October 29, 2020
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The Perils Of Talking Peace

With ULFA, that is. Is the government really reluctant to hold talks with the ULFA? Is it dragging its feet? Is it putting up fresh pre-conditions that amount to shifting the goal posts in a bid to subtly rebuff peace overtures? Is it being unnecessa

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The Perils Of Talking Peace

A lot has been written, and said, of late about fresh hopes for peace held out by the United Liberation Front of Asom’s decision to head to the negotiating table. New Delhi has had to face a lot of pressure from Assam’s ‘civil society’ to acquiesce to ULFA’s pre-conditions for negotiations. These include a ceasefire (New Delhi announced one, albeit in the face of grave provocation from the militants, in mid-August), creating a ‘peaceful atmosphere’ (whatever that may mean) for talks and, most important, release of five of the outfit’s top leaders who are in Guwahati jail now. 

These demands, or pre-conditions, may seem innocuous and reasonable. Many would argue there’s no need for New Delhi to hem and haw on these, especially since the ULFA has extended the olive branch and lasting peace in the militancy-wracked state seems so near now. The union government’s latest insistence on a letter from the ULFA’s top leadership committing itself to direct talks and explicitly stating the time, date and venue for the talks as well as the names of the persons who would represent the outfit at the talks may appear to many as unfair and unnecessary on New Delhi’s part. But then, is the union government really reluctant to hold talks with the ULFA? Is it dragging its feet? Is it putting up fresh pre-conditions that amount to shifting the goal posts in a bid to subtly rebuff the ULFA’s peace overtures? Is it being unnecessarily suspicious of the ULFA’s ‘good intentions’? These are questions that cry out for answers.

But then, its not difficult to answer these queries that are being posed by ULFA’s advocates in Assam. For, a dispassionate peek into history and neutral examination of the ground realities will provide ready answers to anyone seeking them. The ghost of 1992 will inevitably emerge from such an exercise. ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia and five others were granted parole by the then Assam Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia on the belief (and after solemn assurances from the outfit) that their release would pave the way for the outfit coming to the negotiating table. Saikia was left red-faced when Chetia simply took a flight out to Bangladesh. The other five, including the outfit’s then central publicity secretary Sunil Nath, showed more sagacity and surrendered, going on to become rich businessmen eventually! To now expect the Union Government to release the five militants -- ULFA vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi, central publicity secretary Mithinga Daimary, cultural secretary Pranati Deka, political advisor Bhimkanta Buragohain and central executive member Ramu Mech -- without any guarantees and written assurances from the outfit would be foolish. 

The ULFA’s insistence on their release is based on a technicality: the five, argues ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, are members of the outfit’s central committee that has to meet formally and pass a resolution authorizing formal talks with the government of India. And if the five executive committee members remain behind bars, how would the committee meet to take this vital decision? Hence, they must be freed and provided safe passage to Bangladesh where the other members of the ULFA’s executive committee are holed up. 

Rajkhowa would have the world believe that the ULFA is a totally democratic outfit where decisions are broad-based and consensual! The trio of National Security Advisor M.K.Narayanan, Union Home Secretary V.K.Duggal and Intelligence Bureau Director E.S.L.Narasimhan haven’t, to their credit, fallen for this specious argument; they’ve, instead, suggested that once a written assurance on the talks is received from the ULFA, the jailed militants would be freed. And they even needn’t travel all the way to Bangladesh to confer with their compatriots -- the state administration can set up direct telephonic links between Guwahati jail and Dhaka (where the ULFA’s top leadership lives in the lap of luxury) for a conference call between the outfit’s central committee members!

But the crux of the whole matter is whether the ULFA can hold a meaningful dialogue with the Indian government. The central question here is: ‘Is the ULFA its own master?’ Advocates of the ULFA, and they go by the name of ‘representatives of civil society’, argue that while New Delhi hasn’t had or isn’t having problems with talking to or accepting similar demands of the Bodo militants or the NSCN (Isak-Muivah), it is displaying a strange reluctance to accommodate the ULFA. That may be the case, but it is important to ask why that is so. The simple reason is that there’s a crucial difference between talking to the NSCN(IM) and the ULFA. 

No one can accuse the NSCN(IM) of taking orders from without. The Naga outfit is totally independent of external control. The same cannot be said of the ULFA. The ULFA’s pious denials notwithstanding, it is open knowledge that Arabinda Rajkhowa, Paresh Barua (the ULFA ‘commander-in-chief’) & Co live in Dhaka at the mercy of the Bangladesh government. Bangladesh has offered them refuge and facilitated investment of their ill-gotten millions (through extortions and other crimes in Assam and other states) in profitable ventures like shipping, food processing and other industries in Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Forces’ Intelligence (DGFI) is the actual master of the ULFA. Rajkhowa, Barua and Co are mere puppets in the hands of the DGFI, which has close links now with Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). 

Why would the DGFI, and the ISI, want the ULFA to ultimately disband itself (as a logical outcome of the proposed negotiations with New Delhi) and peace to prevail in Assam? It is in the interests of both the ISI and the DGFI to have trouble brewing in Assam for eternity. That keeps a considerable section of India’s armed forces tied down in counter-insurgency operations in Assam (and away from the western borders with Pakistan) and India would continue to bleed economically and otherwise in such a scenario. Pakistan and Bangladesh aren’t exactly friends of India that they’d want peace (and, consequently, prosperity) in India. This, though not in so many words, is what Duggal conveyed to People’s Consultative Group mediators Mamoni Raisom Goswami and Rebati Phukan, at a meeting in New Delhi a few days ago. What Duggal left unsaid was that given ULFA’s total dependence for survival on the DGFI, there’s serious doubt over the ULFA’s true intentions and, even if one were to give the ULFA the benefit of doubt, about the outfit’s ability to steer a course clear of its masters in Bangladesh (and Pakistan).

At the same time, it must also be acknowledged that there’s a very strong constituency for peace in Assam. This, ostensibly, is something that the ULFA cannot totally ignore if it has to maintain its relevance in the state. And this, argue optimists, alone provides hope that the ULFA leadership would have to keep the aspirations (for peace, development and economic progress) of the people of Assam in mind while negotiating with New Delhi. But then, is the ULFA relevant among Assam’s masses today? 

Till a year ago, when all this talk of a New Delhi-ULFA dialogue commenced at the behest of ULFA’s advocates, people of Assam had started erasing the ULFA from their collective psyche. Fact is, it is only thanks to a few so-called intellectuals -- writers, journalists, human rights activists, artistes and lawyers of various hues -- based mostly in Guwahati that the ULFA manages to remain relevant in Assam. This motley group, longing naively for ULFA’s goal of a glorious Asom, provides respectability and crucial social support to the ULFA. Sever this support, and ULFA would be reduced to nothing. Militarily, it has been reduced to hiring amateurs and daily wagers to lob grenades at targets. A concerted offensive by the armed forces without any political interference would have brought the outfit to its knees. By starting all this talk of negotiations, the ULFA’s advocates have given it a vital lease of life.

So what, perhaps, would be the ULFA’s plan of action? It can’t, or won’t be allowed to, talk peace seriously. It will only make an elaborate pretense of doing so. And when conditions are ripe for it to walk away from the negotiating table, it will do exactly that. The excuse could be an army or police operation it would have itself provoked. Or something as vague as New Delhi going back on its promise to create a ‘peaceful atmosphere’. And then, the ULFA’s advocates would once again provide justification for the ‘boys’ reverting to arms and violence. The government of India would be left to face the flak for breakdown of talks. And this is precisely the elaborate trap New Delhi wants to avoid walking into. Hence, the insistence on many guarantees and confidence-building measures to pave the way for fruitful talks.

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