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ULFA using social media to gain foothold in Assam

The social media appears to have made it easier for the ULFA to attract recruits. A police officer, who keeps track of the social media, said 80 Facebook profiles have been under watch for “posting content sympathetic” to the ULFA (Independent) or for “being connected to it.”

india Updated: Dec 10, 2018 07:17 IST
Sadiq Naqvi
Sadiq Naqvi
Hindusta Times, Tinsukia (Assam)/Jairampur (Arunachal Pradesh)
ULFA,ULFA Assam,social media
File photo of an ULFA cadre in 2011. (Mint File Photo)

Sometime in November, a 22-year-old automobile showroom employee in Assam’s Tinsukia stumbled upon a Facebook group named Xunjukto Mukti Bahini Asom, the Assamese name for the separatist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). “The group had photos of the flag of [Paresh Barua-led] ULFA [Independent] and there were posts about how Assamese youth need to rise up against the aggression they face. Then some days later, somebody called Babul Asom called me and asked if I would join,” he said. He added he was having a bad day when the call came. “For a moment I wanted to join, but I told him I need to think.”

Before he could make up his mind, the Assam police detained him for questioning three days later after keeping him under watch. The showroom employee, who is being counselled, is not alone. Police say as many as 22 people, including five girls, have over the last three years been counselled against joining the banned group.

Assam police’s intelligence wing chief, Pallab Bhattacharyya, blamed the furore over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which proposes to grant Indian nationality to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, for giving a fresh lease of life to the ULFA (Independent)”.

Assam’s indigenous groups oppose the proposed amendment as they feel it will marginalise them further by encouraging more migrations of the Hindus from neighbouring Bangladesh. They feel the ongoing exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) will have no meaning if Hindu Bangladeshis are allowed to become citizens and settle in Assam. The exercise is being conducted in line with the 1985 Assam Accord, which sought to detect and deport illegal immigrants. The pact was signed to end the six-year-old Assam agitation against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, Over 800 people were killed in the agitation.

Bhattacharyya insisted the recruitments were not as high as they are being made out to be. He blamed the media for hyping the recruitments. “The media hype up each instance of recruitment as if there were an exodus,” Bhattacharyya said.

The social media appears to have made it easier for the ULFA to attract recruits. A police officer, who keeps track of the social media, said 80 Facebook profiles have been under watch for “posting content sympathetic” to the ULFA (Independent) or for “being connected to it.”

The 22-year-old was counselled but remains defiant. “Seeing what is happening in Assam right now, the ULFA [Independent]’s stand is good,” he said. “This bill should not be passed. Because if it is, where will we Assamese live?”

A former 30-year-old ULFA member complained everybody was being pushed into Assam. “There are so many Bangladeshis. They want us to speak their language. The government allows it because of vote banks,” he said. “People are protesting against the Citizenship [Amendment] Bill but nobody in the government is paying any heed,” said the 30-year-old. He had surrendered to the police in 2005 and 2012 before he was arrested for trying to join the ULFA again in 2016. He was released in early 2017.

Many like a 19-year-old kick-boxer, Karishma Mech, have left their budding careers to join the ULFA.“Karishma always wanted to join the police or the Army. She may have been tricked into joining the ULFA,” said her mother, Manju Mech.Karishma Mech joined the group in May.

Police say of the 18 confirmed recruits from Tinsukia over the last three years, eight have deserted the outfit. Another eight were arrested in November before they could leave for the camps in Myanmar to join the ULFA. The police said since September as many as 11 people have joined the outfit, including two who announced it on Facebook by posting videos.

But the 30-year-old former ULFA member insists the actual number of recent the ULFA recruits is much higher. “I know because I am an insider,” he said. “Assam does not get its rights, the tea, the coal, it is all sold by Marwaris in Delhi... I still dream of freedom for Assam,” he said.

Prabal Neog, the leader of ULFA faction that favours talks with the government, said there had been peace since 2008 when a ceasefire led to a slit in the outfit. He said the peace has been disturbed since the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was announced. “It has hurt the Assamese conscience,” Neog said. He said he has been under pressure from the cadre of his faction to end the ceasefire. “The [ruling Bharatiya Janata party] BJP came [to power] on the plank of Jati, Mati, and Bheti [community, home, and hearth] and then cheated us.”

BJP leader and Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma rubbished the talk about ULFA resurgence as propaganda. “Was there no ULFA before? And except the Citizenship [Amendment] Bill, is there is no other issue which could make the ULFA come back again?”

(inputs Padma Rao Sundarji)

First Published: Dec 10, 2018 07:17 IST