The turn of events in Assam suggests the North-eastern state could be in for another round of turmoil. Close on the heels of the government ending its six-week truce with the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) last Sunday, the army has reportedly resumed its operations against the rebels. The express reason for New Delhi calling off the ceasefire seems to be last Friday’s rebel attacks on a police patrol near Dibrugarh, which were followed by the killing of a tea plantation manager after a failed extortion attempt. The Ulfa had unleashed a series of explosions targeting oil and gas pipelines, railway tracks, road bridges and telecom facilities this year, until New Delhi stopped military operations against them last month, overruling the sceptical security forces leadership. They did so at the behest of the People’s Consultative Group, with the view of shepherding the militants to the negotiating table. The Ulfa did seem to reciprocate, declaring a halt in its attacks soon after. But the breakdown of the ceasefire dispels any such hope.
It would now appear that the Ulfa has been using the PCG to regroup, rather than to engage the government in serious negotiations. For its part, the government signalled its seriousness by extending the temporary truce three times. The rebels’ main precondition for talks has been the release of five of their jailed cadres — purportedly members of the Ulfa’s executive council that will have to endorse the peace process. The Ulfa has only itself to blame for missing a trick here. The government did express its willingness to concede even this demand once talks began, in spite of strong reservations on the issue by the security forces. The scepticism is understandable, since the last round of talks between New Delhi and the Ulfa was held in 1992 after the Narasimha Rao government released five rebel leaders from jail. As soon as they were released, the rebels went underground and the talks ended.