The writing on the wall is clear: cadres of the pro-talk group of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), that had called a ceasefire on June 24, 2008, appear to be restive already. The escape of Uday Bharali, a pro-talk ULFA cadre from the designated truce-time camp at Sadiya, in eastern Assam, with an AK-56 rifle in January 2009, is a development that cannot be ignored or dismissed lightly. This is the right time to see if there are other pro-talk ULFA men who may have disappeared from the five designated camps where they are supposed to live. There are two things to take note of while ascribing the reasons for such a desertion—(a) life at the camps can be extremely boring, a fact that can force people to indulge in desperate acts, and (b) the uncertainty of these boys in so far as their own future and the future of their movement can make them fidgety.
Now, the obvious question that arises is what next for the pro-talk ULFA group? This faction after all has already announced giving up its original demand of an independent Assam and has declared that it is ready to settle for maximum autonomy. Will the government now start a peace dialogue with this group? This faction may have given up its demand for sovereignty, but they have a list of grievances which they hope the government to address. They would expect the government to give them due weightage not only because they have entered into a truce but because they have given up the sovereignty demand, thereby clearing the decks for a settlement within the ambit of the Indian Constitution.
But, is the government ready to start peace talks with them? The answer unfortunately is no. By all indications, the government has no plans, at least for now, to start a dialogue with the pro-talk ULFA faction. This doesn’t surprise me because the pro-talk faction does not represent the whole group and, therefore, a possible agreement with them cannot be expected to resolve the ULFA insurgency. Unlike the ethnic groups in Assam or elsewhere in the Northeast who have agitated and then settled for autonomy packages, the pro-peace ULFA group is advocating for total autonomy to the state as a whole because they do not represent any particular community with a well demarcated boundary or area of concentration.
What could the government do then to take the peace process with the pro-talk ULFA group to the next level, which in normal circumstances should have been to start a political dialogue? By all accounts, the government is fine-tuning an elaborate plan to rehabilitate all the pro-talk ULFA cadres in a bid to assimilate them fully with the mainstream by arranging alternative livelihood options for them through a hand-holding approach. Yes, the leaders of this group could well be having political ambitions but they might have to test the waters on their own merit or following. This is indeed a tricky situation both for the government as well as the pro-talk leaders who are required to keep the cadres in control.
This again brings to the fore my oft-repeated view that ceasefire as a strategy of postponing peace by the authorities can make things murkier and more tricky. The situation in Assam or the other insurgency theatres in the region has become more complicated with almost all the major rebel groups having split into pro and anti-talk factions. The government also cannot be blamed for procrastinating while dealing with the pro-talk rebel groups which are on a truce mode because it knows that reaching a deal with these groups will only lead to a partial resolution of problems.
Where does the solution lie then? One can perhaps hope to find a solution to this logjam if the government were to adopt a policy of talking peace only with the pro-talk faction of any insurgent group and going after the anti-talk factions full steam. But this strategy will succeed only if the government sticks to its stand and do not ease the pressure on the hardliners under any circumstances. Yes, this strategy is fraught with dangers because in such a scenario, the hardliners will try to unleash terror to force the authorities to rethink on their plan. Considering that the region has been turned into a bloody battleground, such a strategy may be worth trying.