IN his Independence day speech, a besieged Assam chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta offered a safe passage to militants if they wanted to come forward for talks with the government—anywhere they desired. Mahanta, who faces dissidence within the party and disaffection among two of the four coalition partners, is, however, most rattled with the spiralling violence in the state. The month of August witnessed a spurt in insurgency activity , forcing the chief minister to bring troubled Guwahati and Jorhat under the army's purview days after he had asked troops to withdraw.
The biggest insurgency-related incident was, of course, the attempt to blow up the Guwahati-New Delhi Rajdhani Express on August 11. The high-speed train, which left Guwahati at 6 am as usual, had slowed down at Sarupeta station in lower Assam's Barpeta district, about 112 km from the capital, due to speed restrictions. Around 7.34 am, just as driver Premananda Bhagat picked up speed, he suddenly saw the earth erupting about 13 metres ahead. "My first reaction was to slam hard on all the brakes," a shaken Bhagat recalls. Bhagat's reflex action and the fact that the militants miscalculated the speed of the train saved 330 lives.
Recounts Mrinall Bhoot, a sales executive with Nestle, who was travelling to New Jalpaiguri on work: "We were about to have our breakfast when the train started vibrating violently. But before we could react, it had come to a halt. It was only later that we realised how lucky we were to be alive." They were lucky indeed, for the bomb, stuffed with RDX and triggered by a remote control device, created a crater of 10 feet by 10 feet between the tracks. Had the blast occurred seconds later, the result would have been catastrophic.
Lives were saved but Bodoland Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) rebels had once again managed to bring the Bodo tangle into focus. Last December, the same group had triggered a blast under the Brahmaputra Mail, killing 34 people. The government immediately called for a fresh discussion on the Bodo impasse, but now the talks have once again been put on the back-burner. The Bodo imbroglio, festering for over a decade now, shows no sign of being resolved and the AGP-led government, fearful of a backlash from the majority Ahom community is loath to find a solution. The Bodos have been demanding a separate state ever since the ill-conceived Bodo accord of 1992 became a non-starter. The spate of bombings and killings of Bengalis is part of the same turf war.
THE Bodo militancy is only half the problem. Mahanta faces the continued belligerence of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), exactly 12 years after the Assam accord. Despite numerous appeals, the outfit shows no inclination to come to the negotiating table. On the contrary, it has carried out high-profile strikes in the past month. First, Sanjoy Ghose, the noted social activist who was kidnapped on July 4, was killed in the outfit's custody. Although ULFA's non-resident chief Paresh Baruah has claimed that Sanjoy died when he fell from a cliff in Arunachal Pradesh, no one is prepared to believe it. Local newspapers, generally soft on the outfit, rose as one to flay the ULFA. "The Sanjoy Ghose episode has once and for all proved that the ULFA is nothing but a gang of cold-blooded killers," thundered one daily.
What added to the outrage was the killing of Brig. T.D.S. Vishakhan and his staff officer Subhas Chander in Guwahati. The two officers, who belonged to the Military Engineering Service and were based in Shillong, were passing through the city. They were shot from point-blank range when they halted at a dental clinic. Neither was involved in counter-insurgency operations.
The ease with which the killers struck prompted the state government to bring Guwahati city under the purview of the United Command less than three weeks after the capital and Jorhat district were excluded from the system on an experimental basis. This, of course, didn't stop the rebels from keeping up their violent activities during the night of August 14-15. Apart from setting three railway stations on fire in different parts of the state, they also killed three more people in lower Assam's Darrang and Kamrup districts. The frequent attacks on railway property has forced the Northeast Frontier Railway to stop all trains running in Assam.
Mahanta, who in the interim managed to get key rival Bhrigu Kumar Phukan suspended from the AGP, now finds himself back to the wall. Six months of army operations have not forced rebels to negotiate.
Allies like the People's Democratic Front, with seven Bodo MLAs, and the Autonomous State Demand Committee which has five MLAs have withdrawn support to the ministry. The people are, in fact, beginning to wonder whether President's rule is inevitable. Says a young businessman: "This government has failed to fulfil any of its pre-poll commitments. The violence has increased and the fear is all-pervasive." There is a silver lining to all this though. The people have started raising their voice against the militants. A group of youngsters in Majuli, the world's largest river island where Ghose worked, have gone on an indefinite hunger strike, and leading citizens in Guwahati defied the ULFA's August 15 curfew call to take out a procession. The militants can no longer take the people's goodwill for granted. But the government needs to cash in on the change in the mood of the masses to really succeed in its battle. Or the tide may turn.