It was a chilly cold November morning in 2016, when my respondent’s acquaintance dropped me at Simaluguri and arranged an auto-cum-carrier for my remaining journey to United Liberation Front of Asom’s (ULFA) designated camp, popularly known as ‘Asom Navnirman Kendra’ at Lakwa in Sivasagar. I wasn’t scared but I was apprehensive. Anxieties in fact started right in the morning when I saw this elderly but very handsome former ULFA Commander who drove me to Simaluguri. I found him handsome because he drove with great confidence in spite of only his left hand being intact while at the same time sharing the significance of the historic Sivasagar town. It was a grenade that blew off his right hand during one of his former tough underground days. He had embraced his disability with grace.
With every bump on the road to Simaluguri from Gaurisagar, my heart was literally on my hand. Among many things that I didn’t know he showed me the way to Pohu Ghor (animals’ house) built by the Ahoms which according to him should have been recognized as the first zoo in India. He also showed me Jerenga Pothar at Joysagar where Joymoti Konwari, wife of Ahom prince Godapani Konwar was brutally killed by Loraa Raja’s army when she refused to disclose about her husband’s whereabouts who later ruled the kingdom. Then we came across Rupohi Pothar, famous for Bihu. The Ahoms had built the Ranghar to watch Bihu celebrations there. At Ranghar, we stopped for a couple of minutes and I quickly clicked a couple of pictures. I felt as if I was travelling into the oral narratives of my elders at home who were introducing me to this town.
My journey from Simaluguri to Lakwa started on an auto-carrier with its driver Samir Phukan (name changed). Initially it was discomforting for me sitting next to him as he was continuously shooting up questions about me and my life back home. With the music plying loud in his vehicle, he was speaking at the top of his voice. For a second, I suspected he was drunk and I started feeling scared travelling alone sitting next to him on that extremely isolated road with hardly any people or vehicles around. They said research takes you out of your comfort zone, but I feel it was actually the Indian movies that were having a toll over my head instead. I was thinking of the worst, to be honest.
He offered me two dry shilikha fruits (black myrobalan). I accepted them but instead of eating them right away I kept them inside my bag. It is the harsh realities of society that make you paranoid. I was trying to maintain a heightened sense of alertness until Samir da (brother) shared his story about coming across a young researcher once who missed her bus to Guwahati from where she had a scheduled flight to catch. He was stunned at her confidence and courage at being at an unknown place. Upon hearing the story I too got inspired and felt a little easy. Until few seconds ago the person whom I considered to be my prospective abuser turned out to be a stranger waiting to be befriended. And no one could have actually made my journey more entertaining than Samir da’s company. Later when we reached the designated camp, he told my host about how many people perceive him to be drunkard due to his outspoken nature. I brushed off my doubts and embraced the uncertainties of the journey. Travelling along the lush green tea gardens at Lakwa on that stony road with Zubeen Garg’s 90s popular song hiya diya niya playing in the background, I began to savour the most delightful and enlightening fieldwork experience for my research on the oral histories of women in ULFA.
Reaching ‘Asom Navnirman Kendra’ broke my myth of a ‘camp’. The huge campus surrounding the concrete structure exceeded my ideas of cadres living in polythene covered tents which I had cultivated based on the narratives of the women cadres previously. Popularly called as designated camps, this camp at Lakwa was established in 2012. According to the Suspension of Operation Pact, signed by the central government, Assam state government and the pro-talk faction of ULFA in September 2011, proper reintegration and rehabilitation for the ULFA cadres were to be arranged. To achieve these designated camps called ‘Asom Navnirman Kendras’ were established at many locations in Assam like Lakwa, Moran, Kakopothar, Mangaldai, Bongaigaon, Goalpara, Tihu and Moridonga along with base camps at Kokrajhar and Morigaon. Prior to the establishment of these camps, ULFA cadres, both men and women, would remobilize into the organization at the first call. Detention of my respondent Nalini (name changed) for four times until the final call to join the peace talks indicated the frustrations of the cadres over ground. The inability to gauge the intentions of the state regarding a proper solution to peace made many of them re-enter into the activities of the organization. I was Nalini’s room-mate for a couple of days at the designated camp.
Though it seemed to be a hostel, the designated camp was home to around twenty inmates including the non-combatant wives of the former cadres who married after 2012. Talking to the in-charge of the camp the following day, I came to know that around six hundred cadres were allotted to this camp but due to unavailability of space many stayed outside on their own arrangements. This revealed to me that while the idea of the designated camp had been realized, the real aim, i.e., rehabilitation, was far from becoming a reality. The open end of the U-shaped concrete structure was surrounded by a kitchen garden, a guest house and the swahid bedi (martyr’s memorial). By the time I reached the camp it was already late afternoon. The weather was chilly and by the time I had completed taking few interviews, the electricity had gone off and it became very dark and scary. I was actually too scared to use the washrooms which were on the other side of the camp. There were no male cadres in the camp that day as they had gone to attend Lachit Divas.[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Talking to the in-charge of the camp the following day, I came to know that around six hundred cadres were allotted to this camp but due to unavailability of space many stayed outside on their own arrangements. This revealed to me that while the idea of the designated camp had been realized, the real aim, i.e., rehabilitation, was far from becoming a reality.[/perfectpullquote]
It was tough to get internet connection in the camp and the phone networks were not working properly. The October skies maybe mesmerizing, but I will not forget the sight of that November night sky glittering with sparkling stars. By 7 pm I was served dinner with fresh fish and later Nalini helped me make my bed. I felt sorry that she had to leave her bed for me to which she responded that she did it happily for tyaag (sacrifice). This term ‘tyaag’ was strange, I thought. Here I was concerned about a little comfort and the inconvenience I might have cause to her because of a bed. Her story, on the other hand, revealed to me the numerous contributions made by the women cadres in ULFA since 1989 and particularly during Operation Bajrang in the 1990 which has always remained clandestine and unrepresented.
The next day I met the in-charge of the camp, a very young man. He was a former Commander of Enigma A-camp of ULFA. During our conversations, I felt the desperation of the cadres at the camp. Their inability to reintegrate with their previous home landed many of them at the camp but at the same time it has left them at the midst of numerous social, political and particularly financial anxieties. My fieldwork started with the angst against the society which represented women cadres in ULFA as only cooks, wives and objects of lust in the insurgent organization. However oral narratives among different cadres across different districts made me interested in the everyday fears and lives which had another story to tell.
These cadres came from noble backgrounds and many of them were actually alumni of prestigious educational institutions in Assam who sacrificed their youth for the adamant goal of sovereignty, a realization which came very late. While my focus was my research, I couldn’t stop myself from exploring their lives while they were underground. From friends becoming foes, having to cook dog meat to avoid starvation and the chilling cold, pseudonyms, strange encounter with Naga villagers who treated them kindly aspiring for an ‘independence’ that would come someday: such were the underground tales that revealed a world beyond the narrative of the militarization of the insurgent organization. Uddipan Dutta through his work, Creating Robin Hoods: The Insurgency of ULFA in its Early Period, Its Parallel Administration and the Role of Assamese Vernacular Press (1985-1990) (2009), tried to trace back the times when print media helped to construct a cult image of young ULFA cadres and popularized their keen interest in solving the everyday malaises like sexual harassment, sale of alcohol or corruption in the society. The construction of what he called the image of ‘Robin Hood’ ignited the growth of the organization amongst the masses. While I might be accused of romanticizing ULFA at the time of its decline, I can claim that many of us do not have the nerve to sacrifice our homes, lives and careers in the name of the nation which was once done by these young cadres.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] While I might be accused of romanticizing ULFA at the time of its decline, I can claim that many of us do not have the nerve to sacrifice our homes, lives and careers in the name of the nation which was once done by these young cadres. [/perfectpullquote]
The designated camp where I was treated with sumptuous food like kosu (taro), mosundori (heartleaf), pudina (mint) and fresh fishes, which were scarce in cities, reminded me about the web of speedy urbanization in which we all were getting entangled. At Lakwa, the camp had a poultry farm, tea plantation, fishery, silk worm cultivation and a weaving centre. But the irony was how much revenue could these cadres really earn from these initiatives without any substantial investment? Nalini who was in her forties, helped me see the camp. The camp dwellers have separate kitchen arrangements for their families with young children. It was getting difficult for them to follow a common timing in the common kitchen. The common kitchen and dining hall, though, was adorned by a LCD on its wall and saw the former cadres assemble every night after dinner exchanging conversations over Assamese news and daily soaps. During one of those nights when I decided of not missing that common experience of sitting together, I saw the former cadres cheering for Northeast United FC during the ongoing Indian Super League. And to think we had aspired for sovereign Assam? The politics of borders rooted in power and fame continues to create discontents in the region and I am worried that I might be labeled as a political philosopher here!
Nalini was tall and strongly built. Until I had come to know her closely I found her to be a very strict and angry woman. In 1991 she sat for her class X board exams and it was during that time that she had started working for the organization over ground. By 1994, she was sent to Nagaland and since then there was no looking back from the dream of Swadhin Asom. She was single when I met her and she wore her jungle fatigue so that I could click few pictures of her. She was Lieutenant of ULFA’s military wing when she came over ground for the peace talks. However, the frustration and desperations were deep rooted in the minds of the camp dwellers. The meagre allowance of three thousand rupees given by the government did not assuage their fears about an uncertain future.
Today when United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) continues to recruit young men and women from rural Assam, particularly from Tinsukia, Sivasagar and Dibrugarh, the focus on post-conflict situation ps essential. On the one hand, the state has ensured that peace talks remains stagnant by establishing the designated camps without making any effort for better accommodation of single women cadres and widows of the revolution. On the other hand, the insurgent leaders do not seem repentant about their roles in influencing hundreds of young men and women into joining the organization without a proper strategy of action. The homecoming of currently underground ULFA members might break the Axomiya ego that continues to take pride in the continuance of ULFA (I) under the unabated leadership of Commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah. However, it also cannot be overlooked that the absence of the initial leadership might leave hundreds of young cadres in disarray in the coming future just like the camp dwellers experienced after internal schisms amongst the ULFA leaders.