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A Good Overview of ULFA

Creating Robin Hoods: The Insurgency of ULFA in Its Early Period, Its Parallel Administration and the Role of Assamese Vernacular Press (1985-1990) by Uddipan Dutta (New Delhi: WISCOMP), 2009; pp 96, Rs 350.

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A Good Overview of ULFA

Abikal Borah

U
ddipan Dutta engages with the issue of the rise of insurgency in Assam from 1985 to 1990 through a close look at the representation of the cadres of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and its early activities in the Assamese print media and seeks to answer two pertinent questions. First, Dutta asks whether the popular imagination in Assam engaged with ULFA and its early activities vis-à-vis “an image of mysterious romantic super hero?”. Second, he draws our attention to the parallel between the image of ULFA with the 14th century English folk hero Robin Hood and seeks to understand whether the Assamese print media created a simplistic image of this kind or did it offer us a much more complex understanding of the emergence and growth of the organisation.

Dutta’s argument militates against the attractive binary of “insurgent” and benevolent revolutionaries that characterises most studies of sub-nationalist groups, especially in the case of postcolonial Assam. Dutta problematises the operation of this binary by showing how both images of the subnationalist groups are representations produced within particular media discourses, whether sympathetic to the sub-nationalist cause or against it. He identifies a set of narratives outside this binary which stand for the historical development of the larger

Creating Robin Hoods: The Insurgency of ULFA in Its Early Period, Its Parallel Administration and the Role of Assamese Vernacular Press (1985-1990) by Uddipan Dutta (New Delhi: WISCOMP), 2009; pp 96, Rs 350.

sub-nationalist issue in Assam and which needs to be understood to make sense of the emergence and operation of these groups. These narratives include the discourse of the “step mother” that reappears in various public discussions in Assam. The debates around linguistic nationalism equally shape the understanding of sub-nationalist demands and which is often forgotten in the rush to either condemn or sympathise with a sub-nationalist group like ULFA.

Dutta meticulously outlines the varied range of interpretations of the fi gure of Robin Hood and finally focuses on E J Hobsbawm’s commentary on social banditry and his categorisation of the “noble robber”. Hobsbawm attributes nine specific characteristics while formulating this category and Dutta sets those as the parameter for understanding whether ULFA’s activism is simply an act of noble robbery or it is something far more complex. The wide range of opinions coming from almost all sections on ULFA’s activism and its association with the image of Robin Hood are quoted by Dutta in order to show how this image infl uences the growth of the organisation

june 2, 2012

across the Brahmaputra Valley and how the state was also conscious about the construction of this image.

However, Dutta also presents critiques of this image construction, one,

which emphasises the coercive modus operandi of the organisation and the other, which is kind of a propagandist opinion on behalf of the organisation, centred around the strong ideological formulations of ULFA against the colonial oppression of the Indian state. Dutta thus manages to solidly foreground his research problematic as he closely analyses the reports and articles published in two of the popular dailies Dainik Asom and Ajir Asom, and two fortnightlies Prantik and Sutradhar between the period 1985 and 1990.

Historical Background

The historical background to the rise of the sub-nationalist struggle in Assam is central to the understanding of the present problems of insurgency and thus, Dutta devotes a considerable portion of his essay in discussing it. ULFA claims that the present geographical map of Assam has been continuously manipulated by the Indian government following the arbitrary colonial mapping of the region and which has undermined the historically constructed heterogeneous ethnic composition of the region. According to Dutta, the rise of ULFA and the claims made by it should be understood in a historical continuum. In this continuum, he rightly points out the importance of some of the crucial movements in the post-independence period like the offi cial language movement, the oil refi nery

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movement, the movement on medium of instruction and the Assam movement. In fact Dutta shows how these movements were triggered by a logic historically justified along the lines of the central government’s discrimination against the Assamese state and the cultural hegemony endorsed by the Bengali elite through colonial agencies.

Dutta talks about the formation of the Assamese linguistic community in the colonial period and how the fi rst generation of beneficiaries of colonial education among the Assamese had to fi ght against the imposition of the Bengali language as the official language of Assam used in government offi ces and in the courts till it was replaced by Assamese in 1873. Dutta then signals the discourse on “the step mother at the centre” which forms the fulcrum of ULFA’s claims to legitimacy in its struggle against the Indian state. He mentions a wide range of instances in history, ranging from the placement of Assam in the Group C states by the Cabinet Mission to the alleged surrender of Assam to China by the central government in 1962 and thus shows how this discourse was formu lated in the popular Assamese psyche. The historical reasons behind calling Assam the “colonial hinterland” of India by Tilottama Mishra are thus substantiated through these details. Dutta also refers to the appalling statistical data that Parag Kumar Das pointed out about the colonial plundering of Assam in

o rder to explain how the discourse of the “step mother” is perpetuated by a set of native thinkers.

The colonisation of Assam by the Indian state has been continuously resisted by the Assamese population in which the caste Hindu middle class mostly determines the nature of all social and political discourses. However, the projects of self-aggrandisement undertaken by the middle class in the name of resistance, for greater control over economic sources and for a definitive role in the discourse of social management led by the state cannot be denied. Dutta sharply brings out the operation of xenophobia against the so-called outsiders that marked the Assam movement and how the leaders of the movement later settled simply for a powerful role in the electoral politics and got involved in a massive misappropriation of governmental funds. Dutta’s analysis is distinctive in that it identifies the forces which showed clear resentments after the betrayal of the aspirations of the Assam movement and how these forces gradually gathered momentum in the postmovement phase through various sorts of alliances. ULFA was one of the many forces and certainly the most powerful one which emerged in great strength between 1985 and 1990.

Media Reportage

Dutta analyses the representation of the early activities of ULFA in the vernacular media by looking at a few crucial moments in ULFA’s history and how they were reported in the media. The series of bank robberies that ULFA committed from 1986 to 1989 are analysed through newspaper reports which show an interesting shift that marks ULFA presence in the public space. The first robbery was strongly condemned by the newspapers and the accused were also arrested by the police while on the third occasion there was little protest against the crime in the pages of the Assamese dailies. This shift signifies two issues. One is the growing infl uence of ULFA, which put even the media on guard, leading them not to condemn the activities of the organisation. Secondly, the lack of police proceedings on the third occasion establishes the alleged claim of the then Asom Gana Parishad’s (AGP) covert support to ULFA.

During this period ULFA also adopted a feudal modus operandi with an objective to enforce a moral order in Assamese social life by announcing a strict ban on the sale of alcohol and by punishing sexual harassers and miscreants of all kinds. Dutta presents this issue through the various newspaper reports and visuals used in them to show how ULFA punished corrupt officers, sexual harassers and fake ULFA cadres for collecting money in the name of the organisation. This created a mixed response among the common masses. The tribal population for whom alcohol is a part of their tradition strongly resented this ban, while the caste Hindu Assamese seemed to be highly appreciative of such moves. Such all-encompassing bans were possible because by this time with the tacit support of the AGP government ULFA managed to run a parallel government in the state. In his discussion of this moment in ULFA’s history, Dutta manages to bring out how the sub-nationalist dissident groups allied with the regional political caste Hindu forces to control the state.

The debates around ULFA’s activities on the pages of newspapers and fortnightlies bring to light the problems associated with the organisation. Dutta refers to major articles by Hiren Gohain and Devabrata Sharma where ULFA was strongly criticised for its misguided activism, vandalism by the lower rank cadres and the strong presence of caste Hindu elements within the organisation. In fact, ULFA-URMCA (United Reservation Movement Council of Assam) debate refl ects on ULFA’s lack of understanding about the ethnic heterogeneity of the state and its pervasive caste hierarchy. ULFA also blamed URMCA for following the model applied by left parties in north India with respect to the caste discrimination. Through the URMCA-ULFA conflict, Dutta manages to bring out the resentments that the lower castes and the tribal population harboured against ULFA for its implicit caste Hindu biases.

The study of one of ULFA’s welfare projects to change the course of the river Dikrong is offered by Dutta as an example of the way the collective memory of

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the people of the neighbouring villages produced a representation of ULFA. Dutta mentions the great difficulties faced in finding any authentic document to trace this event but he critically reads the narratives to present the impact of the project and the event. In fact, the whole project was undertaken by the Jatiya Unnyan Parishad, a frontal overground organisation of ULFA. The project is considered successful by the people involved as it was accomplished using scientific methods. But the narratives give a glimpse of the coercive mode of operation of ULFA used to make people participate in manual work and the element of vandalism present in the work of lower rank cadres of the organisation. Allegations against the misuse of funds raised for the project were also levelled and it seems to be true from Dutta’s presentation of evidence from the narratives. ULFA’s parallel government during these years managed to prop them up as a strong presence in the rural areas but their modus operandi was not devoid of coercive means despite their ambition to introduce alternative models of social change.

The political and social history of the period from 1985 to 1990 becomes central to the understanding of insurgency in Assam as this is the period when the caste Hindu regional forces joined hands against the central government. It is also worth mentioning that the making of the Robin Hood image was accomplished within the parameters of a casteist self-aggrandisement project. ULFA’s image clearly differs from the one that E J Hobsbawm gives of “social banditry”. Dutta manages to bring out the tensions within the politics of this period by clearly distinguishing the contesting forces in the political struggle and his success lies in his ability to delineate the belief and ideological particularities of different insurgent groups.

The crucial contribution of the book lies in locating this unwritten history of insurgency in the light of caste and class tensions within Assamese society. This is significant because most sociological and historical writing on this recent history overlooks the role of social determinants in shaping the demands and aspirations of sub-nationalism.

Dutta must be commended on his painstaking study of media reports that does not end at simple content analysis. He brings out the difficulty in simply relying on media representations as literal refl ections of political reality. Instead he focuses on the ways the language of the media is related to other social discourses which are in the process of shaping the political reality that a media report seeks to portray. This dual emphasis in his analysis helps to historicise the work of media analysis and take it beyond simple arguments about media biases or state coercion.

In a book on the “vernacular media”, however, one needs to be careful about translating from the original language. Some of the translations in Dutta’s book appear to be truncated or simplifi ed. This certainly diminishes the careful presentation of obscure sources that have been painstakingly collected by the author. The work of translation is as much a part of this critical media analysis as is the work of collating data and media reports.

Abikal Borah (abikalassam@gmail.com) is at the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati, Assam.

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