As leaders of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) met the Union Home Ministry today at New Delhi, the ground looks dirtier rather than clean, for the lateral talks much expected to bring peace and development.
The Pro-talk ULFA leaders, in the last few months, carried extensive rounds of public campaigns, including Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa’s visit to ailing singer Dr. Bhupen Hazarika promising him a peaceful solution to the insurgency by next year and visit the Merapani area at the Assam-Nagaland border, assuring locals to take up the issue of border conflict to the highest levels. It was clear enough that they were trying to gain maximum out of the initial overwhelming support and response of the public when their main leaders were released out of jail.
The silence of the pro-talk ULFA leaders – Avoiding controversy or New Delhi’s wrath
Right from the period when the ULFA leaders were released from Jail to facilitate the lateral talks with the center, it is seen that the leaders negotiating with the Union Government of India are trying to avoid any sort of controversy against them. Some would probably take it as learning which the outfit learned the hard way from the initial public controversy raised over the infamous syndicate issue. The syndicate issue arose when the commander of the 28th Battalion, Mrinal Hazarika declared that their cadres would run syndicates in a bid to bring the businesses in the state to the hands of indigenous people. This threatened to affect several profitable businesses including that of coal transportation and the media made a war of it, using it against the outfit. The fact that some of the newspaper owners of the state themselves engaged in such businesses and syndicates, made matters worse for the outfit. Finally, Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa had to intervene and clarify to pacify the issue. After this, it was silent all the way. The only controversy that kept pumping in for the ULFA peace-talkers, time and again, were its debates with the anti-talk Paresh Baruah led faction of the outfit, – all through press releases and statements.
During the last six months, Assam has witnessed one of the most disturbing periods with large democratic protests carried out across the state regarding different issues such as scrapping of the Mega dams at Subansiri Hydro Project, the infamous Indo-Bangla land transfer deal where the Government is alleged to have secretly given away Assam land to Bangladesh and demand of land rights for the indigenous people of the state. The agitations were supported by most democratic organizations of the state and attracted huge public support. More recently the agitation of the Jute cultivators and small-scale tea growers has also made their way to the list of conflicts.
However, the pro-talk ULFA leaders were seen as completely silent in all of these issues. The talk was only done by the hardliner Paresh Baruah faction, whose publicity commander Arunodoy Dohotiya sent regular press releases in support of each of these agitations, often accusing the INC Government with heated words and continuing to call for the complete liberation of Assam from Indian colonial rule.
The inkling was evident, – the pro-talk, leaders engaged in lateral talks would not comment or offer support to any agitations carried out against the Government as it would infuriate the center and lead to disturbance in the negotiations. The role, therefore, was taken over by the anti-talk faction.
The upper hand of New Delhi
The Union Government of India always waited and wanted to engage in negotiations with the ULFA with an upper hand, when the outfit was weak and no longer posed the threat it once did years ago. This was the main reason why the Indian Government decided not to continue its dialogue with the 11-member People’s Consultative Group (PCG) beyond the fruitless two rounds of talks, held in 2005. The outfit was stronger back then and not only the Indian Government would have had to bow down to the outfit’s demands, then, but ULFA it would have had a chance to keep its terms the way NSCN (IM) is in Nagaland, and possibly run a parallel government in Assam.
In the last 2 years, the outfit was weakened immensely with the arrest of almost all its main leaders and a friendly Sheikh Hasina led Awami League (AL) in Bangladesh helping her neighbor as much as possible to win scores of economic interests for her own country. With only Commander-in-Chief Paresh Baruah, few of his loyal commanders, and a handful of cadres left behind, the Government was convinced that talks could be initiated by the jailed leaders as they were bound to compromise on their earlier stand and ideology, least their conviction extend endlessly.
Things went as expected. The pro-talk, leaders gave away their demand for sovereignty in the name of public interest and instead demanded just a fresh look on the issue of sovereignty and high-level discussion on the root causes of their ULFA struggle. The rest of the demands center around protection and conservation of the ethnic people along with local culture and folklore, constitutional right on all economic and natural resources, check on illegal migration, improvement of education and health sectors, industrial development, boost to entrepreneurship, etc.
Almost all of these demands are pretty much genuine and the center would not mind, offering some of them to make an example for peace and conflict resolution in the much disturbed Northeast. While doing so, the Congress Government at the center as well as the state would have one big task in hand, – to continue to keep the ULFA leaders at bay by weakening them more gradually and thereby maintaining the upper hand.
The need to weaken ULFA more
The INC-led Government realizes the political vacuum created in the opposition side and is aware of the fact that the ULFA pro-talk members, post-signing an accord, would be able to do quite a bit of chest-thumping and thereby immerge as a potential and a strong contender for their party in next elections. They are also aware that the Arabinda Rajkhowa and Paresh Baruah factions probably exists only in the name due to the hype created by media and that in the next elections their party would no longer be offered the support from the outfit (ULFA’s support to a party has been an open-secret and deciding factor observed in all state elections in the last two decades) if their own people were to stand a chance for power.
As such, the INC-led Government would keep no stone unturned to weaken the pro-talk ULFA more and more, periodically. The first task would be to tie down the important middle-level leaders of the pro-talk faction so that the senior leaders lose their right hands of power and thereby lose their grip on the ground-level cadres. In due course of time, the plan can be to destroy the public image of the outfit by using the ground-level cadres to create a nuisance and indulge in unsocial acts or crime. In fact, some sources claim that an IGP level officer from Assam Police has already been entrusted with the task of putting reins on the middle-level leaders. The recent arrest of pro-talk ULFA leader Akash Thapa alias Saranga Patowari of 709 Battalion along with Captain Derhagra Sarania in west Khasi hills could be a part of the same game-plan. Mentionable that Akash Thapa alias Saranga Patowari was one of the most important middle-level leaders and a very close aide of 709 Battalion Commander Heera Sarania of the Pro-Talk Faction.
On the other hand, the recent revelations of some pro-talk ULFA cadres indulged in extortion and crimes such as the murder of businessmen are not going to help their leadership much. As stated in Times of Assam reports earlier, it is being believed that some pro-talk ULFA members are carrying out money-raising activities such as extortion and robbery by using third-party criminals so that the outfit does not face any direct allegations of public wrath. It is not possible that the senior leadership of the ULFA pro-talk faction as well as the Government is not aware of such secret ground realities and only coming days would reveal who the smarter of the two is. If the ULFA leadership fails to keep a check on their own cadres, there is no way the people of Assam would accept criminals as their rulers.
Thousands of lives have been lost and sleepless nights spent lakhs of people of the state due to terror by insurgents as well as insurgency tamers. If the current lateral talks is not handled well and become just political propaganda or debacle, it would only mean bigger problems. The Paresh Baruah faction, though weak in manpower and public support, is still at large and might just be able to revive the strong days of the outfit with Chinese help, if the current process fails. There are already media reports indicating that this faction has been able to hire a record number of youths this year, which does not look like a good sign for peace aspirants of the region.
Assam needs a permanent solution to the insurgency and that is possible only if the state Government and the outfit engage in an honest collaboration, using the lateral talk process as an opportunity for development. At the same time, the police department has to keep enough vigil on the law and order, ensuring that ULFA cadres or their sponsored agents do not run havoc, and at the same time, the policemen themselves are not made puppets by politicians with vested interests.