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Delhi clears mind on ULFA, but what now?

POSTED ON FEBRUARY 6, 2010

wasbir hussain
director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies

What many had suspected and thought could be a possible game-plan or a course of action has finally come true. The Centre has made known its mind on the issue of holding possible peace talks with the outlawed ULFA when it said a dialogue can begin even without the participation of the rebel group’s elusive military chief Paresh Baruah. This stand of New Delhi has made one thing clear---the Government would be hoping to make Paresh Baruah ‘irrelevant’ in the peace process by coming forward to start peace talks with the ULFA top-brass who are currently in jail.

On Monday, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram made two main points on the ULFA issue---first he said the Government was waiting for an offer for talks from the top ULFA leaders who have recently been apprehended, and secondly he said one cannot wait indefinitely for Paresh Baruah to turn up and join the peace efforts. “Our offer to talk to ULFA remains, but we have not yet got an offer to talk with those who have been apprehended,” Chidambaram said, referring to arrested ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, foreign secretary Sasadhar Choudhury, finance secretary Chitrabon Hazarika, deputy ‘commander-in-chief’ Raju Baruah and others.

Take a look at what the Home Minister had said with regards to the ULFA military chief: “Paresh Baruah is not with us. We do not think he is in India. Just because Baruah is out of the country, does not mean that talks can be avoided indefinitely.” One does not need a more clear statement from New Delhi. The Government is now getting ready to start talks with the ULFA under the leadership of Arabinda Rajkhowa.

The Assam Government on its part is keen on accepting the condition put by the jailed ULFA leaders that they be first freed, by whatever means, before they can actually think of starting the peace process. Rajkhowa has said they cannot send out a signal or write a letter to the Government while being in jail. The ULFA leaders have raised the question of self-respect and ‘dignity.’ The impression one gathers from all these is that Rajkhowa & Co. too are keen on starting the peace talks..

The challenge this time round for the Government may not be on the issue of releasing the jailed ULFA leaders. That’s because these leaders are unlikely to jump bail as in the past. First, Bangladesh has denied them free stay in the country by capturing them and handing them over to India and secondly their wives and children are now very much in the open, having been allowed to go home by the authorities. Besides, going by the role played by a member of the People’s Consultative Group (PCG), it appears that the PCG itself or the PCG member in his individual capacity may also have come forward to stand guarantee that the jailed leaders would not disappear if freed.

The critical issue will be the agenda for the talks. New Delhi is not going to have anything to do with the demand of ‘sovereignty.’ Now, the pro-talk ULFA group headed by Mrinal Hazarika and his colleagues are talking about ‘total autonomy’ to Assam. By the way, the pro-talk ULFA group is also likely to lend its weight behind Arabinda Rajkhowa if the latter comes forward for talks. The ULFA need to actually firm up its charter of demands if it is sit for talks with the Government. Assuming that the pro-talk group headed by Mrinal Hazarika is to sit for talks, it must also be clear on what it means by ‘total autonomy’ to Assam. Will such an autonomy idea overlap with the existing autonomy already being enjoyed by the ethnic groups like the Bodos, the Karbis or the Dimasas? What could that magic formula be on the basis of which talks to end the 30-year-old insurrection can begin?

Answers to these questions are critical. We are all aware of the extreme lack of transparency in the talks between the Government and the NSCN-IM since 1997.What is not difficult to understand is that the Naga problem is not going to be settled if the Government and the NSCN-IM are to sign a deal tomorrow. Similarly, one can very well ask the question: will the ULFA insurrection end if Paresh Baruah is not part of any peace process? The answer may be a clear no, but again how long can one wait for the recalcitrant ULFA military chief. Like the NSCN leaders, the ULFA’s top leadership too is running against time. They are all now middle aged and must have realized they cannot achieve their dream by securing a military victory over the Indian state. The ULFA is actually at the crossroads now and the ball for peace lies very much in its court.

(This article was published in The Sentinel, February 6, 2010)