New Delhi: Two months before the Chandra Shekhar government at the Centre did away with the first Asom Gana Parishad government in Assam in 1990, imposed President’s rule in the north-eastern state, and launched the Army’s Operation Bajrang to flush out the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), three top representatives of the armed group met a British diplomat in Dhaka to seek the United Kingdom’s help to pursue its cause.
Revealed in documents newly declassified by the National Archives of the UK, the meeting of the three top ULFA functionaries – Anup Chetia (real name Golap Barua), Siddhartha Phukan (real name Sunil Nath) and Iqbal (real name Munin Nabis) – with the diplomat, David Austin, took place on October 2, 1990.
After the meeting, Austin reported to London with a note that the ULFA was inspired by Israel.
“If Israel can survive surrounded by the hostile Arab world, then why not Assam surrounded by hostile Indian forces?” Austin had written London in the note, dated October 4.
The ULFA had proffered the idea of a ‘sovereign’ Assam, the reason why one faction of the outfit – ULFA-Independent – has still not joined New Delhi’s ongoing peace initiative.
A September 13 news report by Hindustan Times quoting from the declassified documents said the British diplomat was shown photographs of the outfit’s training camp in Lakhimpur in Assam among other images and leaflets, and promised a tour of its camps in the state. One of the photos was of the ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Barua at the China border with a Chinese Army liaison officer. Barua is still believed to be in China.
Austin had declined the offer to visit the camps.
As per the news report, Austin wrote, “The three men asked for help/advice in four separate areas: UK support in publicising the ULFA’s activities and aims; advice on whether the ULFA would be able to set up an office in the UK; an introduction to other western diplomatic missions in Dhaka; and how to get in contact with authorities in Israel who may be able to help them.”
“On November 5, diplomat DD W Martin at the British High Commission in New Delhi described Austin’s note as ‘fascinating’ and wrote to the foreign office, ‘They have obviously now decided to target western diplomats’.”
The report said that Martin had written, “That they should do so tends to corroborate the periodic press allegations that the ULFA can operate with impunity in Bangladesh, perhaps even with the tacit complicity of the authorities.”
Martin found the China link of ULFA “new and interesting”. He mentioned that he had heard about the link only from a Congress-I MLA in Assam “who alleged that the Indian Intelligence Services knew all about the Chinese involvement, but were keeping quiet for fear of damaging the process of rapprochement between India and China.”
Claims of Chinese help to northeast insurgent movements are not new. Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga in his autobiography had stated that he, as a top leader of the Mizo National Front (MNF) in the 1960s, received help from China.
Martin’s note to London also highlighted that the ULFA leaders did not mention anything about its activities against the state’s tea companies which were a direct commercial interest of the UK.
He wrote, “The ULFA is a militant organisation pursuing violent means to subvert the established order in Assam. By pressurising tea companies, it also threatens British interests. Contacts with the ULFA would therefore be hard to explain to the Government of India.”
In April that year, Kolkata-based businessman Surinder Paul (of the present Apeejay Group) was shot dead by suspected ULFA cadres in Tinsukia in upper Assam, leading his brother Lord Swraj Paul, a British citizen with influence, to mount formidable pressure on then Indian ambassador to the UK, Kuldip Nayar, to write to the then V.P. Singh government to act against the ULFA. However, AGP was a part of the V.P. Singh dispensation with one of its senior members, Dinesh Goswami, a central minister. The Prafulla Kumar Mahanta government in Assam, especially the home minister and AGP leader Bhrigu Phukan, were considered as having been close to the ULFA in those days.
Significantly, barely a month after that meeting, on November 9, 1990, a central government agency carried out a covert operation in upper Assam to airlift to Kolkata all non-Assamese employees of the Doomdooma Tea Company along with their families. That company had decided to defy the ULFA’s demand for funds.
On November 28, 1990, India banned ULFA.
The three senior functionaries of the outfit who met Austin continue to live in Assam.