In the dictionary of militants across the Northeast, extortion is investment in a revolution for sovereignty or self-rule. And in a revolution, every paisa counts.
So the outlawed ULFA has borrowed ideas from the worlds of banking and investment market to extort in "equated monthly installments" or in doses small enough for the victims not to feel the pinch.
Since its formation in 1979, the ULFA—its cousins NDFB, UPDS and DHD too—have been relying on extortion from major business groups, oil majors and tea firms to sustain its "struggle for an independent Assam". But with the big money sources drying up, it had of late been hard pressed to maintain an annual budget of Rs 30-35 crore.
According to police officials, the outfit has thus broad-based its extortion network to cover petty traders, villagers and salaried people, demanding regular payments in small doses. "In some cases, victims have been paying as low as Rs 2,000 on almost a monthly basis," said a senior officer.
Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is worried by ULFA's new strategy, which is being referred to as "systematic extortion plan". He said the government has reports of extortions at a large but micro level. "These days the militants are collecting money in small, regular amounts, but we have not been able to do anything about it since no one is complaining," he said earlier this week.
The ULFA is believed to be amassing an average Rs 1.5 crore from such micro collections every month.
The outfit, though, has not abandoned the big money strikes. Like the abduction of FCI executive director PC Ram, for whose release it has reportedly demanded Rs 21 crore. The ULFA has also been extorting in kind—bicycles, motorcycles, foodgrains, mobile phone handsets and SIM cards.
Intelligence officials said while the ULFA's foot soldiers get only a small portion of the extorted money—a monthly stipend of Rs 2000-5000 besides cash incentives for subversive successes—the bulk is kept by Arabinda Rajkhowa and Paresh Barua, the top two in the outfit's hierarchy.
A recent US report on the extortion-rich ULFA said its commander-in-chief Barua has assets in Bangladesh and Southeast Asia worth over $ 110 million. The Union Home Ministry puts the outfit's financial strength at around Rs 200 crore.