Untold story ofIndia’s most elusive ULFA commander
Syed Nazakat in Jeraigaon, Assam
Things might have turned out differently forAssam, and its thousands of youth, if a tall, thin boy from Jeraigaon village in the state had not been an outstanding football player. It was on the football ground, high in a tea garden above Dibrugarh, where Paresh Baruah, then 22, first got the attention of radical men who fired his radical fervor.
It was mid 1979 andAssamwas on fire as angry students had begun agitating for the expulsion of all illegal migrants in the state. Baruah showed little interest in politics and religion initially, as he was busy playing football. But as the protest intensified, he started talking about the migrants and the rights of local people. In December 1979, he moved out of the football ground, left his job at the Tinsukia railway station and disappeared into the jungle.
Baruah came back as a radically changed man and soon became the commander-in-chief of the United Liberation Front of Asom. He recreated himself as an armed rebel and encouraged others to join Ulfa. He called the armed challenge “the 18th war of independence”, referring to the 17 wars fought byAssam’s legendary king Lachit Borphukan in the 1600s against the Mughals.
“Paresh came to meet me and sat there on the ground,” said Bhimkanta Buragohain, 82, an Ulfa patron who is widely called Mama. “He was very upset with the police excesses against the student agitation and wanted to join a guerrilla organisation.” When Mama told him that it was going to be tough to take up arms against the state, Baruah replied: “I’ll not turn my head right or left till we win a separate Assamese homeland.India’s atrocities will only bring the dawn of freedom closer.”
Thirty years into the armed uprising and brutal violence has turnedAssamfrom incredible beautiful and calm place into a killing field. In the pursuit of separate homeland, the armed insurgency has taken at least 20,000 lives, mostly innocent civilians Today, Baruah is Ulfa’s last standing armed commander. Many of the founders of the organisation, including its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi, deputy military commander Raju Baruah, are in talks with the government to end the armed conflict. The government has in recent years bought a pause, at least, in the even older insurgencies in next-door Nagaland.
Baruah, who fledBangladesh, where he had been hiding for long, after the crackdown against Ulfa in 2009, is still reluctant to join the peace talks. His whereabouts have remained elusive and he has been photographed just twice in the past 30 years. According to Mama, Baruah established an empire on his own and his ambitions went far beyondAssam. As an ideologue, Mama was perhaps the first person who sensed this drift.
“He used to travel fromBangladeshtoBhutanto meet me in training camps,” recalls Mama. Soon Baruah began travelling toBangkok,Malaysia,Singapore,Pakistan,Afghanistanand some European countries. Mama once joined him for a short trip toThailand. They stayed inBangkokand later went toLaosborder where they met another insurgent group. Mama, who traveled on fake Thai passport with a fake name of Thang Loo, said he doesn’t recall the name of the group. As the investigators are reconstructing his movements, they are shocked to discover how widely and secretly Paresh Baruah has traveled across the world on forged passports. After the arrest and interrogation of Ulfa commanders inBangladesh, the investigators figured out that one of his first foreign trips was toAfghanistanwhere he met the Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the 1990s.
In the spring of 1991, Baruah and some other Ulfa commanders went toPakistanand thePakistanarmy took them to a camp in Paktika province inAfghanistan. It was during those days that he developed connections with arms dealers and other terrorist groups. A year later, he made his first trip to thePhilippines, where he met leaders of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group.
Sasha Chaudhury, an international face of ULFA who as a ‘foreign secretary’ of ULFA has represented the outfit at different forums including the UN meet in Geneva, was one of the 12 men who went to Afghanistan in 1991 to undergo arms training. In an exclusive interview to THE WEEK Sasha said that he along with other ULFA men took flight fromBangladeshtoPakistan. “FromPakistanwe were taken by the Pakistan Army to Torkham border and from there to Nangarhar province inAfghanistan. Finally we reached Khost training camp inAfghanistan,” recalls Sasha who was arrested fromDhakain 2009 along with other ULFA leaders. He was one of the members of ULFA delegation which met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The days at the Khost camp began at four-thirty in the morning, with a call to wash. At five-thirty, all Muslim fighters would pray and recite Koran until sunrise. Then there used to be morning exercise and breakfast, followed by classes in warfare. “It was there we learned to handle various weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades; most of the focus, however, was on mental preparation,” recalls Sasha. He said those days it was easy to get fake passport inBangladesh. He alone had 11 passports, and has obtained an advanced diploma in International Diplomacy from a reputedPhilippinesUniversityon a fake name, citizenship and passport. “I was sent there on a recommendation ofEast Timor’s President, Jose Ramos-Horta who was then a rebel commander,” said Sasha. “The ULFA leadership wanted to hone my skills to handle foreign affairs.”
Sasha said that they were not aware about Al-Qaeda help in setting up the Khost camp. Nonetheless, the connections developed with Hikmatyar and other Afghan warlords would broaden the ULFA’s network. In the days ahead hundreds of Paresh Baruah’s men would pass through this network to acquiring training and weapons. Paresh Baruah, according to theAssampolice file on him, returned toBangladeshthe following spring and start recruiting more men. “He has developed contacts with number of insurgents groups. Today he is most well connected arms dealer in this region,” said a seniorAssampolice officer. “He has recently attempted to seek help fromChinawhich is a significant departure.”
Baruah’s contacts inChinaensured his organisation’s survival after the arrest of the top leaders. He has travelled to Chinese territory borderingIndiaandMyanmar, and visitedBeijingandShanghai last year. He met an insurgent leader from Manipur, R.K. Sanayaima alias Meghen, inShanghai. Meghen was arrested in Dhaka on September 29, 2010 and was brought toIndia. He told the National Investigation Agency that he had met Baruah during the Shanghai World Expo in June 2010 and the Ulfa leader had good connections with the Chinese authorities.
According to a charge sheet filed by the NlA in a special court in Guwahati, Baruah tried to procure weapons with the help of “some persons of Chinese origin”. The Assam Police say he gets his supplies from the state-owned China North Industries Corporation.Indiahas officially made explicit comments on the Chinese involvement. “The armoury being acquired fromChinaby the insurgent groups is being smuggled throughThailandand the China-Myanmar border to the northeastern states,” said Mullappally Ramachandran, minister of state for home affairs, in Parliament on March 9.
According to a recent analysis by the Assam Police, Baruah operates four camps inMyanmarand commands about 200 heavy armed militants from there. “A fortnight ago we traced him in Tagunsa camp inBurma,” said an Assam Police officer. “He leads a spartan life and no longer has a comfortable camp.” A footage obtained by THE WEEK shows Baruah’s camp inBurma, with shelters and a huge stock of arms. Also, Baruah had released a photograph of him with 100 armed cadets in uniform. The police said he had recruited boys from upperAssambefore the Assembly elections.
In the 1990s, the darkest days of insurgency, Ulfa killed people for casting vote. This time, judging the mood of the people, it did not even issue a boycott call. Even Baruah’s mother, Miliki, voted. “We have lost everything here. I don’t know why they [Ulfa leaders] left my son there [inMyanmar]. They all went there together. They should have brought him back,” she said. Sitting on table rugs spread on the floor of a mud-brick and old house, she said that there is hardly a family in the village which has suffered in all these years. Her son, Dinash Baruah and a railway employee was picked by some unidentified gunmen, presumably from theAssampolice from home. His body was later found in rice field. In this small village alone, the violence has claimed 40 young men and women. “The smell of death is everywhere here,” said Milki as she wiped tears from her eyes. The armored convoys and check-points in Tinsukia and in Nalbari are the most overt reminder of the bloody insurgency and that a fight against the ULFA continues mostly out of sight. But people in villages and towns can breathe a sigh of relief at not having ULFA men around.
Additional SP, Dibrugarh Dinesh Sharma told THE WEEK there has been dramatic decrease in the violence. “At one time there used to be daily attacks and killing. But now the violence is almost over,” said Dinesh Sharam. The government official hope the high voter turnout in last month’s election will further deflate the morale of the ULFA and persuade more of them to return and lay arms. These days the villages stretching along Dibrugarh to Tinsukia to Shiv Sagar, are abuzz with the chatter of men exchanging views on candidates as they play cards and smoke, in contrast to past ballots when violence deterred many people from daring to show an interest in voting. Tea farmers, who earn Rs. 54 a day say they are now able to spend more time in the field.
Baruah, however, seems to be far from done. On February 7, he sent an email asking the people ofAssamto oppose the state government, which was anti-people and an Indian servant. It said Ulfa remained opposed toIndia’s peace proposal. The police traced the IP address of the mail toChina’s eastern coastalprovinceofZheijang.
Baruah’s biggest challenge today is his lost base inAssam. Some 8,500 Ulfa cadres have given up arms. The outfit’s key military wing, 28 BN, has surrendered, and on April 7, on the organisation’s 32nd Raising Day, all the Ulfa leaders inAssamsupported the talks with the government. “People still respect us. But they want us to talk and discuss. There is no support for violence. The public mood has changed,” said Sasha.
Sasha said there had been differences between senior Ulfa leaders and Baruah. However, what pulled the outfit apart was theChittagongarms delivery in April 2004. Baruah had procured 10 trucks of arms and ammunition (enough to arm two brigades of an army) without informing the outfit. When Raju Baruah, deputy commander in chief of Ulfa, asked him about it, he said: “We’re takingChina’s andPakistan’s help to fightIndia.” After this incident Buruah never attended executive meetings of Ulfa.
As he built his own syndicate, Baruah became more brutal and less clear about what he was up to. The outfit unleashed a series of civilian kidnappings and killings. A bomb attack on a school bus, taking 15 lives, on August 15, 2004 shocked the people inAssam. It became a turning point as people openly protested the brutal act. But the killing spree continued. Three months later, 62 migrant workers, mostly fromBihar, were killed by Ulfa.
Another decisive mistake Baruah, who lived inBangladeshfrom the 1990s to 2009, made was providing weapons and logistic support to Bangladeshi radical groups. This infuriatedDhaka. Soon, Ulfa leaders were arrested one after another byBangladeshand deported toIndia.
“Today, we are fighting somebody else’s war,” said Ashyut Raj, 26, a former Ulfa cadet. He was 16 when he took up arms and went toMyanmar. In revenge, the Assam Police traced his home in Nalbari and killed his mother. Raj and his friend Hitish Rabha returned toAssamand joined a fraction of the outfit which had announced ceasefire. This angered Ulfa, and in 2009, it killed Rabha. “My tragedy is that I was not even able to attend the funeral of my mother because there were cops all around,” said Raj.
To ensure that cadets like Raj do not go back to militant ways, the government has kept them in camps in Nalbari and Tinsukia under police protection. While the government wants all Ulfa men to surrender their weapons before a substantial dialogue begins, the Ulfa men want to keep the arms in joint custody. But a central question still revolves around Baruah. Home Minister P. Chidambaram wants him to be a part of the peace process.
Standing outside his house, Mama conceded that the time for gun was over. “We are having crucial talks withIndia. I’m sure if we make some progress in the talks, he [Baruah] will have no choice but to join us,” he said. “But if we fail, he will have a big party in jungle.”
THE WEEK, July 31, 2011