Guest post by TANMOY SHARMA
Last week, when an eight member delegation of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) returned to Guwahati after the first round of peace-talks with the central government in New Delhi, the response in Assam is a mixed bag of emotions. Arabinda Rajkhowa, the ULFA chairman who led the delegation, while addressing the press, said that they had been assured of an honourable solution to the three decade long Assam conflict by the Prime Minister. Earlier, on 10th February the ULFA made history by coming to the talks table in New Delhi for the first time with no firm pre set conditions on its agenda. It is understood as of now, that no substantial talks would begin before the Assam assembly elections which are expected to be held in April-May this year. However this ‘familiarisation exercise’ of the centre with one of India’s most influential and violent separatist outfits at such a crucial time is a hugely significant move in contemporary history of the insurgency-hit election bound Assam.
Separatist insurgency, fuelled by ULFA during the last three decades in pursuit of an independent homeland, had become a part of life in the politics of Assam a long way back. However things seem to have been gradually progressing with dramatic changes happening in the last one and a half year which all began with Arabinda Rajkhowa’s arrest by the Bangladesh government in the last week of November, 2009. With the new formed Sheikh Hasina government’s backing to India on counter insuregency measures, the months of November and December, 2009 saw a severe blow to the already weakened ULFA when one after another top leader was being arrested by the security forces. Barring Paresh Baruah, the elusive Commander in Chief of the outfit, the catch of the entire top brass of ULFA was seen as a big leap in the much talked about long awaited peace process in Assam.
Even as these leaders were brought back to India, a new attempt was taken up by prominent public intellectual Dr. Hiren Gohain to restore the already stalled peace process between the insurgents and the government. Since the previous efforts by noted author Indira Goswami and People’s Consultative Group to build an environment for dialogue failed to great disappointment in 2006, the people in Assam by large started hoping for a positive result with the initiative of Dr. Gohain led state level convention (SJA) . Apparently it seems that the new effort has finally borne some fruit as from the month of May, 2010 to this January, all the arrested ULFA leaders were being released on bail and they include-vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi, publicity chief Mithinga Daimary, deputy c-in-c Raju Baruah and political ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain apart from chairman Rajkhowa. Sensing the strong public opinion yearning for permanent peace in Assam, this is seen as a very calculated move by the government.
Although there is little doubt over the willingness of the centre to resolve the brutal Assam conflict which has taken a toll of 30000 lives till date in the crossfire, the behaviour is puzzling. To those of us who have been curiously and constantly watching the changing political dynamics of Assam for a long period of time, the government is sure to have understood two basic things. The first is that this supposedly moderate faction of ULFA sans Paresh Baruah have been separatist only in rhetoric but autonomist in aspirations and they now secretly aspire to join mainstream politics; which is why it would be possible to start the dialogue without placing sovereignty on table. Secondly and most importantly, for the UPA at New Delhi and the Congress government in Assam, there cannot be a better time than this with polls just round the corner to accelerate the peace process realizing fully the fact that the ULFA leaders ,just out of prison, have no other option than to drop the sovereignty demand from their agenda, which makes their bargaining power much lesser than that of the NSCN(IM) in Nagaland.
Now, one doesn’t need to be a political scientist to understand that the whole story of ULFA’s general council’s recent approval to facilitate peace talks without any pre conditions is largely a state engineered process on one hand and the helpless submission of the political leadership of an extremist organization which vowed to fight till death solely to attain Assam’s sovereignty way back in 1979, on the other. However in the middle of this high pitch political drama; the people of Assam have strangely become a confused lot. In the temptation of making the whole thing a super strong political campaign, the most crucial factor that has been ignored by the government is the main military man of ULFA, who has always called the shots-Paresh Baruah. Just before the talks began in New Delhi, C-in C Paresh Baruah for the first time in the last thirty years had sent a video footage to the local Assamese media from an unknown location in Burma showing his still intact military strength, clearly warning the peace lobby. The arrogant military head of the outfit has been reiterating that no dialogue can be held without sovereignty on its agenda.
With ULFA now being a divided house with its political leadership going ahead with unconditional peace talks and a large chunk of armed cadres still in jungle under the authority of Baruah, people of Assam are seriously dubious about the extent of peace these talks would bring. There is no doubt that after the 2003 crackdown of ULFA in Bhutan and consequent operations of the Bangladeshi security forces to eliminate them, the ULFA is finding it increasingly difficult to sustain itself. Apart from that, the mass support it enjoyed in the 80’s and 90’s is also waning heavily. However Paresh Baruah, a known to be stubborn leader and the few men he has are still sufficient to wreak havoc in Assam irrespective of public opinion. And if Paresh Baruah’s men once again decide to wage an active war, it is the people of Assam who will become the worst sufferer in the futile battle of guns.
The question is where the solution lies. It is, at this very juncture, important to distinguish the Assamese separatist movement from the Kashmir, Nagaland and Manipur issue. Unlike the socio-historical origin of the secessionist sentiments in the other cases, separatist Assamese extremism began much later after India’s independence. As a matter of fact, the ULFA issue in Assam, India’s tea and oil heartland, came forth on economic premises much more than any historical or ethno-nationalist ground. Notwithstanding the fact that ULFA gradually turned into a terrorist organization taking to brutal killing of hundreds of innocent civilians, everyone in Assam agrees that the beginning of this insurgency was a result of the ‘long term accumulated frustration of the people of Assam’. The feeling of alienation from New Delhi and the exploitation of state’s resources by outside parties both centre and foreign industries without due share to the locals had resulted in tumultuous democratic movements in the past which yielded nothing more than pompous promises.
That’s why when a new generation of educated young men and women took up guns out of absolute anger, a huge amount of sympathy emanated from a large number of Assamese people. People of Assam who had happily assimilated to the idea of the Indian nation state more than one and a half century back, still do not want an independent Assam carved out of India. Although ULFA had been able to draw a significant amount of sympathy from every Assamese household, they however failed to inculcate the crying necessity of a sovereign Assam in people’s minds. Yet, the brutal ant-insurgency measures adopted by the state killing almost everyone in the name of suspects helped grow the sympathy. That is why, in most of Assam’s rural areas, ULFA men are still romanticized as national heroes.
Hence, if the government of India wants to end the story with this incomplete development, considering it to be a great diplomatic win of the state, the ramifications can be disastrous. Assam, already being home to more than twenty insurgent groups with different demands, cannot expect to see real peace until Paresh Baruah, the de facto chief of the biggest insurgent outfit of the land comes to discussion table. It should be best left to the people of Assam to decide whether sovereignty, as per Baruah’s demand, should be put on the discussion table or not. However people of Assam firmly believe that the solution to permanent peace in this very land although doesn’t lie in its territorial separation from India, but to a great extent lies in greater autonomy of Assam and the freedom from the plunder of state’s resources. For that matter, the world’s largest democracy has nothing to lose in thinking of some substantial constitutional amendments.
(The writer hails from Assam and is a student at Delhi University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .)