And how to stamp it out
The sequence should be familiar by now. The Indian Army nearly breaks ULFA’s back causing it to be amenable to talks to the Indian government. A ceasefire ensues, during which ULFA regroups. And then it goes back to its old murderous ways, breaks off negotiations, and the Army is called out to renew its counter-insurgency operations. Recent bombings in several places in Assam and Paresh Barua’s open threats to leading journalists are manifestations of the beginning (or the end) of another turn in this cycle, as the government attempts to continue negotiations even as an emboldened ULFA senses an opportunity to press its case using violence.
Let there be no mistake — counter-insurgency is a politico-military game and a military victory must be followed by a political consolidation. The trick lies in correctly estimating when the security situation has turned sufficiently in the state’s favour to attempt a political endgame. Do it too early, and the terrorists will return. Do it too late and popular disaffection worsens. That most of ULFA’s top leaders are conveniently based in Bangladesh, out of reach of the Indian armed forces, skews the game in favour of the terrorists. Paresh Baruah (or Zaman Bhai, as he is known in Bangladesh) and his colleagues remain free to send a new generation of young men to Pakistan to be trained as terrorists.
After several attempts over the last 15 years, it stands to reason now that the political phase of counter-insurgency cannot even properly begin until the ULFA leadership stays out of reach. Attempts at compelling Bangladesh to extradite or hand over Paresh Baruah and Arabinda Rajkhowa have not borne fruit. The Indian government has either failed to or not attempted to liquidate them on foreign soil. The question of their handover has become a shuttlecock in relations with Bangladesh. At the current rate, Baruah and Rajkhowa seem set to live out their lives across the border, continuing to inspire and lead the low-intensity armed conflict in Assam.
Well, India can wait it out — and hope that a growing economy will create conditions that will make terrorism unattractive. However, even if this approach were to succeed, it will not be before many more people die.
But there is another way to ensure Baruah and Rajkhowa are in India during ceasefire and negotiations. And that is for the Indian government to ask them to come. The next time the Indian government considers further negotiations, it must make them contingent on the ULFA leadership’s return to India, even if this means offering a moratorium on all criminal cases pending against them. Such a measure may upset the state’s political equations, but may well be what is needed to close a long and terrible chapter in its history. And who said peace can be had without leadership? A truth and reconciliation process is desirable, and may even be inevitable. The duration of the moratorium can be linked to the renunciation of violence.
ULFA’s leaders cannot reject such an offer without losing what little popular support they enjoy. If they do, it is they who will lose the best deal they can ever get, while India will lose little. For it can wait it out as usual.