Conflict Transformation in Assam – Lessons and New Challenges

Assam is experiencing relative peace after decades. Although incidents like the recovery of an IED from a train in the Guwahati railway station on 17 June is a stark reminder of  some of the existing problems, the State can certainly boast of having left a violent past behind. The peace talks with the ULFA, scheduled to start in July, if handled carefully, can go a long way in establishing durable peace in this previously turbulent State.

Since 2010 insurgent violence has consistently declined in Assam. The State which recorded 437, 370 and 391 deaths in 2007, 2008 and 2009 respectively, suddenly witnessed the fatalities reducing to just 158 in 2010. Compared to 664 civilian deaths in previous three years, with an average of 221 per year, only 48 civilians were killed in 2010. The same trend has continued in the fist six months of 2011. Fatalities figures have plummeted further to a manageable 42 (till 12 June) including those of six civilians. Inter alia, the data indicates a drastic reduction in insurgent capacities to carry out violence leading to deaths among the civilian population.

The conflict transformation in Assam imparts few important lessons and it is critical to take note of them.

(i) The conflict resolution mechanism does not have to necessarily follow the usual mix of ‘security force operations, peace talks and involvement of the civil society’- formula to be successful. Peace can come about, rather quickly, with the cooperation of the neighbouring countries, housing the insurgents.
(ii) Most insurgent formations, in spite of their longevity, have remained leadership centric, without a succession formula. This makes the weakening of the outfits a near certainty in the event of neutralisation of the top leadership.
(iii) This process, however, may not mark the death of the movements. The surviving and recalcitrant members may continue with their violent campaign. The State, thus, must have an action plan to manage peace as well as the violence by the remnants of the insurgent outfits.

For the sake of objectivity, it would be appropriate to examine and explain these assumptions.

Beyond the Usual Formula

Unlike Punjab, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh, where a counter-insurgency strategy scripted on the ‘centrality of police action backed by the central forces’– formula, led to a systematic downfall of the insurgent/extremist movements, in Assam, the role of the security forces in bringing the insurgent violence to an end was rather limited. Despite the decades-long presence and operations by the State police, Central forces and the Army, cooperation by Bangladesh and Bhutan were the deciding factors behind the fall of the major insurgent formations like the ULFA and the NDFB.

While the December 2003 military operations in Bhutan almost decimated the NDFB and significantly weakened the ULFA, the decision of the Bangladeshi Awami League (AL) government to turn over several top ULFA leaders nearly pushed the outfit to the brink. Without these gestures, it would have been almost impossible to imagine the emergence of Pro-Talk factions within the ULFA and the NDFB. Two companies of the ULFA’s 28th battalion had come over ground prior to Dhaka’s pro-India gesture. However, till the handover of ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa in December 2009, the prospect of effective negotiation with the outfit remained rather bleak. The limitations of the security force operations in Assam are further evident from the inability of the forces to manage the violent activity of the anti-talk factions of both the outfits, even though these are mere fractions of their parent formations.

Normally, a lot of significance is attached to the role of the civil society organisations in peace making. These organisations often are credited with creating the conditions for resumption of the peace process. Assam’s experience in this front has been rather different, primarily because such organisations or personalities neither enjoyed credibility in the Assamese society, nor were their ‘independent’ role was acceptable to either parties in conflict- the State or insurgents. That remained the primary reason why many such endeavours failed after getting a head start.

At the hindsight, however, the failure of such civil society efforts appears to be blessing in disguise. Hypothetically speaking, what would have happened had the government decided to continue its dialogue with the 11-member People’s Consultative Group (PCG) beyond the fruitless two rounds of talks, held in 2005? What if writer Indira Goswami had been able to convince New Delhi that PCG represents the Assamese aspirations and for the sake of peace, continuing the dialogue process is a wise option? In the course of time, ULFA would have possibly come over-ground. However, certainly not in the weakened form in which it exists today, but with a license similar to the one with the NSCN-IM in Nagaland to extort, abduct, kill and try running a parallel government.

Target the Leadership

Security analysts often point at the growing corporatisation among the insurgent movements. While insurgent outfits and the corporate houses may be analogous in some characteristics, what distinguishes the two is the lack of a well-defined succession formula. Leadership not only remains central to the insurgent organisations, it is marked by an element of obduracy. While this provides an advantage to the insurgencies as far as their routine activities are concerned, the sudden neutralisation of the top leadership creates an almost irreparable void.

The problem of Assam still having to deal with violent intentions of an Anti-Talk faction of the ULFA is primarily rooted in its failure to neutralise Paresh Barua, around whom the outfit’s terror campaign revolved. The situation would have been completely different had the Bangladeshis succeeded in turning over Paresh Barua to India, rather than Arabinda Rajkhowa. Would the ULFA chairman have the capacity and inclination to carry on fighting, leading an Anti-Talk faction like Paresh Barua? The answer is negative. Even in the case of NDFB, till its chief Ranjan Daimary operated with freedom in Dhaka, the Anti-Talk faction of the NDFB retained significant nuisance value. It even went on to organise one of most serious terrorist attacks in Assam’s history.

As a matter of principle, bulk of the counter-insurgency operations, thus, need to focus more on neutralising the leadership who are responsible for the violent operations of the outfits. This minimises the need for massive deployment of security forces in conflict theatres. This also curtails the possibilities of the security forces indulging in human rights violations, even if accidentally.

Changing Nature of Conflict

It is no longer business as usual in Assam. To deal with ULFA’s anti-talk faction, with a cadre strength of less than 100, an intelligence based effort is required. The State must be prepared for occasional acts of sabotage. However, with precise efforts, this outfit can be weakened and decimated.

At the same time, some progress in the peace talks would be crucial. There is very little that the government can offer to the Arabinda Rajkhowa-led group, during the peace talks starting this July. The inclination of this group to negotiate with the government did not emerge out of a change of heart, but rather was a compulsion imposed by the possibility of their prolonged incarceration. In the early 1990s, Rajkhowa had disappeared after a round of talks in New Delhi. This time, however, he has nowhere to run to.

However, there is no harm in New Delhi displaying magnanimity and an overwhelming element of sincerity to end insurgencies politically. Even when it can not and should not provide any political largesse to the ULFA faction, it can certainly adopt measures for the economic benefit and better governance of the State of Assam. Some success in the talks would be also necessary to force the Paresh Barua group to join the peace process, or become irrelevant. Moreover, a successful culmination of the peace process would also send signals to the other insurgencies in the region and beyond that rebellions do not have to be armed and violent to be successful. Towards that extent, a comprehensive process of dialogue with all the insurgent movements in Assam presently under ceasefire, rather than separate ones with individual outfits, would not be a bad idea.

Arabinda RajkhowaArmyAssamBangladeshBaruahBHUTANBibhu Prasad RoutrayCounter InsurgencyIndiaIndian ArmyInsurgencyNDFBParesh BaruahRajkhowaRanjan DaimaryTerrorismULFA