As the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) prepares for peace talks with the Centre, the victims of its terror demand a say in the process. Ratnadip Choudhury reports
FOR 18 YEARS, Bhobendra Chandra Kalita, 48, has been lying crippled in his house at Chamatiapara of Assam’s Darrang district. Almost every night, he has nightmares of the fateful day when his world came crashing down. On 15 August 1992, when the rest of the nation was celebrating Independence Day, Kalita, a Congress worker, was picked up from his house by cadres of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) fighting for the ‘sovereignty’ of Assam. The militant outfit that has waged a three-decade-long bloody battle now finds itself talking the language of peace with New Delhi. In the 18 years that Kalita has been crippled, ULFA’s armed struggle has seen numerous shifts, but his life tells the same story of pain, grief and anger over and over again.
“They took me to their hideout and charged me with leaking information to the army about a senior ULFA commander who was gunned down a week ago in an encounter with the forces,” narrates Kalita. “I repeatedly said that I had nothing to do with the army. Later, I came to know that it was a case of mistaken identity and they had targeted me since I was an active Congress worker.” Kalita is worried about the future of his two daughters and how to get them married. His physical state does not allow him to hold on to a job and the meagre income he gets from odd jobs is definitely not going to be enough.
What adds to the tragedy is that Kalita had even helped ULFA organise a meeting in Darrang once by raising funds and offering logistical support though he was not a supporter of the movement. “ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa chaired that meeting. I was against armed movement but I know the reasons for which the movement started had some validity, so I helped them,’’ the father of two explains.
But ULFA struck back in a manner that left him hating the ‘call for sovereignty’ forever. “I was beaten and tortured. They pierced my fingers, poured hot water on me and tied me up,” Kalita recounts the horror. “They first injected poison into my eyes trying to blind me for life and then cut my tongue. They cut my right hand and later my left hand. I fainted after that.” What he adds is even more sickening. “They called my elder brother Jadab Chandra Kalita and two other people close to him for negotiation. Before they cut my tongue they did the same with my brother. I saw him die in front of my eyes. After I fainted, they did the same with the other two. Of the three bodies the cops recovered with me, one was my elder brother.” Kalita recuperated but not before fighting a long battle with death at the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH).
IN THE early ’90s a gruesome army offensive was launched across the hills and plains of Assam to tame the growing menace of ULFA. Operations Bajrang and Rhino forced the outfit to dismantle its bases in the jungles of Lakhipathar and Saraipung and move to neighbouring Bhutan. ULFA retaliated by targeting the late Hiteshwar Saikia-led Congress government in the state. The dreaded outfit’s cadres hunted Congress workers and leaders. Kalita’s family always felt ULFA took up arms for the right cause, now the same family — like many others across Assam — wants ULFA to answer for their crimes. “Will ULFA speak for the better cause of the victims’ families? Will they support the larger interest of the victims of their terror?” asks Rajib Kalita, a victim from Chamatiapara.
The ire of the terror victim was something that the Rajkhowa-led pro-talk faction of ULFA had anticipated. Before the peace process was set rolling, ULFA’s foreign secretary had told TEHELKA: “All killings whether done by us or security forces were wrong. We need to admit our mistake.” In May, Rajkhowa led a strong 30 member delegation of the pro-talk faction to Dhemaji in upper Assam to ask for forgiveness for the killing of 10 children and three women in a bomb blast on 15 August 2004 in the district. They also paid obeisance at the memorial of the slain children erected at the site of the blast and visited the victims’ families. It did not cut much ice.
Although peace talks with the Centre have popular support, forgiveness for three decades of bloodbath is hard to come by. Ever since the peace bugle was sounded in Assam, the Forum for Terrorist Victim Families, an umbrella organisation of more than 6,000 affected families has started voicing its call for justice.
“It is not possible to forgive ULFA for what they did,” says forum president Brojen Hazarika. “They killed innocent people, crippled the economy. They don’t even have the right to represent the aspirations of the people but we are not against peace talks. What we want is that our voice be heard and we be made a major stakeholder in the talks.” Hazarika’s anger reflects what victims’ families feel for an organisation that has cost them their livelihood, and at times, their breadwinner.
For its part, the pro-talks ULFA faction is busy adding final touches to the charter of demands to be taken up during its talks with the Centre. Last month the Sanmilita Jatiya Abhibartan (SJA), a group of intellectuals facilitating the talks, handed over the draft charter of demand to the outfit. The SJA’s proposal includes constitutional amendments to give Assam a greater control over its natural resources, revenue generation and participation in the planning process. There are concrete proposals for ensuring a secure demographic situation, besides accelerated and balanced development.
ULFA is also planning to demand information about its commanders who have been missing since the offensive against the outfit in neighbouring Bhutan in 2001. Reportedly, the charter does not mention the victims of the ULFA’s own misdeeds. “If the Centre is giving a special package they should give something for the victims,” says Kalita. “The victim should be top priority and if ULFA is indeed ashamed of violence it should ask for this from Delhi.”
This is where things stand now. The peace-talking ULFA must gear up to answer some uncomfortable questions.
Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.