New Delhi has come up with an Independence Day gambit in Assam . On Sunday,
August 13, 2006, central authorities suddenly suspended Army operations against
the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) at a time when the insurgent
group was engaged in a routine stepping up of violence ahead of Independence
Day. Specifically, the Sunday announcement came hours after ULFA rebels shot and
killed a petty trader in Joypur town, in the eastern district of Dibrugarh,
hurled a grenade at the private residence of a senior Assam minister at Digboi
in the adjacent Tinsukia district (the minister was present but there was no
casualties), and made an abortive grenade attack on the police in the western
district town of Nalbari. In ten days, beginning August 4, 2006, the ULFA had
launched several grenade or bomb attacks, killing a dozen people, including six
security personnel, five of them of the Assam Police, and injured up to 40
Assam Chief Secretary S. Kabilan, who also heads the policy-making Strategy Group of the Unified Command Headquarters of the Army, Police and Paramilitary Forces in the state, was quick to confirm the central government’s decision to suspend Army operations. "Offensive action against ULFA will remain suspended for 10 days in a goodwill gesture by the government," he told this writer late Sunday night. He clarified though that it cannot be called a ceasefire yet. Pressed for the immediate reasons for this go-slow order to the Army, Kabilan said, "There may have been some positive feelers from the other side." He did not elaborate, but his comment did indicate that the ULFA on its own or the People’s Consultative Group (PCG), the 11-member peace panel appointed by the rebel outfit, may have succeeded in convincing New Delhi that such a gesture would result in the insurgent group reciprocating by putting violence on hold.
There was, however, significant evidence of confusion and a wide diversity of perceptions within the government. On the morning of August 14, the Assam Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, told this writer, "This is certainly a unilateral ceasefire. There can be no other meaning to a suspension of operations by the government." He added, however, that "We cannot lower our vigilance. Day to day policing will go on," and further, "The ball is now in ULFA’s court, and it must respond positively and come forward for talks, now that the government has taken this major initiative."
The government’s decision to halt Army operations before Independence Day, that too, when the ULFA has called for a boycott of the celebrations and has sought to enforce it through a 17-hour general strike beginning 1 a.m. on August 15, is certainly significant. The ULFA would now be under tremendous pressure to reciprocate and enter into the process of direct talks with New Delhi. Over the past few weeks, civil society organizations in Assam have been vocal in asking the government to act first and take some major initiatives, like a temporary ceasefire, to break the current impasse over the holding of direct ULFA-New Delhi talks. At a civil society Round Table last fortnight organized by Gauhati University, the state’s premier institution for higher learning, a resolution was adopted urging the government of India to initiate immediate steps like a ceasefire, that would ‘have to be reciprocated’ by the ULFA. Another resolution called for the release of five top ULFA leaders, all members of the group’s highest policy-making body, the central executive committee. ULFA has been seeking their release so that it could discuss the issue of entering into direct talks with New Delhi and take things forward.
Groups like the PCG itself have been drawing flak, just like several other components of the State’s disjointed civil society, for not condemning violence by the militants in the same way as they condemn killing of rebels by security forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations. On August 13, 2006, however, the PCG issued a significant press statement where it called upon both the ULFA and the government to maintain restraint for the sake of peace in Assam, and condemned the killing of innocent people by the two sides. "The acts of violence since the peace process started have hurt the PCG," the statement said. This plain and straightforward condemnation of violence and killing of innocent people by the PCG, whose members were hand-picked by the ULFA in September 2005, and the group’s decision to meet with India’s National Security Adviser and Home Secretary in New Delhi by August 16, 2006, does indicate that the two sides could actually be working overtime to put violence on hold and start direct talks.
There have, however, been several roadblocks thus far, obstructing a possible face-to-face meeting between the ULFA and the government of India:
- New Delhi has asked ULFA to name its negotiating team. ULFA says the team cannot be named unless five of its top detained leaders are freed.
- New Delhi has asked ULFA to give its consent for the talks in writing. ULFA responded by saying the government must also state in writing that it would discuss the group’s key demand of ‘sovereignty’.
- ULFA has demanded information on the whereabouts of 14 of its cadres ‘missing’ after the Bhutanese military assault in December 2003.
- Charges and counter-charges of violence and excesses by both sides.
It is possible that, over the past few days, back-channel contacts may have
been established between the ULFA and the government, either directly or
otherwise, facilitating an understanding to remove some of these bottlenecks.
Over the coming ten days, it is likely that a contact mechanism will be put in place and New Delhi could even grant ‘safe passage’ to some ULFA leaders to emerge from hiding and meet with key government officials to prepare the modalities for talks. ULFA could also reciprocate this time round, taking the public mood against all forms of violence into account, and arrive at an understanding with the government on the crucial issue of a truce, an essential element to take a peace process forward.
But, once again, the government of India has goofed up things by failing to speak in one voice on crucial issues. Till late Sunday afternoon, the Assam government was not aware of New Delhi’s decision. The General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Army’s Tezpur-based IV Corps, who heads the operations under the Unified Headquarters, got in touch with the state police chief, but the latter apparently told him he had no instructions from the state government. Even in New Delhi, officials of the ministry of home affairs were not forthcoming on the matter, indicating the decision was taken at some other level. By late night, however, key officials started talking on the same lines, confirming that a temporary halt to Army operations had been ordered. The need for the government to speak in a cohesive voice is of utmost importance to avoid confusing signals from going out.
The decision to go for a ten-day halt to Army operations, which have been on almost continuously in Assam since November 1990, with only brief breaks in between, has the potential to actually put the ULFA on the defensive. If the rebel group does not respond positively this time around, the odds may well go against it as never before.
Wasbir Hussain is a Guwahati-based Political Analyst and Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal
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