Over the last two weeks, a series of “anti-outsider” protests have come up in Assam, reminiscent of the early phase of the AASU movement of 1979-85 when the issue was about both non-Assamese “outsiders” and Bangladeshi infiltrators. This time, apart from torchlight processions and highway blockades across the Brahmaputra Valley, two 12-hour bandhs called by the ULFA pro-talks faction shut down Morigaon and Moran Monday.
While members of the pro-talks faction have organised most of the protests — joined by localised units of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the Asom Jatiyabadi Yuva-Chatra Parishad, the All Tai Ahom Students’ Union and the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti — protesters at some places are invoking the name of anti-talks ULFA leader Paresh Barua.
What led to the protests was the assault of a group of former ULFA members in Nagaon on August 22. This happened inside a business establishment owned by brothers who belong to a Bengali-speaking family. The group had reportedly gone to raise funds for flood relief, when they were allegedly confined inside a room and beaten up.
Pro-talks ULFA leaders including chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and general secretary Anup Chetia — who was handed over to India in 2015 after 18 years in jail in Bangladesh — rushed to Nagaon a day after the assault, along with leaders Jiten Dutta, Mrinal Hazarika and Prabal Neog and their cadres. A number of members of ‘SULFA’ — S for surrendered — too took part in a rally.
“Some of them have been making dangerous statements of taking the law into their hands, reorganising their boys, and even threatening to take out their guns,” Assam DGP Mukesh Sahay said. “Initially, we thought this was in the heat of the moment, but a few of them have been repeating such utterances and even encouraging their boys to raise slogans in the name of Paresh Barua.”
Chairman Rajkhowa, for instance, said in Nagaon: “If such attacks on indigenous people do not stop, there will be bloodshed in Assam… We have been trying to keep our boys under control even after such an incident. Our guns are lying locked in our boxes. Do not compel us to take them out.”
Jiten Dutta, leader of the ULFA’s once-dreaded “28th Battalion”, which declared a unilateral ‘ceasefire’ in 2008, said that if required, he would reorganise the ULFA cadre. “We know how to lay down lives and how to take lives. If such incidents continue, I will go back to the armed path with 10,000 youth,” Dutta said at a rally a day after the assault.
Chetia accused the BJP of an “agenda”, saying: “Bangladeshis and other non-Assamese people have been emboldened to attack our people because of the ruling party’s agenda of shaping a single Indian identity by crushing the existence and identities of the indigenous communities.”
Abhishek Roy, BJP general secretary for Nagaon district, was among nine persons arrested following the assault. The others included Bengali-speaking brothers Raju, Nidhan and Manoranjan Das, on whose premises the ex-ULFA group was beaten up.
Assam police have instructed all SPs to register suo motu cases against acts and utterances that are potentially “dangerous, provocative and anti-national”. DGP Sahay said a couple of cases under Section 121 have been registered against Jiten Dutta. “While all the persons involved in the Nagaon incident have been arrested, some pro-talks ULFA leaders are trying to create a situation against a section of people whom they have described as outsiders,” Sahay told The Indian Express.
Dutta claims he was only against Bangladeshis who entered Assam after 1971. “While the Assam Accord clearly calls for deporting Bangladeshis who entered after 1971, the BJP government is trying to negate that and settle more Bangladeshis in the name of protecting minorities from that country. If protesting that is waging war against India, I will continue to protest,” Dutta said.
Chetia has launched a ‘Khilanjiya Mancha, Asam’ with 28 orgainsations, disowned by ULFA publicity secretary Mithinga Daimary. “There is no decision whatsoever in the ULFA central committee to be part of the mancha formed by Chetia,” Daimary said, an indication of internal differences.
AASU dissociated itself from the ULFA’s protests. “We have definitely raised our voice against the Nagaon incident. But, while some people are trying to equate it with the Silapathar incident when a mob of Hindu Bengali refugees had attacked an AASU office in March this year, we have made it clear that we are not part of any agitation launched by the ULFA leaders,” AASU general secretary Lurin Jyoti Gogoi said. He said the AASU had already instructed its members across the state not to take part in protest rallies, bandhs and blockades relating to the Nagaon incident.