The suspension of operations against the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) on September 3 sets the stage for a political dialogue with the banned secessionist outfit. It is also believed to have started a reign of confusion besides complicating the militancy scenario in Assam.
In militancy-mauled Northeast, the July 1997 ceasefire agreement between New Delhi and the Isak-Muivah faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) is often regarded as the benchmark though a similar pact had been signed with the legendary Laldenga’s Mizo National Front a decade before. The truce was between two warring forces — ‘colonial India’ and Naga nationalists — toward stopping bloodshed and ushering in peace through an ‘honourable’ solution.
The pact with the NSCN would perhaps have been redundant had the outfit not been sired by another agreement, the Shillong Accord of November 11, 1975, between the Indian government and some ‘captured’ rebel leaders of the Naga National Council. The hurriedly drawn-up accord — it said the militants decided to accept the Constitution of India unconditionally — was panned as divisive and insulting to the Nagas.
Assam is not Nagaland, and the Ulfa is no NSCN. But many in Assam are drawing a line between the Shillong Accord and the tripartite agreement Arabinda Rajkhowa’s Ulfa signed with the Union and Assam governments. They see the agreement as one between the conqueror and the conquered, because Ulfa chairman Rajkhowa and members of his core group are on parole after their capture since December 2003. And because it is a pact that leaves out key leaders of the outfit — military chief Paresh Barua, for instance — as was the case with the Nagas in 1975.
“The ceasefire with Ulfa is as confusing as it challenges the definitions of certain terms usually associated with conflicts. First, a ceasefire as we know involves two or more hostile groups, but Rajkhowa and his group were captives without arms. Secondly, will the cessation of operations also apply to the anti-talks faction led by Paresh Barua that has vowed to carry on the fight for Assam’s sovereignty?
“And if the anti-talks group is out of the picture, can we call it a truce with Ulfa? Do we call Rajkhowa’s group Ulfa or ex-Ulfa or Sulfa (Surrendered Ulfa)? If we call them Sulfa, where does it leave some 3,000 Sulfa members who bid farewell to arms long ago to be in the mainstream? Moreover, how can the same law that granted Rajkhowa and his associates bail continue to consider their organisation banned?” asked Haider Hussain, editor of Assamese daily Asomiya Pratidin.
Hussain was a key member of the People’s Consultative Group the Ulfa had formed in 2005 to mediate with New Delhi for a peaceful solution. The government did not agree to the Ulfa’s demand for discussing the issue of sovereignty of Assam, and the peace process fell through.
The scenario changed after the pro-India Sheikh Hasina came to power in Bangladesh and launched a drive against Ulfa and other Northeast rebels operating from her country. This led to the arrest of Rajkhowa and five other top Ulfa leaders. They were allegedly talked into accepting the Indian Constitution, give up sovereignty and draw up a charter of demands that intellectuals and former rebels said did not warrant a 30-year insurrection. The elusive Paresh Barua, believed to be in Myanmar with some 200 hardliners, expectedly junked the charter of demands and the ceasefire as a “sellout at gunpoint”.
Technical issues aside, Hussain feels the peace process can be fruitful if New Delhi is sincere, tactful and constructive. So does Nonigopal Mahanta of Gauhati University’s Centre for Conflict Studies. The peace process, they feel, will meander if its aim is to isolate Paresh Barua’s group and pressure it into accepting the government’s terms.
Most leaders in the Ulfa’s decision-making general council are with Rajkhowa, but the dilution of ideology is believed to have eroded their appeal. The anti-talks faction too is low on public support and resources, but the cessation of operations — again, confusing for forces engaged in counter-insurgency because of the Paresh Barua threat — could give it an opportunity to be back in the business of subversion.