Sunday, February 13, 2005

INDIA: Assessment - What ails Assam

+ Ulfa had since its inception been supported by Pakistan and Bangladesh (and China?) who were prompting all insurgent groups of the North East to demand secession. It has always been East Pakistan’s (subsequently Bangladesh) philosophy of “Lebensraum’’, to encourage large-scale immigration that would allow the entire North-east region to secede from Bangladesh. While insurgency was kept under control by the army, Ulfa, whose bases were in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan were under pressure from Bangladesh and Pakistan to step up their operations particularly during the Kargil war and thereafter. Diplomatic parleys were therefore held with the Royal Bhutan Government, which agreed to throw Ulfa out of Bhutan. +

What ails Assam
J.R.Mukherjee

Assam has a multitude of ethnic groups demanding autonomy owing to socio-economic deprivation. It has been swamped by immigrants. Today indigenous ethnic groups (400-500 years old) constitute only about 30 to 35 per cent of the population. Earlier Hindus predominated but now 28 per cent are Muslims. It is over-populated. A large part of the area experiences extensive floods every year. It is marshy and is covered with tea gardens, oil fields, mines and reserve forests. Consequently there is food scarcity,

It is a primary product export region and a market for finished goods from other regions. It has been repeatedly balkanised to create the hill states, has border problems and its people are not welcome in the hill states for fear of demographic changes. Although it is well endowed with natural resources, it lacks industry and markets and has tenuous lines of communication with the rest of India. It has got embroiled in strife owing to maladministration and neglect.

While there were disturbances on the issues of immigration and language in 1951, 1960 and 1971, insurgency has its roots in the All Assam Students Union movement of 1973. The Aasu felt that, if it did not agitate, the government would not listen. The movement started in Sibsagar (Upper Assam) and spread like wildfire. In 1978, hardliners created a military wing called United Liberation Front of Asom and moderates a political party called All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (now called AGP). Ulfa organised itself with help of the NSCN, creating a Robin Hood image by carrying out social work.

Simultaneously, Aasu started agitations on immigration to start identification. Deportation was opposed by those with vested interests. The Assam government resigned under public pressure over the issue. President’s Rule was imposed and the Army called out. In 1980 there were anti-Bengal and communal riots which again had to be controlled by the Army. Talks were held between Aasu and the Union government.


Aasu demanded that illegal immigrants be identified on basis of the National Register of Citizens of 1951 and electoral rolls of 1952 and deported and further immigrants should be prevented. Aasu’s efforts failed as the Centre agreed only to a post-1971 cut-off. Aasu started a blockade of the Siliguri corridor, continuous agitation, coupled with ethnic and communal riots. The Centre finally signed the Assam Accord in 1985. Elections were then held and the AGP came into power. As the accord finalised the cut-off date as 1971, it did not meet aspirations of the hardliners. There was also no progress on implementation of the Accord.


From 1988 onwards, Ulfa took control of Assam and launched a terror campaign with killings galore. In 1990, President’s Rule was imposed and the Army called in to control the situation. Within a short period the situation was brought under partial control and a Congress government came into power.

Within a few months the Army had to be called in to resume operations against Ulfa till 1995, when it was felt that the Army could be withdrawn. As none of the causes of insurgency had been addressed by the authorities there was a resurgence of insurgency and the Army redeployed to execute counter insurgency operations.


Ulfa had since its inception been supported by Pakistan and Bangladesh (and China?) who were prompting all insurgent groups of the North East to demand secession. It has always been East Pakistan’s (subsequently Bangladesh) philosophy of “Lebensraum’’, to encourage large-scale immigration that would allow the entire North-east region to secede from Bangladesh. While insurgency was kept under control by the army, Ulfa, whose bases were in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan were under pressure from Bangladesh and Pakistan to step up their operations particularly during the Kargil war and thereafter. Diplomatic parleys were therefore held with the Royal Bhutan Government, which agreed to throw Ulfa out of Bhutan.

These operations were launched in December 2003 by the Royal Bhutan Army and led by the King of Bhutan personally. The Indian Army’s role was to execute border sealing operations on their side of the border. The operation was a resounding success with Ulfa and all other insurgent groups being thrown out. Over the past one year, Ulfa has tried its best to recover from loss of the sanctuary and a large part of its men and material and has been trying to make its presence felt again through a series of bomb blasts all over Assam. The situation is however under control.

The Ulfa and Aasu movements encouraged other minority groups to agitate for socio-economic improvements, autonomy and removal of illegal immigrants. Assam has now witnessed long-drawn movements by almost all tribes of Bodo origin, the Karbis, and Kukis. Of these the Dimasas and Karbis have been given partial autonomy.

The Bodos had started an autonomy move prior to independence on account of exploitation by the Assamese. They have periodically agitated for the same through the All Bodo Students Union and demanded a separate state called Udayachal. In 1980, they revived this demand. The hardliners amongst the Bodos then formed Bodo Security Force as a militant group in 1986 that started an insurgency in 1990. The initial aims were for separate statehood.

The Army was deployed to deal with the BdSF. In 1993 Bodo Autonomous Council was formed on the North bank of the Brahmaputra. This decision resulted in a split among the Bodos with the formation of the Bodo Liberation Tiger which favoured a peaceful resolution and the National Decmocratic Front of Boroland (formerly BdSF) hardliners joined hands with the Ulfa, took shelter in Bhutan and demanded secession.


The BAC proposals fell through. It was the Bhutan operations, wherein the NDFB was severely mauled that are largely contributing towards nudging the hardliners towards talks. A Bodo Autonomous Region has now been negotiated by the ABSU and BLT with the present government. Should this not for any reason happen, insurgency would possibly resume. Whilst insurgency continues on a low key, with good governance, concentration on economic development and grassroots autonomy catering to the needs of ethnic groups, Assam’s problems are not insurmountable.

The people are tired of violence and desperately want peace. Notwithstanding this, Ulfa and NDFB hardliners continue to extort funds from the state and try to impose their dictates from sanctuaries in Bangladesh with the backing of Bangladesh and Pakistan intelligence agencies. This and the issue of opening up trade routes through Bangladesh to assist in resolution of Assam’s economic woes, needs to be dealt with urgently by the Centre. The state government needs to speedily deal with the ground reality which indicates widespread corruption, large-scale extortion by whoever chooses to pose as an insurgent and looting of national wealth to the extent that there as a parallel economy running.

A clear policy needs to be formulated for south Assam, which has large tracts claimed by the NSCN, and ethnic strife between Nagas, Kukis, Manipuris, Hmars, Karbis, Dimasas and Bodos over these claims that threatens to escalate.

The author is a retired Lieutenant-General, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, of the Indian Army