Friday, July 19, 2013

Exclusive: How ULFA Strongholds Are Falling To The Reds?

By Akshaye Mahapatro / Guwahati

Maoists in Assam tap ethnic discontent to make inroads into an already volatile region. n April, Assam Governor JB Patnaik summoned all top officials of the state’s insurgency-hit Tinsukia district to the Raj Bhawan in Guwahati. He was keen to know about the development work in the state’s eastern-most sub-division, which is part of the district. Cut off from the rest of the district by the Brahmaputra, Sadiya, 60 km from Tinsukia, has turned into a cradle for the Maoists who are trying to make inroads into the Northeast. That is why the governor wants to keep an eye on this remote area.
For over three decades, Sadiya was a corridor for insurgents of the region’s secessionist outfits to slip in and out of Assam to neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh and onwards to their bases across the border in Myanmar. An obscure dot on the map, Sadiya is plagued by near-total absence of roads and power supply. To access healthcare and educational facilities, locals have to ride a ferry across the Brahmaputra and then take a bus to Tinsukia town.

“For many years now, the government has overlooked rural areas in upper Assam,” says a local Maoist sympathiser who accompanied INN to some of the remotest belts in Tinsukia. “Even the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) used to recruit heavily from these parts bordering Arunachal Pradesh. Now the Maoists are trying to fill the vacuum left after the wane of ULFA.”

He says locals like him are helping the Maoists because the government has learnt no lessons from the ULFA days and the region continues to be underdeveloped. The period of insurgency has also left the region with a rebellious legacy that the Maoists are trying to harness.

The Assam government claims that the Maoists are active in nine districts: Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Golaghat, Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, Cachar and Karimganj. Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has already urged the Centre to declare Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts “Maoist-infested”.

On 26 April, the Assam Police arrested Aklanta Rabha alias Mahesh ji, 41, and Siraj Rabha, 35. Aklanta was a central committee member of the CPI(Maoist) and Siraj was in charge of the rebels’ medical unit in Jharkhand. The duo was apprehended on the Assam-Meghalaya border while they were on their way to train tribal youth in Meghalaya. Two more Maoist leaders — Anukul Chandra Naskar alias Paresh da and his wife Kabita Rabha — were apprehended on 9 May.

Two years ago, former ULFA aide Aditya Bora had been arrested on the Odisha-Jharkhand border as a suspected Maoist and went underground after being released on bail. Police sources claim he had been instrumental in setting up Maoist bases in upper Assam since 2006 and headed the “Upper Assam Leading Committee” of the CPI(Maoist). In June last year, Pallab Borbora, allegedly Aditya’s deputy and involved in Maoist propaganda campaigns, was arrested in Golaghat. Aditya, who hails from Dibrugarh district, is again leading the Maoists in upper Assam and is reportedly taking direct instructions from the CPI(Maoist) politburo member Prasanta Bose alias Kishan da.

According to sources in Assam Police’s Special Branch, there are no less than 300 Maoist cadres in the Northeast, mostly in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, but they have been able to form armed units only in Tinsukia district and bordering areas in Arunachal Pradesh. Sources claim that there are four armed units of CPI(Maoist) in the region. Each unit has 10 to 12 members. Interestingly, all the remaining cadres are unarmed.

The Maoists have reportedly been organising training camps in various places in the upper Assam districts. Sources add the leading committee of the Maoists in the region also includes “explosives experts” trained in handling improvised explosive devices (IEDS).

In May 2012, four Maoists were gunned down in a fierce encounter with the security forces in a village under the Sadiya Police Station. Among the slain cadres was Siddartha Borgohain, Sadiya area commander of the CPI(Maoist). Sources add that Assam Police have picked up 70-odd Maoist “linkmen and overground collaborators” in the past two years, a clear sign that the “Red corridor” has extended to the Northeast.

“Unlike in central India, where the Adivasis are the mainstay of the Maoist movement, there is no class war in upper Assam,” says a Maoist cadre who met INN in remote Kakopathar, an ULFA stronghold in Tinsukia district. “Here, we are depending on the rebellious instinct of various ethnic groups. Three decades of ULFA-led unrest gave us the perfect platform and we tried building on it.”

Nearly a third of Assam’s population is made up of the ‘tea tribes’ — Adivasi migrants from other parts of India who are employed in the tea gardens. “The Maoists tried to woo them but failed,” says a Maoist sympathiser.

Besides the tea tribes, five communities from upper Assam — Koch-Rajbongshis, Tai-Ahoms, Chutias, Morans and Muttocks — have been demanding recognition as Scheduled Tribes. Their struggle is along ethnic lines, and the ULFA has tapped it in the past decades.

So how do the Maoists operate in the ULFA heartland? “They avoid confrontations with the ULFA cadres. They tell the locals that they are different and do not indulge in extortion,” says Sanjoy Moran (name changed), a former ULFA insurgent and now an overground collaborator of the Maoists. “Many of those who were earlier close to the ULFA joined the Maoists. Here, people will support anyone who raises the banner of rebellion.”

During 2007-09, about 40 boys, mostly from the Moran and Mattock communities, besides a few from the tea tribes, were handpicked by Aditya Bora. Sanjoy was one of them and was sent to Jharkhand for arms training. “Had the ULFA’s influence not declined, I would never have joined the Maoists,” he says.

To avoid resentment from the locals, the Maoists took care not to recruit from the Bangla-speaking Muslims, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Soon, the anti-dam movement in Arunachal Pradesh proved a boon to the Maoists as they could then mobilise people in Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts of Assam, who feared the adverse downstream impact of the proposed dams. “The dams gave us the opportunity to mobilise people across communities. We organised political classes to explain why the ULFA had failed as it talked only about the Assamese people,” reveals Sanjoy.

“The ULFA is still active in the remote parts of Tinsukia district and the adjoining foothills of Arunachal Pradesh and that’s where the Maoists too are trying to intrude,” Tinsukia SP PP Singh had told INN in an earlier interview.

An intelligence report suggests that the central committee of the CPI(Maoist) has directed the cadres in the Northeast to emulate the methods adopted by Manipur’s banned rebel outfit, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Instead of building mass organisations and agitating on tribal issues before forming armed units, here the plan is to form armed units immediately after recruiting cadres. Interestingly, the CPI(Maoist) signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ with the PLA in 2008, in which the two outfits promised to help each other.

INN has also accessed a recent intelligence report sent to the Union home ministry that points out that the Maoists have come into an “understanding” with ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Barua and that the ULFA has provided the Maoists with Chinese grenades and firearms. The report also says that Naga insurgents are training a group of new Maoist recruits in Myanmar. Add to these the fact that the Maoists in Assam have brought former ULFA sympathisers and cadres into their fold, and we could be staring at a long, bitter battle in the Northeast with strong ethnic dimensions.