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Will ULFA Wilt Under US Heat?

The United States has at last declared the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) a terrorist organization, twenty six years after this Northeast Indian separatist group’s formation and nearly five years after Washington has taken the lead in the global war on terror.

In its 2004 Country Reports on Terrorism, the US has put the ULFA on its list of ‘other selected terrorist organizations’, a category that includes those terror groups that do not target the national interests of the US or its citizens. The US State Department report described the ULFA as the ‘most prominent insurgent group in India’s Northeast’.

The report, talking of the only Northeast Indian militant outfit under scan, said, “ULFA procures and trades in arms with other Northeast Indian groups and receives aid from unknown external sources.” It also noted the ULFA’s use of extortion to finance military training, weapons purchase and trade in arms with other ethnic insurgent groups active in the area.

Two questions crop up immediately: why has the US turned the heat on the ULFA at this juncture, and why is it shifting its anti-terror focus on South Asia. First, the ULFA, fighting for a ‘sovereign, Socialist Assam,’ may have been targeted by the US because its top brass, including the group’s strategic think-tank, is based in Bangladesh, a country that is under close scrutiny by Washington over the past year or two for the sudden rise of jehadi terror groups. Reports of ULFA representatives attending conclaves in Bangladesh held by Islamist groups under the leadership of the Harkat-ul-Jehadi Islami (HUJI) may also have put the Northeast Indian outfit under closer scrutiny.

Secondly, the US may have been under pressure from powerful multi-national companies (MNCs) with interests in Assam who have been at the receiving end of the ULFA’s extortion campaign towards its ‘war chest’. Many MNCs dealing in tea, oil exploration, telecommunications and mining are really wary of the ULFA that has a history of successfully targeting these cash-rich concerns.

Besides, the US has been frequently charged of pursuing a policy of double standards in so far as dealing with terror. Until now, there was no specific American concern over militant strikes in India’s Northeast, in which hundreds of civilians have also been killed, although most of these groups, including the ULFA, have been receiving sanctuary and vital logistic support from influential sections in the neighboring nations of Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Top militant leaders, including ULFA Commander-in-Chief, Paresh Barua, and the group’s Chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, have Interpol Red Corner Notices up against them for a long time now. Yet, there has been no effort by Washington to help New Delhi track them, and neither was pressure mounted directly on Dhaka or Yangon to stop these rebels from carrying on with their anti-India offensives. By including the ULFA in its list of terror groups, Washington hopes to put indirect pressure on the governments in India’s neighborhood to crack down on its leaders and cadres.

The US action at this point could also be influenced by the increased flow of credible reports of the ULFA’s trans-national linkages. For example, Indian security circles say that the ULFA has been arranging arms supplies to the Maoist rebels in Nepal. Also, there have been unconfirmed reports that rebels from Assam have once again made forays into Bhutan, and may have opened shop for the second time in the Himalayan kingdom. If that is true, the possibility of Thimphu, too, seeking US help cannot be ruled out.

In the home front, however, the US action is unlikely to have any impact on the ULFA’s activities. The group might still carry out bomb attacks and other subversive acts and continue with their cat-and-mouse game with the security forces. But, Washington’s action in listing the ULFA as a terror group is expected to impact on the movement of its top leaders between South Asian capitals and other major international destinations. Indian intelligence officials say that most ULFA leaders travel on Bangladeshi passports and this may not be easy any more after the US action.

Moreover, US agencies might now be specifically looking for possible assets of ULFA leaders in American financial institutions, deny visas to people even remotely linked or sympathetic to the group, and penalize any US citizen or others within US jurisdiction found supporting the outfit or providing it with resources. The maximum impact of the US move is expected to be experienced by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Government in Dhaka that has been known to be sympathetic to anti-India groups like the ULFA. And, Washington’s indirect attempt to link the ULFA with jehadi forces in Bangladesh may force the Khaleda Zia regime to stop turning a blind eye to the Northeast Indian militant outfit.

* THe article was written by Wasbir Hussain

* The article was originally published May 10, 2005 at http://www.ipcs.org

* The writer is the Consulting Editor, The Sentinel, Guwahati

* The article has been published with due permission from the Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies (IPCS).

* You may visit IPCS’s website at http://www.ipcs.org for further readings

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