Rituraj Moran was 18 when he joined the sangathan (organisation), a euphemism for the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent), wooed by Facebook posts. Five years later, he quit the extremist group, partly disgruntled by the lack of access to the same social media platform.
Some sub-nationalist Assamese poems and similar content posted on Facebook had convinced Mr. Moran that Assam’s future lay in an armed revolution against the “Indian colonialists” represented by the armed forces. A bit of networking drew him to a spotter of the extremist group, assigned to recruit fresh faces from villages near the coal town of Margherita in Assam’s Tinsukia district bordering Arunachal Pradesh.
He soon became a member of the 82nd batch of ULFA(I) trainees in Myanmar. Life in the Arakan or 779 camp was much harder than he had imagined. But what rankled for a few in the 82nd batch was their inability to stay connected with friends; a ban on using mobile phones in the jungle hideout meant a divorce from the very social media platforms that had attracted them to the ULFA(I) in the first place.
A few months ago, Mr. Moran, now aged 23, quit the ULFA-!.
“Differences with lower-rung leaders of the outfit and their tendency to treat us as slaves were the primary reasons why I quit. Our inability to be in touch with the world beyond was also a factor,” another surrendered extremist from a village near the oil town of Digboi said, declining to be quoted for fear of being targeted by the outfit.
ULFA was formed in April 1979 as an offshoot of the Assam Agitation that sought to free the State from foreigners. The outfit split into the larger pro-talks group and the Paresh Baruah-headed anti-talks faction which renamed itself the ULFA(I) in 2013.
In February, the ULFA(I) issued a statement trashing “theories” that it undertakes recruitment drives through social media platforms. It blamed the Assam police and the Army for creating fake Facebook accounts in the name of the outfit to lure job-seeking youth who are later shown to be arrested for “vested interests”.
But in April, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma insisted that the outfit had used Facebook, YouTube and other platforms to lure and induct at least 47 boys and girls into its ranks within a few days. He also indicated that the outfit was losing its members at a faster rate than before.
“The process of joining and leaving will continue as long as the ULFA(I) exists,” he had said.
Assam’s Additional Director-General of Police (Special Branch), Hiren Chandra Nath said that the ULFA(I)’s support base has eroded vastly in the past few years due to the improved connectivity – surface as well as telecom – that has ensured rapid development.
“The outfit does find a few gullible youths who join thinking they will get some monetary benefits. [Extortion is a major source of income for the extremist]. There were a few cases of boys who crossed over after failing in police recruitment tests, but the cadre strength has been dwindling,” he told The Hindu.
An Army officer associated with rehabilitation programmes for surrendered extremists in eastern Assam said that the outfit is finding the “mobile phone” generation harder to control than those in the past. “This explains why many recruits have escaped from the ULFA(I) camps over the past few years while five or six were executed for trying to flee,” an officer of Colonel rank said.
Information gathered from surrendered extremists also points to the outfit finding fewer takers than in the past. The ULFA(I) now struggles to have 10 trainees for each of its new training batches, compared to 200-300 a decade ago.
Hiranya Moran, the president of the 35-member Prakton ULFA Swadhin Oikya Mancha (a platform for former ULFA(I) members), agreed that the outfit’s goal of an independent Assam is no longer feasible. “But there will be some people joining the sangathan unless the government ensures only locals can sustainably exploit Assam’s resources for livelihood,” he said.
Noting the “desperate bid” by the ULFA(I) to recruit youths online, the Army has been using the same platforms for “mainstreaming” to “win the hearts and minds” of people in areas that once yielded fighters for the outfit.
Social media outreach
Apart from pre-training teenagers to improve their chances of recruitment in the security forces, the Army has been organising vocational courses and coaching classes to prepare local boys from underprivileged families for admission to top colleges across the country. This outreach is also usually done through social media platforms.
One of the beneficiaries is Tutu Bora, who used to be known as Handook Asom in the ULFA(I). Three days after leaving home in Bishupur Kordoiguri, he messaged his sister: “I have gone too far away, don’t expect me back.”
But his addiction to the mobile phone and social media got the better of him. He surrendered in 2020 after less than a year underground.
“After providing me with a job as a security guard for an oil drilling firm, the Army provided excavators for me to start a fishery project in our hitherto unused land measuring six bighas. I hope to make a fresh beginning with this project,” he said.