Earlier this month, the union home minister, P. Chidambaram announced that the central government is now ready for talks with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). The Assam government, in its capacity as the facilitator for the talks, has been in continuous communication with the armed separatist group leaders thereby helping in providing a framework for the talks. This constant communication between the two sides has been made possible due to the fact that the ULFA core leadership including its founding members like its chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, vice-chairman, Pradip Gogoi, ideologue, Bhimakanta Burhagohain and publicity secretary, Mithinga Daimary are housed in the Guwahati central jail.
Interestingly, for the first time perhaps, it has been clearly stated that while peace talks will be held between the Centre and the ULFA leadership with the help of an interlocutor, the Assam government will act as the facilitator, thereby taking upon itself the responsibility for the success of the talks. This is unlike the peace negotiations with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu--NSCN (IM), in which the Centre and the NSCN (IM) leadership talk directly without a clearly stated role for the Nagaland state government thereby absolving the latter of any responsibility for the negotiations. Such a framework is counter-productive as it enables the state government to blame the centre for any failure of the talks or for law and order problems in Nagaland involving the NSCN (IM).
Coming back to the ULFA, while the framework for the talks should be based on the noted principles of dialogue, namely, ‘a sense of creating meaning through talking or reasoning together’, the dialogue should also deal with the challenge of understanding complexities at the social, political, and cultural levels buttressed by differences in perceptions of the contextual situation, vagueness regarding the causes of conflict, and ambiguity with regard to the future. Hence, the challenge with regard to dialogue with the ULFA will be to squarely meet the challenge of coordinating meaning through participatory processes by bringing together diverse groups of actors with differences in personal experiences, perceptions, and at times, a history of violent conflict between them.
Be that as it may, the population of Assam is keenly watching how the talks between the centre and the ULFA unfold. The ULFA movement has been a long drawn affair in the Assamese landscape starting on April 7, 1979 from the historic site of the Ranghar in Sibsagar district, Assam, and getting enmeshed with the student movement led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) from 1979-1985 against the inclusion of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in the voters’ list in Assam. However, while the Assam movement came to a closure with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 and the formation of a political party called the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the ULFA movement continued as an armed struggle for the independence of Assam. The ULFA leadership stated that the goal of their movement was a ‘Swadhin Asom, where all indigenous people will stay, while all others have to leave’.
While the movement had significant support from the Assamese population in the 1970s and 1980s, the violent means adopted by the ULFA from the 1990s onwards when the outfit resorted to unwarranted kidnappings and killings, resulted in a loss of support. Even more worrisome for the people of Assam were two distinctive patterns of behaviour that the outfit followed, viz:
- First, killing of unarmed civilians through bombing of public places, and untoward killing of poor labourers coming from Bihar to Assam.
- Second, the massive real estate businesses that the ULFA leadership owned in Bangladesh. This made it clear to the people of Assam that the ULFA was mostly motivated to amass wealth and stow it away in banks in Bangladesh.
It is now a well known fact that in 2009 alone, Arabinda Rajkhowa’s Sonali Bank deposits in Bangladesh totalled 3, 990 crore taka (Rs 2, 710.9 crore) held under the false name of Arabinda Ray. The ULFA also ran nearly ten to twelve underground camps in Bangladesh. Due to this proximity to Bangladesh, the ULFA lost much of the Assamese population’s support as the most critical political, social and economic issues in Assam are connected to the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration. Thereby, many started viewing the ULFA as facilitating the illegal Bangladeshi migrant flows into Assam as a return favour to the then Bangladeshi authorities and population, who were sheltering the ULFA leadership in Bangladesh. Based on these two failings, the ULFA now faces the challenge of the three Rs: Representative ness, Rationality, and Responsibility --which usually qualifies a group or party to represent a community.
When it comes to representativeness, it is not clear whom the ULFA really represents in the present context. Surely, the people of Assam have moved beyond the separatist narrative of the ULFA based on an exclusivist ethnic base and suspicion of outsiders. This is no more the reality in Assam, where the youth are marching along with the rest of India towards a brighter future. The rationality of the ULFA is also under severe doubt due to the use of force against civilians in the 1990s and 2000s. Such terror tactics have been strongly criticized by many well known Assamese civil society actors and intellectuals like Dr. Hiren Gohain, Homen Borgohain, Dr. Kanak Sen Deka, Jayanta Madhab, Amalendu Guha and Dr. Nagen Saikia. When it comes to responsibility, the outfit’s engagement in extortions, killing of surrendered cadres and creating an atmosphere of fear has dented its image to a large extent especially since 1997 with the killing of Sanjoy Ghosh, the noted social worker. While ULFA has never explained the reason behind the killing, the suspicion is that Ghosh was killed as he exposed the nexus between the ULFA, contractors and government officials involved in corruption in Majuli.
Nevertheless, though the ULFA lacks a popular support base in Assam as of now, certain districts like Tinsukia, Sibsagar and Dibrugarh do have population pockets that still support the ideology of the ULFA, which it once professed. Hence, it is rather critical that the talks between the Centre and the ULFA must address the ideology behind the armed group’s emergence like optimal development of Assam’s resources, equitable sharing of the revenue earned from Assam’s oil and tea between the Centre and Assam, economic upliftment of the people, better governance, the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration and tribal rights.
As a success formula, the talks need to also include noted Assamese intellectuals and social workers in order to give it wider legitimacy and representativeness. The Assam government must also keep the people of Assam informed about the progress of the talks in order to avoid misinformation by the local media hungry for some sensational news in order to up their own TRP (Television Rating Points) ratings.
The challenge for the Centre and the Assam government will however be to ensure that Paresh Barua, the Commander-in-Chief of ULFA is brought to the negotiating table. Barua is threatening to revive the ULFA movement from the Myanmar-China border where he is currently residing. While this sounds far-fetched since Barua lacks the intellectual wherewithal to create the ideological base for ULFA’s revival, he does have the potential to revive the armed struggle from a purely military point of view with the help of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) who earlier trained ULFA cadres for a price of Rs one lakh per trainee. The jailed ULFA leadership could also use Barua’s threats of reviving the ULFA as a bargaining chip against the Centre on the negotiating table.
While talking to the ULFA is a sound policy on the part of the government of India, the challenge is to ensure that the entire ULFA leadership is willing to arrive at a negotiated framework of resolution in order to ensure that armed struggles such as these do not revive again after a period of hiatus in northeastern states like Assam.
Dr Namrata Goswami is a Visiting Fellow, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Germany and Research Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed here are that of the author