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Assam: 'Talking about Talks'

After two rounds of preparatory discussions between the ULFA-nominated consultative group and the government of India, Assam is no closer to the commencement of genuine talks. As elections loom in the state, different political groups jostle for advantage in a situation where human rights are regularly violated. The monotony of these terrible incidents means they are quickly forgotten.

Commentary

ASSAM

‘Talking about Talks’

After two rounds of preparatory discussions between the ULFA-nominated consultative group and the government of India, Assam is no closer to the commencement of genuine talks. As elections loom in the state, different political groups jostle for advantage in a situation where human rights are regularly violated. The monotony of these terrible incidents means they are quickly forgotten.

M S PRABHAKARA

E
ver since the first, hesitant initiatives were taken in September 2005 to get some sort of a dialogue going between the government of India and the armed and proscribed separatist outfit, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), there has been very little clarity on what the talks, or even the “talks about talks”, are supposed to achieve – allowing for the opaqueness and misdirection that surrounds all such initiatives. Such opaqueness was indeed a feature of the very initiation of this process.

Characteristically, ULFA is even now not directly in the picture. Rather, the present talks are being held, more accurately “facilitated” (part of the new jargon of negotiations with separatist groups, like “talks about talks”, “confidence building measures” and such), by an ULFAnominated nine-member People’s Consultative Group (PCG) that moreover has two “convenors” over and above the nine. Their aim is to enable the eventual, perhaps direct, “real talks about talks” between the government of India and ULFA.

ULFA’s Objective

There is little ambiguity over the stated, and ultimate objective of the ULFA – the attainment of a sovereign, independent Assam. Rather less clear is what the government of India expects to achieve in these talks. Its stand has been often spelt out: that the government will hold talks with any separatist/militant/insurgent/terrorist outfit provided these first abjure violence; and agree to situate their objective within the framework of the Constitution. In practice, however, there has been much flexibility, with the stated framework not always as rigidly defined as it is made out. Modifications have been made depending on the strength, durability and will of the opponent, as also on the perceived need to secure a settlement. This is evident both in the Kashmir talks and the talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim. It is to be seen whether such flexibility will also be evident when, eventually, direct talks are held with ULFA.

Ever since the organisation came into being over a quarter of a century ago, more or less conterminously with the onset of the Assam agitation on the issue of foreign nationals, ULFA’s objective has remained the same – the attainment of ‘Swadhin Asom’, a sovereign, independent Asom. To be more precise, ULFA’s objective, as it sees it, is to regain the lost sovereignty of Asom – the correct name of the land that got corrupted by getting anglicised into Assam following British colonial occupation and continued to be used under Indian colonial occupation.1

The sovereignty was lost way back in 1826 when, following British victory over Burma in the Anglo-Burmese war, which was preceded by the invasion and occupation of the land by Burma, Britain annexed the erstwhile kingdom of Assam, as part of its policy of extension and consolidation of its eastern frontiers. A little over a century and a half later, the armed struggle to regain that lost sovereignty began with the founding of ULFA in April 1979.

This reading of the events and circumstances of Assam’s loss of independence and the path being charted by ULFA to redeem it might not be quite accurate and also have elements of myth, fantasy and imagination. There are certainly other narratives and perspectives of this past, present and the future. However, in matters like this, imagination and belief are more important than so-called historical facts about which there has never been any agreement. What is more material is that a certain wistfulness and nostalgia over a past when Assam was a sovereign and independent political entity has been a persistent element in the imagination of the Assamese people. This is reflected in folk memories, literature, cultural and political polemics about identity assertion, links and relations vis-à-vis the rest of India with which, like every other constituent of the modern Indian state, Assam too has an ambiguous relation, a part and apart, an integral part as well as jealously asserting its unique identity.

Conditions for Talks

ULFA has till now refused to come on board of any kind of negotiations until and unless the sovereignty issue is made part of the agenda. Thus, the constitution of the ULFA-nominated PCG, one of whose tasks is to persuade the government to include the issue of Assam’s sovereignty in the agenda for the talks, if and when they are held. During a mass rally organised by People’s Committee for Peace Initiative in Assam, described as a conglomeration of 2l organisations, in Guwahati on January 30, by when the PCG had been invited for the second round of talks, a resolution was adopted demanding any discussion that may eventually take place between the government of India and ULFA must focus on finding a “justiceoriented solution without compromising on the dignity of the people and the demand for the restoration of sovereignty to them”. The rally was addressed by many leading public figures and intellectuals of the state, as well as some PCG members and Mamoni Goswami, the Assamese writer and one of the two convenors of the PCG.

The sum total of the pursuance of this objective by ULFA through what it calls “armed struggle”, and the efforts of the government to suppress and defeat them by use of force, over the last quarter of a century has been the death and maiming and destruction of the homesteads of many

Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006 thousands of persons, actively involved and entirely unimplicated in such enterprises, by the security forces and ULFA in confrontations that have received little national attention except of the most cursory kind. Barring ULFA which, despite tactical shifts, has remained firm in its objective, one is not sure if the administrative and political structures in the state and at the centre have any long-term perspective on the problem. Since ULFA became part of the security concerns of the state in the late 1980s, its anticipated violent interventions in the run-up to the official observances of the Independence Day and Republic Day lead to a flurry of “statewide alerts” and such demonstrative gestures of strengthening of security. Few, least of all ULFA, take these seriously, for all these are forgotten when the appointed day passes. The economy of the state, despite the current appearance in urban and semi-urban enclaves of boom and prosperity in the midst of an unbelievably degraded broader environment contributed as much by the “reforms” of the early 1990s as by the large inflow of unaccounted liquid cash is marked by stagnation, though motions of vibrancy are generated by ad hoc interventions from the top, or harebrained agendas for investment, growth and diversification that seldom go beyond their initial, breathless articulation. It is unlikely that the current or eventual talks about talks will even consider such issues.

Howsoever, unrealistic ULFA’s articulation of ideas like the restoration of the lost sovereignty of Assam and its prosecution of this objective through armed struggle may seem to the people in the rest of India, including many Assamese people, it is also true that such ideas do generate sympathetic resonances in the state, even among those who are not persuaded either of their attainability or even their desirability, given the complex international environment. This is a new dynamic of Assamese society that was not prominent when the organisation took its birth. The reasons for such ambiguity – support to a cause that is in the final analysis is not really a desirable objective and may even be suicidal – are complex and are not anyway relevant to the context and substance of the present and prospective “talks about talks”.

The first meeting between the government of India and the PCG took place in Delhi on October 26 last year. The prime minister attended these talks. There were assurances that the government was willing to discuss all issues raised by ULFA, though there was no explicit reference to the issue of sovereignty.

Second Round

The second meeting took place on February 7 this year. Though the date for the second meeting had apparently been decided and also conveyed to the facilitators well in advance, the actual announcement of the date was preceded by yet another demonstration across the state by ULFA of its capacity to strike at will, in the run up to the Republic Day ceremonies. Indeed, one of the facilitators explicitly said that ULFA had resorted to such violence because its leadership felt “insulted and frustrated” due to the centre’s delay in taking the peace process forward. In further demonstration of its resentment, incidents of violence continued even after the February 7 date was announced. In the event, when the actual date was announced in the midst of the violence, the impression was created that the government would only respond to coercion. The message seems to have gone home, considering the satisfaction expressed by PCG about the progress made in the second round of talks.

Though little has been revealed about the substance of these talks, one can draw some broad inferences, based on past

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Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006

experience of 1991-92 when ULFA, following the two military operations (Bajrang and Rhino), initiated on its own talks with the centre, an initiative that fizzled out with accusations of bad faith on both sides, and on the existing reality following the setbacks it has received after the Bhutan operations. Two communications sent by Arobindra Rajkhowa (that is how Arabinda Rajkhowa, itself an assumed name, spelt his name in those communications), then as now ULFA’s chairman, to prime minister Narasimha Rao on December 18, 1991 and January 1, 1992 encapsulated ULFA’s concerns and demands as they existed then: Immediate stoppage of army operations, withdrawal of all black laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act, TADA, Disturbed Areas Act, as well as lifting of the ban on the organisation; and release of its leaders in prison in order to facilitate the adoption and endorsement of the conditions required by the government of India

– the acceptance of a solution within the framework of the Constitution, abjuring of violence and the surrender of arms. However, those released by the government as required by ULFA promptly disappeared.

Core Demands

The core demands reflected in the preconditions that ULFA then insisted on, especially suspension if not an end to army operations and release of its leaders and cadres in prison, remain the same. Apart from the release of five members of its central committee (vice chairman Pradip Gogoi, in prison in Guwahati in the middle of a prolonged trial, publicity secretary Mithinga Daimary, Ramu Mech, Arpan Saikia and founder adviser Bhimkanta Buragohain), ULFA is also now demanding the release, or at last to know the whereabouts, of several of its leaders and cadres, including Ashanta Bagphukan, Bening Rabha, Nilu Chakravarti, Abhijit Deka and Prakash Gogoi, the last news about whom was that they had all been captured by the army during the Bhutan operations. There are reports of at least 25 children of ULFA cadres, born in jails, still languishing in prison. There is also the question of the future of Golap Barua, another central committee member apparently still in custody in Bangladesh. At one point there were reports about persons known to be close to ULFA demanding that the government of India should facilitate Golap Barua’s release and return home.

The most important difference between then and now is that while 15 years ago there was a formal commitment (whose sincerity was suspect even then in official circles, that turned out to be justified) to strive for a solution to the issues raised by ULFA within the framework of the Constitution

– pending of course endorsement by ULFA’s central executive committee many of whose members were then in prison – such a commitment is not there, not even for form’s sake, in the present situation.

What, then, are the prospects for the next round of talks? A clue can be had in the joint statement released on February 7, at the end of the second round. A sentence from the joint statement, as reported in the press, reads thus: “The Government of India has agreed to examine and initiate a series of confidence building measures with regard to instances of human rights violations and examine the issue of release of certain detainees in consultation with the state government.” However, the statement makes no reference to ULFA’s core demand – the suspension of army operations – much less to the government’s expectations that ULFA has to agree to situate its demands and grievances within the framework of the Constitution. Such issues may be taken up only when direct talks are held.

There is also the little matter of the forthcoming elections. Any progress or even the appearance of progress on such issues will surely help the ruling Congress Party, a key stakeholder in the ongoing process, though it has till now kept a low profile. This will not be the first time that political parties seeking to retain or regain office have played, or at least tried to play, the ULFA card, though the organisation itself loftily claims that it has in no manner intervened in the “Indian political process” and indeed wants no piece of it.

Despite this appearance of deadlock, if progress were to be made on the promise to “initiate a series of confidence building measures with regard to instances of human rights violations”, that would be a positive gain. Sovereignty can wait; what most people really want is peace. Indeed, even if the talks were to drag on, as they necessarily will since the issue is complex and near irresolvable, such an impasse too would be welcome if only peace were to prevail, if there were to be end to raids, arrests and disappearances, extortions and killings, violence and counter-violence.

Trigger-Happy Outbursts

The problem is what are seen as instances of human rights violations are seen by the security forces as merely “unfortunate excesses”, inevitable and unavoidable in the course of legitimate anti-insurgency operations. When forces with a deeply entrenched security mindset operate in an environment about which they have no understanding, trigger-happy outbursts are bound to get more and more common. In one of the most bizarre instances of its kind, personnel of the Border Security Force recently went berserk at the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati because others in the line ahead of them objected to their trying to jump the queue to secure precedence in darshan.

Reports of less bizarre, but far more grim and tragic, incidents create a stir for a day or two and are forgotten, except when they involve victims in high profile areas, as in the recent army raid in Jeraigaon, the village near Chabua in Tinsukia district, home to many ULFA leaders including its army chief, Paresh Barua, that led to the blockade of NH-37 on January 31. The blockade was lifted only after the army handed over the two young men it had picked up to the state police. A few days later, in another incident in a village under the Kakopathar police station, also in Tinsukia district, a young man, Ajit Mahanta, supposedly a “ULFA linkman”, was picked up by the army authorities on the night of February 4-5 from his village home. A day later, he was dead.

The denouement of this incident is still being played out. A prolonged blockade of NH-37 turned violent on February 10, when the police opened fire on a crowd that had earlier attacked a police station, resulting in the death of eight civilians, apart from the lynching of a policeman. The resulting rage and statewide protests are yet to subside.

It is difficult to say what impact incidents like those in Kakopathar, whose origins are controversial and whose aftermath is unclear, will have on the peace process. Interestingly, while some of ULFA’s overground supporters (including some engaged as facilitators of the peace process) have demanded that the security forces should be withdrawn from the “affected areas”, ULFA has accused unnamed “vested interests” of provoking a confrontation in Kakopathar with a view to derailing the peace process, virtually endorsing the stand of chief minister Tarun Gogoi who has accused the opposition, Asom Gana Parishad of instigating the villagers to attack the police station, leading to the police firing and the deaths. “Those who are involved in provoking and instigating the people of Kakopathar to attack the police station do not want a political settlement to our

Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006 problems and simply want to derail the peace process”, a statement issued by ULFA chairman Arobinda Rajkhowa said. Only one thing is clear: powerful lobbies pressing for the continuation of the talks are as active as those pressing for aborting the whole peace process.

Finally, there are varieties of state violence that provoke equally varied responses by way of popular mobilisation of rage. After all, such mobilisation has also to be sustained by the media which, despite all pretensions to the contrary, has its own agenda, especially in a highly politically charged environment as in Assam. Thus, one notes that between February 18 and February 25, two English dailies of Guwahati carried 24 photographs (including one of a well known artist “reliving on canvass the incidents at Kakopathar”) highlighting the mobilisation of rage. One also notes, in contrast, that the incident at Salakati Railway Station near Kokrajhar in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District area on December 23 last year in which three young men were shot dead by the Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB) during a fracas following an incident of alleged molestation of local girls in the train by the IRB personnel, one of whom also died in gunfire, is now little more than a speck of smouldering rage and memory among its victims.

EPW

Email: kamaroopi@rediffmail.com

Note

1 On February 28, 2006, the Congress government

in Assam led by Tarun Gogoi decided to revert

to the original name of ‘Asom’ for the state.

Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006

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