Gridlock in Assam

Print edition : September 24, 2004

The August 15 bomb explosion in Dhemaji district is a strong reminder that the 25-year-old violent insurgency by the ULFA remains unresolved as the outfit and successive governments have stuck to their respective positions.

in Guwahati

DIPEN SAIKIA of Ratanpur in Assam's Dhemaji district cried bitterly at the cremation ground. His two daughters, 14-year-old Rupa and 10-year-old Aruna, were killed the previous day, August 15, by a bomb set off by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). Eight other schoolchildren and two pregnant women were also among the 13 victims of the explosion, which occurred at the Dhemaji College's playground during the flag hoisting ceremony led by Deputy Commissioner Mukesh Sahoo. Twenty-one persons were injured.

A victim of the August 15 bomb blast in a Dhemaji hospital.-

Hundreds of schoolchildren who were present in the playground are now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of witnessing the horrid scenes. Eminent child psychologist Dr. H.P. Singh, on the request of President A.P.J Abdul Kalam, is treating them.

Even as the entire State erupted in protest against the ULFA for targeting children and other innocent people, a series of blasts rocked Assam on August 25 and 26, killing seven people, including the seven-year-old daughter of a Border Security Force (BSF) constable, and injured 76 others, making a mockery of the claims by the Congress government in the State of an improvement in the law and order situation.

The Dhemaji incident sparked off a spontaneous outburst against the militant outfit throughout Assam, reminiscent of a similar public anger when the ULFA killed social worker Sanjoy Ghosh in Majuli in 1997. Thousands of people, including schoolchildren, took to the streets in protest.

The ULFA, while owning responsibility for the incident, accused the State government of using women and children as shields to organise Independence Day celebrations. The ULFA was among the six separatist outfits that issued ritualistic calls to boycott Independence Day celebrations.

The State observed a total bandh, called separately by the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and the State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), to send a message to ULFA that the people of Assam want an end to violence. The AASU also demanded the resignation of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi for failing to protect the lives of people. However, the CPI(M) refrained from demanding his resignation, although the party flayed the government for its failure to provide security to the people.

Leaders of the AASU talked tough against the militant outfit and vowed to build up strong public opinion against such mindless violence. "ULFA chief Paresh Barua had no regret for targeting innocent schoolchildren. But he did not dare to raise his voice against the unabated migration of illegal Bangladeshi migrants to Assam just because he is afraid of losing Bangladesh's patronage," said AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharyya. President of the influential student body Prabin Boro and its general secretary Amiyo Kumar Bhuyan had no hesitation in describing the ULFA's action as "plain terrorism".

The student body said categorically that AASU did not support the ULFA's "Independent Assam" and was opposed to all kinds of violence be it by the militant outfit or by the security forces.

This was for the first time since the ULFA was formed in 1979 in the backdrop of the launch of a six-year-long anti-foreigners movement spearheaded by the AASU that the student body has used such harsh words against the militant outfit, indicating a shift in the perceived "soft stance" towards it.

THE ULFA chief, on the other hand, raked up the infamous Nellie and Gohpur massacres that occurred during the Assam agitation to question the moral right of the student body to criticise the militant outfit for violence. He alleged that the cult of violence started during the Assam agitation. This prompted the embarrassed AASU leaders to use the migrant issue against Paresh Barua, which led to war of words between the two organisations.

"It is true that violent incidents like the ones in Nellie and Gohpur occurred during the Assam agitation. But the agitation was a non-violent one and unlike the ULFA's killings, AASU activists never instigated or took part in such violence," Prabin Boro told Frontline while reacting to the allegations levelled by the ULFA chief against the student body. Over 2,000 people were butchered in a single day at Nellie in undivided Nagaon district in 1983 at the peak of the anti-foreigners movement.

The AASU argued that even after being warned of a spurt in extremist violence, the State government did not take adequate security measures. The student body demanded that Gogoi should quit as Chief Minister owning moral responsibility for the death of the children.

The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the main Opposition party in the State, also attacked the Congress government. The regional party, however, focussed its attack more on the Gogoi government's failure to protect the lives and property of the people and demanded that the government should be dismissed unless Gogoi quit voluntarily. The Bharatiya Janata Party also demanded Gogoi's resignation. It accused the ULFA of playing into the hands of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.

Brindaban Goswami, the AGP's president, alleged that while the State government issued a directive to schools to ensure that their pupils attended the official Independence Day function, it did not care to provide them security. "It is really a mystery as to how a bomb exploded at an official Independence Day function even after the State government sounded a red alert against possible strikes by the militant outfit,"Goswami said

Activists of the All Assam Students Union protest during a bandh called in Guwahati on August 18 against the bomb blast at Dhemaji.-ANUPAM NATH/AP

Tarun Gogoi admitted the "lapses" of the district administration and the police in taking necessary security measures despite a government directive. The Chief Minister also said that the government had transferred Deputy Commissioner Mukesh Sahoo from the district and suspended District Superintendent of Police T.K. Thangnew and Additional Superintendent of Police Abu Sufian for "dereliction of duties". Tarun Gogoi however, accused the ULFA of playing into the hands of "foreign forces" and targeting innocent civilians in a desperate attempt to prove its own existence. He claimed that following the crackdown on the ULFA and the NDFB in Bhutan, the militants had taken shelter in neighbouring Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, compounding the problem. He suggested the idea of having a single command for sharing intelligence on inter-State movement and activities of the militants, in order to achieve the best results in counter-insurgency operations. Although Tarun Gogoi declined to name the foreign forces helping the ULFA, he stressed the need to demolish ULFA camps in Bangaldesh.

A SELF-STYLED lieutenant of the ULFA, Jayanta Roy alias Bhaskar Choudhury, who came overground and laid down arms before Inspector-General of Police (Special Branch) Khagen Sharma on August 26, claimed that differences had cropped up within the rank and file of the ULFA over its new strategy of using explosives to carry out operations. "Those opposed to the use of explosives argue that there is always the danger of missing the actual target, which normally is the security forces, and causing collateral damage," said Jayanta. An expert in Improvised Explosive Device (IED), he was responsible for the movement of ULFA cadre to Bangladesh through Meghalaya.

The IGP, however, said that the ULFA targeting civilians to spread terror was not a new strategy as there were past instances of the militant outfit resorting to exploding bombs, IEDs and grenades and shooting to kill civilians belonging to different communities. Giving statistics relating to such incidents, Bhaskar Choudhury said that during the period from 1983 to August 15 this year, the ULFA had killed 140 civilians who included 27 Assamese, 74 Biharis, 15 Bengalis, 13 Marwaris, six tribal persons, one Nepali and one Punjabi. During the same period, 345 civilians belonging to all these communities were injured in attacks by the outfit.

However, what is worrying the people of Assam more is that there has been no breakthrough in the dialogue process with the militant outfit to resolve the 25-year-old insurgency, which has taken a heavy toll on the State's development and progress. The process has so far remained confined to mere appeals from successive Central and State governments to the outfit to come forward for unconditional talks. The ULFA, on the other hand, has been saying that it is ready for talks provided the issue of "Assam's sovereignty" is included in the agenda. The militant outfit has agreed to drop another precondition, that the talks must be held in a "third country". It has said that it is ready to sit for talks in Dispur if New Delhi agrees to discuss the sovereignty issue.

However, dialogue with the ULFA seems to be a distant possibility with the Congress government ruling out any discussion on the sovereignty issue and insisting that the talks must be unconditional. On August 30, All India Congress Committee general secretary in charge of Assam Digvijay Singh and Tarun Gogoi, while inviting the ULFA for talks, asked its leadership to drop the sovereignty issue.

Unless the deadlock is broken, the spectre of violence will continue to loom large over the State.