The 12 July 2011 unilateral ceasefire declaration by the ULFA’s pro-talk faction and the clarification issued by the outfit on 23 July that sovereignty for Assam is not in their charter of demands, are welcome developments for the state, which has struggled to break free from the cycle of violence for many years. Although an immediate halt to violence is certainly not on the cards, the consolidation of peace would certainly depend on the direction of negotiations between New Delhi and the ULFA leaders, due to begin in August.
ULFA’s anti-talk faction led by the group’s Commander in Chief Paresh Baruah still has over 100 cadres. This faction remains opposed to any form of dialogue with the government. Incidentally, the declaration of the ceasefire by the pro-talk ULFA faction on 12 July corresponded with a separate declaration by the anti-talk faction appointing Drishti Rajkhowa as the chief collector of the extortion amount in the districts of Goalpara, Dhubri, Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar.
In the subsequent days, this faction has appointed an Assistant Foreign Secretary, Dr Pranmay Asom, who on 24 July released a press statement urging the indigenous people of Assam, to come forward and help the organization in its fight to retain the sovereignty of Assam. The negative posturing of the Paresh Baruah faction on the peace talks is clear.
This unveils two contrasting realities for Assam. On one hand, the pro-talks faction with be engaged with a process of dialogue with New Delhi and secondly, the state will have to brace for occasional acts of violence and extortion activities, not only by the anti-talk faction of the ULFA, but also by other groups including the splinter faction of the NDFB. According to media reports, this faction of the Bodo group has set up few camps in the Chin region of Myanmar.
In short, while for the majority of the armed factions in Assam, peace negotiations has emerged as an effective tool for ending the decades long conflict, for the miniscule rest, violence continues to remain the language of dissent articulation. In this context, two things assume critical importance. The peace talks must begin without much delay, thereby assuring the pro-talk faction the government sincerity in settling the issue peacefully and also, legitimizing the pro-talk group as the genuine ULFA faction. And at the same time, security force operations against the anti-talk faction must continue with right earnest, to marginalise those who are opposed to peace.
Talks for Peace
I had argued in my previous article (Conflict Transformation in Assam – Lessons and New Challenges) that it would be prudent for the government to talk to all the outfits, who have opted for peace together, rather than holding separate talks with individual outfits. Irrespective of the different demands of the outfits and the distinct constituencies they represent, the sole agenda for the peace talks should be directed at development of Assam and removal of the bottlenecks that has prevented such a scenario so far. Improvement of governance is a critical requirement for Assam and once that issue is addressed, much of the raison d’etre for the armed outfits would disappear.
Some indications to the exact contents of the charter of demands prepared by the ULFA pro-talk faction are available. The group, which has received suggestions from the citizen groups, is possibly asking for more autonomy provisions for Assam through a constitutional amendment, strengthening of the state’s power to control revenue generation from natural resources, to plan and process the use of natural resources and accelerate balanced development. Other areas like inter-state border problems, managing the Indo-Bangladesh borders and a framework to manage ethnic/inter and intra tribal conflicts may also be in the charter of demands.
Some of these demands are genuine and can be fulfilled by effecting changes in the way Assam governs its people. Some other areas like the Indo-Bangladesh border issues are already on the radar of New Delhi. With a friendly regime in Dhaka, New Delhi’s job has become much easier. However, there is a need to focus on the issues like migration more seriously.
Peace negotiation is not an end in itself, rather a means to establish durable peace. During the heights of insurgency, the government had argued that it must be able to talk from a position of strength. That condition has been fulfilled by the declaration of unilateral ceasefire by the ULFA faction and other outfits. Nothing should now prevent the government from addressing the genuine grievances of the outfits.
It is also critical for the talks conclude within a fixed timeframe and is not allowed to have an indefinite life span. A situation like Nagaland, where New Delhi is negotiating with the NSCN-IM for 14 years and the NSCN-K for 10 years, must not be allowed to occur. Laxity in implementing the ceasefire ground rules, has allowed the IM faction to establish a parallel government, tax collection and arm smuggling network. The IM faction obviously is not in a hurry to conclude the dialogue as long as it maintains its paraphernalia in New Delhi with several additional pecuniary benefits. Similarly, after the split in the Khaplang group, now two factions are vying for legitimacy from the government. New Delhi certainly would not like the mess of Nagaland to be replicated in Assam.
It is also important that New Delhi assumes the role of a benefactor and not one of vanquisher in dealing with the outfits. The peace process must be used as an instrument of conflict resolution, a tool to send messages to the fence sitters and potential insurgents. Demands that are genuine must be granted and no ambivalence must be demonstrated in rejecting unreasonable demands. The temptations to improve governance in the state through overdoses of autonomy needs to be avoided. The wretched state of the autonomous district councils in Assam is a ready pointer towards insincere implementation of the autonomy provisions.
Continuation of Operations
The resumption of the peace dialogue with the pro-talk ULFA faction and other groups can not take care of the existing problem of insurgency/militancy in Assam, perpetrated albeit by much smaller factions and groups. Sincerity of the government to resolve the conflict through a process of dialogue must not dilute the resolve of the security force operations. It is important that such operations continue to weaken the military power of the outfits, which provides them access to money collected through extortion.
The 10 July explosion that derailed derailment of the Guwahati-Puri Express train injuring over 100 passengers is a reminder of the nuisance value of the peripheral outfits in the state. The Adivasi People’s Army (APA), which claimed responsibility for the blast, later on expressed its desire for peace talks. The APA in June 2011 had made another abortive bid to trigger an explosion inside the Kanchenjunga Express. The bomb, packed in a tiffin box, was seized by railway police when the train arrived at Guwahati station from Sealdah. It is necessary to marginalise such groups through security force operations.
Any opportunistic engagement in the peace talks by outfits, just to garner benefits of the surrender and rehabilitation programme, needs to be resisted. It won’t be a bad idea for the government to declare a cut off date for the Paresh Baruah faction to join the peace process or else face permanent exclusion.
Examples of the fragility of peace imposed through agreements are not rare. Peace can be sustained only when ordinary people develop a stake in them and become a part of the mechanism for maintaining them. The peace talks provide an excellent opportunity for the Assam government to set up and strengthen peace and development groups in various districts of Assam. These groups need to be encouraged to not just organise public events to spread the messages of peace and development, but also to work towards maintaining peace in their areas. The dawn of peace must not be taken for granted.
At the same time, the police department too should strengthen its presence in the previously insurgency affected regions. It must expand, develop and strengthen its intelligence network in all districts, which will not only augment its capacities hedging against the possibility of return of violence. Funds available for police modernization need to be spent judiciously to create a new generation police force that can deal with any eventuality without help from the central forces.
Many lives have been lost, much blood has been spilled and lots of hard work has gone into ensuring the return of peace to Assam. No efforts must be spared to make it durable. And no body, who is attempting to disrupt it, should be spared.
Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is an independent analyst based in Singapore and has previously been Deputy Director, India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). Currently, he is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi and a Fellow (Counter-Insurgency Studies) at the Takshashila Institution. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @BibhuRoutray.