|Cover Story Vol. 2 Issue No. 12||October 1 - 15, 2005|
Is it a new dawn or a false ray of hope? Is it the end of violence in Assam or an uneasy lull before the storm? Will it usher a new era of development or is it just a ploy of befooling the people?
People of Assam are searching the answers of these questions as outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) after long years, has now expressed its desire to come to the negotiation table.
Before making an effort to answers to these questions, take a trip down the memory lane. The effort of bringing ULFA to the negotiation table is not new. It started way back in 1989, when Chandrasekhar took over the reins from V. P. Singh as the Prime Minister of the country. Though it was Chandrasekhar, who imposed President’s Rule in the State and launched army operation against ULFA, he tried to talk to ULFA at the same time. But for reasons best known to them, ULFA didn’t respond to his call.
But ULFA did respond when a Congress Government led by the late Hiteswar Saikia came to power in the State in 1991.The beginning was bitter. ULFA abducted more than 20 people on a single day. The list included people from all walks of life including those, who had gone to Assam for professional reasons. Even after granting general amnesty to the arrested ULFA cadres, the outfit did not release the abducted persons. They were released after several secret parleys and following the release of abducted persons five top ULFA leaders came to Delhi to meet the Prime Minister. At that meeting with the then Prime Minister, the late P. V. Narasimha Rao, the ULFA leaders agreed to shun the path of violence in favour of peaceful settlement of their genuine grievance.
But nothing much happened after that. ULFA suffered a split soon after as the hardliners within the underground organization decided against any kind of negotiated settlement. Since then, ULFA kept on acting as a stumbling block to any peace initiatives. Though the Centre and as well as the State Government were ready for talks, ULFA scuttled any such move one pretext or the other. To scuttle the peace moves, ULFA placed few conditions before the Centre. Its main demand was that ‘sovereignty issue’ should be discussed. Other demands of the organization were that the talks should be held in a third country and a neutral observer should be present during negotiations.
As ULFA kept away from the negotiating table, violence gripped Assam. Many lives were lost. Property worth crore of rupees burnt down. Development works came to a standstill. Yet, ULFA was adamant and refused to join any efforts to bring back peace in Assam. ULFA insiders indicated a vertical split within the organization as the hardliners were stalling peace moves. The million-dollar question here is what forced ULFA hardliners to agree to talks? Are they serious this time? Or like previous occasions will again go back to the jungles at the slightest provocations?
Many observers believe that present day world situation is responsible for the outfit’s latest stand. They pointed out that after 9/11, the world has undergone a sea change and days of terror-mongers are numbered. Besides, terrorist outfits are not getting as much support as they used to get from their sympathizers. Sophisticated arms and other materials needed to wage a war against any country are not so easily available these days, as the world has awaken to the fact that terrorism is posing a grave threat to mankind. The world is united against terrorism as it has no religion or boundaries. Terrorist organizations such as Irish Republican Army (IRA) or LTTE have already accepted the fact and came to the negotiation table. The observers pointed out that in such a situation ULFA didn’t have much to gain by continuing the arms struggle.
The observers further pointed out that ULFA was indeed in a tight spot ever since the Royal Bhutan Army launched an operation against the outfit. The ULFA set up its base in Bhutan and taking advantage of the difficult terrain continued its subversive activities on Indian soil for long. But as the Bhutan army came down heavily on ULFA and destroyed the hideouts, the outfit is finding it difficult to set up bases from where its cadres can easily sneak in to Indian territory. Moreover, notwithstanding the ISI support, Bangladesh is not as safe as it used to be because of immense international pressure. Khaleda Zia Government is under pressure from major international powers to act tough on terrorists.
But some observers have different reasons. They claimed that irrespective of the world situation, ULFA’s decision of coming to the negotiation table had much to do with domestic pressure rather than outside factors. They pointed out that for years now people of Assam on many occasions put pressure on ULFA to find an amicable solution through negotiation. The most glaring example people’s disenchantment with violence indulged by ULFA was when the people did not respond to the bandh call given by the underground outfit in protest against Operation All Clear launched by Royal Bhutan Army. Moreover, close relatives of ULFA leaders have also put pressure on them to shun the path of violence. Besides, a peace wave is sweeping the North-East at present. There is peace in Nagaland as both the major underground Naga factions have entered in to ceasefire agreements with the Centre. Bodo Accord was signed. NDFB, which like ULFA opposed negotiated settlement for long, has also joined the peace process. ULFA was the only major group barring ATTF in Tripura, which kept itself from any such move. The observers believe that ULFA could not withstand the pressure of joining the peace process.
But it is just the beginning. There is still a long way to go to make peace permanent in Assam. That is why, though everyone is optimistic, no one is ready to lower the guards. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said that he was ready to contribute to the efforts to bring peace in Assam. “It is a very positive sign. We welcome the move and would provide all assistance to the Centre in its efforts for peace,” “We have been requesting the Centre for long to hold talks with the ULFA. Since the outfit has now showed its interest for dialogue, we are hopeful,” said Mr. Gogoi. But Mr. Gogoi is not inclined to declare ceasefire in the state and merely commented: “Let them talk first”.
Assam Director General of Police P V Sumant said that ‘There would be no laxity on our part,’’ The DGP said so far there had been no ceasefire agreement with the ULFA and therefore the question of halting operation did not arise. He, however, clarified that security forces would abide by the ceasefire agreement, already reached with other militant groups of the region. ‘’But we must also appreciate the fact that there is positive beginning and we all should hope peace will prevail in Assam,’’ Mr. Sumant said.
In all, the situation is ripe to bring back Assam to normalcy. But the path is not easy. There are still many hurdles. Both the sides will have to show enough maturity. After all, peace doesn’t come without a price.
What they say
Three members of Peoples’ Consultative Group spoke to NENA about the task ahead.
North East News Agency: What will be the main objective of PCG
Lachit Bordoloi: Our primary task will be to remove all hurdles for the dialogue process to materialize between ULFA and the Centre. We want to reduce the differences between both parties.
NENA: How will you approach ULFA’s demand of sovereignty?
L. B.: Government of India should listen to ULFA – why the organization demands sovereignty. There is no harm in this. The question of conceding the demand or not does not arise at this juncture.
NENA: What is the general reaction to the decision of involving civil society?
L. B.: As far as I know both the Central and State Governments have welcomed the move. You can see that congratulatory messages are pouring inform all quarters urging us to do our best to prepare the ground for talks. This is a path breaking move.
NENA: Will you ask for the release of ULFA leaders who are in jail?
L. B.: Definitely. Otherwise I do not think talks with ULFA will materialise.
NENA: Will you adopt the same model which the Naga leaders have adopted in its talks with the Centre?
L. B.: We will not follow or be guided by any model. We will adopt our own model and create our own strategy. For the time being you are seeing a new model – the involvement of the civil society to lay the ground for talks. I can say that to make things happen, we are ready to go to any extent.
NENA: Is it a fact that recent reverses faced by ULFA in foreign soil and counter insurgency operations in Assam, have forced the outfit to come to the negotiation table?
L. B.: Those who think on this line are terribly wrong.
North East News Agency: What is your reaction to the latest ULFA move?
Hiranya Saikia: It is a welcome move. But it has not come as any surprise. Paresh Barua has been serious about talks and he had already expressed his desire to involve the civil society in the process. I do not know whether people remember or not in an interview with Assam Tribune Paresh Barua clearly stated that any decision will be taken in future taking the people in to confidence.
NENA: How will you approach the sovereignty issue?
H. S.: There should not be any hurdle to discuss the issue of sovereignty. In the 25 years of struggle of ULFA, more than 6000 people of Assam have lost their life. A mere discussion on sovereignty is too small a price for it. Moreover, why is the Government of India so alarmed to discuss sovereignty? Discussing a particular does not mean that you are conceding it. It is only through discussion ways and means can be found. Many alternative forms and arrangements can also be discussed.
NENA: Naga peace process is going on for eight years now. How much time do you require to arrive at an understanding?
H. S.:HNaga problem is complex and totally different. No parallels can be drawn between these two movements. With sincerity from both sides, I don’t see why a solution cannot be found at the earliest.
North East News Agency: What is your reaction to the latest developments?
Rebati Phukan: I am quite hopeful. Government of India appears to be serious in its approach and sincere about finding a solution.
NENA: What would be your role?
R. P.: My duty will be to maintain a healthy relation between both the parties during negotiations.
NENA: What are your views on sovereignty issue?
R. P.: Holding discussion on the topic will only simplify the matter. Through deliberations it will come out what kind of sovereignty ULFA is demanding. Discussions will lead to better understanding.
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