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ULFA's Pressure Tactics

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • June 27, 2006

    In the third round of talks held in New Delhi on June 22 with the 11-member People's Consultative Group (PCG), the Centre gave an assurance that it would engage with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) directly within a fixed time frame. Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, who represented the Centre, also told the PCG that their demand to release ULFA Vice Chairman Pradip Gogoi, Cultural Secretary Pranati Deka, Publicity Secretary Mithinga Daimary, Executive Committee Member Ramu Mech and Ideologue Bhimakanta Buragohain would be considered in consultation with the Assam Government. The Home Minister also urged the PCG to impress upon the ULFA to sincerely work towards the establishment of a peaceful environment to facilitate direct talks at the earliest. At the end of the three-hour long engagement, the two sides issued a joint statement expressing the hope that they would base their future action on restraint. The PCG expressed satisfaction at the Home Minister's vision for a negotiated settlement with Assam's largest separatist group, and promised that it would appeal to the ULFA to adopt peaceful methods and in the process create a secure and stable environment in Assam conducive for direct peace negotiations.

    But the positive effect that the third round of talks was meant to reflect and the pathway paved for direct negotiations were negated to a large extent by the spate of bombings in Assam that preceded the talks. Explosions occurred in Haibargaon, Golakganj, Dhubri and Mangaldoi on June 8 injuring 28 people. A wave of bomb blasts was triggered off in Guwahati and Naharkatiya on June 9 and 10. A grenade was thrown in a politician's house in Naharkatia and oil and gas pipelines were also blown up. Significantly, the ULFA owned up only to the attack on oil installations. The Guwahati bomb blasts in the crowded wholesale vegetable market of Machkhowa killed six people and injured at least 20. On June 11, suspected ULFA militants blew up railway tracks with a remote controlled bomb between Borhat and Sapekhati in Sivasagar district and attacked a police party at Makum in Tinsukia district injuring two policemen and a civilian. On June 12, a bomb blast in the oil town of Digboi killed one person and injured 12 others.

    Reacting to the violence, Home Secretary V K Duggal said, "ULFA is adopting tactics to pressure the Centre. These are tactics we understand and we can reply to them…these are not good tactics." The ULFA was quick to deny any hand in or knowledge of the attacks and its chief Paresh Barua stated, "those who want peace dialogue in Assam scuttled are using mercenaries to stage such attacks so that we can be blamed." In contrast, the Assam Police (AP) asserted that the scheme and tactics involved in the bombings clearly indicated the hand of the ULFA. The pattern of the attacks had a strong resemblance to earlier such attacks by the group. Inspector General of Police (Special Branch) Khagen Sharma insisted on June 9 that "though there is no evidence yet that the ULFA was involved, the needle of suspicion points to them." He went on to state in a press conference on June 14 in Guwahati that similar bomb attacks have been on the rise since 2004, when a 16-member team trained in using explosives and bombs in Batrossi Hills of Mansera district in Pakistan clandestinely crossed the border into Assam with the help of Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence. But the ULFA, in an email put out by Paresh Barua, blamed the AP of engineering the latest attacks in order to stall the June 22 peace talks with the Centre. But this, by any account, seemed like a fictitious claim dished out by the ULFA leaders to steer the spotlight away from the outfit in the immediate aftermath of the bombings.

    A cursory glance at the ULFA's spate of violence in recent years indicates that it has been involved in the killing of innocent civilians - a principal reason for its loss of support among the Assamese people. On July 1, 1991, it was involved in the kidnapping of a Russian mining engineer and 14 Indian nationals; the Russian and several of the Indians were later killed in captivity. The group was indicted in the kidnapping and murder of social activist Sanjay Ghosh in 1997, which provoked international condemnation. But the most dastardly attack carried out by the ULFA was the Dhemaji bombings of August 15, 2004 in which several school children were killed. In a subsequent email statement, ULFA's chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, claimed that though unfortunate the school children had been used as a shield by the Indian occupation forces to defy the outfit's boycott call of Independence Day celebrations. This was the first public acceptance of "terror bombing" tactics by the ULFA.

    The ULFA's latest bombings raises the question of the outfit's commitment to peace. Its terror tactics could be viewed as an attempt to demonstrate its ability to strike and kill in the wake of reports in the Assamese press about its waning influence in the state. ULFA chief Paresh Barua, in a statement on June 10, had threatened four journalists including the editor of The Sentinel D N Bezboruah for exposing the outfit's eroding support base. Given this, the Centre should have postponed the June 22 talks with the PCG. Moreover, the Centre's willingness to hold direct talks with the ULFA, despite its suspected hand in the recent bomb blasts, could set a dangerous precedent. Similar violent acts could be engineered by other militant groups in the Northeast, primarily aimed at increasing stakes in the political gamble of power sharing.

    Interestingly, the ULFA was distinctively silent during the Assam elections earlier this year. The Assamese perceive the ULFA as an aging force, whose earlier euphoric declaration of a Swadin Asom or Independent Assam lost much of its shine after its linkages with the illegal Bangladeshi migrant community came to light. The outfit is also suspected of maintaining bases in Bangladesh. The people of Assam have come to look upon the ULFA as interest-driven, wanting to capitalize on its earlier "sanctified" image of fighting for Assam's liberation for its own economic and political ends. It no longer captures the imagination of the masses. But it is important to engage the group and extract a commitment of cease-fire from it. Willy-nilly, given its loss of popular support, it has no other option but to resort to peace initiatives with the Centre.

    The peace process, which was kick started in October 2005, is a step in the right direction. An outfit, towards the fag end of its existence, could "up the ante" with violent demonstrations to project power. More importantly, the recent violence is also indicative of the outfit's inability to control its cadres. That is reason enough for the Centre and the ULFA to work out the modalities of a ceasefire. But the Centre must be wary of not succumbing to pressure tactics by the group. The road to peace in the state has taken its first tentative steps and is a welcome development.