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Assam: Terror and Talks

Terror and Talks What are the chances of any

ASSAM

Terror and Talks

W
hat are the chances of any “substantive progress”, that chimera forever sought in all such engagements between the state and separatist outfits, during talks between the government of India and the People’s Consultative Group (PCG), the structure appointed by the proscribed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and acting as its proxy?

On the face of it, the conditions for productive negotiations are not propitious. In incidents of sustained violence over four days (June 8-12), mainly bomb blasts, grenade attacks and explosions, spread all over the state and attributed to ULFA, eight persons, all civilians, were killed and scores injured. Oil installations, railway tracks and other economic assets too were attacked. The most serious of such incidents was the improvised explosive device blast at the Machkhowa bazaar in the heart of Guwahati on the afternoon of June 9 in which five persons were killed. In what is now almost a routine reaction, ULFA has disclaimed responsibility for those incidents where civilians have been killed, attributing them in turn to unnamed “conspirators” (its code word for security agencies) out to derail the talks and defame the organisation. However, statements from its proxies have justified such acts on the ground that the “boys” (most of the top leaders of ULFA are in their 50s) were simply frustrated overthelackofprogress in the talks and so were letting off steam.

Such muscle flexing by ULFA seems to be part of a pattern. One recalls that a similar campaign of violence preceded the previous round of talks on February 7. Quite simply, there is no alternative to holding of talks, howsoever prolonged and tortuous the process will be. In theory, the Indian state, with all its might and resources, can crush each and every separatist movement. But given the social base of these organisations and the complex linkages between separatist and terrorist activities and constitutional politics, such macho posturing is simply not in the realm of practical politics. Similarly, the separatist organisations, even the most militant of them or those that are explicitly driven by secessionism and sovereignty as their ideology and objective, and terrorism as their method, know that they simply cannot defeat their “enemy”. So, there is no alternative to talks even when these may appear little more than a charade.

As was the case with the two earlier round of talks, the core demands that were put forward by the PCG on behalf of ULFA during the third round of talks remained the same: the release of five (or, now, six) of its leaders and the return of its “missing” leaders and cadres whose whereabouts remain a mystery following the successful joint India-Bhutan military operations against ULFA camps in Bhutan in December 2003. Linked to the release of ULFA prisoners is the suggestion being aired by the PCG that the talks should now be taken to a higher level, with the leaders now in prison, on being released, speaking directly on behalf of ULFA.

However, there is some uncertainty whether these demands will be conceded or whether the projected scenario is realistic. While chief minister Tarun Gogoi has more than once spoken about his government not having any objections to the release of ULFA prisoners in its custody, the centre seems to have some reservations. As always, in matters like these, the state government (including its own intelligence agencies) seems to have a more realistic appreciation of the situation on the ground than the centre.

These reservations have little to do with the ULFA’s recent mayhem. Rather more problematic are the close relationships that ULFA has established with persons and organisations based in Bangladesh that are inimical to India and, even more so, to Assam. Significant in this context are the detailed, though rather selective, disclosures made by the state’s inspector general of police (special branch) of such linkages, involving ULFA’s self-styled commander-in-chief, Paresh Barua – 12 residential addresses in Dhaka, Muslim name aliases and such. The interesting thing about these disclosures is that they say little about other ULFA leaders who have houses and addresses, and also substantial investments and other business interests in Dhaka and other cities of Bangladesh.

Given the deep and not unjustified anxieties in the state about the long-term ambitions and interests of an inherently expansionist Bangladesh in Assam, such revelations are bound to put pressure on ULFA, in particular its “military wing”, that is perceived to be more uncompromisingly committed to a sovereign Asom, and was at one time even projected as being “anti-talks”, though of late Paresh Barua seems to be equally keen on talks. This only shows that such structured analyses of the internal dynamics of highly secretive insurgent outfits make little sense. But as a pressure tactic, they do serve a purpose. You have your bombs, we have our dossiers. But talk they must even if these talks head nowhere.

EPW

Economic and Political Weekly June 24, 2006

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