From Myanmar to AfPak: The Long Trail of an ULFA Rebel Who Finally Renounced Cult of the Gun

Dhristi Rajkhowa

Dhristi Rajkhowa

On November 11, Manoj Rava aka Dhristi Rajkhowa surrendered in Meghalaya with four associates and submitted an assortment of weapons including an AK-81 rifle. The event caps a long process of efforts by security agencies over the past several years to convince him to surrender and join the mainstream.

Rajeev Bhattacharyya

Dreaded rebel leader and deputy commander-in-chief of the proscribed United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) Manoj Rava aka Dhristi Rajkhowa has finally decided to give up the life in the jungles more than three decades after he joined the outfit.

On November 11, he surrendered in Meghalaya with four associates and submitted an assortment of weapons including an AK-81 rifle. The event caps a long process of efforts by security agencies over the past several years to convince him to surrender and join the mainstream.

A unit of Military Intelligence (MI) reportedly facilitated Dhristi’s surrender and subsequent transfer to Guwahati through Assam Police’s Special Branch. Sources said that he had intermittently been in touch with MI for the past few years but expectations of an early surrender came to nought as he frequently went ‘off the radar’ to hideouts at Sherpur in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Dhristi’s decision to surrender is believed to have been prompted by the frail health of his wife who is undergoing treatment among other factors. She was being treated at a hospital in Dhaka but was recently shifted to Guwahati.

A press release issued by the ULFA(I) claimed that he had sought permission from the outfit’s leadership before giving up to the authorities in Meghalaya. Michael Deka Phukan, who operates out of Myanmar and previously the commander of the headquarters at Taga, has been appointed the new deputy commander-in-chief of ULFA(I).

Myanmar, Bangladesh and AfPak

Dhristi underwent training at the headquarters of the Khaplang faction of NSCN in Myanmar a year after joining ULFA in 1988. The plan by the leaders to send him and his entire group to Kachin had to be cancelled after the Kachin Independence Army firmed up a pact with India’s external intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW).

After a couple of years at the Naga base, Dhristi was shifted to Bangladesh in the early 1990s where he continued to be stationed with a select group of functionaries. Their primary task was to sustain the two big camps that ULFA had erected in the neighbouring country.

Dhristi’s big chance to climb up the ladder came in 1996 when he was selected to undergo a two months' training course at a camp along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan (AfPak) in a group of about a dozen functionaries. Organised by the ISI, the focus of the module was on triggering blasts through different technologies. Manufacturing programmable timer devices (PTD) was also taught to a subsequent batch of cadres by experts in the Pakistan Army.

Incidentally, it was in Rajkhowa’s batch that a mole planted by Assam Police also completed the course at the camp in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. Details about Rajkhowa became available to the police following inputs submitted by the mole after he returned to Assam.

Base in Garo Hills

It was from the late 1990s that Dhristi shot to fame as a result of his involvement in some sensational operations by ULFA. Many cases are registered against him at various police stations across the state that include a blast in Guwahati several years ago.

After returning from AfPak, Dhristi was almost permanently stationed at ULFA’s camp in Bangladesh’s Sherpur contiguous to Meghalaya’s Garo Hills. His mandate had been to ensure the smooth transfer of weapons from Bangladesh to the camps in Bhutan which were usually ferried in small consignments through different routes to avoid detection.

Impressed with his performance, ULFA chief of staff Paresh Baruah appointed him the commander of the 109 Battalion that was formed following a decision arrived at in an executive council meeting of the group at Sherpur in 2003.

In the course of time, Dhristi carved out a formidable network in Garo Hills which was also helped by the fact that his wife also hailed from that community. He drew close to the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) and had contributed towards sustaining the outfit for a few years after its chairman Champion Sangma was apprehended by the police.

ULFA's vacuum in Bangladesh

Dhristi was Paresh Baruah’s man Friday in Bangladesh after the decisive split in 2011 when the pro-talks faction of ULFA led by chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa decided to plunge headlong into talks with the government.

He had refused to join the group of ULFA functionaries and their family members when they secretly crossed the border to Meghalaya in 2010 in the cover of darkness after all the leaders had been apprehended and handed over to India.

Therefore, Dhristi’s absence would be difficult to fill in Bangladesh which assumes significance since ULFA(I) has not yet abandoned plans to re-establish itself in the country again. The equations could change if the pro-Pakistan Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) were to win the next general elections scheduled in 2024.

In that case, it may not also be difficult for ULFA chief of staff Paresh Baruah to return to Dhaka despite the fact that he is a wanted man in the country for his involvement in the infamous Chittagong Arms Haul in 2004.

That remains to be seen but Dhristi’s surrender has again underscored the increasing irrelevance of the campaign by ULFA(I) whose cadre strength has severely depleted over the past four years. With his departure, the outfit is left with a handful of functionaries who were either trained in AfPak or are adept in executing operations.

(Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati. Views expressed are personal)

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