By invitation: Peace comes to Assam?

Betweeen Sheikh Hasina’s gift and the need to neutralise the recalcitrant faction in Myanmar

by Bibhu Prasad Routray

There is expected hype in Assam regarding the proposed 10 February round of talks between New Delhi and a faction of the militant outfit United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). At the same time, however, there is a terrible sense of unease with the actual delivery capacities of the negotiation process to what is being euphorically described as the ‘outbreak of peace in Assam’.

Cadre strength of ULFA, born in 1979, has continuously declined since the December 2003 offensive by Bhutan, where the outfit had maintained sizeable presence. The outfit lost half of its 1500 cadres and several important leaders to arrests, disappearances during and subsequent to the month-long military maneuvers. In 2008, two potent companies of ULFA’s main fighting arm, the 28th battalion based in Myanmar, came overground complaining of the divide between the ULFA top ranks and the field based cadres. Even though rest of the cadres and leaders, mostly based in the safe houses in Bangladesh, sat tight and vowed to continue with their three-decade long armed struggle, arrests of several of its top leaders in Dhaka provided the turning point.

By all means, the present development is a gift from the government in Dhaka. Since she came to power, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has delivered consistently on her promises of not allowing the territory of Bangladesh to be used for anti-India activities. Even in the face of little reciprocation from the Indian side, Bangladesh has arrested and handed over several ULFA top leaders—including the outfit’s chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Raju Barua and ‘foreign secretary’ Sashadhar Choudhury—to India. It is this gesture, and certainly not the military operations by the army, para-military and police combine in Assam, that has broken the back of the outfit and led to the creation of a sizeable section of pro-talks leaders within the outfit.

A lot has been commented upon ULFA now agreeing to an unconditional round of talks with the government by giving up its key demand of sovereignty for Assam. However, such a stance has not emerged out of a change of heart among the pro-talk ULFA leaders, but rather is a compulsion imposed by the possibility of their prolonged incarceration. This is Mr Rajkhowa’s second hobnobbing with the peace process. In the early 1990s, he disappeared after a round of talks in New Delhi. This time, however, he and his accomplices have nowhere to run to. At the same time, a façade of negotiations and its associated paraphernalia— frequent trips to New Delhi, money bags, furnished office space in the Assam capital—is much more than the elderly ULFA leaders can bargain for.

In a politically charged and divided Assam, ahead of the May 2011 elections to the state Legislative Assembly, the initiation of talks with the ULFA will add to the list of ‘achievements’ by the incumbent Congress party and would possibly translate into popular support it badly needs while being pitted against a united opposition. To facilitate Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s return to power for the third successive time, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) appears amenable to contradict its own stand of not negotiating with factions of militant groups.

Paresh Barua, ULFA’s commander-in-chief, is believed to be in Myanmar leading a gang of 100 odd cadres. He remains opposed to the talks and continues to issue periodic statements to the media vowing reprisal attacks. Mr Barua is accompanied by a number of senior leaders like Jiban Moran and Bijoy Chinese and retains the ability to create nuisance. It is the neutralisation of this group and not the present peace talks, which would hold key to peace in Assam in times to come.

Bibhu Prasad Routray, a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, is currently a visiting research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.