These past few days, I have been exhausted by interviews on television and radio channels as well as with print journalists and editors, all asking the same basic questions. Yet, after days of absolute horror and mayhem in three districts of Assam, when innocents have been butchered by thugs masquerading as freedom fighters, there appears to be a number of issues still unclear. The media are key players in policy formation these days and it is important they understand the challenges and issues at stake.
First, the killings are a response to the pressure that the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) have been under these past months, since the informal ceasefire with the Centre broke down late last year, and the army and security forces resumed operations in the districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivasagar. This is an attack on the government by targeting the weak and defenceless. The top Ulfa leadership comes from these very districts and it is their networks and bases that were being threatened. A number of their senior cadre had been held or killed in these past months and the army have been fairly aggressive and intrusive in these operations.
The village of Paresh Baruah, the chief of Ulfa’s army, is a short distance from Dibrugarh. Arabindo Rajkhowa, its chairman, is from Sivasagar. One is a Muttock (Motok), a community which in pre-British times ruled the Tinsukia region; the other is of Tai-Ahom stock, an ethnic group which migrated from the cusp of Burma and Thailand in the 13th century and went on to rule Assam for 600 years till the advent of the British. Ulfa may be of the view that by hitting soft targets, it will also be able to get public pressure to force the easing of the security operations. Unfortunately, the reverse is the case. Public opinion is outraged and the government is girding its loins for an assault against the Ulfa.
In the process, the recommendations of the review committee on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which has sought the repeal of that Act, is going to be further pushed aside because the army and the security established in New Delhi will again assert that they need extraordinary powers to deal with extraordinary situations. The power of the army will continue in these situations and the Ulfa will continue to hit and run, harming the very cause of Assam that it seeks to protect and promote.
The voices seeking a genuine dialogue will be muted, but they must continue to speak. And it must be a genuine dialogue, involving both sides being sincere and not looking for escape hatches — whether it is the Ulfa denouncing the Centre’s demand to put its agreement in writing before it comes for talks or the Centre wanting an unequivocal assurance that the top leaders will come for the talks. The door for dialogue must be kept open. But Ulfa-appointed interlocutors and representatives cannot have a say. There must be a direct dialogue, without conditions.
The government will say: “We will not talk at the point of a gun.” So does the Ulfa, actually. But at some point, there has to be talks. The question is when. The government cannot come to the talking table after being a helpless spectator to the recent massacres. But even this is not written in stone. We would do well to remember that the National Democratic Front of Bodoland came to a ceasefire with New Delhi days after it massacred a group of bus passengers and others in October 2004. There is no military solution to a political problem, as South Africa, West Asia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India’s North-east and Kashmir tell us, and tell us resoundingly.
A message that these killings drive home is that the Ulfa is prepared to hit the most vulnerable sections of society because, like any other terrorist group, it does not care about negative publicity. All that it is concerned with is a strident political message that shows its ability to strike. This capability had been considerably blunted after Operation All Clear in Bhutan in December 2003 when the Royal Bhutan Army swept through insurgent camps of the Ulfa, the Bodos and the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation in that country. Hundreds were killed, a number of Ulfa leaders ‘vanished’ and have been unaccounted for by both the Bhutanese and Indian authorities.
A large number, including the Ulfa’s chief ideologue, Bhimakanta Buragohain, and its publicity chief, Mithinga Daimary, fell into the security dragnet.
While the January massacres come a couple of weeks before the Republic Day celebrations, it should be borne in mind that this period is often a run-up for a recrudescence of violence by the Ulfa (and other North-east groups) to strike specific targets, such as oil pipelines and police and security forces and assert that they are still around.
The killings also reflect a desperate call for talks. The Ulfa believes that by hitting at the soft underbelly of the Indian State, comprising the weak and marginal who are nobody’s constituency, the governments at the state and central levels can be pressured into being summoned for talks. But governments react quite different to such tactics. They opt for, in the initial stage, a furious counter-strike, mustering all the power they can gather, seeking an all-powerful knock out punch. The only problem is that this crucial knock-out punch has been rather elusive.
Army operations, with brief pauses, have been on in Assam continuously for years. The latest is the fourth major counter-strike in less than 16 years. A united command structure has been in operation for over 10 years, since the time of the previous government of the Asom Gana Parishad leader Prafulla Mahanta (who was soft on the Ulfa in his first term but tried to go after it in his second term).
Such assaults work for increasingly shorter durations as insurgent groups are able to regroup and reassemble their scattered networks over a period of calm and apparent inactivity, when so-called peace processes are sought to be promoted. Peace processes are a good thing. But what do the Centre and the state police and governments do in the interregnum? Simply allow the growth of these groups and wait for the denouement as has happened in these past days? Surely, that is as good an example of government failure and implicit complicity as negligence?
There is also the question of the National Games that the Ulfa wants to stop. The event has become a prestige issue for the state government and the Centre. Indeed, they should be held. But at what cost? Why is the government making it appear that it is organising the games? The games are to be held under the aegis of the Indian Olympic Association and its local affiliates, by sports organisations and sportspersons. Obviously, the government is a key player, putting together facilities, infrastructure and security. But whether the games should be held or not is the IOA’s call.
Finally, there is the issue of the ‘Bihari’ labourers and ‘Hindi-speaking’ migrants who are targets. This is not an Assamese-migrant issue or an Assam-Bihar issue. Lakhs of Bihari settlers who have come to Assam over generations continue to live there. This is an assault by an armed group on the vulnerable and weak in isolated settlements. There is a desperate need to provide not just better political management but also the basics of governance — providing infrastructure, road connectivity and technology to places lacking them. Human and political security come through connectivity. The victims of the violence in Assam are testimony to that.
Sanjoy Hazarika is Consulting Editor of The Statesman and is with the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research.