Kakopathar (Assam): It was a few minutes past 11 am, when the car swerved off National Highway 37 onto NH 55.
NH55 cuts through the rambling Hafjan Tea Estate in Rupai Siding, five kilometres off Doomdoma town in Assam’s Tinsukia district.
The maintenance signboards put up by the Border Roads Organisation along NH 55 are a constant reminder that the highway lines the state’s physical boundary. The mile stone read that it was 95 km to Arunachal Pradesh.
At that pre-noon hour, Hafjan, and the subsequent tea gardens that fell by the highway – Borhapjan, Mankhowa and Kumsang – seemed unusually quiet. The abnormal summer temperatures (it hit 38 degree Celsius that day) must have pushed the labourers to wind up their morning leaf picking session earlier than usual.
On that empty road, I had been anticipating a signboard, written in Assamese and it popped up all of a sudden. Seeing the car come to a halt, two young men took a quick look from inside their tamul paanor dukan (pan shops) – standing on bamboo stilts alongside the highway.
A pair of eyes also peeped out of a window from the tin-roofed house with the signboard. A khaki uniform hung out to dry on a clothes hanger few metres away and hinted that it must belong to one of the few Assam police personnel guarding the premises.
The signboard said, ‘Axom Nabanirban Kendra” (Centre for Rebuilding Assam.)
Back in 2008, it was the first such board to have come up in the state – when a faction of the separatist outfit United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), declared suspension of operations in Sadiya (in Tinsukia district) to enter into peace talks with the government in June that year. The board was put up to announce that it was the designated camp of the cadres of the pro-talk ULFA, set up with state government funds.
In all, there are now nine such boards, put up in front of camps spread across different districts of the state, to provide shelter to approximately 150 cadres belonging to the outfit’s two wings of the 28th Battalion, once referred to as ULFA’s most potent strike group.
The camp I was about to enter was situated three kilometres from Kakopathar town – a name embedded in the memory of the Assamese, for once being the hotbed of ULFA.
Beginning at the police quarters, the walkway swerved a little to the left and opened into a wide field surrounded by dozens of makeshift houses with tin sheets that shone brightly under a strong sun. A swahid bedi (martyrs’ memorial), complete with a bottle green cloth cap commonly identified with the separatist outfit, hung from the nozzle of an iron pole, with these words in Assamese, “He swahid tumak sashradha pranam”. (Roughly translates as, O martyr, I salute you with utmost devotion.)
A room that said ‘Karjyalay’ (office) was deserted.
A young woman in a mekhela sador holding a child on her waist peered out of a curtain from an adjacent room. Her husband, Dhiren Bora – one of the 78 ULFA cadres residing in the camp – soon came out to usher in this correspondent.
Inside, the room had a mud floor and was further partitioned into two other rooms, separated by cardboards, with the verandah at the back covered with woven bamboo walls to serve as a kitchen. A small TV placed on a table at a corner in the first room was playing news from a local channel.
“There is only drama in our Assamese news channels, good time pass,” Bora said sarcastically, switching it off. “These channels never highlight in what state we are in; they forgot that we gave our precious years to fight jatiya astitva (the pride of the community). See, how we are staying in these hot makeshift dwellings.”
A standing fan placed near the sofa was the only relief against the sweltering heat. A small inverter attached to a battery was placed near the TV.
Bora introduced me to his wife, Masum, and their two-year-old daughter. “Some years ago, I met her at a raas mela in Tinsukia. Though her parents were a bit apprehensive in giving her in marriage to a former militant, they finally agreed,” said Bora with a smile.
Masum ran inside to get tamul paan (betel nut and leaves) for me – a traditional custom in Assam to indicate that the guest is welcome.
He, meanwhile, called Ananta Hazarika and Upen Dutta, fellow ULFA men living in nearby houses, to join the conversation.
Over rounds of tamul paan and sah (tea) and joined in by a few more cadres subsequently, the next few hours rolled into conversations about their life before and after 2008. They took me on a round of the camp, and also on a jaunt into the Hahkhati reserve forest, which began where the camp ended, to pick outenga (elephant fruit), a popular sour agent used in Assamese curries.
We also entered a huge patch of swamp to go further into the forest to watch a few women cadre, fishing, done to “show baideo (elder sister) from Delhi how we live our daily life.”
Both Bora and Mahanta belong to the Majuli river island, the assembly constituency of state chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal. On September 8, much to the joy of the island residents, Sonowal declared it a district. Bora and Mahanta were happy about it too.
“Let’s hope our young boys get employment and other work opportunities because of it, we had none,” Mahanta said.
While Bora went to an ULFA camp in Myanmar in 1999 for arms training, Mahanta said even though he worked a few years for the outfit, he formally joined it only in 2000 and then went to the same camp in the neighbouring country to undergo guerilla training. Forty-year-old Dutta joined in 2002. “My name in the outfit was Prabhakaran Dutta,” he said.
Bora, 31, recalled the initial days, “We had to cross four mountains to reach the camp in Myanmar. It was an arduous journey. By the third day, I felt like returning home. Till then, I was my mother’s pampered boy. But the people who took us there continued to push us, saying, we are getting closer, and closer. After a month passed by, I submitted myself to them, kept reminding myself that this is for my motherland. We reached the camp after three months.”
“We had no contact with our family then. Much later, we learnt that they had to face a lot of harassment at the hands of the security forces for us. Even though we gave up arms nine years ago, we are still to unite with our families. My son is now 14 years old. I met my wife (Runa Bora) while I was in ULFA. She is also one of the cadres on ceasefire. We hardly visit our families even now. Our normal life is yet to begin. Therefore, that the talks are taking so long to find a permanent solution can be quite frustrating,” added Mahanta.
All the cadres that The Wire spoke to at the camp shared that sentiment. “The Centre will keep slowing down the process but it is the duty of the state government to push it. Does it not have our own people? Even though we believe in the Sonowal government and we supported him in the last assembly elections, yet we also warn it, that if something is not done quickly, it will not take us much time to pick up arms again,” threatened a cadre.
“Tired of waiting for a solution”, three such cadres fled the camp some time ago, after stealing some arms kept in the store of the police quarters. “All three got killed by security forces later,” related Dutta.
Following the incident, the arms brought by the 28th Battalion were shifted to yet another designated camp in Nalbari.
“The arms are now kept under a double lock. While one key is with us, the other is with Assam Police,” pro-talks leader and former commander of the battalion, Mrinal Hazarika, later told The Wire from Guwahati.
The growing worry among the cadres was clearly a lack of “xongsthan” or a means of livelihood.
“I am 36 years old, hanging on to the hope given by the government for the last nine years. If I continue for some more years like this, how useful will I be for any job?” asked Mahanta, even as others nodded in approval.
None of the young men present in the room was a graduate. While some had studied only till Class X, some others dropped out of college after the first year.
“We are not even graduates, who will give us a job if the government doesn’t? It is our only hope. Everybody knows the talks will take some more time but why not the government think of a scheme to engage us gainfully meanwhile? It is keeping us waiting for too long, which it might have to regret after some time,” said Bora agitatedly.
Yet another cadre added, “It is not that we have not tried getting jobs on our own. Most of us got married while staying in the camp hoping a solution will come soon. We have children now. So we were bound to look for a means of livelihood. However, since we were formerly with the xongothon (meaning ULFA) scares many people still, so they refuse to give us job fearing they will be in trouble later. So where do we go?”
A visibly angry cadre, asserted, “If the government thinks because we have families we will not return to militancy, it is wrong. We can still do it. Just a few days ago, one young man from Kakopathar went back to join ULFA (the Independent faction, headed by anti-talks chief Paresh Baruah) with his wife and kid. The outfit will take care of his family.”
Recently, the Baruah faction of the ULFA has been active in Tinsukia district. Since the rumour is rife that it is conducting fresh recruitment in the area, it is leading many to raise the question in the state, does this means resurgence of ULFA?
A common complaint among the cadre was the irregularity of the stipend they were to receive monthly from the state. “Rs 3000 is not enough to run our lives. Even though it was a small amount, we were regularly receiving it from the government. But since the (ULFA chairman) Arabinda Rajkhowa faction came overboard to join the talks, it began to be irregular,” claimed a young man. The last time they received the stipend was six months ago, he said. “We don’t get the backlog stipend,” said another.
Hazarika agreed, “It is an issue.”
“What is Rs 3000 today? It goes in just mobile recharge these days. These boys have families now, have responsibilities. They have been asking it to be increased. We also feel that the amount should not only be regular but should also be increased. We have requested the state government for it; the chief minister recently said he will certainly look into it. We are hoping something comes out soon,” he said.
When asked about the source of the funds for stipends, Hazarika explained, “In 2008, it came from the state government. Every year thereon, it was taken into account in the annual budget. However, after the Rajkhowa faction came over ground, the Centre offered to add to the funds. Now, for some time, funds are getting irregular. The big blow came in the run up to the assembly elections. The central funds began to get irregular, so did the state funds. Worse, the Tarun Gogoi government didn’t include it in its last budget, so it stopped altogether.”
He said, “The Sonowal government has now included it in its annual budget, so they should receive it soon.”
With the stipends dried up and the financial need of the families growing, the cadres had to look urgently for some ways of earning a living.
“The pan shops that you saw outside the camp are run by the cadres. Some of us are growing bananas, jack fruits and seasonal vegetables to sell in the Kakopathar market. Since pork is a popular meat in the area, some others have turned their backyards into piggeries. We built a shed for the women folk to weave gamusa and mekhela sadors to sell. We also fish in the forest, keep some for us and sell the rest in the market. It has now become a case of survival for us, we are now in a hand to mouth situation,” related Bora.
All across the camp, there is evidence of it. Mahanta proudly showed me his “kolor bari” (banana farming) and a sty to rear pigs at the back of his one-room dwelling.
“My son is a teenager now, it is difficult sharing space in this small room. He sometimes asks us, what did we get by sacrificing for our motherland,” he said.
On one corner of the room with mud flooring, stood his son’s study table. “He is very good in his studies, goes to an Assamese medium school nearby,” he said before proudly showing a seal he won in a debate some time ago.
Mahanta said, with no solution on the surface, the pressure on some of the cadres to “return home” had only grown. “Only seven families are left in the designated camp in Tiloi in the neighbouring Moran district. The others have gone back home because their families have some land which will at least come handy to do farming, etc. Here too, some boys have begun straddling between home and the camp. Everyone is getting a bit restless these days,” he said. Bora added, “On top of it, many of us have cases against us. We have to spend so much money on our own to fight those cases. They are mostly cases of sedition. I had seven such cases, four have been dismissed, three more are there.”
Many said that they regularly venture into the Hahkhati reserve forest behind the camp, to kill time and also to collect seasonal vegetables and fruits that grow in the wild to earn a quick buck.
“There are a lot of fruit trees inside, mango, amla, guava. Also, a lot of outenga, which we sell in the market,” said Dutta.
While Dutta had to take his daughter to a nearby dance school where she “is taking lessons on Sattriya (the classical dance of the state)”, he insisted with the others that I be taken inside the forest to be shown “outenga lying all over the ground.”
As we began walking towards it, just at the edge, a board popped up announcing a reforestation project under MNREGA.
“This is a scam. In the name of reforestation, many trees of the reserve forest were cut and then new plants were put in their place. Photos were taken of the new plants to show to the higher ups in Guwahati that reforestation had happened here. In total, the local administration spent Rs 15 lakh on it,” claimed Mahanta.
As we walked on, the forest began to get dense. Some cadres began picking outenga for me.
Mahanta also wanted me to meet his wife who along with some other women cadre were fishing somewhere deep inside the forest. After walking a while through the thicket, he asked me to remove my shoes and roll up the churridar to the knees to get into a huge swamp. With a nervous giggle, I gingerly put my feet into it, and nearly slipped and fell. Mahanta quickly broke a tree branch and handed it to me saying, “Use it to keep the grip.”
As we moved on, they began relating life lived in the jungles. “We learnt so many tricks how to save ourselves from mosquito bites, snake bites, and from other deadly insects. We learnt how to make our own path inside a thick forest,” said Bora.
Mahanta, meanwhile, kept making some sounds. “It will echo and reach them and then they will reply. We will know which side of the forest they are fishing,” he said keeping me in the loop.
They did respond, leading us to change our course a bit. After about half hour of wading through the swamp infested with leech, feasting on my city-bred blood, we reached the spot.
“Come baideu, see how we are passing our time waiting for the talks to bring us a solution,” spotting me, a woman cadre yelled jovially from a distance while others laughed. By that time, they had nearly filled a basket with the fish they had caught.
“This year has been particularly good, we not only ate a lot of fish but also sold quite a few kilos,” said a woman cadre.
Mahanta’s wife Runa belongs to Langkasi village in Makum, not very far from the camp. She joined ULFA in 1999.
“I went to the same camp in Myanmar run by 28th Battalion for arms training, and thereafter, kept going back to it for refresher courses, like the others did,” she said. Arrival of a new cache of arms meant the cadre needed to be trained in handling them well before an ‘operation’.
Like their male counterparts, all the women said they were “tired of waiting” and hoped “the solution comes quickly.”
“As a cadre, I have put my faith in my leaders. What else can I do except waiting for them to bring us a solution,” said Runa.
Neither the men, nor the women at the camp, had met either of the top leaders, Rajkhowa or Baruah, when they were in the outfit. They saw only their photos. And also the photo of the outfit’s ideologue Bhimkanta Burhagohain – known among the cadres as “mama” (maternal uncle). In the office at the camp, two huge portraits of the late Burhagohain was hung on a wall with his plea to all Assamese to come out and “join the fight” as their homeland was about to be lost to “outsiders.”
The office room also had photos of the children born in the camp, the names of the cadre presently residing in it and the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people translated into Assamese for the cadres to understand it, besides photos of the battalion commander, Hazarika addressing the cadres.
“When we were in ULFA, we interacted mostly with Hazarika sir; we still do, he is our only link to the top leaders of the organisation,” said a cadre.
Hazarika, later spoke to The Wire about the status of the talks: “P.C. Haldar (the Centre’s interlocutor for the talks) came to meet us in Guwahati some time ago. He said the Centre is waiting for a Supreme Court ruling on a petition which has challenged the 1971 cutoff year for the migrants as per the Assam Accord. We are also opposed to 1971. The petition is pleading that it should be 1951 instead, like it is in the rest of the country. So there is no point finalising a deal with the Centre before the decision comes.”
Even as the process of updating the National Register of Citizens is underway with 1971 as the cut-off date – as per a Supreme Court order, if the apex court now flips it back to 1951, an entirely new chapter on who is a “citizen of India” and who is not, will get written in the state. Only time will be able to testify whether that would bring “a permanent solution” as ULFA has been demanding from the Centre on the issue, or it would lead Assam to a state of further chaos.