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Prospects for Peace in Assam

Now that some of the senior leaders of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom are back in Assam and in prison, what are the chances that they will reconsider their stated uncompromising positions on Swadhin Asom? There are many imponderables that the arrested leaders have to confront: their ability to carry the rank and file (even if the powerful military chief has shown hints of a rethink), ULFA's links with other separatist groups, the position of the leaders who were arrested earlier and of other groups drawn to the idea of an "independent" Assam. At the same time there are other factors at play which could "wonderfully concentrate the minds" of the ULFA leaders on a settlement with the government of India.

COMMENTARY

What are the chances of such reconsid-

Prospects for Peace in Assam

eration? On the face of it, they are slim. In its public rhetoric, the ULFA continues to remain uncompromising on its “demand M S Prabhakarafor a sovereign Asom”. Equally, the central

Now that some of the senior leaders of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom are back in Assam and in prison, what are the chances that they will reconsider their stated uncompromising positions on Swadhin Asom? There are many imponderables that the arrested leaders have to confront: their ability to carry the rank and file (even if the powerful military chief has shown hints of a rethink), ULFA’s links with other separatist groups, the position of the leaders who were arrested earlier and of other groups drawn to the idea of an “independent” Assam. At the same time there are other factors at play which could “wonderfully concentrate the minds” of the ULFA leaders on a settlement with the government of India.

M S Prabhakara (kamaroopi@gmail.com) has been writing on Assam for more than three decades and lives in Guwahati for half the year.

S
ome of the senior-most leaders of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) as well as members of its central committee, who for years had been fugitives from the land of their birth, are now back in Assam. A few, arrested years ago and facing trial, are in judicial custody. With the return from Bangladesh and arrest in India of ULFA foreign secretary Sashadhar Choudhury and finance secretary Chiraban Hazarika early in November, and of chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and deputy commander -inchief Raju Baruah early in December, most of these senior ULFA leaders, barring the outfit’s commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah, are now back in India, and are in prison.

Separated for years from each other due to the exigencies of the choices they made long ago, these ULFA leaders would, in the coming months, have an opportunity to exchange views, discuss the past, present and future of their organisation and also reconsider the strategies and tactics that have, till now, taken them no closer to their stated objective – the attainment of Swadhin Asom (Free Assam).

At one point, it looked as if the controversies over the facts and circumstances of the return to Assam from Bangladesh on 4 December of Rajkhowa, and Raju Baruah had scuppered the careful preparations that had undoubtedly preceded their surfacing in Guwahati, albeit in the custody of police, and wearing handcuffs. That storm has now died down. There are reports that another senior ULFA leader, Bhimkanta Burragohain, who was arrested in the wake of the operations in Bhutan in December 2003 and is presently held in Tezpur jail, may also be moved to Guwahati to enable him to join his other comrades. Clearly, the authorities, too, are keen to facilitate such exchange of ideas among the arrested leaders, hoping that it would make them see reason, and resile from their uncompromising stated positions on the issue of Swadhin Asom.

government remains firm in its stand that everything, barring sovereignty, can be discussed. The union home minister has indeed amplified this position further, by requiring that the ULFA abjure violence and lay down arms, though it is difficult to envisage what there will be to talk about if these requirements are fulfilled.

However, the very formulation, “demand for sovereignty”, is deeply problematic. Sovereignty is hardly ever demanded, let alone granted by any existing sovereign state to a part of its territory. Sovereignty is won only by fighting for it. No nation state, even the weakest, ever c oncedes demands for sovereignty. India is in no sense a weak state; and yet, ULFA has always conceptualised Swadhin Asom as something that can be “demanded” and secured.

If the ULFA has persisted in this stated objective, it can only be because it is convinced that the conventional view that a nation state disintegrates only consequent upon defeat in war and foreign occupation does not apply in cases like India, which are riven by huge internal contradictions. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are two recent events that have convinced the ULFA and its ideologues that India, too, is ripe for such dissolution. What is required is the application of unrelenting pressure, seeking – and hoping to benefit from – such fragmentation.

Such conceptual contradictions apart, there are other impediments in the way of any possible settlement. Over the 30 years of its existence, nearly 20 years of which were as an outlawed organisation, the ULFA has developed deep and quite complicated linkages with a variety of other separatist outfits in Assam and in the region. To what extent these linkages will limit the initiatives that ULFA can take is not clear, especially since the character of these linkages itself has changed. Today’s friends were not friends yesterday; for that matter, the enemies of today were not

january 2, 2010 vol xlv no 1

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

yesterday’s enemies. A study of the relations between ULFA and the several Naga insurgency factions, to take one example, would illustrate the point that insurgency networks are always complicated. They are like a maze, where surprises and misdirections are never ending.

Equally unclear is to what extent the ULFA leaders now in custody, should they decide to embark upon talks, can carry their rank and file – fed for years on visions of a Swadhin Asom – with them. It is true that ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah has ruled out any talks unless the government of India agrees to include sovereignty in the agenda. Recently, he has also suggested that there should be an independently supervised “plebiscite” or “referendum” on the issue of a Swadhin Asom, to decide whether the “people of the state” – a fraught concept since there are huge and unresolved contradictions between the two formulations, “people of Assam” and “Assamese people” (and such tough contradictions obtain to a lesser or greater degree with regard to other peoples of India) – really agree with the ULFA’s stated objective. The ULFA leaders also need to be educated a little more on the difference between a plebiscite and a r eferendum, since if even the issue of S wadhin Asom is to placed before the people of the state, it will be a plebiscite, not a referendum.

The insistence on not abandoning the “demand of sovereignty” and on inscribing it in the agenda may, in itself, not be an insurmountable impediment to holding talks. After all, the government of I ndia has been talking to all the three factions of the Naga rebels – one of which, the National Socialist Council of N agalandIsak-Muivah – (NSCN)-IM – now claims to run the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland (GPRN), with a capital l ocated within the territory of Nagaland – without any of them giving up on the demand for sovereignty. Further, none of the Naga rebel groups with which the g overnment of India is talking have surrendered arms. While formally there is a ceasefire, extortion and “tax collection” covering all areas of economic activity, and without which the GPRn cannot be run, are facts of life familiar to everyone living in the region. In the case of the Naga

Economic & Political Weekly

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january 2, 2010

rebels, such collection extends to areas

claimed for a future “Nagalim” or Greater

Nagaland, in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam

and Manipur.

What is more to the point is that this is

probably the first time that a senior ULFA

leader has even suggested that the people

of the state may not go all the way with

the stated objective of the organisation.

This indicates that “no-sayers” have been

keenly following developments within the

state, and sending signals that they, too,

may come on board under certain condi

tions. The difference between sovereignty

having to be inscribed in the agenda of

any possible talks and an open mind on

wanting to find out if the people of Assam

do want such sovereignty is both obvious

and significant.

Apology for Dhemaji

Interestingly, around the same time when

he made his most recent demand for a

plebiscite (or referendum), Paresh B aruah

also came out with another statement that

he distributed widely to the media, “apo

logising” for the bomb explosions that the

ULFA triggered at the Independence Day

celebrations on 15 August 2004 at Dhemaji

in upper Assam. Nineteen people, includ

ing 10 children, were killed in that explo

sion. The act also led to widespread public

revulsion against the ULFA, some of it find

ing expression in organised forms. While

many innocent non-combatants have been

killed in the past, this is the first time that

a senior ULFA leader has expressed his

regrets and apologised for such an act,

though typically, even here, an attempt

has been to attribute the outrage to “rogue

elements”, who were also possibly agents

provocateurs.

There are other problems, too. Groups

and individuals that at one time or anoth

er were associated with the ULFA, or in

theory and in their mindsets are still

drawn to the idea of a Swadhin Asom,

have to be brought on board if even rea

sonably stable peace should return to

A ssam. Indeed, one cannot be certain if

the ULFA leaders who have been in prison

facing various charges well before the re

cent arrests, the two leaders who were

a rrested early in November and the two

arrested early in December are of the same

mind on the core and peripheral issues in

vol xlv no 1

any prospective negotiations. Given the clandestine and secretive nature of the

o rganisation, one cannot be sure if those leaders who were free till recently were in close constant contact with each other, or if the attainment of Swadhin Asom was their topmost priority all the time. For self-proclaimed revolutionaries with one and only one objective, they were a pparently also successful businessmen during their fugitive days in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Two other groups, one of which still considers itself as part of ULFA, have also to be taken on board if and when the talks are held. One of them is the socalled pro-talks ULFA that came out in favour of peace and talks in June last year. The other is the so-called “surrendered” ULFA (SULFA) who surrendered years ago. For all appearances, most members of the latter are leading normal lives, apparently as thriving businessmen. Their status, however, is still ambiguous, because the criminal c ases filed against them have not been withdrawn. These cases are only dormant, and can, at any time of the state’s choosing, come alive. This detritus of the ULFA, too, may pose some problems.

Despite all these imponderables, the promise to carve out a separate Telangana from Andhra Pradesh may in the words of that supreme master of common sense, Samuel Johnson, “wonderfully concentrate the minds” of the ULFA leaders on i ssues even more urgent than attainment of sovereignty. Leaving aside the everpresent issue of illegal migration into the state, about which there is an across-theboard national awareness though no political consensus, the demand for creation of separate states from the existing Assam is bound to grow. The ruling party in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District has already formally put forth its demand for the creation of a separate full-fledged state of Bodoland. The even more ancient demand for the creation of an autonomous state comprising the two hills districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, in both of which insurgencies are active, may now take the shape of a demand for the creation of two separate states. This is despite the fact that formally the demand is still for the creation of one autonomous

COMMENTARY

state comprising both the districts within nomenclature of scheduled tribe is The point however is: will these perils A ssam. There is also a demand for the cre-somehow privileged. In Meghalaya, too, and challenges concentrate the minds of ation of a separate Kamatapur state, put the Achik National Volunteer Council, ULFA leaders on the very real possibility of forward in the name of the Koch Rajbong-a militant outfit articulating “Garo a further truncation of Assam? Surely the shi, who are also fighting for securing the nationalism” has called for the creation of Swadhin Asom envisaged by the ULFA is status of a scheduled tribe, as if the very a separate Garoland. not an Assam truncated further.

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