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Uddipta Ranjan Boruah
Date of Publish: 2018-01-30

The Fading Memory of ULFA


Collective memory in a way is a tool to tell the present that there existed a past and for that matter is of utmost essence for mortals. Memory sustains itself through narratives that are shared within and across generations. Such narratives in turn are produced and reproduced through public acts of remembrance using a variety of media. When reproduced through repeated use in dominant discourse, memory gets institutionalized. Memory for that matter becomes an essential tool for the post-colonial nation states to valorize their respective struggles against the repressive colonial rulers and thereby legitimize their regimes despite meting an equal and sometimes even greater repression to their citizens. Memory however is as much a tool of individuals and communities as it is of nations. Memories of a glorious past can incite communities to claim precedence of their identities, at times even leading to attempts at recreating the utopia of a past long gone. For instance many of the separatist movements in the northeastern states of India have come up aspiring to re live a glorious past that they claim to have existed at a temporal setting long gone. These movements in a way weave a utopia centered on the memory of a past time. Their legitimacy and sustenance within a post-colonial nation-state determined at creating memories of a homogenized past, then rests on their ability to create and sustain counter memory of their respective pasts. As more and more of the insurgents from the region put their guns down, it has become explicit now that the battle no more is of guns and bullets but of ideologies. It is at this temporal juncture that the role of collective memory in reinterpreting the past to wage battles of ideologies becomes even more convincing.

ULFA General Secretary Anup Chetia (File Photo courtesy - UB Photos)

The successive political dispensations operating from New Delhi have gradually been taking over the memory space of the various ethnic communities of the northeastern India (as much as in other parts of the nation) by overpopulating the discourse with memories of a homogenized past. On the face of the strong homogenizing narrative of the centre, the periphery seems to be giving up.

For instance, back in the 1980s and 90s as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) was in its heyday, chatters across dining tables, tea stalls, bus stops and other exchanges seemed to be necessarily filled with talks of the ULFA. Those were the generations that had known and to some extent could connect with the founding goals of the ULFA. Coming up in tandem to the Assam Movement against the so called indifferences of the post-colonial state ruling from New Delhi (among other objectives), the ULFA in its initial years had undoubtedly brought hope, if not to all, then to a considerable section of the Assamese populace. Academicians, journalists and commentators alike had mentioned about the ideological and moral sanctions provided by the Assamese society in sustaining the ULFA. The role of the Assamese middle class in applauding from the gallery at the emerging ULFA in an environment created by the middle-class led Assamese media has also been discussed by some.

Recovery of arms at Sherpur in Bangladesh ( File Photo courtesy bdnews.com)

However today, the attention and credibility attached to the ULFA by the populace seems to be fast fading. The space occupied by it in the consciousness of the populace has fast fallen despite its ineffective occasional calls such as those compelling theatres to run Assamese movies. It brings ULFA as much as the other organizations of the region to a point wherefrom to introspect and trace the points of rupture that paralyzed the inheritance of the legitimacy that masses had once accorded them with. In case of ULFA, it accrues to a great extent to its failure in recreating and sustaining the memories of the original causes i.e., the utopia of a glorious political space for the Assamese. As the subsequent generations – succeeding those that sympathized to some extent the cause and goals of the organization – get more and more disconnected with the original cause, the ULFA and its memory seems to be fading away. The English educated, technically advanced generations growing up in cosmopolitan localities and living together with communities speaking various languages are obvious to denounce the idea of compartmentalized identities. The lightening fast penetration of the digital technology into the lives of the contemporary generations has further accelerated the generational divide and has even severed the chains of inherited memory. It incentivizes selective memorizing and even forgetting of episodes of history that do not fit to the definitions of acceptability of the present times.

With the failure of the ULFA as an agent of memory to sustain and nurture the narrative of its original cause, the empty spaces kept on getting filled up with memories of darker episodes of the organization’s timeline. Episodes as those of the mindless blasts in Dhemaji and a saga of uncontrolled extortion and killings thus kept sipping in to the extent of utmost hatred for the organization. Coupled with the disregard of the leadership such gaps led to serious ruptures. Building on the ruptures in memory reproduction, the Indian state and its associated agencies then went on framing narratives that figured the ULFA and other insurgent organizations as the primary hurdle to progress in the region. It was from this point that the organization further lost its credibility amongst the middle class that was almost ready by then to get on board the New Delhi-led journey of progress and development. The middle class then readily gave up the utopia of a past long gone and decided to be convinced with the present. This was to be the onset of the ULFA’s journey of fading away. The failure of the ULFA as a revolutionary institution has been in failing to sustain the memory of its original goals in the psyche of the succeeding generations.

ULFA General Secretary Anup Chetia's production in court (File Photo courtesy UB Photos)

Given the contemporary international vocabulary that does not accord legitimacy to the separatist movements taking up violence against the mightier nation states it is almost obvious that armed insurgencies of the sort would fail. Failure of any movement lies not necessarily in its abrupt and obvious end but in the eventual fading away from the memory of the generations to come. As decades from now, generations sit down to chat and know absolutely nothing noble of the ULFA that presumably would be the greatest blow that time would inflict upon the movement and lead to its ultimate death. Now that majority of the ULFA’s founding leadership has put their guns down and are probably close to becoming part of the democratic structure of the Indian nation they must accept their laggings and tell the generations to come, the story that they had at least tried. Dying the death of heroes would in all ways be better than fading away being cursed each day for years to come.

Uddipta Ranjan Boruah

(Uddipta Ranjan Boruah is a Doctoral Fellow at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University. He blogs at urbscribbles.blogspot.in and tweets through @RanjanUddipta. Views expressed are the author's own)


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