GUWAHATI: The United Liberation Front of Asom or ULFA was almost dead in Assam. But the outfit, which is leading an armed struggle to establish a sovereign Assam, has got a new lease of life in the last several months with increasing numbers of youths joining it from across the state.

Many have argued this is due to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, which endorses citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan who arrived in Assam before December 31, 2014.

ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia, who has been in dialogue with the government of India since 2015, is of this view. “The government didn’t pay respect to the sentiments and demands of the people of the state. The bill shouldn’t have been brought. We don’t want division along the lines of religion,” says Chetia.

From students’ leaders to trained engineers, many from across Assam have joined the outfit, confirm police.

The state has witnessed mass opposition to the bill, especially in the Brahmaputra Valley, ever since it was tabled in parliament in 2016.

Influential organisations such as the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a peasants' body, have been joined by hundreds of other organisations in mass protest demonstrations opposing the bill.

For these organisations, religion cannot be a test of citizenship. They all support a cutoff date of March 25, 1971 for recognising citizenship, a date that was decided unanimously with the signing of the Assam Accord after a six year long agitation.

Police say the rate of youth joining ULFA has accelerated to a great extent since the Citizenship Amendment Bill came into existence.

“Yes, definitely the number has gone up. And the Citizenship Bill angle is one of the prime reasons. I won’t be able to tell you the exact percent increase. But just since September 1, altogether 11 youths from different parts have joined the outfit. The number will be much higher if we calculate for the whole year. And it is higher than the previous year,” Director General of Police (Special Branch) Pallav Bhattacharyya tells The Citizen.

Bhattacharyya, however, blamed the media for hyping the entire issue, which he thinks might have encouraged these youths. “We have activated our cyber cell to monitor the behaviour of the youths on the various social media platforms,” he adds.

On the renewed challenge from ULFA, he said that with difficult terrain in the three bordering districts in Arunachal Pradesh - Tirap, Changlang and Longding – the job of the police in Assam becomes a little difficult.

Meanwhile as confirmed by police Munna Baruah, nephew of ULFA chief Paresh Baruah is the latest to join the outfit, which at present is known as ULFA (Independence). Twenty four year old Munna was doing an internship at the Digboi Refinery.

A Class X student, Karishma Mech of Jagun in Assam's easternmost Tinsukia district, joined the outfit early this month.

According to former Assam Director General of Police GM Srivasatava some unusual and worrying trends can be seen. “In the upper Assam districts, a section of youths still consider Paresh Baruah their hero. But youths from lower and central Assam have also joined the outfit in the last several months. And even one student leader. I’m told that many of Baruah's close aides have followed in his footsteps after that. This indicates that the Citizenship Bill has been an issue,” Srivasatava tells The Citizen.

He adds, however, that there are other reasons like a lack of job opportunities for the youth which too have played a role in motivating them to join the armed struggle.

“The lack of jobs has increased the frustration level and government schemes too have failed to live up to their expectations. We need to watch the trend for the next six to seven months. Though it’s not alarming, we need to be careful,” he adds.

According to Srivasatava at least 45 youths have joined the outfit so far this year.

Meanwhile, in their native villages their parents and relatives are spending sleepless nights.

“We want our son back. We have pleaded with the police to help us get the boy back. We are a poor family and we know nothing about why he did this,” says 60-year old Pradip Deka, father of Jayanta. Deka, a farmer, says his 22 year old son left home on September 19.

(Cover photograph: ULFA militants with the kidnapped son of a BJP leader from Assam in 2016. The organisation released a video at the time)