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Last Updated: 04/05/2010CONFLICT RESOLUTION IN ASSAM: IS ENDGAME NIGH?
Rupakjyoti Borah reviews the conflict in Assam, India in light of recent developments including the arrest of ULFA commanders. Although peace talks and other attempts to resolve the conflict have been less than successful in recent years, Borah reports that there is renewed optimism for peace in the region, provided that Assam's burning issues are addressed and political leaders are willing to negotiate.
The recent ‘arrest’ of ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) ‘Chairman’ Arabinda Rajkhowa and the ‘Deputy Commander-in-Chief’ Raju Baruah has brought renewed hopes of peace to Assam. In the past, attempts at peace have fizzled out, much to the dismay of the people of Assam. Insurgency in this sensitive state has raged on for more than 30 years now. Much water has flowed down the mighty Brahmaputra since the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) was founded on April 7, 1979 1 at the historic Rang Ghar (an amphitheatre) in Sibsagar town of Upper Assam in Northeast India. The Rang Ghar, which is the oldest amphitheatre in Asia, was constructed by the Ahom rulers who ruled Assam for almost 600 years. Though it is a common belief that the ULFA was formed as a consequence of the Assam Movement (a mass movement against large-scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh to Assam), it was actually formed around two months before the AASU (All Assam Students’ Union-which spearheaded the anti-influx agitation) observed its first 12-hour Statewide strike on June 8, 1979 to protest against the rampant illegal immigration from Bangladesh and the inclusion of the names of these illegal immigrants in the voters roll. 2
The ULFA remained dormant until 1984.3 In the initial years, the ULFA succeeded in acquiring a Robin Hood-image, because of its actions like the targeting of anti-social elements, alcoholics, wine-shop owners, corrupt government officials, eve-teasers etc. In the elections of 1985 held after the signing of the Assam Accord, the AGP (Asom Gana Parishad), a party formed by student leaders of the movement against illegal immigrants in Assam, came to power after sweeping the polls. During the AGP regime, the ULFA virtually started running a parallel government in Assam, killing many people and embarking on a massive extortion spree. It demanded large sums of money from major tea companies operating in Assam. Matters came to a head when on November 8, 1990, the Doom Dooma India Ltd, a part of the Unilever group, refused to meet ULFA’s extortion demand and evacuated its top executives and their families.4 In the same month, the AGP government was dismissed and President’s rule imposed in Assam.
The Army launched Operation Bajrang on November 28, 1990 to flush out ULFA ultras. Operation Bajrang led to the arrest of around 500 ULFA operatives and continued until April 1991 when fresh elections were announced to the State Assembly. On July 1, 1991 the same day the new Congress government led by Hiteshwar Saikia was sworn in, the ULFA struck in a big way, kidnapping 15 people including officials of the ONGC(Oil and Natural Gas Commission), an Additional Secretary in the Assam Government’s General Administration Department, A.S. Srivastava and a Russian national, Sergei Gritchenko working for the State-owned Coal India. The ULFA declared that it would release the hostages if twenty-four hardcore ULFA members were set free. The State government initially released eleven of the wanted militants along with a total of nearly 400 ULFA suspects who did not have serious cases pending against them, as part of a general amnesty offer. However, two of the hostages, the Russian national and an ONGC engineer, T.S. Raju were killed by the ULFA. When the ULFA did not release all the hostages even after State Government released twenty-one of the twenty-four militants whose release was sought by the ULFA, the State government told the Centre that there was no alternative to a fresh Army operation.
Operation Rhino was launched on September 15, 1991. The Operation continued till January 1992 when it was temporarily suspended following the prospect of talks between the ULFA and the Union Government. On January 12, 1992 five top ULFA leaders met the then Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao. Since the talks were not making much progress, the army operations were resumed in April 1992 in six districts of Assam. The ULFA became a divided house with some sections favouring dialogue and some sections opposed to it. Many ULFA activists surrendered in lieu of government protection and cash handouts for rehabilitation. This gave birth to the SULFA (Surrendered ULFA), who though helping security forces in counter-insurgency operations, have became a law unto themselves.
SETBACK IN BHUTAN
In the aftermath of the operations against it in Assam by the Indian Army, the ULFA began to shift its bases inside Bhutan. Along with the ULFA, other insurgent groups like the KLO (Kamatapur Liberation Organisation) and the NDFB (National Democratic Front of Bodoland) also began setting up camps inside Bhutan. By 2003 there were about 30 militant camps inside Bhutan which housed around 3500 militants. When repeated appeals by the Bhutanese authorities to the militant outfits to close their camps failed, the Bhutanese Army in December 2003, launched a crackdown (Operation All Clear) against ULFA, KLO and NDFB cadres holed up in Bhutan. Around 650 militants were “neutralized” (either killed or captured) in the Operation, according to the then Chief of Army Staff, Gen. N C Viz.5 However, the ULFA top brass had already fled to Bangladesh. Many prominent militant leaders like the ULFA ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain, its publicity secretary Mithinga Daimary, the NDFB publicity secretary B. Erkadao and the KLO supremo Tom Adhikari were arrested during the course of the operation.
If anyone believed that they had written ULFA’s epitaph after the Bhutan operations, they were to be proved wrong shortly afterwards. The ULFA made its presence felt once again in the State when it carried out a deadly bomb blast in Dhemaji town in Assam on August 15, 2004, in which at least sixteen schoolchildren were killed and forty others were injured. The spiral of violence continued when on August 25 and 26, 2004, ULFA militants set off a chain of bomb blasts at different places all over Assam killing seven persons and wounding 90.
ATTEMPTS AT BRINGING PEACE
Many organizations like the Asom Sahitya Sabha and the Asom Sattra Sanmilan had come forward to broker peace between the ULFA and the Government, but unfortunately they failed in their efforts. On Sep 20-21, 2004, a two-day Jatiya Mahasabha organized by the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) adopted two major resolutions. The first called for the initiation of talks between the ULFA and the Central and State Governments, while the second called upon the ULFA to rein in its armed activities, and enter into a dialogue for the greater good of the State’s people. A ray of hope appeared on the horizon when some top ULFA leaders, including the banned outfit’s Commander-in-Chief Paresh Baruah contacted noted Assamese litterateur and Jnanpith awardee Mamoni Raisom Goswami and expressed the desire that she should take the initiative to get the dialogue process started. Mamoni Raisom Goswami met the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh on November 16, 2004 and handed over a memorandum to him. The ULFA indicated that it was willing to sit for talks provided the Government of India did not have any preconditions and wanted the issue of sovereignty to be the core issue of the talks.
When on September 7, 2005, the ULFA nominated an 11-member group- christened People’s Consultative Group (PCG) to prepare the groundwork for eventual talks between the militant outfit and the Government of India, it raised high hopes for peace in the trouble-torn State. The much-awaited first round of talks between the ULFA-appointed PCG and the Government of India were held on October 26, 2005 in New Delhi. The talks ended on a positive note with the two sides agreeing to discuss all contentious issues and keep the channels of communication open. The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh reiterated that his Government would do everything it could for the sake of peace and prosperity in Assam, while making it clear that he had to function within the limits of the Constitution of India. The first session of the talks was chaired by MK Narayanan, National Security Advisor, and the second session was attended by the Prime Minister and State Chief Minister. 6
Following the progress in the peace talks, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi on January 1, 2006 announced a two-week safe passage offer for ULFA cadres from January 7 till January 20, 2006 to enable them to visit their families during Magh Bihu, an Assamese post-harvest festival. However, the ULFA pooh-poohed the offer calling it a political gimmick and continued with its usual activities. The ULFA resorted to a series of violent incidents in the run-up to the Republic Day celebrations in January 2006 in Assam. It attacked oil pipelines, electricity transformers, security personnel, pumping stations and other vital installations. Grave doubts had appeared about the future of the peace process. However amidst all this mayhem, the Centre announced that the next round of talks with the PCG would be held on February 7, 2006 in New Delhi. 7
The second round of talks on February 7, 2006 led to a significant breakthrough with the Government of India and the PCG agreeing on a series of confidence building measures (CBMs). The peace process however soon ran into rough weather with both the parties putting forward several conditions for the third round of talks. The ULFA put forward three riders for the talks-that sovereignty be the core issue of the talks, the release of five Central Committee members of the ULFA and information on the whereabouts of missing ULFA cadres during Operation All Clear in Bhutan in 2003. The five Central Committee members whose release was sought by the ULFA included the ULFA Vice-Chairman Pradip Gogoi, political advisor and ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain, Publicity Secretary Mithinga Daimary, Executive Committee member Ramu Mech and Cultural Secretary Pranati Deka.
The Central government however indicated that the five detained ULFA leaders would be released after a written commitment from the ULFA expressing its desire to come forward for direct talks within a specified time frame. The ULFA insisted on the implementation of the decisions taken in the June 22 meeting between the Government of India and the PCG wherein the Centre had agreed to favourably consider the PCG’s demand for the release of the five ULFA Central Committee members.
The Central government however treaded carefully on the issue of the release of the five Central Committee members of the ULFA, having burnt its fingers once earlier. The Union government in 1992 had released ULFA’s general secretary Anup Chetia for talks between the ULFA and the then PM P.V. Narasimha Rao, but Chetia went into hiding after he was released to hold discussions with his colleagues on the issue of talks with the Central Government. The ULFA on its part said that it could not name its team and set a time-table for the talks unless the five top leaders were released to enable the ULFA top brass to hold an executive meeting and take a formal decision on the talks.
COLLAPSE OF PEACE TALKS
In a severe jolt to the peace process, on September 27, 2006 the People’s Consultative Group (PCG) decided to pull out from the peace process alleging lack of sincerity on the part of the Government of India on the issue of peace talks with the ULFA. With this faded the thin glimmer of hope for restoration of normalcy in Assam. The ULFA went back to its violent ways and army operations were resumed.
However, in a setback to the militant outfit, on June 24, 2008, the 'A' and the 'C' companies of the 28th Battalion of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) announced a ceasefire. It is worth noting that the offer of surrender came from the top commanders of the ‘A’ and ‘C’ battalions of 28th Battalion. They were facing tremendous pressure from their rank and file besides the security forces. The top leaders of these battalions criticized the central leadership for ‘selling out to fundamentalist forces and being under the influence and control of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) of Bangladesh.’
Sporadic incidents of violence have however rocked Assam killing and maiming many people. However the worst of the violence was yet to come. On October 30, 2008 serial blasts rocked Assam claiming at least 66 lives while more than 350 others were injured. Assam had never witnessed anything of such a scale earlier. Though the ULFA has denied any involvement in the blasts, security agencies are not willing to buy the argument. The involvement of other militant groups like the NDFB( National Liberation Front of Bodoland) has not been ruled out. More than a year has elapsed since the blasts, but the police is yet to come to a conclusion about the identity of the militants involved in the blasts.
The peace process appears to have lost steam with neither the government nor the ULFA wanting to settle the issue once and for all. The government, both at the state and the Central level is more than happy to keep the insurgency at a “manageable” level. It would be a Herculean task now to put the peace process back on track and calls for a far greater degree of flexibility and foresight from both the ULFA and the Government of India than what they have shown so far. The people of Assam are eagerly awaiting a return to peace after a long period of 30 years. Both the parties should be prepared and willing to walk the extra mile. The biggest casualty of the intransigence of both the parties is the common civilian who is caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea.
ASSAM’S BURNING ISSUES
There is an urgent need to address the root causes of insurgency like unemployment which force youths to take up guns. Illegal immigration from Bangladesh is a major concern-the migrants are putting a tremendous strain on the already strained land resources and employment opportunities. There is a need to improve transportation and communication facilities in Assam along with the entire Northeastern region. Infrastructure development is very essential. The youths should be given vocational training so that they do not have to depend on the government for jobs. Assam is blessed with breathtaking natural beauty. Tourism can prove to be a big revenue earner for the State and its populace if proper attention is paid to it. It can provide employment to many unemployed youths.
Of late there has been talk of turning Northeast India into a gateway to Southeast Asia. Policy makers and politicians alike have emphasized the importance of India’s Northeast which can be turned from a conflict-ridden region to a region of immense economic potential. The “Look-East” policy has seen India turn its attention to developing better and closer ties with the countries of Southeast Asia and East Asia. India has also mooted the trilateral highway project involving Myanmar and Thailand and a rail link between New Delhi and Hanoi. The possibility of the re-opening of the historic Stilwell Road which runs from Margherita in Assam to Kumning in China via Myanmar is being discussed.8 Assam and the entire Northeast have much to gain from better ties with the Southeast Asian countries.
PROSPECTS FOR PEACE
With the reelection of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) to the reins of power at the Centre, the people of Assam have high hopes that the ULFA issue will be resolved given the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh represents Assam in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Indian Parliament. Though the ULFA ‘Commander-in-Chief’ Paresh Baruah is still elusive, people are hoping that he can be brought to the negotiating table.
If peace finally prevails in Assam, it will have a positive spillover into the other parts of Northeastern India, many of which are reeling under violence. The NSCN (I-M) is already in a ceasefire with the Government of India. If the ULFA follows the same track, the pressure will be on the other Northeastern insurgent groups to sit for talks with the state and the central governments. If that happens, it will be worth the long wait.
1 Hazarika, Sanjay(1995) Strangers of the Mist, New Delhi: Penguin Books, p.167
2 Misra, Udayon (2000), The Periphery Strikes Back, Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, p.133
3 Saikia, Jaideep(2000), Autumn in Springtime: ULFA battles for Survival, Faultlines, Vol.7, New Delhi: Institute for Conflict Management, p.31
4 Sanjib Baruah(1994), “The State and Separatist Militancy in Assam: Winning a battle and Losing the War”, Asian Survey, Vol.34(10), p.872
5 “Myanmar Operation in Sight”, The Telegraph, Kolkata, January 3, 2004
6 “Govt. ready to discuss all issues: PM”, Assam Tribune, October 27, 2005
7 Hussain, Wasbir(2006 ) War and Peace in Assam, http://www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?fodname=20060803&fname=wasbir&sid=1 accessed Nov 2, 2008
8 Baruah, Sanjib (2005), “Of Broken Promises and False Starts”, The Telegraph, 12 April,p.9
Rupakjyoti Borah is a PhD student in the school of international studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.