Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Cover of ULFA: The Mirage of Dawn

Book review: Insider View of the Rise and Fall of the ULFA Phenomenon

Book Title: ULFA: The Mirage of Dawn
Author: Rajeev Bhattacharyya
Pubisher: Harper Collins India
Price: Rs. 599


Drawing largely from interviews with former as well as active functionaries of the United Liberation Front of Asom, ULFA, Rajeev Bhattacharyya’s ULFA: The Mirage of Dawn is a virtual autobiography of this secessionist organisation from Assam told through someone who knows the organisation and as well as the society which spawned it, intimately. The author obviously is also familiar with the terrain the militants use as their base, having trekked even the most inaccessible northern Sagaing Region of Myanmar where many insurgent groups from the Northeast find sanctuary under the patronage of the late S.S. Khaplang, supremo of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, NSCN(K), and after him his successors.

The range of interviews is wide. Testimonies of ordinary ULFA cadres to its top leaders give the readers an insider view of practically every development of relevance in the history of ULFA. The readers also get a sense of the inner dynamics and motivations of the organisation – its strengths as well as the vulnerabilities, and the romances which fired its revolutionary zeal as well as the hard realities along the way which came as dampeners.

At its genesis, ULFA very much shared a psychological constituency with many other organisations which had stepped forward to address what the ordinary Assamese in the late 1970s and 1980s saw as the foremost existential threat to their community – immigrant population marginalising them demographically, economically, and in share of state power. From this vantage, the All Assam Students Union, AASU, which led a six year long anti-foreigners rally ending 1985, the Asom Gana Parishad, AGP, the regional political party baptised by this agitation, and the ULFA, are almost siblings bonded by a common umbilical cord.

The picture that emerges is that the AGP government and ULFA in their initial years were working in partnership. Hence, the 1980s are often described as ULFA’s ‘golden phase’, successfully building up a Robinhood image for itself amongst the larger Assamese masses. In later years however, goals and methods became divergent, and when ULFA came to be seen as the alternative to AGP, the two came to be bitterly pitted against each other. This was accentuated by a split in ULFA and the emergence of surrendered ULFA or SULFA, resulting in what is now remembered with horror as ‘secret killings’ of the 1990s. Portrayed convincingly and frighteningly is also the familiar phenomenon of the growth of mercenary interest among those fighting insurgency for the continuance of the very insurgency they were fighting, in view of the bounty hunting opportunities provided by the fight itself.

The book also gives an intimate and rare glimpse into the core of ULFA leadership – their struggles, unity and differences. Paresh Barua remains its backbone, single-minded and determined even in the face of insurmountable hurdles. Barua is the military person, and hints of tensions between the military and political wings of the organisation became evident from the start with the military wing tending to overshadow and undermine the political leadership. But their unity held, and from the author’s account, even the emergence of a pro-talk faction seems more out of compulsions of circumstance than loss of conviction. It is noteworthy that on December 29, 2023, this faction led by Arbindra Rajkhowa has signed a peace accord with the Union home minister, Amit Shah, in New Delhi.

When ULFA took birth in 1978, it did not even have a constitution. Its leadership were compelled to piece together one to be able to from alliances with other insurgent groups from the Northeast region as well as to establish connections with foreign countries and organisations. The constitution could only be officially adopted in 1990 but the groundwork done in the meantime to establish an international network of support system is impressive. Other than Pakistan’s ISI, and similar agencies in Bangladesh and China, ULFA leadership also touched base in Romania, Kazakhstan, Spain, Britain, Switzerland and more., scouting for allies and weapons.

Intervention from the author’s own perspective are kept minimal, sketching only the broad contours of events and then allowing interviews to fill them with substance. This is a powerful and interesting way of telling the history of a rebellion however there are irritants. A great number of those interviewed are simply identified as ‘ULFA functionary’, often making it difficult to decide the weight to be given to their claims. But then, these are meant only to fill in details of the larger narrative thread provided by interviews with known leaders of ULFA or else government counterinsurgency authorities.

For serious readers who wish to read the end notes and references along with the text, there is also only a barcode to scan and access the link to them in the publisher’s website. Many of the chapters are also apparently expansion of earlier articles by the author so that events are generally dated with only the month and day not the year. This works fine with periodical for the context are current, but in a book this can be confusing.

This review was first published in The Tribune, Chandigarh. The original can be read HERE

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