Jeraigaon had a special place in the politics of Assam till a few years back.
The village with non-descript cottages amid lush green tea plantations and bamboo-grooves off the NH 37 between Dibrugarh and Tinsukia was a must in the itinerary of all vote-seekers, no matter whether they were trying their luck in panchayat polls, or aspiring to enter state assembly or win a seat in the Lok Sabha.
The first person they met in the village and sought blessings from was none else, but Miliki Barua — the octogenarian mother of Paresh Barua, the elusive “commander-in-chief” of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).
And, on every poll day, it was a ritual for all local scribes to report that Miliki Barua and rest of her family had cast their votes.
Local TV channels also aired the frail woman’s ‘byte’ as she mumbled her call for peace in Assam.
Ever since it waged an armed rebellion to ‘liberate’ Assam in 1979, the ULFA has all along been denouncing elections as ‘a farce’ or ‘a tool for extending New Delhi’s colonial rule’ over the state.
So when Barua’s mother voted and took part in the elections, it indeed made news.
Not this time though. When Dibrugarh went to polls on April 7 and registered an impressive 79.31 per cent turnout, none bothered to know if the ‘first family’ of Jeraigaon also turned up at the polling station set up in the lower primary school of the village.
Neither did they find any space in the prominent local newspapers next day.
And, if local grapevine is to be believed, none of the six candidates in the fray went to seek blessings of the rebel leader’s family this time.
This was unthinkable a few years back, because the ULFA continued to hold sway in Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and several other areas in eastern Assam and, notwithstanding its professed stand on ‘Indian elections,’ often used its clout to tilt the balance in favour of the candidates of its choice.
The ULFA’s secessionist agenda or the violent path chosen by it had never been endorsed by the people of Assam, but the rebels did enjoy support from the masses, largely because they were seen as the ‘boys’ standing up against New Delhi and championing the causes of the fabled students’ agitation against influx of migrants in late 1970s and early ’80s.
The outfit in 1996 used its clout extensively to ensure the defeat of the ruling Congress in the state assembly polls.
The Asom Gana Parishad, which too was born out of the Assam agitation a decade back and had a stint in power from 1985 to 1989, won the polls and Prafulla Mahanta returned to the office of the chief minister.
But as Mahanta government started a crackdown on the ULFA, the outfit went all out against the AGP in 2001 assembly polls, which saw the Congress coming back to power.
But the ULFA’s diminishing clout was never as evident as it has been during the current Lok Sabha polls in Assam. The fact that Assam’s five LS seats — all in the former ULFA strongholds — went to the polls on April 7 and recorded massive turn-out itself indicated that the once-formidable rebel organisation no longer held sway in the state.
The ULFA has been observing April 7 as its ‘raising day’ ever since it came to being in 1979.
Till few years back, the entire Brahmaputa Valley came under a pall of fear on this day with police and paramilitary forces stepping up security to preempt any subversive bid by the outfit to mark its presence.
This is also the first election in a long time in Assam when the ULFA did not issue a boycott call.
The ULFA has withstood three major military offensives against it – ‘Operation Bajrang’ and ‘Operation Rhino’ by the Indian Army in Assam in 1990s and ‘Operation All Clear’ by the Royal Bhutan Army in the neighbouring country in 2003.
Sustained counter-insurgency operations by the security forces lessened the outfit’s striking capabilities, but it managed to continue a low-intensity conflict by carrying out hit-and-run attacks in Assam, primarily using its bases in Bangladesh.
The outfit, however, suffered its worst setback after the Awami League government headed by Sheikh Hasina came to power in Bangladesh in 2009.
Unstated collaboration between the security agencies of India and Bangladesh resulted in the arrest of ULFA president Aurobindo Rajkhowa and many other top leaders of the outfit.
They were released on bail and entered into peace negotiation with the government. Barua, who led the armed wing of the outfit, however, evaded arrest and fled from Bangladesh to Myanmar and then to China.
As he remained opposed to the peace-process, the outfit suffered a split, with one faction led by him being known as ULFA (independent) and the other led by Rajkhowa being known as the ULFA (pro-talk).
Barua, according to the intelligence agencies, has been living in China, possibly in a small town near the communist country’s border with Myanmar.
His men in the past few years executed several functionaries of the organisation in its camp in Myanmar, ostensibly suspecting them to be colluding with the pro-talk faction or keen to join the peace-process.
Thirty-five years after it was born with the professed objective to fight for the sovereignty of Assam, the ULFA is now in an existential crisis.
The new government, which will come to power in Delhi after the current Lok Sabha polls, must move fast to conclude the peace negotiation and ink a deal with Rajkhowa-led faction of the outfit, thus isolating Barua and his loyalist into insignificance.