Thursday, Jul 07, 2022

Talking About Talks

There's no way that the ULFA can be wiped out, or its back broken, by military operations on Indian (or, at best, Bhutanese) soil. Which is why there's no alternative to talks, but the indifference from civil society and politicians is perplexing.

The latest twist in the tortuous road to talks with the ULFA—that of the outfit’s chairperson refusing to give any written assurance on the ULFA’s commitments to talks as had been demanded by the Indian government—was only to be expected. On the face of it, New Delhi’s demand for such a written assurance as a pre-condition to the release of the five top ULFA leaders lodged in Guwahati jail is not unjustified. There must be some sort of guarantee that the five, after being released, will not disappear in Bangladesh. Having been bitten once (when ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia, who was released as part of a deal to pave way for talks with the outfit in 1992, simply vanished and no talks were held), the government of India can only be expected to be twice shy. A written assurance from the ULFA would be the minimum guarantee against a repeat of 1992. 

But then, ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa is also right in contending that asking for such a guarantee amounts to shifting the goalposts. Rajkhowa, in a statement issued earlier this week, said that New Delhi should stick to the three areas agreed on during the June 22 meeting with the People’s Consultative Group, a group of citizens sympathetic to the ULFA that the outfit had appointed to liaise on its behalf with the Indian government. These three areas are: 

(1) Both sides (the government of India and the ULFA) would exercise restraint; 

(2) The government of India would launch confidence building measures and create a favourable atmosphere for talks, and

(3) The government of India would favourably consider the release of the five ULFA leaders in Guwahati jail. 

Now, without appearing to quibble over a technicality, it needs to pointed out that New Delhi has never agreed to release the five; it had merely said it would "favourably consider" the issue of their release. There is a difference between the two and, hence, the ULFA cannot claim now that the government of India is going back on its commitment to release the five. As for the two other areas, New Delhi has done more than its share to create goodwill.

New Delhi is also apprehensive on another count—that the ULFA will simply name its five jailed leaders as its representatives to negotiate with the government. The Union government’s stand is that for talks to be fruitful, the ULFA’s top leadership—and here it means the outfit’s chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Barua—needs to sit at the negotiating table. That’s the reason behind the demand for a written assurance on not just the venue and date for talks, but also the composition of the ULFA delegation. 

The ULFA, understandably, is wary of giving any such assurance. Or—and this is the more likely case—it is in no position to deliver such an assurance as such vital decisions are not in its hands, but in those of its Bangladeshi masters. However, it must be stated that New Delhi’s apprehension on this (the composition of the ULFA delegation) is not really justifiable. There cannot be any arguments against holding preliminary talks with ULFA leaders excluding Rajkhowa and Barua. 

Once things get going and negotiations with the ULFA reach firmer ground, the outfit’s top leaders cannot stay away from the negotiating table. There’s no harm in talking peace with the likes of ULFA vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi or its political advisor Bhimkanta Buragohain (who’s also the senior most ULFA leader and a respected figure). After all, it is not who you talk to (provided they’re responsible and senior enough in the organisation), but what and how you talk. New Delhi would not be doing itself any credit by losing sight of this. To insist (or appear to insist), thus, that Rajkhowa and Barua have to be part of the ULFA delegation to talks would show the government of India in poor light, make it appear unreasonable and fuel fears that its true intention is to lure Rajkhowa and Barua away from Bangladesh and then nab them.

Be that as it may, it is now on the issue of release of the five that preparatory talks for the actual talks are now stuck. Breaking the impasse appears to be a very daunting task at present, and not the least because Assam’s political leadership and its civil society are not involved in this whole exercise. Here, the eleven-member team nominated by the ULFA to intercede on its behalf with New Delhi shouldn’t be confused with being representatives of civil society. Far from it—they’re the ULFA’s representatives, even though they go by the nomenclature of People’s Consultative Group. 

Prominent members of Assamese society, the respected figures of the state, and even NGOs, all of whom could have played a crucial and bipartisan role, have absented themselves from the exercise. As have the state’s political leaders, be they of the Congress, the AGP or the smaller parties. Why? That’s the million-dollar question. There are no ready answers; not yet, anyway. But it would appear that prominent personas from Assam’s rich and vast fields of academia, literature, the arts and other professions have distanced themselves from the ULFA and want to have nothing to do with the outfit. In private conversations with such people, their disgust with the ULFA becomes more than evident. The ULFA, to them, has become a mercenary outfit that doesn’t care about Assam and its people and can do no good to anyone. 

It’s thus no surprise that save for a section of Assamese society for whom the ULFA will forever remain ‘our boys’, most Assamese view the ULFA as a bother and as an irritant in the state’s path to pace and development. Assam’s politicians, it would appear, are wary of getting involved in any way with what would, essentially, be an affair between the ULFA and New Delhi. That, however, is strange: even if the talks happen between ULFA and the government of India (read: the union home ministry), they would revolve around Assam’s future. And the state’s political leadership or civil society remaining aloof from the process of determining Assam’s future contours is something that’s not only unimaginable, but also totally undesirable. 

So then, why is it that Assam’s politicians—and given that politicians would never desist from milking any available opportunity—are staying away from the exercise? The only plausible answer would be that they have little faith in talks leading to fruition. In fact, that’s what many in Assam feel of the current exercise.

Which is, anyhow, a pity since after long years of strife and bloodshed, this time there’s reason for hope. Yes, it’s true that the ULFA has lost a lot of support in Assam. It’s true that after Operation Flushout in Bhutan in 2003, the ULFA’s back has been broken. Of its 15 top leaders, five are in Guwahati jail, three are missing, one is dead and of the six who are out, there’s been no news of three for the last couple of years. 

The security establishment in Assam contends that when New Delhi announced the unilateral ceasefire on operations against the ULFA, the security forces were on the throes of launching a major operation against the outfit’s ‘28th Battalion’ in Upper Assam. The operation, they claim, would have brought the ULFA to its knees by wiping out the ‘battalion’ that is said to be behind all recent attacks in Assam. But then, that’s missing the bigger point. 

The ULFA’s top leadership is in Bangladesh, alive and kicking. Its sources of sustenance cannot be cut off. The outfit may find it more difficult than in the past to get ready recruits from Assam, but there are just too many unemployed and impressionable youngsters in the state to deny ULFA a fertile recruiting ground. Nor have all the people of Assam turned totally against the ULFA. And given these ground realities, there’s no way that the ULFA can be wiped out, or its back broken, by military operations on Indian (or, at best, Bhutanese) soil. 

Which is why it’s so very important to hold talks with the ULFA to arrive at a negotiated settlement of the outfit’s demands. There’s no alternative to talks. New Delhi realises this, but it is also of prime importance that it makes the ULFA—and the outfit’s masters or providers in Bangladesh—comprehend this reality to talk peace. Men made of much sterner stuff, like NSCN (I-M) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, have become doves. Rajkhowa or Barua are but just toddlers when compared to Muivah.