Two unrelated events in the past week have thrown Assam into a spiral of violence once again. On the midnight of 17 January, militants of the anti-talk faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbhijit faction) stopped a Shillong-bound bus coming from Siliguri in West Bengal at Serfanguri on National Highway 39 in Kokrajhar district. They then dragged out five Bihari migrants, lined them up and shot them. Three others, also from Bihar, sustained grievous injuries.
The killing spree continued the next day, as militants gunned down two persons and injured four others in Sakuwaserfung in the Bijni sub-division of Chirang district. These included a 50-year-old man and two women, all from the Bengali-speaking Muslim community. Earlier in the day, Bikram Singh, a migrant barber, was killed at Ambagaon under the Udalguri Police Station.
It was almost two years ago, when Assam experienced bloody ethnic conflicts in the Bodo-dominated areas of lower Assam that left over a 100 dead and five lakh displaced. The targets of these recent killings are also non-Bodos. The Songbhijit faction calls it revenge for the killing of their cadre in Gossaigaon in Kokrajhar district earlier on 17 January. But, that is not the end of it. On 20 January, the rebels struck again, this time, injuring a Nepali trader at Dhekiajuli in Sonitpur district along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. The rebels also shot and killed a Bengali-Hindu man at Mangolchora bazaar under the Bogaribari Police Station in the bordering Dhubri district.
“We have launched a joint operation of all security forces posted in Assam to nab the NDFB cadres,” says DGP Khagen Sharma. “Aided by the Paresh Barua-led United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the Songbhijit faction is trying to create panic in lower Assam ahead of Republic Day. The ploy of targeting non-Bodos is an old one.” In the past, Sharma has been instrumental in brokering peace between the government and rebel outfits as an intelligence officer. However, this could prove to be his toughest challenge yet.
The top cop has released a list of 15 names from the outfit, including its chairman IK Songbhijit and the state government has announced cash reward of 95 lakh on them, but the fact remains that the Bodo rebels have been killing at will. Intelligence Bureau (IB) sources have confirmed that they have inputs of ULFA leader Drishti Rajkhowa having used the Songbhijit faction of the NDFB to create a sense of tension in lower Assam. The faction enjoys long ties with the anti-talk faction of ULFA, led by exiled commander-in-chief Paresh Barua, and this has been a reason of constant worry for the security establishment from 2011 when the Songbhijit faction started becoming prominent.
Interestingly though, Barua is himself in a spot of bother. On 15 January, a day after Assam celebrated the annual harvest festival of Bhogali Bihu, the entire state was shocked by a press release from the ULFA, informing that the outfit had executed its top executive council member Partha Asom alias Partha Pratim Gogoi, 45, assistant finance secretary and operational commander of the outfit. Enumerating eight allegations against the slain leader, including involvement “in killing the outfit’s cadres by having secret understanding with the Assam Police and Assam Rifles, forcing cadres to surrender, helping the police in intercepting arms consignments on three occasions and agreeing to supply photographs and satellite images of the outfit’s secret camps in return of Rs 1 crore”, the statement said that Gogoi was executed after all the allegations were “proved with documentary evidence”.
Gogoi’s bullet-riddled body was recovered from the Naginimara Police Station area on the Assam-Nagaland border on 16 January. This is the second time that an executive council member of the outfit has been killed. In 1990, deputy commander- in-chief Ratul Katoki was also executed by the ULFA. Gogoi was a key member of the Paresh Barua faction after ULFA suffered a vertical split in 2011, when the lion’s share of its rank and file gave up arms and joined the pro-talk faction led by its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa. Barua is opposed to any talks with New Delhi where the core demand of Assam’s sovereignty is not discussed. Last November, he had ordered the execution of seven cadres, who allegedly tried to flee from its base camp in Myanmar.
However, the decision to execute Gogoi seems to have misfired on Barua. For the first time in the three decades of its existence, thousands of people took to the streets in Sivasagar district of upper Assam to burn Barua’s effigy. This is ironical for it was from Sivasagar that ULFA started gaining prominence in 1979. Gogoi, who was a native of Hatikuli village of Sivasagar, was a popular leader who had recruited many young men in ULFA. Now his village has banned the entry of any cadres or leaders of the Paresh Barua faction in the area. “We don’t believe that Partha wanted to surrender,” says pro-talk leader Kamal Borphukan, a close associate of Gogoi. “He was committed to armed revolution but also believed in a political solution and had the guts to oppose injustice within the outfit. Paresh Barua was a hero for us once, not any more.”
At the height of its popularity, huge contingents of youth from the Jorhat, Sivasagar and Golaghat districts joined the ULFA, forming part of its once-dreaded 28 Battalion.
“Partha was in touch with the pro-talks group and exchanged views on the peace process with the Centre,” says Jiten Dutta, another pro-talk ULFA leader. “There is a growing view in the Paresh Barua faction that if general secretary Anup Chetia is extradited from Bangladesh and joins the peace process, both factions should at least come together for a general council meeting. Partha had the courage to confront Barua on this and perhaps that’s why he had to pay with his life.” Chetia has been in prison in Bangladesh since 1997 and has withdrawn his petition for asylum there, signaling his intentions to come to India to play an active role in the peace talks.
Gogoi was not only a commander in the armed wing of the outfit, but also a political commissar. From 2004, when he was moved to ULFA’s Myanmar base from Assam, Barua used him on ‘special missions’. According to ULFA sources, Gogoi was at Putao in Myanmar between 2006 and 2011, where he married a local woman of the Lishu tribe and frequently visited China. After the peace talks started, he moved out of Putao sometime in 2012 and moved into the Mon district of Nagaland and would oversee the fund raising from upper Assam.
Speaking to TEHELKA from an undisclosed location, an ULFA commander defended the decision to execute him. “Partha’s execution has taken place only after a trail. He was given the scope to place his point. No leader is beyond the organisation,” he said.
But for now, Sivasagar is tense and there is a feeling of betrayal even among the ULFA cadre. “Paresh Barua has betrayed the people,” says one such cadre on condition of anonymity. “His dictatorship has ruined ULFA. It is an irony that people have started boycotting him in a place where ULFA was born.”
No peace in the Garo Hills?
The killing of four ANVC-B members in Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills threatens to derail the peace talks with the Centre, says Saidul Khan
On 11 January, 4 km from Tura, four members of the A’chik National Volunteers Council-B (ANVC-B) were killed in a skirmish with Special Weapons and Tactics commandos at Darengagal in Meghalaya. This immediately triggered allegations of a false encounter by the ANVC-B. The incident comes at a very crucial time, when the peace process between the guerilla faction and the State is well underway.
The ANVC was formed in December 1995 and was proscribed in November 2000. The group’s stated objective is to carve out a homeland called ‘A’chik Land’, comprising the districts of Garo Hills in Meghalaya and a large chunk of Kamrup and Goalpara districts of Assam. On July 2004, it signed a ceasefire agreement with the Central government, agreeing for a peaceful resolution. The ANVC-B is a breakaway faction of the original outfit.
Again, on 5 January 2013, both the parent organisation ANVC and the breakaway ANVC-b signed an “Agreed Text for Settlement” with the Centre, considered another big step in expediting the peace process. However, the ANVC-B continued its extortion and other anti-social activities. Now, the police has slapped criminal cases against members of the outfit, and this threatens to derail the peace talks.
“The cases have been filed to push us back to the jungle,” says ANVC-B chairman Rimpu Marak. “But, we are staying and we will make sure that the settlement is beneficial to the public and not to the politicians.” Marak minces no words in saying that the peace talks cannot proceed without his participation: “The draft agreement was signed last year and we are now waiting for the MoU. There can be no changes made to the draft without consulting those who signed it. The government cannot decide on its own, it has to be decided jointly.” Marak also denies any rift between his outfit and the parent ANVC.
Reacting to the situation, CM Sangma says that the police would deal with all criminals in accordance with the law. He also says that necessary direction has been given to the leadership of all the breakaway groups (from the ANVC) to manage their cadre to ensure that the agreement is not breached.
Meanwhile, the parent outfit ANVC has expressed concern over the prevailing law and order situation. Publicity Secretary Arist Sangma has urged all outfits to shun violence and come forward and merge with its parent organisation to ensure that the Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) is inked with the state and the Centre.
Saidul Khan is a Tura-based independent journalist