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Peace in Assam

Ulfa's U-turn


CHANGE IN THE AIR? Ulfa president Arabinda Rajkhowa (centre) with other leaders of the outfit just before a meeting with Chidambaram

Chances of peace in Assam have brightened after Ulfa leader Arabinda Rajkhowa led a delegation to New Delhi for talks. Given the new mood, analysts believe that hardliner Paresh Barua may find it difficult to scuttle the negotiations this time from his hideout in Myanmar.

For Ulfa leader Arabinda Rajkhowa, the 32-year struggle for "sovereign" Assam ended in November 2009 when he was arrested by Sheikh Hasina's government in Bangladesh and handed over to the Indian authorities. After that, it was an inevitable journey to the negotiating table and this summer the once-dreaded insurgent led a delegation of Ulfa militants to New Delhi to set the ball rolling for peace talks.

If the prospect for peace looks brighter today than in 1991, when the Narasimha Rao government unsuccessfully tried to engage Ulfa in a dialogue, it's because the scenario, both domestically and internationally, has changed completely. After it was beaten back by the Indian Army's Operation Bajrang and Operation Rhino in 1990 and 1991 respectively, Ulfa was forced to regroup outside the country. It sought shelter in places like Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Over the years, even these countries have ceased to provide shelter. The Royal Bhutan Army's Operation All Clear in 2003 drove Ulfa out of this tiny mountainous country. Then, with Sheikh Hasina back in power in Dhaka in 2009, Bangladesh was no longer a safe sanctuary. Rajkhowa is not the only one she had arrested. Another prominent militant, Anup Chetia, is also behind bars in that country and during his recent visit to Dhaka Union home minister P Chidambaram initiated the process of getting him back to India.

The mood within Assam is also different. The re-election of Congress leader Tarun Gogoi for a third consecutive term is a signal that the people of Assam are tired of violence and want a solution to over two decades of insurgency. Gogoi had made peace talks with Ulfa a major poll plank.

Third, chief hardliner, Paresh Barua, who managed to scuttle the talks in 1991, appears to be in a minority this time with a large section of the Ulfa leadership throwing its weight behind Rajkhowa's peace moves. Barua is currently hiding somewhere in the jungles of Myanmar with a small band of 100-odd guerillas.

Rajkhowa has the support of the majority of Ulfa's central executive committee members including vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi, political adviser Bhimkanta Buragohain, foreign secretary Sashadhar Choudhury, deputy military chief Raju Baruah, finance secretary Chitrabon Hazarika, cultural secretary Pranati Deka and central publicity secretary Mithinga Daimary. Rajkhowa submitted their charter of demands to Chidambaram in Gogoi's presence.

Although Barua's supporters have slammed Rajkhowa and his doves for climbing down from Ulfa's core demand of a "sovereign" Assam and termed their decision to enter into dialogue with New Delhi a "sellout", Sashadhar Choudhury hotly denies the charges. He argues that the demand for sovereignty has not been dropped even if it has been redefined. "Sovereignty does not mean secession from India, " he says. "We simply want to ensure that the people of Assam can assert their inalienable rights and control over their land and resources. "

Rajkhowa was quoted recently saying that the safety and existence of Assam are well taken care of in their charter of demands. It remains to be seen how much forward movement there is. Human rights activist and AGP leader Lachit Bordoloi felt that it was in the interest of the Ulfa leadership to push for success. "The charter of demands deals with basic issues like the rights of indigenous people and their land. We are hopeful. But Ulfa must ensure that any agreement is implemented in full, unlike previous accords. And, the talks should not drag on like the one with (Naga insurgent group) NSCN-IM, " he emphasised.

But there are others who feel that the charter of demands is too weak coming as it does from a group that has led a long and violent struggle in Assam. People's Consultative Group (PCG) member Hiranya Saikia felt that the demands should have included provisions for alternative arrangements like a separate constitution for Assam, a separate parliament and a separate flag for the state. He said that these are symbols of sovereignty. "If Kashmir can enjoy special status under article 370 and Nagaland benefits from article 371, why can't Assam be given special status?" he asked.

With differences sharpening between Rajkhowa and Barua, many are waiting to see who the other important Ulfa leader, Anup Chetia, decides to back. He was arrested in Dhaka for possession of false passports and is currently fighting a legal case for asylum in that country. However, the Indian government is hopeful of extraditing him. Rajkhowa too is keen that he comes back and joins the talks. He said he needs Chetia to be part of the peace process.

Former Assam DGP GM Srivastava is optimistic. He feels Barua will not be able to make any impact now that the peace process has begun. Spokesperson for the hardliners Arunodoy Duhotia has rejected the peace talks saying Rajkhowa and other central executive committee members are in government's custody and their decisions violate Ulfa's constitution. He said a charter of demands without mention of sovereignty for Assam can't safeguard people's rights. Sashdhar Choudhury remains hopeful that Barua will come to the negotiating table one day. But whether Barua actually wants peace is a milliondollar question. In 2005, Ulfa under his initiative formed an 11-member People's Consultative Group headed by noted Assamese writer Indira Goswami to talk on its behalf with the Centre.

The talks broke down in 2006 after Barua insisted on making "sovereignty" the core issue of any discussion while the Centre wanted the talks to be within the framework of the Indian Constitution. Later, some Ulfa leaders revealed that Barua's move was aimed at buying time to save his guerrillas from falling victim to an Army operation in Tinsukia district.

Strategists in Assam believe that the Centre's gameplan is to push Ulfa's political face forward and give it prominence over the hardline militant leadership represented by Barua. They feel that this will isolate Barua completely leaving him with just a few armed men. "An insurgency without a political face cannot sustain in the long run, " commented an analyst.

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