Round Table on

Breaking the deadlock on the road to peace in Assam

Guwahati, 16 October 2004

The Centre for Development and Peace Studies (CDPS) had organized a roundtable discussion on the topic : 'Breaking the deadlock on the road to peace in Assam' on 16 October 2004.

Participating in the discussion were the following:
Bhubeneswar Kalita, APCC President ; Sammujjal Bhattacharya, Advisor All Assam Students Union (AASU) ; Dilip Patgiri, AJYCP Chief Advisor; Hitendranath Goswami, MLA and General Secretary of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) ; Sunil Nath, former publicity secretary United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA); Haren Das, Chief Secretary (retd) Government of Assam ; Noni Gopal Mahanta, professor Political Science, Guwahati University ; Prasanta Rajguru, senior journalist Dainik Asom; Pranjal Saikia, film personality turned peace activist and Maithali Hazarika, clinical psychologist at Guwahati Medical College and Hospital.

Also present were CDPS office bearers and members: T.L. Baruah, President; Wasbir Hussain, Director, P.J. Baruah, Seema Hussain and Zarir Hussain. Rani Pathak, CDPS researcher helped in the arrangements. The discussion got underway at 10.30 AM, soon after tea and snacks. Mr Wasbir Hussain, Director CDPS requested former Home Commissioner TL Baruah to say a few words and welcome everybody.

T.L. Baruah, President CDPS welcomed the participants on behalf of the nascent organization (CDPS). He said that the objective of the symposium was to try and bring peace back in strife-torn Assam by discussing various ways and means, by the assembled people who are leading lights in their own fields be it politics, academics, entertainment, administration or student movement.
Excerpts of his speech : The present discussion is on an important topic which concerns all of us. I extend to you a hearty welcome. CDPS is committed to bring a cross section of intellectuals whose opinion is counted, respected and who can influence and mould public opinion. In the process of discussion, we may no agree to each other’s point of view but one thing is certain that all of you want peace to prevail in the state of Assam, all of you want the end of violence. I hope, after deliberation this morning, the message will go right down to the persons concerned and that they will think seriously on the peace initiatives taken by the state Government and others and they think seriously to join hands with peace initiative taken by the State Government and others for the restoration of peace and end to violence. NDFB has already offered ceasefire and the Government of Assam has sent a positive note and we expect that things will now roll on for positive end. I hope other militant groups also join hands with the government for peace initiatives and end of violence. The discussion today also gets topically of interest for we want to have a roadmap for initiating peace processes with the militants. We believe terrorism in any place cannot be solved militarily. Experiences elsewhere show that only there can be a political solution to the problem of terrorism. Violence cannot be eliminated by violence. So initiative must come from the State Government, from the Central Government and a major role must be played by political leaders. I hope, all of us with our own sphere of influence exert pressure and bring both the parties to the negotiating table so that we can seek peace which will be beneficial to us, our children and grandchildren. I hope the deliberations this morning will be very very fruitful. Thanking you once again.

Mr Wasbir Hussain, Director, CDPS welcomed all present on his personal behalf and on behalf of the CDPS.
Excerpts of his speech : Since the last one year or may be more, we were thinking that we should have some kind of an independent think tank in Guwahati. Most of the research institutes which are there and independent think tanks are primarily based in New Delhi. But here in Assam we have very prominent people. Since we are working out of here we are faced with the problems and we are dealing with the issues on a day to day basis. Apart from our respective fields, we are a core group that is a mix of senior working journalists, retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, besides academics, economists and development experts. We got together and thought that apart from working in our respective fields, we should have a think tank here and also focus on micro and macro level studies on peace and development issues concerning Assam and the rest of the northeast. And also try to link up issues which concern our immediate neighbours. We also want to document success stories, whatever small it is, so that the same stories can be replicated in a different region. Assam itself is a vast area. It is not enough to write on issues only concerning the Government and security issues, there are many development stories. There are micro level issues that are vary different in upper Assam and lower Assam, so we are also writing location specific stories. But we want to put it in context and perspective and circulate it through the mass media and through our initiative. We want to highlight individual success stories apart from group success stories, both government as well as the NGO sector. That is one area of our work. Second issue is, we have called our centre- CDPS. Now why are we doing peace studies? We are doing peace studies because we are located in an area where peace has been shattered from time to time due to various factors which we all know, we have different perspectives on the issue. CDPS thinks that there is a strong linkage between peace and development. Therefore, we are studying peace because there is no peace or there can be better peace. This is basically in short what we are doing, our area of activity as an independent think tank. We take the views of everybody, and then come to our own conclusions. Our all conclusions sometimes may be accepted or may not be accepted, but we are open to review our own thinking like discussions such as today so that it helps us focus our study or analysis of the situation.” The topic of discussion ‘Breaking the deadlock on the road to peace in Assam’ has its main focus on Assam and the issue of insurgency. The NDFB has already offered ceasefire, and the Assam Government has accepted the offer and said that they will inform the Central Government and prepare the ceasefire ground rules. Secondly, in this situation, though ULFA has not responded yet, but we should have a positive approach and considering the situation in the whole of global militancy and insurgency movement, specially after 9/11, we have seen that all the militant and medical organizations all across South Asia and all across the world, there is a tendency that they have come to realize that there is no harm in talking. Particularly in the northeast, there is a move for peace and people have accepted that negotiated settlements can arrive at an acceptable solution. Our discussion today on ULFA insurgency as well as the NDFB insurgency. We are not to discuss whether the ULFA will come to the negotiating table or not. We hope that at one point of time, both sides may smoothen off their conditions or preconditions and sit face to face to discuss their issues. But when there will be a discussion, what will be the possible shape of a solution? Now, if we assume that when NSCN(IM) agreed to talk to the Indian government they obviously must have decided that Government of India will stick to a solution within the Indian constitutional framework. So, before sitting for discussions, NSCN(IM) must already thought something within the constitutional framework which can be sorted out. In respect of a similar round of talk with ULFA, let us discuss what can be the shape of a solution against the issues raised by ULFA. ULFA says that they are an exploited lot – there is an ‘economic exploitation’, there is a ‘colonial exploitation’ and according to ULFA, as of today, only a sovereign Assam can solve their problem. But, when there is a discussion with the Indian Government, there has to be an acceptable solution for discussion. So what kind of acceptable solution it can be in a futuristic roadmap is what we would like to hear from you. We will also like to discuss about NDFB since NDFB has already offered ceasefire and they are a step forward and ULFA is not. So this is the basic focus of our discussion today. As our discussion is absolutely informal, I would like to request all of you to speak uninterruptedly for five minutes, and then we will have an exchange of views. I start with my right with Mr Bhubaneswar Kalita.

Mr Bhubaneswar Kalita : At the outset I thank and congratulate the Centre for Development and Peace Studies. The issue taken up for discussion today has always been very very important for all of us. The issue is peace and development, because peace and development are interdependent. We have entered a situation where each is dominating the other. The official view is that development is not possible without peace. The other view is that peace is not possible without development. So, the best approach could have been and should be that both the peace process and development process should go parallel, one should not affect the other.

That is the course that has been taken in certain other insurgency prone states and has given dividends in states like Mizoram and Punjab. Basically, there can be reasons for insurgency- political, economic, social reasons so to say. But the sum total of all this has always been that if we start the process we have to study the problems in depth. In that, society has to play a role. Only Government and the interested parties cannot be the sole negotiator. There has to be a role of the society to play in the situation. We have seen in cases if we refer to the problems that has been raised by our initiator of the discussion. Basically discussion today is on the problem of ulfa and bringing them to the initiating table and the NDFB which has already taken a step. So I refer to these two organizations and must say that we have to refer to other insurgencies which are in other states. To bring them to the negotiating table, there is a long long process where the society, the social organizations play roles individually and organizationally. We know some of these groups like NSCN or even in Mizoram. I am restricting myself to the North eastern region because we have similar problems. So I m not talking about Punjab or Jammu and Kashmir where we have different situations altogether and different issues which may not be similar to us but those issues which are similar to us. We can refer to Nagaland or Mizoram in this respect. Government, organizations, society, individuals have started at different levels to initiate talk, but the base has to be expanded now. Those informal discussions initiated by individuals or organizations have brought positive results. The result of such efforts has been noticed in Mizoram and Nagaland. In case of Assam also, we have had so many informal discussions both individually or organizationally by groups which are involved with social process. We have come to a stage where at least an environment has been created where we can talk about holding discussions. And this is the outcome of long drawn discussion. So an environment has been created where we can hold discussion and go ahead with it. There cannot be a short cut. It has to be debated, discussed, it has to be sorted out. Many more rough edges will come which have to be smoothened through discussions. This is the time that we can play our own role and have serious discussions based on which a formal discussion can be started.

The challenges are the conditions that have been put by extremist organizations. Even that can be sorted out informally. For example in the case of Mizoram there was a long drawn discussion individually and organizationally. And finally either an interlocutor by the Government or some social organizations, individual or otherwise has to play the role of a mediator. Conditions may be from both sides – Government and insurgents.

But those can only be sorted out informally by individuals or organizations involved in the peace process. So, I think today we have met in a very congenial atmosphere which can lead us to a solution to this. We have seen already that the NDFB’s declaration of unilateral ceasefire is a welcome stage for an environment for meaningful discussion between NDFB and the Government of India. The same can be followed by ULFA, who has some different conditions. The basic need for peace talk has to be ceasefire by the insurgent organizations which has to be reciprocated by the Government.

Sunil Nath : Now I am working in Dainik Janasadharan. Once when I was taking an interview of Paresh Baruah, he stated ULFA’s version. They said that they want discussion on sovereignty because it is our condition. When I asked why they have taken this condition telling him that no Indian Prime Minister will admit to separate any part of the country at any point of time. That is out of question and nobody can even think about it. Their version is that sovereignty lies with the people of Assam. It was when the Yandaboo Treaty was signed that sovereignty of Assam was transferred to the British. At this point of time India was also not sovereign. Since in no point of time in history of India did not have control over this area, so we have a technical point according to law where we can argue that since sovereignty was ceased for whole Assam, so sovereignty has to be returned to the people of Assam first. If our leaders in 1947 had accepted that the people of Assam should stay under India, we can say that the then leadership was not elected after taking referendum on such an issue.

Secondly, since I have been requested to speak today on this issue, I apologize for being pessimistic though I have been always optimistic all along. But today in the end as we have sat together seeking a solution, I think on the ongoing situation, status quo is a problem which needs to be solved. Unfortunately, I feel that for a section of ULFA members, status quo is a very preferred solution which should continue forever. Paresh Baruah has said that we need a political solution. But when he becomes the vanguard of a political movement, there will always be scope for political solution and that will perhaps be the only solution. Nowadays insurgency has degenerated to professional terrorism, they have nothing to do with idealism and sovereignty. This is visible in Assam’s North Cachar Hills and Karbi Anglong districts. In such a chaotic situation, the State has to act of its own and restore order in these places. This is a law and order problem. But in the case of the ULFA, it is a political problem. Therefore the Indian state should act in a positive and big brotherly attitude and say “Come lets sit for talks.” This way maybe we can win them for . Referendum is certainly not a possibility as other trouble spots like Jammu and Kashmir might also then come up with such a demand which can be dangerous. So, in the case of the ULFA, if the Indian government comes forward for talks in a liberal manner, then those ULFA men who are sincere will come forward for talks and those with ulterior motive who want a status quo to continue will shy away from the talks and thus stand exposed.

Hiten Goswami : When representatives from both the Congress and the Muslim League went to Delhi to participate in the making of the constitution, they had said certain things which seem true today. So, today’s discussion will be based on what our forefathers had said for which we have to go back to history. In this connection we have to talk of greater autonomy. Initially, in 1946 when the Indian Constitution was being framed, the framers of our Constitution had envisioned a weak centre and strong states. But after the partition, things changed and the Constitution then went in for a very strong centre and weak states to prevent separatist tendencies. At this point, the representatives from Assam and Orissa who were present there strongly resented this attitude. So, when we talk tomorrow of a possible solution, what do we talk of? In my opinion, it can be only on the question of greater autonomy for the states. Kuladhar Chaliha said in the assembly, “If you take away too much power from the states, then the provinces will try to break away from the centre”. So today we find this happening because a equilibrium between the centre and the states could not be achieved. It has been established that violence pays in the northeast. Non-violent kinds of protests like the one by Irom Sharmila of Manipur has not been heeded. In my opinion, if the President of India came to persuade her to call off her fast, it would no have been a great thing. But if blast rocks the states, then people like the Home minister come rushing to take stock of the situation. This is because the Hindi heartland gives scant attention to the small northeastern states. This was felt during those days also. That is why in 1946 itself our leaders have predicted that a disintegration effect would set in and this has not taken long to come. After independence, only Nagaland had raised the demand of sovereignty. In other states, such an issue came much later. Secondly, on the three lists of states Rohini Kumar Bhattacharya, Assam member of the Constituent assembly said, “We have nearly come to the end of the lists- 1,2 and 3 and now we find that the states are no longer provinces but are reduced to municipal corporations and other local bodies”. All the powers have been taken away either in list 1 or 3, no power left to the provinces. Premier Sir Sadulla, also a member of the constituent Assembly had stated, “Ours is a cry in the wilderness. Our voices are never heard by the Centre. However much we may cry, we will not get a hearing”. Therefore, we find that whatever we are saying now, had been said much earlier by our leaders in the forties. So, to set the whole thing right, we have to now address the issue of greater autonomy or more power to the states. On the economic front Rohini Bhattacharya had said, “My province Assam has been the source of contribution to the Central exchequer to the tune of Rs 8 crores annually in the shape of excise and export duty on tea and petrol. But the sub venture that given to Assam was only Rs 30 lakhs”. I do not find any change in the outlook today.