Thumbnail images: 

Formal dialogue with the ULFA (Pro-Talk)—which began in 2011 (but had stalled)—is reportedly going to kick start after the elections of 2021. By all accounts, the last round of talks ended on a positive note with the organisation expressing its satisfaction about the initiatives, which New Delhi had taken. According to an earlier press statement by the organisation, the “discussion is (presently) at a crucial stage and ULFA (Pro-Talk) expects a Memorandum of Settlement to be signed ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha Election”. Although almost two years have passed since then, nothing concrete seems to have progressed. The outfit has been raising the issue pertaining to the “Nagalim” imbroglio, the status of missing ULFA cadres during the Royal Bhutan Army operation against the insurgent organisation in December 2003 as also the grant of citizenship to “Hindu Bangladeshis” (Read: C (A) A).


Assam is presently experiencing a political seismicity of sorts as a result of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) stand that “Hindu Bangladeshi Migrants” be granted Indian citizenship. Almost all indigenous groups—across the board—have opposed the move. The dissonance has become particularly grim in the backdrop of the publication of the National Register of Citizens and it is a foregone conclusion that C (A) A would be an important rallying point for all anti-BJP formations in the upcoming elections to the Assam Legislative Assembly.


In any event—the optimism that has characterised the discussions with ULFA (Pro-Talk) notwithstanding—the author wishes to dispassionately examine the dialogue process and the basis on which a resolution can be anvilled.


The 12-point charter of demands (see below) was formally handed over to New Delhi on 5 August 2011. The demands were, however, only of the nature that characterised a broad parameter. These have been scraped out by ULFA (Pro-Talk) chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa led faction of the organisation from a 37-page charter that was presented to the Pro-Talk group by Sanmilito Jatiyo Abhiborton, the civil society body that took the initiative to bring about an interface between the faction of the ULFA and the government. Although it was reported that the list of demands would be “placed” before the Assamese people ahead of it being presented to the government, this has not yet been done, perhaps as such a course of action might delay the process of dialogue.


The framework of charter for negotiation according to the ULFA (Pro-Talk) and one which was presented to the government, words itself in the following manner:


The issues will be discussed under the following broad groupings:


  1. Grounds for the ULFA’s struggle and their genuineness.


  1. Status report on missing the ULFA leaders and cadres.


  1. Constitutional and Political arrangements and Reforms, including protection of the identity and material resources of the local indigenous population of Assam.


  1. Financial and Economic Arrangements, including settlement of all royalties on mines/minerals including oil on a retrospective compensatory basis and rights of independent use for a sustainable economic development in future.


  1. Illegal migration—its effect/impact and required remedies including sealing of international borders, river patrolling, development of a native force to man the borders.


  1. Ethnic issues-problems and constitutional restructuring including settlement of border disputes and removal of encroachment.


  1. Education and Health-reforms as required to preserve the identity of the people of Assam and benefits.


  1. Agricultural and Rural Development.


  1. Land and Natural resources-including right of natives to the land, flood control and management.


  1. Industrial Growth-Development of infrastructure, removal of transport bottleneck, development of entrepreneurial skill and efficiency in labour, availability of credit, infusion of capital-leading to industrial take off and right to engage in specific relationship with foreign countries for promotion of mutual trade, commerce and cultural relationship.


  1. Restoration, protection, preservation and spread of indigenous culture of Assam in all its variety.


  1. Amnesty, re-integration and rehabilitation of the ULFA members and affected people.


On the face of it, the demands are not unreasonable demands. Indeed, most well-meaning citizens of India and the meritocracy that propels the nation have already shown sympathy to some of the demands such as prevention of illegal migration from Bangladesh and correct redressal to the problem of floods in Assam. Demands such as constitutional reforms (the exact nature of which has not been spelt out) may not be acceptable to New Delhi, but negotiations always proceed from the intractable to the acceptable by application of compromise. Moreover, an aspect that must be noted is that the charter of demands has not used the phrase “full autonomy,” emphasising instead that the “identity and material resources of the local indigenous population of Assam” must be protected. Indeed, if a historical stock-taking exercise is undertaken, it would be seen that the ULFA—or at least an important section of the organisation—has traversed a long way from its original demand of sovereignty, UN mediation and talks in a third country.


At any rate, the questions that arise at this juncture are the following:


  1. How far is New Delhi prepared to go in its accommodative posture vis-a-vis the demands that the ULFA (Pro-Talk) has made?


  1. A mature democracy that has the interest of the periphery uppermost in its mind should not shy away from grant of some rights to backward states, especially by way of rights over natural resources and land, prevention of illegal migration and proper management of floods. But it is almost a certitude that a centrist lobby whose interests are served by the status quo would seek to play spoiler were New Delhi’s magnanimity to go overboard in order to appease the ULFA. To what extent can such pressure be resisted by New Delhi, especially as the lobby in question has the ability to engender difficulty?


  1. However, one aspect that has not escaped observers is that inability/reluctance to agree to the above demands would be fraught with danger; especially as the Paresh Baruah led anti-talk faction would be provided a stick to berate the efforts of the pro-talk faction, leading thereby to a serious stalemate. Baruah has always held that New Delhi is insincere in its obligations to the periphery.


  1. But, it is also true that dialogue with insurgency—especially of the fractured kind that characterises the ULFA phenomenon—must be engaged with a degree of circumspection. Urgency to merely inform an electorate that peace has returned (without taking the correct precaution) can have a negative effect. This aspect may have been overlooked by the temporary occupants of politics in their rush towards power, but should have not gone unnoticed by the undeviating seat of governance that constitutes the security establishment of the nation. To that end, certain observers are questioning whether—in its bid to hold dialogue with the ULFA—the rule of law was not circumvented. After all, it is a well-known fact that the entire leadership of the pro-talk faction of the ULFA are ones that were handed over to India after apprehension by Bangladesh authorities. In other words, none of them came over ground on their own free will. It is also being questioned whether the cadres of the pro-talk faction had—during the period in which they were donning revolutionary attire—ever evinced an interest for an unconditional dialogue with New Delhi. Therefore, the question that is being asked is whether there has been a quid-pro-quo that is less than righteous! Where is the guarantee that the cadres did not consent to the demands of the “managers” in order to circumvent incarceration and due process of the Indian legal system? Should such cadres be granted reprieve for the various acts of violence (including 15 August 2004, Dhemaji) that they had committed when they were underground? The magnanimity of the Indian system to incorporate insurgencies is not in any doubt. But, questions that are being raised in informed and aggrieved circles (the latter constituting victims of wanton insurgent violence in Assam) are whether high-mindedness of the nation is circuiting fair-play and imperatives of national security. In this context, the question of the pro-talk ULFA continuing to wield arms has also been raised. The government must immediately disarm the cadres. The atmosphere of aggression that has gripped Assam and one that pertains to “Hindu Bangladeshis” with senior ULFA (Pro-Talk) leaders making statements pertaining to a “call to arms” is because of the profusion of illegal arms that are circulating in their midst and inside the state: a curious allowance to a group that has come “over ground” abjuring violence, albeit having been handed over by Bangladesh to India. After all, as aforesaid, Arabinda Rajkhowa and others did not return to Assam and a dialogue process on their own accord!


  1. There have been myriad attempts to engage the ULFA in a dialogue in the past. But the process has never quite reached a station that it is presently positioned in. Indeed, for the first time ever, a solution seems to be within arm’s reach, and one that could be acceptable to the pro-talk faction of the organisation. But an important question that is also being raised is whether there is merit in talking to a group that holds the guns, or with one that has no guns, albeit in a manner that they are presently not being wielded in warlike fashion! Indeed, as aforesaid, ones that have been coerced into taking the path of dialogue. The intransigence of the ULFA chief of staff, Paresh Barua, who continues to hold onto the condition that sovereignty of Assam must be discussed is not only well known but has been demonstrated. Baruah and his faction, albeit considerably depleted as a result of desertions are completely in the hands of the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) and in recent times have emerged as a spokesperson for Beijing with statements against India’s position regarding Dalai Lama and Tibet. Although the level of violence that has been threatened by his faction has yet not been of the expected dimension, the fact remains that his faction of 55 odd new recruits and he are billeted in Myanmar’s Taga and thereabouts. Also, the Chinese chaperoning of the umbrella organisation, the UNLFWSEA indicates that there would be outsourcing of anti-Assam operations to groups even from the CORCOM, a conglomeration of Manipuri group that have lent moral support to UNLFWSEA. Indeed, sporadic attacks in Upper Assam had already experienced the Manipuri insurgent hand, heralding thereby an altogether different style of anti-India belligerence.


  1. Dialogue with the pro-talk faction of the ULFA has begun. But analysis has it that Paresh Baruah—in order to continue to retain legitimacy—would try his utmost to disrupt the talks. He would do this by unleashing violence inside Assam, or even by targeting the pro-talk ULFA faction. In any event, it must be understood that it is Paresh Baruah who has the advantages by way of a) as aforesaid, he has the arsenal to create violence b) he is still recruiting cadres, and notwithstanding the naysayers in Assam’s security establishment who are wont to rubbish the number of cadres he has, it is elementary knowledge that placement of a Programmable Time Delay Device in a strategic location does not need an entire platoon of saboteurs. A small team, albeit one which could well be from a sister organisation such as PLA (Manipur), could engineer such an act. One cadre armed with a pre-programmed explosive device, a spotter and back-up cadre are all that are required to re-create Dhemaji, or for the matter 30 October 2008 when cars laden with high-grade explosives were driven to different parts of Assam with devastating effect. Terrorism is the war of the flea: smaller the team, the more successful the operation.


  2. The moot point of the moment, therefore, is the manner in which New Delhi analyses the problem. Does it go ahead with the proposed dialogue with the pro-talk faction of ULFA? Or does it await a time when the anti-talk faction also falls in line? Mandarins in North and South Block would have to work out methodologies—including application of pressure on Naypyidaw, in the proximity of which Paresh Baruah resides and trains his cadres, to bring the confrontational faction around. This, however, may be somewhat of a demanding affair given New Delhi’s inability to read the sibylline leaves and put all its eggs in baskets which do not exist. This was made amply clear to this author when a) during the course of a Track II Dialogue to Yangon, a veteran diplomat huddled together the Indian delegation (of which the author was a member) and cautioned no mention of two things in this hall: Rohingya and the Lady. Weeks later, the exodus of Rohingya into Bangladesh and thence to the North East gave sleepless nights to the policy makers and the Lady in question had become the State Counsellor! It’s another matter that the Tatmadaw sought to engineer a coup d’état for reasons politico-military, but the wretchedness of it all was that New Delhi was caught unawares. Perspective planning and beyond the horizon vision simply doesn’t exist in India’s repertoire.


But to return to the ULFA, New Delhi must be ready to provide concessions, some of which may even be unacceptable. Clearly, the faction of ULFA that holds the guns would expect far more than what the cadres that was released from incarceration expects. It could be short of sovereignty, which was earlier the main demand of the anti-talk faction! But New Delhi in its wisdom must realise that it is more important to talk to people that has the ability to hold the state to ransom by way of both guns and anti-India support like MSS and ISI, than with a group that has been quietened by apprehension and possible coup-de-grace.


  1. New Delhi—in the nation’s security interest—must also realise that talks with any insurgent group can be held only within the ambit of the constitution and after such groups abjure violence. Dialogue with ULFA must be a comprehensive affair. Dialogue in the absence of Paresh Barua, who continues to maintain an anti-talk stance, and, for all practical purpose, possesses the guns, is not going to be all-inclusive.  The analogy that can be proffered at this juncture is to stress on the point as to whether “peaceful nights would prevail even if one tiger out of the nine caged is on the prowl?”


  1. The point about Paresh Baruah is particularly important since he has not only demonstrated that he possesses anti-India arsenal (despite the doubts that has been expressed whether he is capable of any nuisance at present!), but, because Chinese or Pakistani interests are continuing to chaperon him, and may even prevent him from returning to India even if he wishes to. It is also important to profile the enigmatic ULFA chief-of-staff. Reports have suggested that he is purchasing arms from the “Grey Markets” that abound Yunnan and the border across in Myanmar, recruiting new cadres and are training them in Kachin. Profiling Barua leads to the summation that he—unlike some of his other colleagues in the ULFA—does not perceive a role for himself in a peaceful settlement. He prides on his “military” innards, considers himself to be a modern day Lachit Barphukan (the Ahom general who successfully fought off the Mughal invaders in the medieval age) and would if the need arise go down fighting. Baruah penned a particularly interesting obituary in an Assamese daily (Asomiya Pratidin) of Vellupilai Prabhakaran, after the LTTE leader met his end in the hands of the Sri Lankan army. He hailed Prabhakaran as a fearless commander and wrote that his “martyrdom” would be an inspiration for him and his cadres in the ULFA.  Reports seem to be of the opinion that Paresh Baruah is shuttling between China’s Yunnan province, Myanmar’s Taga (Despite the Myanmar Army action Sunrise I and Sunrise II), Kuala Lampur with the newly constituted mobile HQ of ULFA (the organisation’s battalions having been disbanded) a few years ago. His stance, vis-a-vis what he terms as Indo-Asom conflict, could have changed if he feels that his newest stance would turn the tables on the ULFA cadres such as Arabinda Rajkhowa and Raju Baruah against whom his animosity is now almost a fact. Indian security managers must glean Paresh Baruah’s real intentions and work out a methodology that must factor his faction (with or without him)—if possible—into the peace process. Only then would dialogue with the ULFA be a comprehensive affair. 


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.