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Assam: Forget rhetoric, get real

While facts surrounding the capture of United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa are shrouded in mystery and might not be known for some time, the situation remains murky. This has not been helped by varying government statements: one that he was arrested and another that he had surrendered. This was countered by Rajkhowa’s emphatic declaration that he had not given up and would not.

Rajkhowa’s seizure and whisking out of Bangladesh has all the makings of a spy thriller. What is clear is that he did not come willingly; he was intercepted, apparently by the Bangladeshis, near Cox’s Bazar and then handed over to the Indians. During this period his family members were also united with him.
It was a stunning setback to Ulfa, its most serious since it was formed 30 years back, but also served notice of Bangladesh’s determination, and that of its confident Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, not to be hobbled by earlier allegations of permitting and even supporting insurgent groups to use its territory for their goals. Bangladesh, it is said, is deeply worried by the spectre of the disaster in Pakistan which nurtured “friendly” terrorists for decades and is determined to ensure nothing like that is repeated in their country. This is also a pointer of how, in foreign policy, nothing works as well as enlightened self-interest!
The middle-aged Ulfa chairman, away from Assam since 1985, also declared, raising his handcuffs, when taken to the district courts — a gesture that drew support even from detractors — that there could be no negotiations with handcuffs! Without a doubt, putting him on display in handcuffs was inappropriate, if not downright foolish, although he has been wanted for long for waging war against the State, a charge that carries very stiff penalties.
Matters were not helped by offhand remarks by Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi that since Rajkhowa, whose real name is Rajiv Rajkonwar, had come back after a long time, “let him have home food”! This was trivialising what was a stunning setback to Ulfa and a tremendous opportunity for peace in the region. Such remarks have drawn the ire of a cross-section of society and interviews by the Assamese press have highlighted the tremendous hunger for peace and dialogue as well as growing confusion and suspicion about the Centre’s role in the whole matter.
The government appears determined not to let him out of its sight, possibly recalling the 1992 fiasco when he met then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, agreed to a ceasefire and to abide by the Constitution, and then backed down after opposition by the cadre and pressure from the elusive Paresh Baruah, who remains at large in the Kachin lands near China where Ulfa has for long had camps and collaborates with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland’s (NSCN) Khaplang faction, which too has a ceasefire with the Centre though it is not negotiating with New Delhi unlike its more powerful rival, NSCN (I-M) — which had over 50 rounds of talks, which don’t appear to have gone anywhere.
In light of its experience with “unconditional talks” with the Nagas, it is imperative that the Centre clarifies its position on the future of discussions with Ulfa, which is still a banned organisation. People in Assam do not want sovereignty that is a chimera, a pipedream; they are only interested in peace through a political dialogue that will enable delivery of basic services, disrupted by years of conflict. But the Naga example is often held up — although their leaders too wanted sovereignty, New Delhi continues to negotiate with them without conditions. Here too everyone knows there is not going to be any concession on Naga “sovereignty”.
Indeed, the years between the 1980s — when Ulfa began its rise — and now cannot be described as anything but the lost decades, when thousands of people died in the state at the hands of government forces as well as those who battled the government, all in the name of fighting for “the people”, without ascertaining what the “people” actually wanted.
While those in prison may not be in a position to demand and dictate political concessions, it behoves New Delhi to remember Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s beautiful words a few years ago at the first interaction with Ulfa’s representatives, the People’s Consultative Group: “I am a servant of the Constitution” responsible to Parliament, the Cabinet and the people of India, he had said, adding he would strive his utmost to give as much as possible within those restrictions which he needed to abide by as the country’s elected head.
Rhetoric’s romance is over, although it retains some appeal. The time for realism is now: if both sides truly seek the welfare of the people of Assam, then they have no option but to engage, converse, dialogue and develop a process that could forge an agreement which would in turn address some of the long-standing demands and angst of the people of the state and the Northeast. There would need to be give and take; the world has changed in 30 years and both sides need to be acutely cognisant of that.
For while Ulfa’s principal political plank does not carry much weight in Assam, some of its other demands on social and economic issues, as many of us have maintained, have a resonance. These have been refined and further articulated by scholars and students, politicians and non-officials, activists and ordinary people and are part of the political and social discourse of the state and the region.
The question of whether Paresh Baruah, the commander-in-chief of the Ulfa’s army — much depleted but still capable of striking at vulnerable targets — will take part in any future negotiations is not the issue any longer. Most of his colleagues are in India and in custody — including a majority of the influential Central committee members as well as his own deputy Raju Barua — and these constitute the severest setback to Ulfa in its existence. There is a persistent lack of clarity on where Paresh Baruah is located. But while he may continue to have a contingent of armed men loyal to him in the Kachin province of Burma, not far from the Northeast’s borders with Burma, and could theoretically strike back, the question is how long can such a campaign be sustained. This is so especially as across Assam and the entire Northeast there is a fatigue with violence and lost causes and a strong desire for peace. Those who do not recognise this do not understand the state or its people.
Indeed, another question arises: if talks begin, can Paresh Baruah afford to stay out of the loop since he will be unable to communicate directly with his former colleagues, now in jail, and also lacks the numbers he commanded a decade back.
If they truly wish for Assam’s welfare — and the state and its people have suffered enough for many years — then both sides need to show more wisdom, realism and restraint than has been visible in the past.

December 9th, 2009

By Sanjoy Hazarika

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