After the sudden spurt in recruitment by the Paresh Barua faction of the Ulfa combined with intelligence inputs about the outfit’s plan to target two oil majors, sources in the security establishment in Assam feel the state government’s peace overtures to the banned group has clearly backfired.
Taking advantage of slowing down counter insurgency operations by the Assam government to create a “conducive atmosphere” to start peace talks with the outfit, the ULFA-Independent (Ulfa-I)has, in fact, intensified recruitment and extortion drives.
Assam police sources said in the past one year, 234 youths from various parts of Assam have joined the proscribed outfit. Among the recent recruits are two national-level women kick-boxers, a youth Congress leader and an employee of the Assam government’s revenue department.
The United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa)-Independent’s strength in the beginning of last year was estimated to be around 150.
Indian army’s eastern command chief Lt Gen R P Kalita during his visit to Assam earlier this week also expressed concern over the recruitment drive by the Ulfa (I). He said the outfit was using social media to lure the youths to its rank.
Apart from the recruitment drive, of late, extortion by the Ulfa (I), particularly, in the tea and oil rich Upper Assam region has also increased, according to police sources.
An internal communique of the Assam police’s special branch has alerted police force in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts about the possible increase in extortion by the Ulfa from tea gardens, oil companies and contractors, sources said.
In the communique, the Assam police’s intelligence wing has stated that a 10 to 12 member Ulfa (I) team has sneaked into the districts from the outfit’s Taga camp in Myanmar, to raise money and manpower for the group.
The police have also alerted the Oil India Limited (OIL) and the ONGC about the outfit’s plan to target their installations and personnel, including seizing the installations, sources said.
OIL India spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika has confirmed receiving the security alert from the police. He said following the alert, the company held an internal security meeting and issued some guidelines about the movement of its personnel.
Paresh Barua in March accused OIL of “deceiving” people of Assam by appointing a non-Assamese Ranjit Rath as its chairman and managing director.
The group had last year demanded 95 per cent job reservation for local youth in OIL, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), and Indian Oil Corporation Ltd (IOCL).
As per the intelligence inputs received by the Assam police, the Ulfa (I) is planning a major strike against the assets and people of the two energy majors.
On April 21 last year, three employees of the ONGC were kidnapped by the outfit from the Lakwa oilfield in Sivasagar district along the Assam-Nagaland border.
Two employees were rescued by the security forces from near India-Myanmar border in Mon district of Nagaland, while the third was released by Ulfa(I) militants after 31 days of captivity.
This time the outfit is reportedly planning something bigger, police sources said. An Ulfa (I) team led by Rupom Asom has been entrusted to carry out the attacks on the oil companies, as per the intelligence inputs gathered by the police, sources added. Rupom was also named by the NIA in a chargesheet filed over the killing of Assam police sub-inspector Bhaskar Kalita in 2018.
On the renewed activities of the Ulfa (I), many senior security officials in the state admit in private that it was a mistake to offer an olive branch to the group.
Immediately after becoming chief minister in May last year, Himanta Biswa Sarma had appealed to the Ulfa(I) chief to shun violence and join the peace process with the government.
Reciprocating to Sarma’s appeal, the Ulfa(I) declared unilateral ceasefire on May 15, which many in the government mistook as Barua’s keenness to smoke the peace pipe. Samra, while interacting with journalists on the first day of the year, had even predicted the end of insurgency in the state by this year (2022).
“Talks are on (with Ulfa-I)…and I have got to know that Paresh Barua is showing genuine interest in the peace process,” the CM had said.
Stating that Ulfa’s unilateral ceasefire was a “positive step”, Sarma had said even the government ensured that the peace was not disrupted. Due to the government’s efforts not to disrupt the peace, Samra said “there had been no direct confrontation between the Ulfa and the security forces in the last six months.”
The chain of events that followed the peace overture, officials now privately admit, are indications that Barua has taken the government for a ride, using the opportunity to regroup.
Lt Gen Kalita during his recent visit to Assam also said that he had doubts about Barua joining the peace process.