In August, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs welcomed seven top leaders of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). In a meeting with Home Minister P Chidambaram in Delhi, the ULFA delegation submitted a ‘framework’ for negotiations to resolve ‘the issues between Assam and India’. The document calls for an honourable, meaningful and peaceful resolution of those issues. ULFA’s platform of restoring Assam’s sovereignty – which until recently it had regarded as non-negotiable – was now replaced by a call for ‘a fresh look at the issues of sovereignty, so as to ensure that the people of Assam can assert their inalienable rights to control their land and their resources therein.’ In meetings with the press, these leaders have since been speaking of constitutional change and constitutional safeguards to protect the rights and identity of the people of Assam. Press reports quoted the home minister assuring the leaders that there is no ‘problem which cannot be solved within the framework of the Constitution’. The meeting has set the stage for formal peace negotiations to begin between ULFA and the Indian government.
By all indications, the rebels’ delegation, led by Chairman Rajib Rajkonwar (better known by his nom de guerre, Arabinda Rajkhowa), represents the prevailing majority view of ULFA. However, the chief of ULFA’s military wing, Paresh Barua, who has eluded capture and is reported to be in Burma, has not been party to the decision-making that led to the meeting at the Home Ministry. While there has been much talk about his opposition to the course chosen by Chairman Rajkonwar and his colleagues, they have downplayed speculations of a split.
Not many could have predicted these developments. In recent years, ULFA’s political appeal, military strength and public image had all taken a beating, but there was no indication that the group was about to respond by moderating its stance vis-à-vis its avowed goal of a sovereign Assam. The last effort to achieve a negotiated peace – in 2005, when the People’s Consultative Group, a citizens body constituted by ULFA, met Indian government leaders – collapsed amidst mutual recriminations. The government was unwilling to suspend counterinsurgency operations, and important officials were disdainful of the very notion of talks with ULFA. At the same time because of its complicity in well-publicised acts of gruesome violence against civilians, the public support that ULFA once enjoyed has been eroding. There have been major defections from ULFA: two companies of an ULFA battalion declared a ‘unilateral ceasefire’ in June 2008 and many cadres surrendered to government authorities.
How, then, did things turn around as to make possible a meeting between the ULFA leadership and the home minister, with the promise of substantive negotiations towards an honourable settlement?
The key development occurred not in Assam but in Bangladesh. Following a landslide electoral victory in December 2008, the Awami League government headed by Sheikh Hasina made a decision to improve the country’s ties with India. It reversed previous official policy to tolerate and host ULFA and other rebel groups from the Indian Northeast in Bangladeshi territory, and began to actively cooperate with Indian security agencies. Within months, key ULFA leaders began to be ‘picked up’ by Bangladeshi authorities and ‘pushed’ into India – a formulation designed to circumvent potential legal wrangling over transferring them to Indian custody, since the two countries do not have an extradition treaty.
The return of ULFA leaders to Assam – albeit in custody – some of whom had been away from their homes for decades, attracted significant public attention. There was curiosity about these men, who for years had spoken only through press statements issued from mysterious remote locations. A highly competitive and energetic local media, especially hyperactive 24/7 television channels, was happy to step up to the plate.
On occasions such as their indictments in court and, later, during hearings on their bail petitions, large crowds, including family members and sympathisers, gathered around the court buildings. Thanks to the multiplier effect of intense media coverage, those scenes quickly turned into political theatre. The release of these leaders from prison became significant public events, with the display of the flags of the banned organisation and slogans such as Long live ULFA. Motorcades escorted the leaders to their homes, with welcoming ceremonies at multiple stops – symbolic events usually associated with major public figures.
But despite such theatrics, the level of ULFA’s public support should not be exaggerated. There was significant criticism locally of the receptions accorded to the ULFA leaders. ‘Is there any valid reason to glorify ULFA which was responsible for the killing of so many innocent lives in the past 30 years,’ asked Akashitora, an Assamese television personality whose journalist father was killed by ULFA during the 1990s. ‘They are talking about their colleagues killed or missing; what about the hundreds killed by ULFA?’ she asked.
Clearly, the violence endured by the people since ULFA’s formation in 1979 – including acts committed by the group and other militant organisations that appeared since then, as well as by the security forces – had significantly fed into the public mood, and affected the perceptions of ULFA. Some people affected by the violence felt bold enough to organise themselves as the Terror Victims Family Forum, to demand a voice in the peace process. They raised hard issues of crime and punishment, implicitly questioning the morality of viewing ULFA’s violence as political rather than criminal, and critical of the government’s inclination to prioritise public order over justice. ULFA leaders expressed regret for ‘mistakes’ they had made and apologised for acts of violence. It is not clear, though, that friends and relatives of the victims were always ready to accept these apologies.
There are other criticisms of ULFA, as well. A prominent former rebel leader Sunil Nath – once known by his ULFA nom de guerre Siddhartha Phukan – who broke with the organisation as far back as 1992, said recently, ‘I am glad they have dropped the sovereignty demand,’ but asked whether the ULFA leaders shouldn’t ‘now honestly admit that the armed struggle of three decades was wrong?’ ULFA’s claim to speak on behalf of the people of Assam has also been contested. While ULFA may see itself an inclusive organisation – speaking for Assam and not far any particular ethnic constituency – it is doubtful that many people today perceive it that way. After all, the very idea of a shared project of regional patriotism is being challenged by ethnic militias speaking in the name of groups such as the Bodo, Dimasa and Karbi – traditional constituents of the Assamese national formation.
Nevertheless, the return of the ULFA leaders reinvigorated ongoing civil-society efforts to push for an end to the three-decade chapter of violence. In April 2010, a meeting in Guwahati, attended by representatives of many influential social and political organisations, and by widely respected Assamese public intellectuals, gave birth to the Sanmilita Jatiya Abhibartan (SJA, the United National Convention), committed to getting both the Indian government and ULFA to agree to unconditional and early talks. The organisers were emphatic about their neutrality vis-à-vis ULFA and the government. Some key members, notably its chief spokesman Hiren Gohain, are known critics of ULFA’s methods, but also have impeccable credentials in terms of a record of political independence and contribution to Assamese civic and intellectual life. The SJA has played a crucial role in subsequent developments.
There is little doubt that the Assam elections of April 2011 helped to speed up the peace process. Irrespective of the controversies around ULFA, one thing is relatively clear. The Indian security establishment’s view of ULFA as an absolute enemy – a criminal force that should be subjected to punitive action – has little resonance in Assam. Critics of ULFA in Assam mostly view it as a legitimate opponent, perhaps misguided, but certainly partisans of a just cause. This view places ULFA in a narrative of a long history of regional patriotism in tension with pan-Indianism. Despite its shortcomings, ULFA is seen as being ultimately tied to a legitimate assertion of the right to self-determination. As an idea, then, the rebel group has always been more powerful than its reality as a political or military organisation, a fact with which official New Delhi’s political bosses and bureaucrats have not quite been able to come to terms.
Given this context, peace in Assam – and how to achieve it – could not but become an important election issue. Successful Assamese politicians intuitively understand the power of ULFA as an idea. Assam’s Congress chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, has a political base is Upper Assam – the heartland of the ULFA insurgency – and his Tai-Ahom ethnic roots overlap with those of many top ULFA leaders. More than any other politician, he probably understands the political sensitivities involved in dealing with ULFA in response to its recent moves and the people’s desire for peace. Faced with an election in which the prospects of the incumbent Congress government were generally judged poor, Gogoi viewed these developments as an opportunity. Deciding to capitalise on the changed scenario, he helped to expedite the peace process by meeting with leaders of the SJA, and facilitated meetings between the jailed ULFA leaders and the SJA representatives. He persuaded the central government of the rationale of his approach, facilitated the release of the ULFA leaders on bail, and saw to it that symbolically important meetings between central leaders and the ULFA leadership took place at the right time.
As an incumbent chief minister of the same political party as that in power in New Delhi, Gogoi was in a good situation to play the role of facilitator. The party’s central leadership was not about to second-guess the chief minister’s political judgment, particularly at a time when the party’s electoral prospects in the rest of the country seemed poor, and in almost every part of the country regional equations were becoming more important than ever in shaping electoral outcomes. A brief meeting between the ULFA leadership and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in February 2011 – two months before the Assam elections – became an important symbolic moment. Gogoi’s calculations paid off handsomely: the Congress party and its electoral ally, the Bodoland Peoples Front, were re-elected to office for a third consecutive term, quite unlike the electoral fate of incumbent politicians in other parts of India.
Gogoi was of course helped by the opening provided by the SJA and its explicit commitment to early talks. The SJA drafted a framework for the negotiations between ULFA and the Indian government. ULFA adopted most of what the charter called for as the basis for negotiations, and that was the framework document that ULFA submitted to the Indian home minister in August.
Contain and control
The breathtaking speed with which ULFA accepted the SJA’s formulations surprised the rebel group’s friends and foes alike. Many are suspicious of the ULFA leaders’ motives. Academic Udayon Misra expressed astonishment that an organisation with a 32-year history of armed struggle would ‘invest a civil-society conglomerate made up of people with differing ideologies and viewpoints, with the authority to actually prepare a blueprint of its talks.’
It is no surprise that the sequence of events leading to the beginning of a peace process in Assam was to be triggered by the elections in Bangladesh, and the new government’s changed stance on ULFA camps located in its territory. The loss of a sanctuary has radically altered the dynamics of many insurgencies. What is surprising, however, is that a development that could have broken the back of ULFA would so quickly turn to what might seem to many as partial restoration of its political prestige and a fast-tracked peace process that has raised public expectations about a negotiated settlement. However, what has occurred thus far may not tell us much about the prospects for peace in Assam.
Comments made by Home Minister Chidambaram in May 2010 might put the Indian government’s approach in perspective. Referring to Sri Lanka’s military campaign against the LTTE, Chidambaram said that India would not take a similar approach, citing ethical and electoral considerations. While he did not elaborate on the former, on the latter he said, ‘governments have to survive and also get re-elected, and policymakers have to factor in all these before deciding on issues.’ Insurgency in Northeast India, he said, is ‘by and large … a problem that we can contain, control and resolve.’ His reference to electoral considerations nicely explains the decision made by the central government to go along with the Gogoi approach to ULFA. But if containment and control get priority over resolution, it is hard to see why the government would find serious engagement with the substantive issues raised by ULFA’s framework document to be the only way to achieve its goals.
A SJA statement describes the forum’s intervention as a ‘sober attempt to realise the content of “sovereignty” in a federal India’. If the peace process were to produce the kind of results that the SJA has in mind, says the statement, rather optimistically, ‘it is not unlikely that Assam may show a glimmer of a way out of the mess that ruthless overcentralisation has led to.’ One can hardly quarrel with these goals. But it is far from clear that the political logic that has moved the peace process thus far – mostly in terms of symbols rather than substance – can take things much further in the direction of serious constitutional reforms to renegotiate the social contract between India and Assam that is at the heart of the framework document.
For that to happen, it will be necessary to mobilise significantly more political capital at the pan-India level. The task of reconfiguring Indian federalism as it applies to Assam – changing the balance of power between the state and the central government – requires a more robust political mandate than what the task of containing and controlling insurgency entails. Until now, when it comes to devising political solutions to Northeast India’s insurgencies, the repertoire available to Indian bureaucrats and politicians has been limited to ethnic deal-making that creates political space for leaders of particular insurgent organisations with significant ethnic constituencies. Following a peace accord and, sometimes, just a ceasefire agreement, insurgent leaders are often able to retain their ill-gotten gains, their political clout and even some of their capacity to carry out violence – resources that under the new circumstances become available for electoral battles, and in the service of murky business activities. Insurgencies are inherently ambiguous processes: they are sustained by opportunism as well as idealism, human greed as well as real grievances. Because of that it is not hard to see why the insurgent camp, like the government, may also be tempted to look for shortcuts.
Sanjib Baruah is professor of political studies at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.