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Talks with the ULFA: Beyond Rhetoric to Substance

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • January 10, 2011

    The release of the United National Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, on December 31, 2010 was the first significant news that greeted the people of Assam as the New Year dawned. While Rajkhowa stated in a press conference immediately after his release that the ULFA is ready for “unconditional talks” with the Union government, he did place the condition that three other jailed ULFA leaders be released first: self styled foreign secretary, Sasha Chouhdury, finance secretary, Chitraban Hazarika and general secretary Anup Chetia who is currently in a Bangladeshi jail.

    The Union government on its part, with active facilitation by the Assam state government, is open to “unconditional talks” with the ULFA. Hence, jailed ULFA leaders are being released in a phased manner, perhaps to ensure that its commitment to talks is sealed. This is buttressed by the fact that on December 7, 2010, ULFA founding member and ideologue, Bhimakanta Burhagohain, was released from jail following the November 27 release of ULFA Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Raju Baruah, and Culture Secretary Pranati Deka. These three releases were contingent upon developments on the “talks” front. In fact, to add credibility to the Government’s desire for talks with the jailed ULFA leadership, founding member and Vice Chairman of ULFA, Pradip Gogoi, had been released on March 4, 2010 itself.

    While one could argue that there is not much hope for long lasting peace to settle in Assam given that ULFA leaders are forced to talk to the Union government under duress, it is important to note that this is not the first time that the framework of talks have been utilized by the Government of India as a conflict resolution mechanism with the ULFA. In September 2005, efforts had been made to reach out to the ULFA with the formation of the People's Consultative Group (PCG). (The PCG was the 11 member civilian group formed by the ULFA to talk to the Centre on its behalf). At that time, the process failed since ULFA lacked commitment to the talks and instead increased its armed cadres during that period.

    This time around, it is critical that the talks succeed and ULFA’s commitment to the peace process is sincere. For that to bear fruit, it is vital that the framework of the talks be informed by the element of inclusiveness based on a ‘problem solving’ approach. A number of stakeholders in the conflict including local civil society actors from ULFA strongholds like Sibsagar, Tinsukia and Dibrugarh with varying interests and perceptions, should come together to work out a road map for prevention, management and resolution of the conflict. This will also ensure that the talks enjoy solid societal support and limit the ability of “peace spoilers” to sabotage the peace process. Also, the dialogue process must not be hijacked by a powerful actor (for instance, the state) which could perhaps utilize it to buy time to forward its own agenda. Instead, there must be joint ownership of the process in order to address problems and issues which have brought about this division.

    Talks at this stage are also important to deal with the ideology of the ULFA which continues to generate support in Assam. Thousands greeted ULFA leaders in their traditional stronghold of Sibsagar after their release from jail. Also, there has been massive pressure from Assamese civil society organizations to start talks with the outfit and arrive at an agreement that would ensure the end of armed separatist violence in Assam. Also, India’s constitutional setting enables negotiations to be offered to armed groups in order to include them in the democratic process. Such a gesture will also assure the people of Assam that the Indian state is a flexible, adaptable and rational actor willing to accommodate armed actors in a non-violent manner. The most significant example of such a process is the Mizo peace process which resulted in the integration of the Mizo National Front (MNF) into democratic politics.

    Policymakers in charge of the ULFA talks have to now move quickly from the rhetoric about talks to the substance of these talks. In this context, there are four vital issues that the government of India needs to address at the ideological level. First, the issue of Assam’s economic underdevelopment. Second, the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration. Third, the issue of equitable distribution of the revenue earned from Assam’s two main resources: oil and tea. Fourth, the issue of unemployed youths in Assam.

    With regard to the ULFA leadership and its cadres, three issues need to be seriously considered and worked upon. First, accommodate ULFA leaders into responsible roles in local government bodies or civil society to make them accountable to their constituencies. Second, rehabilitate the nearly 1000 ULFA armed cadres. Third, ensure that Paresh Barua, the ULFA Commander-in-Chief, who is based somewhere along the Myanmar-China border, is not used by the ULFA leadership as a bargaining chip to gain concessions. With hindsight, it is rather obvious that Arabinda Rajkhowa and the others, anticipating arrest with the change of government in Bangladesh in 2009, had sent Paresh Barua earlier to Myanmar to become the pressure point with India in future talks.

    Be that as it may, if a satisfactory peace agreement with ULFA leaders can be clinched, Paresh Barua will be forced to come on board, if not by choice, but by sheer pressure from Assamese society which after years of violent conflict is keen to establish a lasting peace for better economic prospects and social cohesion.