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Assam

Yet Another Abduction

A stream of abductions remains a troubling reality in the state -- but, in the recent high-profile case, ULFA's demand for release of seven of its leaders may actually disguise the group's real intent. U

Yet Another Abduction
Yet Another Abduction
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

On April 27, 2004, Nirmalendu Langthasa, son of Assam's Hill Areas Development Minister, G.C. Langthasa, along with two of his friends, went out to Baithalangso in Karbi Anglong's Hamren sub-division, 140 kilometres away from District Headquarter Diphu, to negotiate with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) militants, who had imposed a hefty extortion demand on his father. 

The militants, however, had other plans and abducted Nirmalendu, asking his friends to convey the message to his parents. The Minister, on hearing the news, tried to hush up the matter and attempted to seek his son's release by directly negotiating with the militants. 

The talks, however, failed to provide a solution, and a month later, on May 25, a First Information Report (FIR) was lodged in Haflong, the district headquarter of the North Cachar Hills district by the Minister's family, stating that Nirmalendu had been abducted by 'unidentified militants' and remained untraced since April 27.

Till May 31 everybody, including the police establishment, appeared convinced that the abduction was the handiwork either of the local militant outfits, the United People's Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) or the Dima Halim Daoga (DHD). However, a May 31 statement by the ULFA 'Chairman', Arabinda Rajkhowa, provided a dramatic twist to the entire situation. 

Rajkhowa claimed responsibility for the abduction and said that the minister's son would be released only when seven of its top-rung leaders, arrested and handed over to the Indian Army during the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) crackdown on its Bhutan camps in December 2003, were released. The Assam government is yet to react officially, and the deadlock continued till the filing of this report.

The ruling party has made strong claims about the peace and tranquility prevailing in Assam, and has demanded that the centre should give it a 'peace dividend', in terms of preferential financial grants, like Mizoram. However, a stream of abductions by terrorists remains a troubling reality in the state. 

Official figures suggest that, since 2001, cases of abduction have risen steadily. 82 persons were abducted in 2001, rising to 97 in 2002, and 175 in 2003. The current year has already seen at least 22 persons abducted by various groups. Abductions in Assam, unlike Tripura where the main targets are ordinary villagers or railway workers, have targeted the rich, the powerful and the influential. As a result, the amount of ransom paid for their release has reached astronomical figures. 

According to reports, the initial amount demanded for Nirmalendu's release was to the tune of Rs. 30 million, before the ULFA changed over to a more politically appropriate track, using the abduction to try to secure the release of its leaders.

The incidents of abduction do not necessarily constitute a commentary on the efficiency of the state police force, whose capabilities have been stretched to the limits by the never-ending demands of protecting the lives of the ever-increasing tribe of Very Important Persons (VIPs). They do, however, reflect poorly on the capability of state intelligence, which remained in the dark regarding the real identity of the abductors, till ULFA chose to open its mouth. 

It is also a fact that, in spite of the political rhetoric of the Chief Minister and his cabinet colleagues, the present administration is yet to regain control over sizeable stretches of the state's territory from the influence of a 'marginalized' outfit like the ULFA.

As recently as March 17, 2004, a non-resident Assamese, Pratul Deb was abducted from Assam's Hailakandi District by the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF), a rag tag outfit of about a hundred cadres, which is presently engaged in peace negotiations with the Mizoram government. Deb is yet to be set free even after the payment of Rupees one million. Letters written by Deb's daughter in newspapers suggest that the Assam police virtually adopted a hands-off approach and advised the family to negotiate with the militants directly. Such incidents and, more importantly, their frequency, reinforce the fear that Assam is still not safe, neither for business nor for tourism.

In Assam, the narrative on the ULFA, or any other militant outfit for that matter, remains unstable and caught up in a politicized flux. A Guwahati journalist recently pointed out, during an informal conversation, that the marginalisation of the ULFA is never good news, as it is also indicative of the marginalisation of the Assamese in New Delhi. It is this orientation, which dominates much of the Assamese discourse, that gets the ULFA off the hook every time it is weakened, in spite of the occasional and largely symbolic public protests against the unending militancy by organisations like the Assam Public Works ULFA Pariyal Committee.

The ULFA's demand for the release of seven of its leaders may actually disguise the group's real intent. Stripped of significant tactical advantage following the military operations in Bhutan in December 2003, the ULFA leadership has come under immense pressure to perform. 

A majority of the 500-odd cadres who in the wake of the Bhutan operations, spoke openly against the ULFA top leadership's apathy towards the ordinary cadres, and complained that the common members of the militant groups not only suffered in the camps in Bhutan, but was abandoned to face the onslaught of the Bhutanese Army, while their leaders made merry in the comfort Bangladeshi safe havens. The dramatic gesture of demanding the release of seven of its prominent cadres, and not money, in exchange for Nirmalendu, may be intended to convey the top leadership's concern for its arrested cadres.

The episode is gradually taking a precarious turn, with an increasing focus on ethnic relations. Assam, home to a number of tribes, is an ethnic tinderbox, and the invention and assertion of tribal identities has been constantly exploited by tribal elites to satisfy personal and political ambitions. 

The situation is even more precarious in districts like the North Cachar Hills, which was witness to a bitter ethnic conflict between the Hmars and the Dimasas in the year 2003, which claimed more than 60 lives. Incidentally, during that period of ethnic feuding, Minister Langthasa had lost another of his sons to Hmar militants. Already, organisations like the Jadikhe Naisho Hoshom (JNH) have started issuing statements blaming the 'Assamese' terrorist organisation, the ULFA. A JNH statement, issued on June 4 spoke of the Dimasa tribe being always 'alienated from the mainstream' and 'being trapped between the Brahmaputra and Barak valley'.

Nirmalendu could, eventually, be released unharmed, given the heat the abduction has generated, even though reports now indicate, given the time gap between his actual abduction and lodging of the FIR, that he might be well out of the country, spirited out to one of ULFA's camps in Myanmar or Bangladesh. The DHD has already stepped in to mediate his release. 

Given the publicity the incident has generated, it will be impossible for the government to concede, even marginally to the outfit's demand. However, the ULFA will try to exploit the occasion to lift up the sagging morale of its cadres by pushing the government into a corner.Most importantly, going by the track record of abductions and the subsequent knee-jerk official response, a substantial amount of money is sure to change hands before Nirmalendu reaches home.


Bibhu Prasad Routray is Acting Director, ICM Database & Documentation Centre, Guwahati.Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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