Assam is bleeding. In the first week of January, armed with Kalashnikovs and other weaponry, rebels of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) carried out a series of massacres across five districts of eastern Assam, killing 61 Hindi-speaking migrant workers. Close to 8000 of the survivors, most of them hailing from Bihar, have now been moved to about 50 government-run shelters for protection. There is panic, and quite a few of these seasonal migrants who work in dispersed brick kilns and dairy farms, or do odd jobs all over, have taken the train out of the state.
The ULFA, one of the Indian Northeast’s most potent insurgent groups, clearly wanted to sow terror in an attempt to force New Delhi to take it seriously. Hindi speakers, after all, are regarded by radical sections in Assam and elsewhere in the Northeast as symbols of the dominant political class ruling the country — hence, the deliberate targeting of Hindi speakers.
The timing of the attacks might be instructive: the tentative peace talks that began in September 2005 derailed exactly a year later, over preconditions set by both the rebels and the central government. The ULFA possibly wants the peace process resumed, but in terms favourable to it, and hence the need for some attention-grabbing violence in the run-up to Republic Day, 26 January. The ULFA, in fact, called a 17-hour general strike from one in the morning on 26 January to enforce its call for a boycott of India’s national day. The ULFA may also have wanted everyone to take seriously its call for a boycott of the upcoming National Games, India’s biggest sporting event. The games are to be hosted by Assam in Guwahati on 9-18 February.
The ULFA may indeed have achieved its immediate objective – that of making New Delhi sit up and take notice. Starting with the junior minister for home affairs, Sriprakash Jaiswal, government leaders have also been flocking to the sites of carnage, besides Guwahati. Those visiting Assam included Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, who himself hails from Bihar and has been its chief minister, Defence Minister A K Antony, and Indian Army Chief General J J Singh.
As expected, a massive joint operation with the army, police and paramilitary has been launched, adding teeth to the continuing counter-insurgency offensive in the state. Maj Gen N C Marwah, the Indian Army commander in charge of the operations in eastern Assam, told this writer that troops are being dropped from helicopters in remote and heavily wooded areas to pursue the elusive rebels. Four rebels had been killed in earlier operations, while several others, including a seven-member group trying to sneak into Burma through adjoining Nagaland, have been captured along with weaponry. With the government having responded to ULFA violence by raising the stakes, what Assam and the Northeast have in store for themselves in the immediate future is the question on everyone’s mind.
Sovereignty and socialism
It has been more than 16 years since the Indian government put the army, police and paramilitary on the ULFA’s tail. The counter-insurgency offensive first launched on the night of 27 November 1990, which was meant to rapidly neutralise the dreaded group, continues to this day. Over the years, the ULFA – formed in 1979 with the objective of achieving a “sovereign, Socialist Assam” – has established trans-border linkages, and the Indian security establishment has been openly talking of the group’s alleged patronage by authorities in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Indian authorities are convinced that the outfit’s top leaders operate out of Bangladesh, a charge Dhaka has consistently denied.
In December 2003, the ULFA’s largest base outside India, located in the jungles along southern Bhutan, was demolished, and up to 2000 fighters expelled by an India-supported Bhutani military assault. Today, the group is thought to have major jungle hideouts only in Burma’s Sagaing division. (Bhutani authorities, including Bhutan’s ambassador to India, Dago Tshering, have denied reports about rebels re-entering Bhutan, although Indian intelligence officials do say that the ULFA has been using places in Bhutan as temporary resting spots once again.) Statistics available from the Assam Police show that between 1991 and October 2006, the Indian security forces had killed 1128 ULFA cadres and captured 11,173. During the same period, 8465 militants surrendered before authorities. Despite these reverses, the ULFA continues to maintain its presence by striking at regular intervals. Unlike targeted assassinations in the past, the ULFA today does not hesitate to trigger off blasts using improvised explosive devices in public places. In early January, for instance, civilians were killed in four explosions set off in the heart of Guwahati.
Prodded by the state government in Guwahati, which maintained that a military solution would be difficult to achieve, New Delhi had agreed to search for a negotiated political settlement. On 7 September 2005, the rebels made the surprise announcement of setting up of a People’s Consultative Group (PCG) to prepare the ground for talks. The nine-member hand-picked team, comprising journalists, rights activists, lawyers and academics, was led by Indira Goswami, a celebrated Assamese writer and Delhi University professor, who was entrusted with the task of coordinating between the PCG and the Indian government. She was being assisted by Rebati Phukan, a childhood friend of the ULFA’s elusive boss, ‘Chief of Staff’ Paresh Barua. Phukan had also served as a go-between in a failed peace initiative in the early 1990s.
The PCG held three rounds of talks with the federal authorities in New Delhi, with the first meeting on 26 October 2005 being attended by Manmohan Singh himself. The second round was held on 7 February 2006, and the last one, on 22 June 2006, was attended by Home Minister Shivraj Patil. What did the PCG achieve in these three rounds of ‘exploratory talks’ with New Delhi?
- It was able to tell the government, from a position that had the sanction of the ULFA, that the rebel group was indeed serious about restoration of peace through an acceptable solution achieved through a dialogue process.
- It pressed for, and argued with the central government about the need to release the five imprisoned leaders, who are members of its 18-member decision-making Central Committee, so they could help prepare for direct ULFA-government.
- It encouraged the government to go for a temporary halt to military operations against the ULFA, which New Delhi did announce in August 2006.
What the PCG failed to achieve was to create conditions for a ceasefire between the ULFA and the government. As a result, violence by the ULFA and the government’s counter-insurgency responses – if not full-fledged ‘operations’ – continued even while the PCG-government talks went forward. According to the Assam Police, between September 2005 and June 2006 the militants had triggered as many as 52 blasts. During that period, more than 40 civilians were killed and 135 injured.
| Caption: Goswami
Talks break down
Why did the ULFA carry out violent activities even while indicating its willingness to resolve matters through talks? Security officials feel that the ULFA was buying time by talking of peace while engaged in regrouping and raising money through extortion. At the same time, the ULFA is known to demonstrate its strike potential from time to time, by way of making a point. A much more likely explanation as to the continuing acts of violence is that the hardliners, who may not necessarily be part of the ULFA top leadership, could be unwilling to join the peace bandwagon as yet. The ULFA, of course, denies that the group is divided over peace talks, and an independent assessment is not easy.
There are those in the Indian security establishment who ask whether the ULFA top brass even has the freedom to take independent decisions on starting a peace dialogue to resolve the 28-year-long insurrection in Assam. They ask the question because, in their assessment, the top ULFA leaders are based in Bangladesh and are under the ‘care and influence’ of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and its Bangladeshi equivalent, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI).
Significantly, the issue of ceasefire or no ceasefire was not what led to the stalemate, if not derailment, of the peace process in Assam. What were the reasons the peace process went off track?
- The government of India wanted the ULFA to formally name its negotiating team, while the insurgents responded that for this they needed the five Central Committee members freed.
- New Delhi then called for a firm commitment from the ULFA, in writing, that it was interested in talking peace with the government. The ULFA responded by asking New Delhi to give a written assurance that the group’s core issue of sovereignty would figure in the talks.
- The ULFA also insisted on information on the whereabouts of 14 of its members who had gone ‘missing’ after the 2003 Bhutani military operation.
- The army expressed its doubts publicly through a press statement about the ULFA’s intentions, even while the so-called truce was on, suggesting that the Centre was talking in different tongues.
Eventually, as the ULFA violence continued, New Delhi called off its unilateral decision of August 2006 to suspend counter-insurgency operations in Assam, and the security forces were once again put on the ULFA’s trail on 24 September.
As far as the blame for the return to conflict was concerned, the government bungled by not talking in one voice – the army’s expression of doubts over the peace process through a press statement was significant and unnecessary. The government was also ill-advised in sticking to its demand for a written assurance from the ULFA, because if the rebels had not been interested in peace they would not have set up the PCG in the first place. The government could also have set the five detained ULFA leaders free unilaterally, which would have required the ULFA to reciprocate meaningfully.
As for the PCG, it made the biggest blunder by formally announcing that it was withdrawing from the process of negotiations when the government resumed military operations in October. It gave the impression that it was nothing more than a group working under directions from the ULFA, without any relevance or role of its own.
The scenario in Assam, and the dynamics for the engagement between the ULFA, the state government and the Centre, changed dramatically after the early January killings. The ULFA-endorsed peace facilitator Indira Goswami has openly expressed her distress at the massacres, and Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has conceded that the ULFA used the six-week truce to regroup and refocus its strategy. The message coming out now from both the central and state authorities is that there can be no peace talks with the ULFA unless the group announces a halt to violence. This would only mean that the battle is poised to continue for some time, as such a rejection of violence cannot be expected from the insurgents at present.
Despite the depressing outlook, however, there are those who believe that the peace process can be revived and the stalemate broken if New Delhi were to extend a fresh invitation to the PCG for resumption of talks. If the PCG refuses to accept such an invitation, people like Indira Goswami or Rebati Phukan could be approached to act as facilitators in their individual capacities. The Centre would also be advised to appoint an interlocutor or a ‘Group of Ministers’ to exclusively deal with the ULFA issue. Simultaneously, the government could work out its own modalities for a ceasefire, publicise them, and ask the rebels to reciprocate. The five ULFA leaders could be released if the PCG or facilitators are able to confirm that such a move would lead to direct talks.
Assuming that the two sides agree to look beyond the killing of innocents and actually talk peace, what is it that the ULFA could settle for to bring the curtains down on its armed struggle? Everything hinges on the possibilities on that score. The Bodos, the Karbis or the Dimasas, all major ethnic groups in Assam, can perhaps still be given more autonomy. But can the majority Assamese of Assam also be given autonomy under a new constitutional arrangement? That would, firstly, beg the question of who is an ‘Assamese’, for if the Bodo, Karbi and Dimasa communities are also to be bracketed under the inclusive term ‘Assamese’ and regarded as part of the greater Assamese society – which they actually are – will a possible autonomy package also include them? Things are hazy to say the least, and arriving at acceptable solutions to these issues will be no easy task.
~ Wasbir Hussain is the director of the Centre for Development and Peace Studies Guwahati.