COVER STORY

Security nightmare: ULFA trying to internationalise northeast conflicts

ULFA chief Paresh Baruah has long enjoyed the patronage of China and Pakistan

North-east-collage556 IMAGING: DENI LAL

Around 11.45am on October 13, two days before Durga Puja celebrations were to start in Assam, a small explosion rocked a scrapyard in Guwahati’s Pan Bazaar area, injuring four people. Minutes after the blast, Paresh Baruah of the banned United Liberation Front of Assam (Independent) telephoned a local television channel and claimed that ULFA(I) had set off the explosion to oppose India’s attempt “to settle Bengali immigrants in Assam” through the revision of National Register of Citizens. Baruah, 61, has been fighting to establish a sovereign Assam for four decades.

Strategic analyst G.M. Srivastava said he was certain that Baruah’s group had carried out the Tinsukia killings. “Our intelligence did not know that he had revived his organisation,” he said.
Nagas from India-occupied territories must understand that [the faction] led by Khango Konyak is the only legitimate organisation. —Isak Sumi, army commander of the Konyak faction of NSCN(K)
I know the deposed leaders, and they are still anti-talks. I can only hope they would not surrender to the Indian government. —Chuba Ozukum, president of the Naga Ho Ho
The NSCN(K) under Yung Aung signed a “nationwide ceasefire agreement” with Myanmar, pledging that it would never secede from the country. This means that the fight for Naga sovereignty may well be over.

The police, however, were sceptical of Baruah’s involvement in the blast. Deputy Commissioner of Police Ranjan Bhuyan ruled out any terror connection, saying, “The blast happened near a pile of sand kept for constructing a roadside drain. It may have had an unexploded shell which went off.” The injured, he said, were hit by stones; not shrapnel, as would have been in case of a bomb blast.

Barely three weeks later, on November 2, six militants in battle fatigues rode into Bisonimukh village in Tinsukia district and each of them seized a Bengali-speaking villager. The militants lined them up along a canal, made them kneel down, and fired. Five died; one fell, unconscious, into the water and survived.

This time, the police themselves announced that ULFA(I) was behind the attack. “We have investigated thoroughly and have come to the conclusion that the killings were carried out by ULFA(I),” said Pallav Bhattacharya, director-general of police (intelligence). “The style of the killings was similar to that of earlier ULFA killings. Even if an affiliate was involved, the onus is on ULFA(I).”

Interestingly, Baruah has neither owned up to the killings nor disowned them. When THE WEEK reached out to ULFA(I), a spokesman said, “We will send out a message at an appropriate time.”

Strategic analyst G.M. Srivastava, who had been director-general of police in Assam and Tripura, said he was certain that Baruah’s group had carried out the killings. “Our intelligence did not know that he had revived his organisation,” he said. He dismissed a press release that suggested a ULFA(I) denial of any role in the killings. “It’s a big falsehood,” he said. “We know that the area where the incident happened has ULFA(I)’s presence.”

The fight goes on: Baruah’s ULFA(I) is on a recruitment spree in the northeast | Rajeev Bhattacharyya The fight goes on: Baruah’s ULFA(I) is on a recruitment spree in the northeast | Rajeev Bhattacharyya

If so, what stopped Baruah from owning up? The answer, according to intelligence agencies, is that the killings were not by a single terror outfit, but by a “terror consortium”. Sources said the attack was carried out by the United Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia (UNLFW), formed in 2015 as an umbrella organisation of banned insurgent groups. Its major members are the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), the National Democratic Front of Boroland, the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak, the Kangleipak Communist Party and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation.

Baruah played a key role in envisaging and forming the UNLFW. According to him, the front has two clear-cut objectives. One, to build an alliance of militant organisations that, together, could effectively take on the Indian Army. (On June 4, 2015, within weeks of its formation, the front ambushed a military convoy in Manipur’s Chandel district, killing 18 soldiers of the Dogra Regiment. India carried out a surgical strike on terror camps in Myanmar five days later.)

The front’s second objective is to “internationalise” the struggles for sovereignty in the northeast. “We are reaching out to countries and international bodies like the United Nations in a big way, to boost opinion in our favour,” Baruah told THE WEEK in an exclusive interview. “We tell them about our struggle that has been going on for four decades.”

Pankaj Pratim Dutta, a student leader who left his home in August to join ULFA(I). Pankaj Pratim Dutta, a student leader who left his home in August to join ULFA(I).

Baruah, who divides his time between China and Myanmar, cited the example of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. “So long as the LTTE enjoyed international support, it succeeded,” he said. “When it lost that support, it lost the battle as well.”

The Assam Police have not confirmed whether the UNLFW was involved in the Tinsukia killings, though they were sure that ULFA(I) was behind it. A day after the killings, they arrested Biklai Gogoi, who they say was one of the killers. “We have interrogated him and we know the names of several others [who are involved],” said P.S. Changmai, special superintendent of police at Sadiya, a police district in Tinsukia that coordinates counterinsurgency operations. Changmai was later transferred out of Sadiya, perhaps because of a police failure to anticipate ULFA(I)’s revival.

What is worrying, said DGP Bhattacharya, is that the UNLFW has tied up with another deadly terror network—the Coordination Committee. Better known as CorCom, it operates mainly in Manipur, while its leaders live in the Myanmar-Thailand border region. CorCom has six militant outfits as members and has links to the CPI (Maoist) in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. “The UNLFW and CorCom have joined hands and become the largest terror alliance in south Asia,” said Bhattacharya.

The militants are allegedly trying to raise funds through kidnapping and extortion. On November 10, a tea estate manager in Namsai district in Arunachal Pradesh was abducted, allegedly by ULFA(I) members. The estate is owned by N. Sati Mein, wife of Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein. The kidnappers have demanded 03 crore as ransom. The police say Namsai is dominated by ULFA(I) and the National Democratic Front of Boroland (Songbijit), another UNFLW constituent.

Return of the native: Khango Konyak, the ousted NSCN(K) chief, with his followers. Return of the native: Khango Konyak, the ousted NSCN(K) chief, with his followers.

The UNLFW was headed by NSCN(K) chairman S.S. Khaplang till his death in June last year. Khaplang was succeeded by his longtime second-in-command Khango Konyak a month later in both organisations.

A Myanmar-born Heimi Naga, Khaplang had unilaterally ended his NSCN faction’s ceasefire agreement with the Indian government in 2015, apparently at Baruah’s instance. With Konyak being an Indian Naga, the Indian government had hoped to bring the NSCN(K) back to the talks table. But, in August this year, Baruah engineered a coup in the NSCN(K). He helped Yung Aung, known as Khaplang’s nephew, ‘impeach’ Konyak and seize command of the organisation. In recognition of his contributions to the Naga nationalist movement, Konyak, 75, was then given safe passage from Myanmar to India.

The NSCN(K) maintains that Konyak’s exit was not part of a coup. “He was removed as member and chairman of the organisation,” said U Kyaw Wan Sein of the NSCN(K) central committee. “The decision of the central committee was unanimous and Konyak has been given a safe passage to leave the camp.”

Baruah had convinced UNLFW leaders that Konyak was “incapable of leading the biggest organisation in the northeast”. Under Konyak, the NSCN(K) had failed to protect its turf. The Indian Army’s surgical strikes on terror camps in Myanmar’s ‘autonomous territory’—where the government had given militants a free hand to operate—had left the NSCN(K) vulnerable.

Man in charge: Yung Aung (left) with S.S. Khaplang. Aung replaced Konyak as NSCN(K) chairman in August | Rajeev Bhattacharyya Man in charge: Yung Aung (left) with S.S. Khaplang. Aung replaced Konyak as NSCN(K) chairman in August | Rajeev Bhattacharyya

“I advised them to change the leadership,” Baruah told THE WEEK. “This is part of our grand plan to infuse fresh blood into UNLFW leadership. I convinced them that, if we were to fight the Indian Army as a unit, both our organisations and the UNLFW would need young minds who would easily connect with the young generation in India’s northeast. My idea has been accepted by senior leaders of different organisations.”

The new NSCN(K) chief, Yung Aung, is only 45. A postgraduate in political science, Aung joined the Naga rebellion in 1998, after the NSCN(K) signed a ceasefire agreement with India. When the group broke the ceasefire, he stayed loyal to Khaplang, whom he called uncle. But, contrary to popular belief, they are not related (see story on page 54).

With Aung at the helm of the NSCN(K), Baruah is now the de facto head of the UNLFW. Baruah, however, said he did not wish to formally take up the position. “We will grow with a new leadership,” he told THE WEEK. “I will become a patron, instead of holding posts.”

Srivastava, the former DGP, said ULFA(I) was exploiting the volatile political situation in Assam, where the government is updating the National Register of Citizens: the updating has left 40 lakh people anxious because their names are missing from it. “What surprises me is that the organisation that was almost dead is now heavily recruiting people,” he said.

NSCN(K) cadres during a training session | Rajeev Bhattacharyya NSCN(K) cadres during a training session | Rajeev Bhattacharyya

In August, Pankaj Pratim Dutta, vice president of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) in Golaghat district, left his home to join ULFA(I). In October, he posted on social media a video of himself in battle fatigues and holding a Kalashnikov rifle. “I have joined ULFA(I) on my own volition,” he said. “I firmly believe that to be able to protect the existence of Assam, there is no other alternative. The Assamese people were once warriors; but now, we are forced to bow down to the government of India even in petty matters.”

It is perhaps the first time in 15 years that an AASU leader has joined ULFA. Bhattacharya said he did not know whether any of Dutta’s colleagues had joined the group. “But ULFA(I) has asked various student organisations to join it,” he said.

According to intelligence officers, around 150 youth from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have joined ULFA(I). Karishma Mech, a Class 10 student of Jagun village in Tinsukia, joined ULFA (I) in October. The police said at least seven girls from adjoining areas, who were reported to be missing, had followed suit. In November, Paresh Baruah’s nephew Munna Baruah, an electrical engineer at Indian Oil Corporation in Dibrugarh, went missing. The police said Munna and several of his friends had joined ULFA(I).

Bhattacharya, however, has played down fears of ULFA(I)’s revival. “They are confined to some areas in Assam and are mostly staying in Myanmar,” he said. “They cannot work alone, and that is why they formed the UNLFW with other groups. ULFA(I) has around 200 cadres in Assam, and we will arrest all of them.”

Cold handshake: Rajnath Singh with Zhao Kezhi, China’s minister of public security, in Delhi. China has rejected India’s demand that Baruah be extradited to India | PTI Cold handshake: Rajnath Singh with Zhao Kezhi, China’s minister of public security, in Delhi. China has rejected India’s demand that Baruah be extradited to India | PTI

ULFA(I) says it has ten times more cadres, mostly in Assam, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh and on the India-Myanmar border. This year, ULFA(I) and its associates have carried out 16 attacks in the northeast—five of them in Assam alone. “The government, both at the Centre and in the state, must not underestimate us,” Baruah said. “We are growing in leaps and bounds.”

KONYAK’S RETURN to India has rekindled hopes that his faction may rejoin peace talks and abandon its demand for sovereignty. Konyak still commands a significant number of Indian Nagas, including his military chief Nikki Sumi and army commander Isak Sumi. They said they were opposed to the change of leadership in the NSCN(K).

Konyak’s ouster has left him with two options: either float a new outfit or join the Isak-Muivah faction of the NSCN in peace talks with India. “I know the deposed leaders, and they are still anti-talks,” said Chuba Ozukum, president of the Naga Ho Ho, the apex body of Naga tribals. “They have taken an oath to propagate the message of securing Naga sovereignty. I can only hope they would not surrender to the Indian government.”

Isak Sumi Isak Sumi

Both Nikki Sumi and Isak Sumi have said they have no plans to enter peace talks. “It would be akin to sacrificing the cause of Nagas in India,” said Isak Sumi. What, then, is their strategy? “Wait and see. Something would emerge,” said a commander of Konyak.

Konyak, however, may feel compelled to join peace talks, as he is unwell and is reportedly in urgent need of medical treatment.

The NSCN(K) under Yung Aung recently signed a “nationwide ceasefire agreement” with the Myanmarese government, pledging that it would never secede from the country. This means that the fight for Naga sovereignty may well be over, at least in Myanmar.

Aung, however, could become a thorn in India’s side. The NSCN(K) has sympathisers in eastern Nagaland, and they could help Aung’s cadres carry out attacks. The Konyak faction says it will resist such plots. “The Myanmarese secessionist group led by the Hindu and Meitei half-breed [Yung Aung], an arch opponent of Naga integration, must never be allowed to create any disturbance in Nagaland,” said Isak Sumi in a Facebook post. “Nagas from India-occupied territories must understand that [the faction] led by Khango Konyak is the only legitimate organisation.”

Baruah, the man behind Aung, has long enjoyed the patronage of China and Pakistan. “We have very cordial relations” and “our friendship is unparalleled,” he told THE WEEK about China.

Chuba Ozukum Chuba Ozukum

On October 21, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh met China’s minister of public security Zhao Kezhi in Delhi and demanded that Baruah be extradited to India. Zhao rejected the demand, apparently because the cases against Baruah in India could result in a death sentence.

Singh has asked the National Investigation Agency to help the Assam Police inquire into the Tinsukia killings. The Army has also reportedly begun operations to crush the resurgent ULFA(I).

So, is another surgical strike in the offing?

While the Army is keeping mum, sources in the Assam Police suggested that the Centre was preparing to crack down on Baruah and the UNLFW. The state government has asked Bhattacharya to coordinate with the Union government for tracking Baruah’s movements. According to Bhattacharya, Baruah is staying at a “strategically important place” called Ruili. “Ruili is in Yunnan province in China, on the China-Myanmar border,” he said. Baruah, apparently, has the freedom to move around the border area.

“The Assam Police, the NIA and the Indian Army are holding talks to chalk out the course of action,” Bhattacharya told THE WEEK. “In fact, we are getting great help from the Army as far as the operation is concerned.”