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The next step in Assam

Are peace talks with the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) possible minus its “commander-in-chief” Paresh Barua? And without the issue of Assam’s sovereignty on the negotiating table?

india Updated: Dec 07, 2009 01:31 IST

Are peace talks with the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) possible minus its “commander-in-chief” Paresh Barua? And without the issue of Assam’s sovereignty on the negotiating table?

Unlikely, Barua’s former comrades, sympathisers and arrested leaders say. But security analysts and conflict specialists are optimistic on two counts — the outfit is “no longer in a position to bargain” and the “stage is set” for its political wing to take over from the military wing.

The issue has assumed importance after Ulfa chief Arabinda Rajkhowa was arrested. So long there was little perspective on the way forward on the Assam issue because the Centre had no one to talk to. Now the “civilian leadership” of Ulfa is likely to be distanced from the “military” leadership.

“We have always maintained Ulfa is a political problem, and its solution can only be political,” said D.B. Shekhatkar, who was chief of the army’s Tezpur-based 4th Corps in anti-Ulfa operations.

Ulfa indeed was a civil-political organisation until the military wing, under Barua, virtually took over in 1990, when the first army offensive — Operation Bajrang — was launched. Barua, Rajkhowa and four others had formed Ulfa on April 7, 1979.

Barua was one of six members of the military wing in Ulfa’s decision-making, 16-member central executive committee (CEC).

“Paresh Barua is third in the Ulfa hierarchy after Rajkhowa and vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi, who is in Guwahati Jail. And all the other CEC members of the outfit’s political wing are in jail or police custody. So there’s no reason why Barua cannot be sidestepped for the vanquished peace process to start,” said Noni Gopal Mahanta, head of Gauhati University’s Institute of Conflict Management.

Vanquished? “Because Ulfa is not in a position to bargain, unlike in 2005, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the government was ready to talk on all core issues. What was left unsaid then was that core the issue includes the issue of sovereignty,” Mahanta added.

Barua, for one, has negated the theory that he comes in the way of peace talks. “It does not matter whether or not I come into the picture. What matters is if colonial India is ready to talk sovereignty,” he said via email. Sovereignty was one of 30-year-old Ulfa’s three preconditions for talks; it had long dropped the other two -- discussion in a foreign country and mediation by the United Nations.

On the eve of Singh’s visit to Russia, the Centre maintains that “sovereignty” for Assam is not negotiable.

According to senior advocate Arup Barbora, a member of the Peoples Consultative Group that Ulfa had set up in 2005 to mediate for talks, an “egoistic” Indian bureaucracy is stalling the peace process.

“If the government can talk to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) despite its insistence on sovereignty, there’s no reason the Ulfa issue cannot be handled similarly. Discussing sovereignty does not mean granting it, particularly when New Delhi is ready to talk to all Kashmiri groups, some of which are rigid about secession. Why the Janus-faced (hypocritical) approach for Ulfa?” he said.

Tarun Gogoi’s government too is in favour of a mechanism that suits both New Delhi and Ulfa. “The idea is to start the dialogue, with or without Paresh Barua,” said a top government official.

That a move is on to give preference to the political wing headed by the “more respectable (within Ulfa)” Rajkhowa is apparent from what Mrinal Hazarika had to say. Hazarika, arrested from Siliguri in 2005, is chief of Ulfa’s breakaway pro-talks group. “The government should facilitate the meeting of our General Council soon,” said Hazarika.

Ulfa’s constitution says the sovereignty of Assam is not negotiable unless decided by the General Council involving all members of the outfit. This council has not met for more than 10 years now.