Days before the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta government was dismissed in 1990 and the Indian Army launched Operation Bajrang against the secessionist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), three of its senior functionaries met a British diplomat in Dhaka and sought the UK’s help to further its cause.
Newly declassified documents released by National Archives show that while the banned outfit was attacking British commercial interests in the tea gardens in Assam, it was seeking the UK’s help at the political level and offering the British diplomat a tour of its camps in Assam.
In 1990 – when Assam was gripped by tension and fear – the then Mahanta-led Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) was a constituent of the National Front (NF) government led by V P Singh. But the AGP government was dismissed on November 27 after the NF government fell and Chandra Shekhar formed his minority government.
On October 2, the three functionaries – general secretary Anup Chetia (real name Golap Barua), publicity secretary Sidhartha Phukan (real name Sunil Nath) and Iqbal – met the diplomat, David Austin, who reported the meeting to London in a note described as “fascinating”. Chetia and Phukan have been part of the top leadership of the outfit.
Austin wrote in the note to the London headquarters on October 4 that the ULFA’s “inspiration is the State of Israel. If Israel can survive surrounded by the hostile Arab world, then why not Assam surrounded by hostile Indian forces?”
He was shown photographs, including those of a training camp in the Lakhimpur district of Assam, and some of the outfit’s leaflets. The photographs included one of its commanders-in-chief, Paresh Barua, standing at the China border with a Chinese army liaison officer.
“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,” Austin wrote.
He added that the ULFA’s propaganda effort was a “new one” and that they were able to “approach foreign diplomatic missions in Bangladesh without the possibility of RAW intervening – something it is unable to do in New Delhi”.
Austin, however, declined the offer to visit the camps.
On November 5, diplomat D D 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.”
“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,” he added.
According to Martin, the China link mentioned in Austin’s note was “new and interesting”.
He wrote, “I have only heard it mentioned before by 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.”
“During their meeting with David Austin, the ULFA were understandably silent about their activities against the tea companies in Assam. But it seems extraordinary that the organisation should make an approach to us on the political level, while at the same time, threatening our commercial interests in Assam,” Martin added.
The diplomatic letters were sent to London at a time when the ULFA’s activities had spread much fear in Assam, dominating public discourse. On Austin, seeking advice on whether he should hold further meetings with the ULFA functionaries, Martin wrote that no such meetings should be held.
Martin 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 the late 1980s and 1990, as the publicity secretary, Phukan had set up what Martin called a “sophisticated PR machine”, which was then focused on the Indian press, with journalists granted exclusive interviews with ULFA leaders.
The journalists, he added, were “taken to spectacular press conferences in the bush and exposed to a variety of more or less impressive stunts designed to show off ULFA as a formidable fighting unit”.
Since 1990, there have been several ULFA-related developments, including the army’s Operation Rhino, surrender by several of its leaders and functionaries, suspension of operations, and talks with New Delhi by a section of the outfit that has come over-ground.
Since another section continues with the ULFA’s secessionist aims and subversive activities, the ministry of home affairs in November 2019 extended until 2024 the ban first imposed on the outfit in 1990 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.