). Issues like poverty and unemployment, especially in the rural areas, which has become severe after the Covid-19 pandemic, have also prompted youths to join ULFA-I,” he added.
Chetia said that amid the unilateral ceasefire announced by ULFA-I, the outfit could be trying to increase their cadre base ahead of peace talks to have an upper hand during negotiations.
There’s no clear data on how many young men could have joined the outfit in recent weeks and months. Police and intelligence officials said, there could be around 170-180 cadres in ULFA-I at present. Chetia put the figure close to 500.
While the police and security establishment are trying to foil attempts by ULFA-I to recruit new cadres, the outfit issued a warning to the government earlier this month accusing it of harassing persons on allegations of links with ULFA-I. In a statement, the outfit said youths were coming forward to join it because they believe in the cause of sovereignty.
Due to the initiative taken by the Centre and the Assam government, in the past two years 16 terror outfits from the state have laid down arms, disbanded and signed peace deals. According to police officials, ULFA-I and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) are the only two major outfits which are active at present.