The news of ULFA (I) commander in Chief Paresh Baruah’s nephew Munna Baruah joining ULFA (I) caused quite a stir in the state. 24-year-old Munna Baruah was working as a trainee at IOCL in Digboi. It was only when he went missing and his phone was not reachable, his parents were worried and they approached the police. His joining the outfit was later confirmed by the outfit leaders as well as police. The news led to different reactions. While Munnah’s parents appealed to him to come back and his mother’s heart-wrenching cries for her son left many in tears, his decision was hailed by many as the call of the moment including by his younger sister.
Munnah’s case is not an exception. Of late quite a few young men and women have joined the outfit. More than 20 youths are said to have joined the ULFA (I) from different parts of Assam. Across the state linkmen who were trying to facilitate such recruitment have been arrested. What is, however, worrisome is the changing profile of these youths who chose to join the outfit. Most of them are educated professional youths who chose to leave their jobs and join this banned outfit.
The perennial backwardness of the region was often explained by the activities of various militant organisations. This in turn worked as a vicious cycle and unemployment, lack of job opportunities pushed many youths towards insurgency. But in this latest development, it seems young men and women who joined the outfit are inspired by an ideology which shows armed revolution as the sole path of solving Assam’s problems.
It is crucial this trend is taken seriously. In the last decade, ULFA witnessed a decline. A number of ULFA leaders led by Arabinda Rajkhowa also agreed to come to the negotiating table. While many were already surmising about a weakened ULFA, the recent controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has in a way given new lease of life to the organisation. The threat perceived by the people of Assam is very much real. This Bill if made an Act will not only polarise communities further, but also push Assamese language and culture towards a crisis situation.
The people of Assam and the larger civil society have been vehemently opposing the Bill. They have been undertaking democratic modes of protest like strikes, protest meetings and rallies. But the response of the government to these protests has been lukewarm. Rather the government have always created obstacles so that the protests are not carried out. Members of various civil society organisations participating in the protests have been arrested and detained. Permissions for protest meetings have been revoked and section 144 was clamped in places where these organisations tried to organise sit-in protests.
It is this dismissal of democratic protests which might have disillusioned youths. Protests and dissents are safety valve of a democratic society. Oppressing dissent often leads to violent outbursts. This is one of the reasons which saw a large number of youths opt for a militant organisation instead of any other democratic movement which they saw as futile.
In fact, even pro-talk ULFA leaders like Anup Chetia stated in clear terms that if the government continues to overlook the grievances of the people and go against the interests of the people of Assam, youths will be forced to launch a violent revolution. What is also worrisome is the dismissive attitude of some political leaders. Ministers have gone on record dismissing the trend as a threat. The state was finally seeing some semblance of peace. But of late things have taken a worse turn. This is a failure of the government in understanding the grievances of the people.
The government’s partial stand which saw the arrest of people like Jiten Dutta and Mrinal Hajarika but no action against controversial statements of MLA Shiladitya Deb, have further rendered democratic pathways of protest as less effective. It seems democratic political space in the state is shrinking at a fast pace. And for many extreme steps is the only way to make the government listen. This will set dangerous precedents and lead to a degradation of the law and order situation.
While writing this piece, news of an IED blast in Sivsagar’s Demow Chariali came in. The incident caused the death of two innocent people. While it is being suspected that ULFA (I) is behind the attack, it is yet to be confirmed. Be it Dhola or Dimow, it is always the blood of common folks which is spilled. Violence begets more violence. India has a democracy at place. India’s procedural democracy despite its shortcomings should not be dismissed. What is required is to transform this procedural democracy to a substantive one.
ULFA’s rising popularity can be gauged from the responses that a rumour regarding the death of Paresh Barua and the relief expressed when it was proven false. It surely bears witness of the shortcomings of the democratic government.
Older generations which have lived through the Assam Movement lament its consequences. The government by taking such extreme stand is further pushing the state towards such a chaotic situation. It is high time the government takes the concerns of the people on board while taking any decision. Solutions in the form of leaving Bangladesh outside the ambit of the bill or making the bill religion neutral should be explored into.
Parvin Sultana is an assistant professor in Pramathesh Barua College, Gauripur. She can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org