Civil Society’s Engagement with ULFA in Assam: A Historical Exploration

Date01 June 2014
Published date01 June 2014
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17EgUly7s7mRG0/input Militar
Artic y-Madr
Global Thr
asa-Mullah Complex
Civil Society’s Engagement
Studies in Indian Politics
2(1) 43–54
with ULFA in Assam:
© 2014 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
A Historical Exploration
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/2321023014526089
Akhil Ranjan Dutta
The armed struggle launched by United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) since the late 1970s for
Swadhin Asom (independent Assam) and its reaction, appreciation, endorsement and critique in the civil
society is an interesting case for investigation on how civil society works in India’s Northeast. Historically,
civil society in Assam has been a domain of manifestations of grievances against the state, particularly,
against the Government of India (GoI). As a result, the civil society in Assam has almost been overtaken
by the passion of the ULFA, which steered armed struggle for Assam’s independence. Although the
civil society did not endorse the path of violence pursued by ULFA for its proclaimed goal of Assam’s
independence, a comprehensive critical voice against the militancy and violence pursued by it, has been
almost absent. Only a few individuals consistently maintained a critique on ULFA from its inception.
In more than three decades of ULFA–GoI conflict, the civil society has undergone through different
experiences—from being overtaken by collective passion for the cause raised by ULFA to complete
subjugation and marginalization under coercion both by the Indian state and the ULFA, and to that
of gradual revival as a critical domain to question both the state and ULFA. The present article is an
attempt to examine this trajectory of the civil society in Assam vis-à-vis ULFA.
Assam, Bodos, civil society, Government of India, GoI, Indian state, People’s Consultative Group (PCG),
Sanmilita Jatiya Abhibarttan (SJA), Swadhin Asom (GoI), United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA)
Civil Society as Contested Domain
The idea of civil society has made a dramatic return recently attaining diverse popularity. Pointing this
out, Kaviraj and Khilnani (2002) argue that such popularity, however, creates a problem of indetermi-
nacy for the idea of civil society (p. 1). They have also argued that the idea itself may carry different
meanings and may also stand for different ideals. They have further argued that ‘Invoked at the same
time as the diagnosis and as the cure for current ills, deployed by conservatives, liberals, and radical
utopians alike, by oppositional movements and by international aid donors, civil society has become an
ideological rendezvous for erstwhile antagonists’ (Kaviraj & Khilnani, 2002, p. 11). The debate on civil
society has become more problematic with the contemporary debate on civil society being dominated by
Western liberal interpretations. Mark Robinson (2002) has argued that the Western liberal conceptions of
Akhil Ranjan Dutta
India Quarterly, 66, 2 (2010): 133–149
is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Gauhati University, Guwahati-781014,
Assam. E-mail:


Akhil Ranjan Dutta
civil society accept the development of bourgeoisie society as its principal reference point ‘either as a
sphere of citizen action independent from and counter posed to the state, or as the terrain of struggle over
capitalist class domination’ (p. 360). He has further pointed that one might ‘plausibly argue in countries
where the capitalist mode of production is not fully ascendant, or where bourgeois values have not per-
meated extensively throughout society, other forms of contestation are likely to predominate’ (Robinson,
2002, p. 360).
Neera Chandhoke (2007), who is critical about the dominant notion of civil society, has argued that
the problem with ‘civil society’ lies in the very concept assuming a consensual status. She argues, ‘There
was a time when civil society was interesting, even riveting, for political theorists, simply because rival
and often acrimonious interpretations, formulations, and theorisations jostled with each other to impart
meaning to the concept’ (p. 608). Today, she argues that civil society has become a ‘consensual concept’,
a ‘hurrah word’, whose construct is driven by the interest of donor agencies and critical social and
political forces like social movements has been driven out of the civil society sphere (Chandhoke, 2007,
p. 608).
There are others who assert that rather than accepting the dominant notion of civil society, it is impor-
tant and possible to construct an alternative notion of civil society taking ideological contestation as
a reference point. Mark Robinson (2002) has pointed out that the civil society rooted in the evolution
of Western capitalist societies is both inappropriate and has little relevance to the contemporary
Indian context. However, that should not result in complete rejection of the concept of civil society itself.
For Robinson, it can be used ‘as an analytical tool that can be employed to useful effect in deepening
understanding of non-western associational forms and social practices’ (Robinson, 2002, pp. 356–357).
Civil Society in Assam
Constructing a ‘single’ and ‘harmonious’ civil society itself is a challenging, and at times, an impossible
task in case of Assam. Assam, a multi-ethnic society, has number of ‘civil societies’ across ethnic lines.
However, when one refers to civil society in Assam it means the trans-ethnic domain, which represents
the broader and composite society in Assam. However, it is now mostly confined to the Brahmaputra
valley and its presence in the ethnically concentrated areas within the valley, too, is marginal. For exam-
ple, in the present day Bodo Territorial Area Districts (BTADs) within the state of Assam, it is the Bodo
civil society that has dominance. However, the unique aspect of the trans-ethnic civil society in Assam
is that it has the potential to give representation to a number of ethnic communities too, which is not
the case with the ethnically defined civil societies. Defining marker of the civil society in Assam is the
Assamese language, which is also the lingua franca in the state.
ULFA represents a trans-ethnic struggle in the state of Assam against the Indian state. However, apart
from ULFA, almost all other ethnic communities have their own militant outfits engaged in fighting
against the Indian state. The claim of ULFA to liberate Assam from the occupation of the Indian state,
therefore, is contested by those ethnic outfits who have also been struggling for liberation of their
territories along ethnic lines.
Historically, civil society in Assam acted as a domain of manifestation of grievances against the state,
particularly against the union government. That is how the civil society in Assam was almost overtaken
both by the wave of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) steered anti-foreigners movement and
Studies in Indian Politics, 2, 1 (2014): 43–54

Civil Society’s Engagement with ULFA in Assam 45
ULFA steered armed struggle for Assam’s independence. Although the civil society did not endorse the
path of violence pursued by ULFA for its proclaimed goal of Assam’s independence, a comprehensive
critical voice against the militancy and violence pursued by them has been almost absent except for a
select individuals or group of individuals. While discussing the role of civil society in Assam as a broker
of peace in ULFA–GoI conflict, these inherent limitations and contradictions need to be focused on
(see Baruah, 2005; Mahanta, 2013).
There are three other crucial points that invite due attention as far as the civil society discourse in
Assam is concerned. The first one is the role played by certain individuals in defining the discourses in
the civil society. The second is the issue-based platforms that are brought into being to deal with a par-
ticular issue at a particular point of time whose existence is usually temporary. Third and final one is the
‘obsession’ and ‘irrationality’ manifested in the domain of civil society that disrespects and attempts to
suppress rational arguments. The following sections will deal with these three important dimensions of
civil society in Assam in documenting its role in the context of ULFA–GoI conflict.
Civil Society’s Engagement with ULFA vis-à-vis Indian State
Nani Gopal Mahanta (2013) describes transformation of Assamese identity as a journey from national-
ism to secessionism. He argues that ULFA, which launched a war against the Government of India in
1979 demanding Swadhin Asom (independent Assam), ‘represents a mindset, a suppressed voice which
is deeply engrained in Assam’s psyche’ (p. xvi). True to Mahanta’s assertion, the issues raised by ULFA
are deeply rooted in the Assamese civil society. There are differences regarding their path of violence and
the objective of an independent Assam—a Swadhin Asom, but the issues of negligence, exploitation and
appropriation of resources by the Indian state in a ‘colonial’ manner is shared by the greater society.
Accordingly, ULFA enjoyed a collective passion for quite a long time, particularly in the...

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