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An author's liaison with terrorist?

Professor Goswami's long-distance conversations with a wanted militant highlight India's fractures.

india Updated: Jun 16, 2006 21:02 IST

By Tim Sullivan

Every week or so the phone rings in the professor's home, a tidy ground-floor apartment set behind a wooden gate and a flower-filled garden, and a voice echoes from a guerrilla hideout far to the east.

The professor, Indira Goswami, is a prominent scholar of the Ramayana, the ancient Hindu epic. She is also the best-known novelist in India's north-eastern state of Assam, a woman born to a wealthy land-owning clan whose books reverberate with the struggles of India's vast underclass.

Her caller, Paresh Baruah, has spent 20 years on the run, leading a militant group fighting to take control of the forests and towns of Assam.

Working from secret bases, many apparently in neighbouring Bangladesh, he controls the military wing of the United Liberation Front of Asom, the most powerful militant movement in an isolated region riven by poverty and ethnic turmoil.

The writer and the gunman have never met. But their relationship, forged over bad phone lines and under the watch of Indian intelligence agents, has become the cornerstone of renewed efforts to bring peace to an area that has known little but violence for three decades.

Amid a recent surge in militant attacks in Assam that have killed at least eight people and left more than 80 injured, the government is holding its third round of talks June 22 with the "consultative group" which Goswami heads, and which meets with officials on behalf of the militants.

So the pressure is on to avoid a stalemate.

"This is a rare chance for us after so many years," said Goswami, 63, a widow with an avalanche of pitch black hair and a teenager's nervous giggle who for nearly two years has been the main conduit between the government and the ULFA militants, thrusting her into the largest of a cluster of bloody but largely forgotten conflicts that have killed more than 10,000 people in the last 10 years. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed."

Even she isn't sure what to make of her shift in priorities. "I'm a writer. I'm not a politician," said Goswami. "I had no idea that this would take so long."

 
       Indira Goswami

Her critics dismiss her as a dilettante misled by extremists whose popularity has plunged. She shrugs at such talk. All she knows is the talks have eaten up immense amounts of time, her phones are tapped (a security official let that slip, she says) and she has neglected her writing.

"But I'm happy I could help move this peace thing, that I could open the door for the boys," she said, sitting beneath a broken cuckoo clock, its hands frozen at 1:55, in her tchotchke-filled living room on the Delhi University campus.

India is, in many ways, a patchwork of humanity. Though dominated by Hindus from a handful of ethnic groups, its 1.02 billion people include all the world's major religions, hundreds of ethnicities and more than two dozen languages that each have more than a million speakers.

If the patchwork holds together in most places, the north-east is India's stepchild: seven states about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from New Delhi and connected to the rest of the country by a narrow land corridor. The ethnic groups comprising their population of 38 million have physical features that tie them closer to Tibet or Myanmar than to the rest of India.

The area, which is about the size of the United Kingdom, is rich in natural resources, but hobbled by geography, ethnicity, poverty and unemployment.

The situation has nurtured dozens of militant movements whose fights with the central government, and one another, regularly scatter the region with corpses.

But there is no Al-Qaida here, and the region holds little importance to Western policy-makers. So the little wars get almost no attention outside India.

In the northeast, though, the alphabet soup of militant groups - ULFA and PLAM, NLFT and ATTF - overlays nearly everything. "'Last year, this road was smeared with blood. There was always cross-fire of machine guns, exploding grenades. Now it's all quiet,'" a character says in Goswami's short story The Journey, driving through the north-east after a security clampdown. It was, the narrator reflects "As if a soft carpet covered it all - the blood stains, the dumps of arms and ammunition, the smell of gunpowder."

The struggle of the ULFA guerrillas fighting for an independent Assamese state - "the boys" as Goswami invariably calls them - has left some 3,000 people dead since they took up arms in the late 1980s.

If north-easterners have grown increasingly weary of the relentless cycles of attack-and-reprisal, along with the extortion the guerrillas use to raise funds, Goswami remains a firm believer. She sees them as they see themselves: as fighters for social equality battling the erosion of Assamese traditions and the bigotry of the rest of India.

Violence, she said, "is the only power they have." Her open sympathy gave her credence with the militants, and her links to New Delhi's literary high society - her living room is scattered with book awards and photos of her with everyone from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to novelist V.S. Naipaul - gave her access to Indian political circles.

"She has the confidence of both sides," said Sunil Nath, a writer and former ULFA official. "A lot of people had wanted to mediate talks, but ULFA scoffed at all of them." Her work began in late 2004 when she reached out informally to the prime minister, whom she knew from his days as an economics professor, urging him to bring peace to Assam. A year later, the militants asked her to head the small "consultative group," made up mostly of political activists, that communicates with the government.

Today, she speaks to Baruah, 49, anywhere from a couple times a week to once a month. He calls her - she has no way to reach him - and she never asks too many questions.

The two, who speak in Assamese, make an odd pair. Goswami is an exuberant woman, a name-dropper and a fixture on the society circuit. Eyes dramatically rimmed with kohl, she's a relentlessly polite hostess, and no one escapes her home without repeated servings of tea and biscuits.

She loves to talk about herself, her writing awards, and her powerful friends. She has written extensively about her fight with depression, and her husband's death in an accident soon after their marriage, and how writing saved her from suicide. Baruah, on the other hand, is described this way: He "travels on a forged passport ... lives on money obtained from extortion or robbery and can handle all kinds of weapons," says his wanted poster from the Assam police.

It was Goswami's writing that first took her to an ULFA base in the late 1990s.

It happened during a gathering in Assam, one of many she attends to discuss her books, when a young man emerged from the crowd and quietly asked if she'd like to visit a militant camp. Her guides drove her through the night, arriving at a compound where heavily armed fighters had gathered.

"I was already writing about them, and without first-hand knowledge I just cannot write," she said.

Years later, she tries to remain positive about Assam, but worries the peace talks could be smothered by the continuing violence.

Baruah, in statements e-mailed to journalists, has denied that ULFA is behind many of the recent attacks.

But Goswami told him - as ever, over the telephone - that things need to calm down quickly. "I sent a message that if things go on like this, it'll be difficult to move ahead with peace."