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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 890

India: Tackling the ULFA Monster

By M Rama Rao - Reporting for Asian Tribune from India

New Delhi, 23 January (Asiantribune.com): Clearly there are two dimensions to the situation in Assam. One relates to the easy manner in which urban clusters of "Hindi-speaking" peoples can be targeted; and the other relates to the back channels and jungle hideouts that are both lines of escape and lines of sustenance for the terrorist organisation from bases and sanctuaries mostly in Bangladesh, where ULFA has emerged as a major financier of political parties and in fact opened war chest of Rs. 30 crores to fund selected candidates entering the parliament election due in another six months.

Government's immediate objective is to put ULFA on the run and deprive it of targets in clusters of Hindi speaking workers, who are the easy prey. That is why the additional deployment of security forces -- Army, Border Security Force, Central Reserve Police force and provincial armed constabulary—which are now being brought under a unified command under the Chief Minister's supervision needs to concentrate, in the first instance.

So far as political message is concerned the ULFA knows that its claims to "sovereignty" are in no way enhanced by killing migrant workers because they are, very literally, peripheral to the whole issue. Yet killing "Hindi-speaking migrants" are the only viable targets it can find in the Assam of its dreams. Targeting the migrant Muslims from Bangladesh is out of question because that would hurt their interests in Bangladesh.

ULFA has been issuing quit notices to "Hindi-speaking Biharis" by the dozen. It has put Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi on notice that it will not allow the national games to be staged as planned. It is doubtful whether ULFA will succeed in its new mission. Even if it does, it will not matter an iota in the supposed ULFA objective of securing sovereignty from India. Another fall out of the campaign of indiscriminate destruction in crowded localities and market places is organisations like the Peoples Consultative Group become muted in their support to ULFA.

Well, to put differently, the security forces have a very favourable groundswell of silent support. The more the ULFA resorts to violence to stamp its diktat on the local population the more it isolates itself. The cordon-and search operations of the security forces therefore must concentrate on capture and political neutralisation. Every care must be taken to minimise hardships to the people. Otherwise, the psychological edge will be lost.

That Prime Minister is willing to learn from experience is clear from his visit to the violence hit areas in Assam. This time both the centre and the state should work together, and avoid the temptation to announce another ceasefire after a few days of 'peace'. There is no substitute to improved patrolling, bomb-detection and confidence building measures. Intelligence gathering will become effective if central agencies give up the colonial hangovers of looking upon provincial apparatus with suspicion and realise that whatever be the technological tools at their command, they remain dependent on the local Thana for basic inputs and as such the morale of the local police should not be undermined in any manner.

The current slow pace of operations is largely due to a paucity of actionable intelligence about the presence of the ULFA cadres in any given locality. As patrolling improves and the confidence of the local population in the security forces grows the availability of intelligence will improve, making for a larger number of arrests. Paramount to the security operations is the requirement that no atrocities should occur because that becomes grist to ULFA's political mill. As has been often stated counter-insurgency is a manpower-intensive operation and more personnel on the ground (as the Americans are learning in Iraq) the better the maintenance of law and order and intelligence gathering.

In fact, more intelligence collected from within the urban milieu will help to control insurgency on the periphery—the rural areas and the forested areas. There the strategy will, perforce, be one of wait-and-watch. The absence of an overt and commanding political presence in any given urban setting will redound on the ULFA's ability to project its political diktat and that, for the security forces, is half the battle won.

To what extent the Pranab Mukherjee visit to Myanmar has helped to soften the Yangon Junta approach to dealing with ULFA is unclear.

Indications are that there is still some hesitancy on the part of Myanmar government on acceding to Indian requests for a coordinated operation on both sides of the border against ULFA. So, the best course for India is not asking for deployment of Myanmar security forces (and thereby opening itself to demands for equipment, ammunition and means of communication) but seek permission for hot pursuit. How to go about the task of hot pursuit is a matter of operational detail. There are in all 12 sanctuaries of ULFA.

For a surgical action and best results, Special Forces can be para-dropped for cleaning up these camps. Firstly such a move carries the element of surprise. Secondly, it gives the choice of time.

Thirdly, there will be no need to depend on Myanmar, whose forces are mostly engaged in its own counter-insurgency operations along the Thailand border. Joint operation against ULFA will mean shifting some of them to the border with India, which, given its present disposition, Yangon is not keen to do.

An advantage of the approach is that India will be able to assess whether recent Myanmar reluctance is not dictated by China's geopolitics. China has of late become active in Myanmar. Beijing will be content to see Indian security forces tied down in counter-insurgency operations all along its eastern flank. So, the point is it is imperative for India to demonstrate a greater degree of self-reliance in its counter-insurgency operations.

Admittedly, India will remain at sea in dealing with ULFA hideouts in Bangladesh. The Asom ultras enjoy the patronage of Pakistan Army's Inter-Services Intelligence, which is very active in the area, and the Islamist fundamentalists. ULFA leaders enjoy goodwill of the two major parties – the India friendly Awami League headed by Sheikh Hasina and the India baiting BNP of Begum Khaleda Zia. This is the reason why top leaders of ULFA are able to build a Rs. 500 crore industrial empire in Dhaka and its surroundings and also are able to dodge the Interpol warrants for deportation whether it was AL or BNP in power.

Super cop, K P S Gill, says ULFA's ties with Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan and Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI) of Bangladesh date back to 1989 when these contacts were on a modest scale. His assessment is that ULFA has several income generating projects in Bangladesh. These range from three hotels and a soft drink manufacturing unit to a private clinic, and two motor driving schools. ULFA is believed to manage even media consultancies in Dhaka. Some children of top ULFA leaders are reportedly studying in the USA and Canada under ISI protection.

Paresh Barua, ULFA's commander –in-chief, sits on a huge business empire that spawns a tannery, a chain of departmental stores, garment factories, travel agencies, shrimp trawlers and transport and investment companies besides a star hotel. His personal worth is estimated at Rs. 30 crore. . Barua, who uses several aliases, like for instance, Kamruj Zaman Khan, Nur-uz-Zaman or Zaman Bhai, is staying in a posh Dhaka locality with his wife, Bobby, better known as Sufia Begum, and his two children, Tahshim Khan and Akash Khan.

Reflecting its new strength, ULFA leadership is said to be paying 'protection money' to DGFI functionaries particularly at the low and middle level. Some elements in ISI also appear to be milking them, reflecting their 'complete and firm' grip over the Assam ultras.

It is not clear as to at what stage of their stay in Bangladesh, ULFA leaders became active on the local political scene. But it is clearly established by now that they have established a network of political patronage that cuts across party barriers. They are using the network as some sort of insurance cover. Barua's funds are reportedly managed by a top functionary of Jatiya Party headed by Gen Ershad, a former president, who is now aligned with Awami League. This functionary, like Ershad himself, is an aspirant for a place in the new parliament.

Understandably, therefore, ULFA has more at stake in the outcome of the Bangladesh election than the two Begums at war with each other. ULFA has earmarked some Rs. 30 crore as election fund. How many candidates are directly funded by ULFA and how many are on its rolls for other help will become clear once a fresh countdown for elections begins. ULFA identified some fifteen seniors across the entire political spectrum before the elections initially slated for Jan 22 were cancelled under Awami League's boycott threat. These fifteen senior politicians are also beneficiaries of ISI largesse and this is yet another instance of convergence of interests between ISI and ULFA.

It should be clear to any one by now why United Liberation Front of Asom is targeting the 'Hindi speaking Bihari migrant', and not the Bangladeshi Muslims, who are the 'real infiltrators' into Assam.

- Asian Tribune -

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