The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Monday, September 9, 2013

‘Seek Revenge!’

Teresa Rehman procures the secret diary of ULFA militant Hira Sarania. It reveals Bhutan’s one-time collusion with the outfit and the ULFA’s deep-seated ire against India
Teresa Rehman 

Hira Sarania, the commander of the ulfa’s 709 Battalion and one of the most dreaded militants still active in Assam, is described by those who have known him as an ordinary-looking man with an extraordinary mind. He is 5 feet and 4 inches tall, clean-shaven and fair. He usually wears a brown jacket and carries a jhola.

Sarania is believed to be close to the outfit’s commander-in-chief, Paresh Barua, who currently lives in Dhaka under a Muslim alias. Sarania leads the cadres operating out of the outfit’s military camps believed to be located in Bhutan’s Samdrup Jhongkar district abutting the Indian border. Two years after its cadres were driven out of Bhutan in Operation All Clear, undertaken together by the Indian Army and the Royal Bhutan Army, the ulfa, under Sarania, has re-established its presence there, setting up at least three camps.

The 42-year-old hails from village Dighalipaar under Tamulpur police station in Baska district in Assam. His father is dead and he is the eldest among four brothers and two sisters, both of whom are in their twenties. Sarania joined the ulfa in 1990, before he could take his ba final-year exams. Those who knew him then describe him as a reserved and introverted individual who used to discipline his brothers and sisters. The Saranias, who own 15 bighas of land and are fairly well-off, live in a typical Assamese house.

Sarania’s diary, which fell into the Army’s hand, (see box) reveals a deep hatred of India and claims that the former Bhutan king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, used to visit the ulfa camps located in the Himalayan kingdom. The king used to call Sarania “Diamond”. He makes frequent and bitter references to the betrayal by Bhutan in his diary.

Sarania’s diary with its meticulous entries could have been written with a purpose in mind — either to enthuse and inspire new recruits, or to keep a record of events during a difficult period. From the entries he comes across as a caring person, keenly sensitive to the sufferings of his cadres. He is also a strict disciplinarian though and his juniors respect and obey him — even in very trying circumstances. Before they embarked on a tough mission, Sarania would try and motivate them with an encouraging speech. Sarania remains a key leader in the ulfa hierarchy and may feel a strong sense of responsibility towards his cadres.

Written in Assamese, the diary shows the ulfa commander as man committed to his cause and determined to endure the most extreme hardship in its pursuit.

It is clear from the entries that the diary was written sometime around December 2003, when Operation All Clear started. It is a long account of how Sarania, along with his cadres escaped from the Indian Army, undertaking a long and arduous journey along the hilly and inhospitable terrain in Bhutan. They had to face much anguish and many hardships but Sarania managed to lead his men to escape. It records moments of poignancy, moments of distress at the death of colleagues, light moments with cadres and Sarania’s musings on the future course of action.
Excerpts from the Diary

It was the 5th of December. I was asked to come to the chq (Company Headquarters) urgently through a wireless message. I had to leave by the 13th. As soon as I got the message, everyone was apprised of the situation and duties allotted regarding combat, camps and the task of making the workers a disciplined force.

Over the last few years, during various rounds of discussions with the Bhutanese, we could feel the situation deteriorating. The Bodo Liberation Tigers, along with the Indian Army, had entered Bhutan to undertake destructive activities. In June 1999, in Namlang, three of our senior and skilled cadres were killed indiscriminately. Even Bhutan’s army had helped along with the common people and the Indian Army.

Bhutan’s elite was very fascinated with the glitter of India. They came to India for education as they cannot go to the West because of economic depredation. India is an ideal country for them; they are fond of wine and women.

Once, we organised a Bishnu Rabha Divas (famous Assamese singer composer) in one of our camps, and invited a few Bhutanese. After the Bihu dance, I asked one of them, “How was the Bihu?” He replied, “Your ladies are very nice.” If you ask a student of Class vi or vii, “What is your hobby?” He will give an instant reply, “Girlfriend”.

The king of Bhutan met me when he came to the ulfa camp. “Diamond, I am finding it difficult to trust my own men. My ministers, army officials, everyone is busy singing praises of India. On the other hand, Bhutan’s internal condition is not very good. There is always a fear of a revolt by the Nepalese after they were chased away once.”


The condition of the ordinary Bhutanese citizens is very pathetic. There is no market to even sell their basic minimum produce. Even if they manage to sell, they don’t get the right price. If they sell their oranges in Assam, they get over Rs 150. But if they sell to the Bhutan government, they don’t get more than Rs 60 or Rs 70. Many Bhutanese say that if the price is not increased, they will not sell oranges. Ginger was sold for Re 1 to Rs 2 per kg.

When we first arrived in Bhutan, they did not know how to use soap and oil. A foul smell emanated from their body and it was full of scars. We used to spend all our soap and oil on them.

Their knowledge of the world was very limited. Our cadres spread all around, held open discussions and imparted information about the outside world. They were taught to keep their head down and never to look at the king’s eyes. After meeting our cadres, when they were looked upon with their heads held high, the rulers were surprised. An ordinary Bhutanese could not even afford to send his child to school. Desperate, they realised that one day there will be a revolution in Bhutan. Though their income was little, they had to pay a lot of taxes.


After discussing the situation with the west-zone cadres, we became sure that if India attacks us single-handedly, they will suffer maximum damage and won’t be able to uproot us. There are chances that they’ll attack us in co-operation with Bhutan. Bhutan too cannot attack us alone. Though they are an independent country, in terms of resources and intelligence they are in no way superior to us. We decided to be careful of both the sides.


Due to India and Bhutan’s strict measures, it was becoming difficult to procure foodstuff. We had to procure stuff by defying the enemy’s eyes. We had to make do with the bare minimum and had to do away with the extra essential provisions.

In different situations, one has to be a father, mother, friend, philosopher, guide and brother at the same time. The luxuries of hierarchy have to be shed and there should be equal division of labour.


On December 7, I started my journey to the chq. I had no time to rest, as we had to walk 12-14 hours daily. Though we had to endure hardships, we enjoyed it. We haven’t met the cadres on the other side for the past one-and-half years.

On the 10th, through radio contact we came to know that our colleague Raktim Narzary alias Ranjit Talukdar was killed in Bongaigaon. The enemy surrounded him and he burst a grenade. Along with him a lieutenant was also killed. I felt sad but my heart swelled with pride. This self-sacrifice will not go in vain.

We reached Deothang and learnt about a serious problem. One of our cadres Rudra Haloi was killed with a khukri (small knife) by a Bhutanese and Indian patrolling party. In the Deothang camp, a spy entered in the guise of a lunatic.
As soon as I reached the camp I was told about the situation. The minister’s intentions were not good. The intelligence chief major came with an associate to the chq. He said that the king was supposed to come at 8am. He brought bottles of vitamin and a basket of oranges for father. It seems on earlier occasions too, the king used to send things to father (‘Father’ is ulfa adviser Bhimkanta Buragohain, who was caught during Operation All Clear).

I could suddenly hear the dhoom dhoom burst of an lmg. I ran and reached sir’s house. I asked sir, have you heard anything? I couldn’t tell whether it was real or just a joke. I immediately rushed and took the arms equipment kit bag and took the others to a safer location.


I went to the chq. It was a plain field with not many trees around. Meanwhile the sounds of the mortar made the tree branches fall off. After taking sir to a safer distance, we stopped.

Meanwhile the crowd started running and a severe attack began. Since the area is open it was easy to see the mortar monitor. In the area we stopped, there were big stones and trees. A mortar’s splinter came and hit the car’s driver.

At a distance of one foot from me, Liberation screamed — “Sir, it has hit me on the chest.” Immediately we went down holding each other. After going a few steps, my head was also hit by a piece of mortar. I slowly touched my head. The wound was not very severe but blood was oozing and there was swelling.

I told Liber slowly, “I am also hurt. Don’t worry, keep walking.” After going for about 10 minutes, Liber could not proceed further. Seeing no way out, I took the provisions in his custody and hid it in a good place under the stone. I told him, we will come and take it after the shelling subsides. We wanted to shake hands while leaving, he (Liber) repeatedly said, “Take me. I do not want to go into enemy hands.”

We all had a lot of affection for Liber. We told him not to worry as everything will be fine. For the last time, I tenderly took his hand and let him sleep on the lap of the earth. After an hour, our main group met. By afternoon, the shelling at the chq reduced. We waited till the camp was searched. Meanwhile heavy shelling was going on in the ghq and communication with all the camps were disrupted. We could not apprehend the attack beforehand.

We had reached the chq school and saw Bhatija coming with Liber on his back. As soon as he came closer he said, “Ankur is gone”. We were all stunned. When he was in Assam, he was called Ankur. Ever-smiling, he was adept both in warfare and music and was never behind anything. We had lost Liber on the first day itself.


The noise became louder. Before noon we reached the main camp. We kept sending reports to higher authorities. No decision was reached by afternoon. Eight members of our group suffered injuries while trying to procure food. The c-in-c said they can’t do anything now as negotiation with Bhutan was almost over. Till now no retaliation orders.

Many suggested that we leave the place, as it wasn’t easy to fight them. I searched for an opportune place and asked them to wait for sir. Even going to Assam and settling at a favourable place would be a big risk. It is not easy for the women, children and the elderly. Instead sir suggested waiting for some time.

I looked at the face of my colleagues. Otherwise we will have to embrace death like this.

I said looking at the face of the women and children, we will have to embrace death if necessary. Some time passed silently. I examined their faces. It was a very pathetic moment. There was helplessness and uncertainty on many people’s faces. Many hoped that somebody would rescue them.


After bidding farewell to Neog sir, I came near Rabin Handique. Sir told me in my ears, “Sarania, in this old age, I have no will to be caught by the enemy. Please do not forget me.” After this I looked at the rest and my heart trembled. I had experienced many such moments of farewell with my co-fighters. But this farewell seemed final.

I felt like I bid farewell never to see them again. Borbora hugged me and said he will return in two days time. Mrinal Rajkhowa also came and hugged me. Looking at their faces, I became mentally prepared to take on the enemy forces with double gusto.

I felt bad that I was leaving the battlefield so easily. I could not look back again. We started moving and when we were 100 metres from the chq, I could see action in all directions. They were burning houses and the provisions.


We waited till they moved away. By another half-anhour it would get dark. There was no sign of their moving away. Moreover the dry bamboo broke while we walked and made a lot of sound. The enemy could not hear us due to the sounds of the raging fire. We stopped around 200 metres from them. At night again mortar sounds reverberated at a distance. We thought that whoever was left behind would be finished. At that moment, our sense of pain, anger and sympathy for our fellow men started shimmering. Each one of us vowed that even if it takes 100 years, we will seek vengeance on India and Bhutan. On the morning of the 18th, we resumed our journey. We went up and saw there were no signs of their leaving. They started burning our camps again. Moreover it was not possible to establish contact with the chq and ghq. We all felt very sad. The assumption was that maybe everything was over.


That is why we wanted to go to our motherland and continue fulfilling our obligations and put up a tough fight. In this endeavour all my co-fighters supported me. I said, “In our group, at least two should avoid the enemy. In case we face them, we will fight. We have nothing new to lose except our lives.”

Some went to inspect the enemy side. Within two days the women, children and the elderly surrendered to the Bhutan authorities.


I asked everyone about the village. They told us that though this was the interior of Bhutan it was safe. I was not satisfied. Amidst the sound of stones and pebbles, I could see three men coming towards us. As they came closer, I shouted, “Halt”.

They said, “It’s us ndfb (National Democratic front of Bodoland).” We called them closer. We had initially thought they were our men. They were also a four-member group. On the day of the incident, after having food, their commander had gone out and then the firing started. From then what had happened to the commander nobody knows. They took shelter near the river and followed us. They informed that the army is ambushing and firing along the banks of the river.


Amidst the gunfire, I gave strict instructions to refrain from making any kind of sights and sound — like burning fire or sneezing etc. even a slight sound can spell trouble for everyone. During the day, except to pass urine and stool, nobody could go out. It seemed like the longest day of the world. As night sets in, the sounds of guns boom again and we can start proceeding.


The enemy gunfire would sometimes echo in the heart. In between, many thoughts engulf me. I keep remembering the one’s I had left behind. The thought of Liber kept troubling me. I recall a day when we had stayed as guests at a house in a Bhutanese village. My physical condition was not good. My feet were swollen, blisters were bursting and my joints were aching. I was extremely restless. I called Liber, “Please massage my body or I will die.” The massage was always done by Liber. If the others do the massage, it becomes more painful.
Dusk was setting in. I asked everybody to get ready. For three days we could not have proper food. My companions had become quite weak. Except for essential items, I asked them to hide the other stuff. During evening I came out of the shelter and addressed everyone: “Dear comrades. Our time has come. The enemy will fill all the loopholes in our route to escape. Yesterday, you had seen all army vehicles lined up. That is why today by any means we will have to cross this enemy bastion. If we face each other we will have to fight. If they attack we will have to retaliate.” We resumed the journey.

At night we felt like we had lost our way and might run into the army once again. But going back might be dangerous. That is why everyone had saved food for two days — biscuits, rice powder, bread. After sometime there was stillness and the boys were fast asleep. Even if I try to sleep, even the falling of a branch makes me wake up with a start and I bring my gun closer. chq seemed silent and everything seemed silent. There were fewer gunshots. The sweet memories of the days spent in the camps kept coming back to us. In the midst of the sufferings, we had enjoyed a lot. The conversations revolved around all things including Assam’s shameless politicians.

There was the attack on the World Trade Center towers in the US. We all praised this act of heroism. A country like the US which had bossed over the world was trying to be everybody’s guardian and subjugate everyone. This attack had hit right at the heart of the US. But we had nothing to like or dislike about this act. Though there was an element of heroism in the act, for people like us who believe in the freedom struggle should not be happy with such acts. In the entire northeast, Indian freedom fighters have been termed terrorists.


The so-called heroes of Indian nationalism Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not have guts to speak out against America when they strip-searched their chief disciple George Fernandes. Of course, they take it easy when the Indian Army tries to strip naked our daughters and daughters-in-law. What is the guarantee that they have not threatened Bhutan?


We had assumed that Bhutan was a safe base to attack Assam. But by the year 2000, Prafulla Mahanta’s betrayal brought immense hardships for us. We had shifted Lower Assam’s main activities to Bhutan. The cadres in Assam became easy prey for the enemy forces. The workers, well-wishers and all progressive thinkers became victims of secret and open killings.

In Assam, the fear-feeling prevailed. The news of the demise of our co-fighters could not even be delivered to our organisation. We were busy with other things in Bhutan. In this moments of crisis we could not help our cadres. We were burning with anger.


As soon as it was dark, we proceeded to the village. We entered a house and identified ourselves. The night would pass off easily and we would reach a comfortable place. The lady of the house gave us food. We started walking. We entered a village; they wanted to know what had happened in Bhutan. The crowd sympathised with us. We will have to remain mobile in all situations in Assam. I got everyone together, “Dear co-fighters. This may be our last day in Bhutan. We will have to decide our future course of action. We will have to take the people into confidence. We will not look back. Many will think we are finished. We should not lose hope.

In fact, on August 15, 1947, before the Indians were under British rule, thousands of freedom fighters had to lay down their lives. I will not say that everything will be possible but none of us should betray the common man or the ideals of the organisation. Every life is dear to us.”
These excerpts were translated by Teresa Rehman

Jan 27 , 2007


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