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Friday, Aug 19, 2022
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Assam

Big Guns Under Fire

By hitting at the very core of ULFA's fighting capabilities and pushing ahead to choke off the cadres of its '28th battalion', the security forces have assumed a position of strength. But it may not yet be the beginning of the end of ULFA>

Big Guns Under Fire
Big Guns Under Fire
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

The military bosses of Northeast India's most potent separatist group, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), have clearly come in the line of fire of security forces (SFs) engaged in counter-insurgency operations. The ease with which the Assam Police, on September 17, 2007, captured Prabal Neog, the 43-year-old 'commander' of the ULFA's dreaded '28th battalion', fancifully called the 'Kashmir Camp', is a case in point. Neog was apprehended along with his wife and son, near Tezpur in the Sonitpur district, 180 kilometres north of Assam's capital, Guwahati. This was, at once, a 'prize catch' and an easy one, and there lies the irony. 

The entire security establishment agrees that the '28th battalion' is the core strike force of the ULFA and is, by itself, a power-centre within the rebel group. This is largely because it is the only unit, among the ULFA's four so-called 'battalions', that is not dependent on Bangladesh for refuge, to escape the counter-insurgency heat. The '28th battalion' has remained active in the Assamese heartland of eastern Assam, in the Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivasagar districts, and has staging areas in the dense jungles of Arunachal Pradesh, in addition to bases in Myanmar's Sagaing division, across the village of Mynakshu, in the Mon district of Nagaland. 

The 'commander' of the '28th battalion' is, consequently, the ULFA's most powerful military leader actually directing operations in Assam. Prabal Neog (real name Benu Bora), has risen from the ranks, having joined the group way back in 1989, and received arms training in Assam and Myanmar. In recent months, it was Neog who was believed to have planned and executed the massacre of more than 100 Hindi-speaking migrants across eastern and southern Assam. It was Neog's crack hit-squads that had targeted these poor migrants, who were drawn mostly from the Bihar State. As a unit that is regarded as the 'life blood' of the ULFA, its commanders are obviously expected to be close to the group's military chief Paresh Baruah. 

It is, indeed, surprising how such an important rebel commander--personally in charge of up to 600 men of the '28th battalion'--fell so easily into the police dragnet. How is it that he was traveling in a car with his wife Purabi, a former ULFA militant, and son Rajdeep, with a sense of near impunity? This was not the first time that a 'commander' of the '28th battalion' has been trapped by the SFs. A little over a year ago, on May 18, 2006, the then '28th battalion' 'commander', Mrinal Hazarika alias Plaban Phukan and three other ULFA militants were nabbed by the Police from two different hotels in West Bengal's Siliguri town. An active satellite phone, two regular mobiles bearing Guwahati numbers and a 9 mm pistol loaded with two rounds of live bullets were seized from them. 

The ease with which the 'commanders' of this most potent ULFA fighting unit have fallen into the security dragnet has given rise to speculation over whether internecine feuds within the '28th battalion' are behind these surprise detentions. Immediately after Neog's arrest, reports were doing the rounds that a prominent company commander of the '28th battalion', Jiten Dutta, was actually keen on assuming the top post. Questions are now being raised on whether someone from within the unit tipped off the SFs regarding Neog's travel plans. Apparently, Neog had also lost faith with a section of the ULFA leadership over his stand against Bangladeshi infiltrators, contrary to the silence among most of the group's leaders on this, Assam's most talked-about subject. In the absence of confirmation from sources within ULFA, these inferences will remain mere conjectures.

Irrespective of what the internal scenario within the ULFA, the fact remains that the Army's 2nd Mountain Division, based in Dibrugarh district and responsible for counter-insurgency operations in eastern Assam and up to 20 kilometres inside Arunachal Pradesh, has gone hammer and tongs against the '28th battalion.' Since September 24, 2006—when a temporary truce between the authorities and the ULFA ended—until September 19, 2007, soldiers from the 2nd Mountain Division have killed 51 ULFA militants and captured 95 others. 31 rebels from the group have also surrendered. A senior Army officer told this writer: "The 177 ULFA militants that we have neutralized since September 24, 2006, includes one battalion commander (Rajiv Kalita of the '27th battalion'), four company commanders, ten action group commanders and seven experts in improvised explosive devices (IED). "

What is important to note here is that more than 90 per cent of the militants who have been neutralized, according to Army sources, belong to the '28th battalion.' 

The Army's determined pursuit of the '28th battalion' is demonstrated by the fact that, on Independence Day 2007, the 2nd Mountain Division created history by bagging a total of 89 awards, including one Kirti Chakra (Lt. Pankaj Kumar, 7/11 Gorkha Rifles) and three Shaurya Chakras. It is remarkable that, besides normal military means, the Army is also trying to get locals on its side. In eastern Assam, for instance, the Army has a budget of more than INR 20 million for certain social welfare programmes under what it calls Operation Sadbhavna (Goodwill) and Operation Jugajog (Contact).

What counter-insurgency strategists perhaps envisage is a weakening of the ULFA by hitting at the very core of its fighting capabilities to create conditions within which the government can initiate peace talks with the rebel group from a position of strength. This is not a particularly new strategy or something that has not been tried time and again in the country's theatres of insurgency. What appears to be new, however, is the focused manner with which the SFs, particularly the Army, are pushing ahead to choke off the cadres of the '28th battalion'. In recent months, the Army has put enough pressure on the outfit in the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh, a favoured rebel transit route on their way to Myanmar. Now, the rebels are being forced to take a circuitous route from Myanmar to enter Assam, through Tizit in Nagaland. Moreover, the medicine supply lines to ULFA camps are said to have been snapped by the Army, causing major problems for the rebels in the malaria-prone jungles.

Does this mean that this is the beginning of the end of ULFA's strike potential? The honest answer must be a straight no. The ULFA has repeatedly demonstrated tremendous capacities to resurrect itself from such crises. The manner in which the group sprang back to life after the reverses it faced in the wake of the Bhutanese military blitzkrieg in December 2003 is a case in point. Though it is 'advantage SFs' in Assam, as of now, there is no room for complacency. 


Wasbir Hussain is Member, National Security Advisory Board, India, and Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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