What will it take to bring peace to Assam? - Hindustan Times
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What will it take to bring peace to Assam?

Jan 06, 2024 11:54 AM IST

As the Centre signs a pact with a faction of ULFA, Assam, with a decades-long history of insurgency, is ready to turn the page. Here's why it's time

The Indian Army was deployed to curb the violence started by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) militants in March 1980. The state was declared a disturbed area and placed under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) on April 6, 1980.

Army, Assam Rifles, CAPF & police personnel during their 'Extensive Area Domination Operations' to bring peace & harmony in violence-hit areas of Manipur. (PTI File Photo) PREMIUM
Army, Assam Rifles, CAPF & police personnel during their 'Extensive Area Domination Operations' to bring peace & harmony in violence-hit areas of Manipur. (PTI File Photo)

In all insurgency-affected areas, the task of the army (with AFSPA promulgation) is to reduce violence and create conditions for a political dialogue. The final solution to such insurgency problems is always political. This has been our experience in Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Punjab and many other states.

The local support for ULFA militants and its own armed strength has been on the decline since the late 1990s and early years of the 21st century.

The Central and state governments have done well to open political dialogue with the larger pro-talks faction of ULFA under Arabinda Rajkhowa. Only a small ULFA group under Paresh Baruah, which remains adamant on secession and against any dialogue with the Central government, is in hiding near the Myanmar-China border. Given the considerable improvement in Assam, the Army felt last year that the internal security situation can now be effectively handled by the state and Central armed police forces and that AFSPA can be lifted in Assam. However, the Centre, in consultation with the state government, extended AFSPA in four districts for six months (starting October 1, 2023) and removed it from other districts.

On December 30, the Centre, state and ULFA faction led by Rajkhowa signed a Peace Accord, according to which the ULFA faction will be disbanded, all designated camps will be vacated and its cadre will surrender. The law and order situation will certainly improve further and enable the removal of AFSPA from all districts.

One hopes that the memorandum will also wean other Northeast militant groups off violence. In the last 20 years already, the incidents of militancy have reduced — only five minor incidents were recorded last year.

Indeed, such a peace accord less imaginable in the early 1990s, became foreseeable only in the past two decades.

ULFA, founded in 1979, started indulging in violence, arms and drug smuggling, and extortion activities in the 1990s. It enjoyed considerable popularity among the people of Assam in those days. It was able to join hands with rebel Naga and Kachin groups in Northern Myanmar and establish contacts with the Chinese in Yunnan for training, and purchase of arms, ammunition and equipment. It also managed to establish safe sanctuaries including large camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar and by 1995, Bhutan too.

In the 1990s, ambushes of security forces convoys, murders of important officials and businessmen and acts of economic subversion increased substantially. After setting up a Unified Command structure in Assam in January 1997 for better civil-military coordination, we inducted additional army units and intensified counter-insurgency operations. Gradually, ULFA cadres under pressure from security forces started losing steam due to factionalism and frequent surrenders.

When I was the Army chief (1997 to 2000), the strength of ULFA was about three to four thousand, divided into small units all over Assam. As chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa led the political organisation and Paresh Baruah was the self-styled commander-in-chief of the armed group. Besides local popularity and support in the Brahmaputra Valley, ULFA had developed close relations with other separatist organisations like the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), Kamtapur Liberation Organization (KLO) and National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). It would frequently send gangs through Northern Myanmar to China to obtain weapons and training. In Assam, they would indulge in mindless violence, killing innocent civilians, particularly non-Assamese, and in economic sabotage. That made travel insecure and put a halt to any development in the Northeast.

The insurgencies in the Northeast have largely been on account of poverty, political neglect, discrimination, and lack of development. Tribal aspirations and demands in these states have been further complicated due to the influx of immigrants from Bangladesh. Early attempts to make peace with Assam agitators, including the Assam Accord signed with Rajiv Gandhi’s government in 1985, failed due to non-implementation of the agitators’ demand to identify and deport illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

When ULFA started indulging in directionless bomb blasts in crowded areas, most victims were locals. It started losing its popularity in Assam. By the late 1990s, they started losing sympathisers and local support. Since then, there have been frequent splits and large-scale surrenders by ULFA militants. However, due to a long history of poor governance in Assam, radical demographic shifts, and cultural sub-group demands compounded by the rhetoric of sub-nationalism, despite frequent talks and surrenders, low-level militancy has continued in the state.

It has taken more than a decade to get the Rajkhowa faction to sign such an agreement. The memorandum of settlement (MoS) includes the disarmament and disbandment of ULFA, the vacation of militant camps, a lump-sum payment to ULFA cadres, and a slew of projects to Assam under a 5,000 crore special package. This also includes setting up an Indian Institute of Management (IIM), a railway manufacturing plant, an international cultural centre, several sports complexes, and road connectivity projects among others.

The people of Assam have realised that their state can make good progress as part of India. They have realised the futility of the objectives of ULFA militancy and its mindless path of violence. The improvement of the Indian economy, development programmes in all parts of the country and political handling of the Northeast, particularly Assam, has been helpful. While carrying out its operations, security forces did not give up their efforts to win the hearts and minds of the local civil population. A close coordination between the Indian army and the Royal Bhutan Army led to the destruction of their camps in South Bhutan; a friendly Sheikh Hasina-led government in Bangladesh also made it possible to clamp down on ULFA leaders.

I have always believed that protracted and excessive employment of the army leads to diminishing returns for the following reasons: One, an over-dependence on the army reflects a lack of trust in the capability of the state and Central armed police and paramilitary forces; two, after a while, the locals start treating the army as another police force; three, such deployments and prolonged duties have an adverse impact on the army’s discipline, morale and operational effectiveness; and four, during a war/war-like situation, the army needs the public support and it cannot afford to alienate local population. This is what we see currently happening in Manipur and, to some extent, in Jammu and Kashmir and Assam.

But peace will need more than an accord. I hope that the implementation of this MoS will be meaningful and visible soon.

General V P Malik is the former Chief of the Army Staff. The views expressed are personal.

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