Northeastern India’s frontline separatist group, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), is faced with its biggest mutiny in nearly 30 years of its existence. On June 24, 2008, two of the three companies of the rebel group’s crack ‘28th battalion’ announced a unilateral ceasefire with the authorities, saying the move was aimed at facilitating peace talks between the outfit and the Government of India. This was, indeed, a significant development because the ‘28th battalion’ of the ULFA, also known as the ‘Kashmir Camp’, is headquartered in Myanmar, and has been the most potent strike force of the outfit, active in Assam’s eastern Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, and Sivasagar districts, as also in adjoining Arunachal Pradesh.
The truce called by the Alpha and Charlie companies of the ULFA’s ‘28th battalion’ has not really come as a surprise. On June 21, 2008, three days before the ceasefire announcement, a former commander of the ‘28th battalion’, Mrinal Hazarika, walked out of prison in Dibrugarh on bail. The authorities had apparently not opposed his bail plea, facilitating the ULFA leader’s release from jail, where he had been lodged since his arrest in 2005 from Siliguri in West Bengal. The next day, Hazarika telephoned journalists to say he was back with his colleagues in the ‘28th battalion’. Two days later, Hazarika, along with Jiten Dutta, another top commander of the ‘28th battalion’, and a dozen other members of the unit, issued a signed statement announcing the truce.
When these ULFA leaders, who can now be described as the pro-talk group, addressed the media on June 26, 2008, at one of their strongholds in the village of Amarpur, in eastern Tinsukia District, close to the border with Arunachal Pradesh, it was clear that they had been in touch with the authorities for long. Hazarika, who was among those who addressed the visiting journalists, openly admitted having parleys with officials of the Assam Police, the Army and the central intelligence agencies during the run-up to their truce announcement. It was not surprising, therefore, to find Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, quickly welcoming the ceasefire call by the two companies of the ‘28th battalion’ and promising help to facilitate their peace initiative. Assam Police chief, R. N. Mathur, has since been quoted in the media as saying the Alpha and Charlie companies of the ULFA’s ‘28th battalion’ will be outside the purview of the ongoing counter-insurgency offensive of the Security Forces (SF) in view of their truce call.
Whether or not the announcement of a truce by a section of the ULFA will serve any purpose in taking the ‘peace process’ forward, the points raised by the pro-talk ULFA leaders before the media are of significance:
- There has been no split in the ULFA and the ‘pro-talk group’ has been forced to revolt because the group’s central leadership refused to pay heed to several issues raised by them for almost two preceding years.
- The central leaders have failed to appreciate the ground situation in Assam, since they have been living abroad for long.
- The central leaders have preferred to remain silent on the threat to the indigenous Assamese people from illegal Bangladeshi migrants, despite being apprised of the matter.
- The central leaders and the other ULFA units must now take the cue and come forward for unconditional peace talks with the Government of India.
- The ULFA-appointed peace panel, the People’s Consultative Group (PCG) — set up in 2005 and that held three rounds of talks with the Central Government — has failed in its objective of preparing the ground for possible direct talks between the group and the Government.
- The only other company of the ‘28th battalion’, the Bravo company, has not called a truce as yet because most of its leaders are outside the country.
The call by the pro-talk ULFA leaders to their bosses — ‘chairman’ Arabinda Rajkhowa, ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah, ‘foreign secretary’ Sasadhar Choudhury and others — to enter into unconditional talks with New Delhi is nothing unusual. What is particularly significant, however, is their statement that the ULFA’s central leaders — believed by Indian authorities to be operating from Bangladesh — have preferred to remain silent on the threat posed by illegal migrants from Bangladesh to the very identity of the Assamese people. By raising the issue of illegal influx from Bangladesh, the pro-talk leaders have put the ULFA leadership in the dock, and in doing so, seek to appease local sentiments, including those of influential mainstream groups in Assam, who have been raising the migration issue with determination to rid the State of illegal aliens.
While these developments are certainly positive, from the point of view of the authorities, there are no grounds for euphoria. The events in Nagaland in recent weeks have shown what factionalism within an insurgency movement can do, derailing gains that may have been made over the years through peace processes. At least 40 Naga rebels have been killed in factional fights since May 2008, and as many as _____ since the beginning of the year. Nevertheless, there will certainly be enormous pressure on the ULFA leadership now, and the central leaders will have to introspect on the state of the organization and the causes that have led to the ‘28th battalion’s’ mutiny. A crucial aspect of the latest turn of events is that direct talks between the rebels and the Government have actually occurred without the involvement of intermediaries, and particularly without the participation of the ULFA-backed PCG.
The security establishment believes that the ULFA leadership could soon be isolated if more rebel units were to come forward to join the pro-talk group or the peace process. This argument is not something that the ULFA leadership can simply brush aside. It has been a long time since the ULFA’s top leaders have hiding out abroad, running the organization by remote control, and many of the top operational commanders, with whom the top leaders were personally familiar and who were appointed to key posts by them, have fallen into the security dragnet. Their positions have been filled up by newer cadres, many of whom have not had the opportunity to work closely with their top brass.
It would be naïve to expect the ULFA to follow the example of the pro-talk group in the ‘28th battalion’, but the outfit will certainly be forced to formulate a strategy to repair the damage. One option would be to launch a series of strikes, particularly on soft targets (a bomb blast on June 29, 2008 at a crowded market at Kumarikata, in the western Baksa district, on the Bhutan border, killed five people and injured more than 50 others while another explosion in the central Assam district of Nagaon on June 27, 2008 injured six people), or get busy rebuilding the two breakaway companies of the ‘28th battalion’ to fill up the void created by the desertion of the pro-talk group. If that happens, Assam could well witness fratricidal feuds between ULFA factions. In fact, pro-talk leaders of the group like Hazarika have admitted that they are, indeed, apprehensive of such an outcome, and stated that they were “taking precautions”. Local media reports suggest that some cadres of the Alpha and Charlie companies of the ‘28th battalion’ have joined the Bravo company as they did not want to be a party to the truce.
The Government, combating the ULFA in a systematic manner since the first military offensive (Operation Bajrang) was launched in November 1990, will certainly receive a temporary reprieve following the latest truce. The challenge, now, is to consolidate these gains and establish an effective process to secure peace in the State. This is going to be an uphill task as ULFA military chief Paresh Baruah has said on June 29, 2008 that any dialogue with the Government must include the group’s key issue, that of ‘sovereignty’ of Assam. Talks with two companies of the rebel group will certainly create tremendous pressure on the ULFA high command, but cannot end the insurrection in Assam. Over the coming weeks, it will be interesting to discover how the pro-talks group will respond to the Assam Government’s stated position that rebel cadres coming forward to join the peace process must lay down arms and stay at designated camps, till a final resolution is reached through negotiations. There is little reason to believe that the road to peace in Assam will not remain thorny.
(This article appeared in South Asia Intelligence Review at www.satp.org )