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Shape of an ULFA peace formula


wasbir hussain
director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies

The jailed ULFA leaders are as yet non-committal in public, and, if anything, they, too, are playing the politics of silence. If the comments made by the latest peace facilitator Dr Hiren Gohain are to be taken as correct (I mean correctly reproduced in the media!), the ULFA leaders who are in detention have agreed to give up their demand for ‘sovereignty’ and look for a solution that is acceptable. And yes, going by the public pronouncements of Dr Gohain and his fellow peaceniks, they would not have taken up the tricky mission of brokering a possible Government-ULFA dialogue had the rebel leaders (who Dr Gohain said he had met in jail) continued to stick to their ‘sovereignty’ demand. “We oppose sovereignty but Assam’s genuine grievances must be addressed, grievances that had originally led to the ULFA’s birth,” Dr Gohain has been quoted in the media as saying.

As I have stated in this column earlier, ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and his colleagues would do well to clear the ambiguity or clear their stand. It is now more than six months since nearly the entire ULFA top brass had landed in Indian custody and lodged at the jail in Guwahati. The authorities have given them enough opportunity at the jail to meet, talk and chart out their future course of action. It is not just Dr Gohain who was permitted by the authorities to meet with Arabinda Rajkhowa in jail. Other people, including Gandhians Dr SN Subba Rao, Hem Bhai and many others, too, were allowed to meet the ULFA leaders and discuss the possibilities of working towards a solution sans ‘sovereignty.’ Therefore, the argument of the jailed ULFA leaders and their advisers and supporters that the peace process just cannot progress unless they are first freed does not really hold good.

There are more pressing issues that should bother the ULFA leaders and their advisers/supporters other than worrying about people like Arabinda Rajkhowa being in jail. After all, when the peace process gathers steam or when a deal is reached, leaders like Arabinda Rajkhowa will be hailed as ‘heroes’ in any case! And yes, they will be out not just from jail (I know they would be free men and women much before a deal) but would be given a red-carpet welcome wherever they appear. What is of utmost importance now is for Arabinda Rajkhowa & Co, the pro-talk ULFA Group and peace facilitators like Dr Hiren Gohain is to work on a peace formula. The question is: what could the ULFA get by way of a deal to end the three-decade-old insurrection or what could the Government of India offer the ULFA that would satisfy the rebel group?

It is interesting here to take a look at the 18-point charter of demands submitted to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by the pro-talk ULFA Group (headed by Mrinal Hazarika, Jiten Dutta and Prabal Neog) in March 2009. The demands are as follows: (a) Full autonomy within the framework of Indian constitution. (b) To keep 70 per cent of seats reserved for the indigenous people in Assam Legislative Assembly and to create an Upper House comprising indigenous and ethnic people. (c) To seal the Indo-Bangla border to check illegal infiltration (d) To detect and deport foreign nationals taking March 25, 1971 as the cut-off date. (e) To detect foreign nationals by preparing a revised National Register of Citizens of 1951. (f) Detected foreign nationals to be kept in a special/specific area and to deport them phase wise. (g) To introduce dual citizenship. (h) To introduce the system of inter-State permit. (i) To form a border commission to find solutions of border disputes of northeastern States. (j) To adopt a scientific approach to the flood-related problems and to recognize floods of Assam to be a national calamity. (k) Immediate steps should be taken to stop hydro-electric projects which will cause immense damage to the State of Assam. (l) To open and develop Stillwell Road to connect Assam with South-east Asia immediately. (m) To have dialogue with all the insurgent groups of northeast to restore permanent peace in the region. (n) To declare the Brahmaputra river to be a national waterway. (o) Necessary steps should be taken by the government of India to declare Majuli as a world heritage site. (p) A special task force constituted by recruiting the indigenous people of the northeast and to deploy them in the Indo-Bangla border to check infiltration and safeguard the border. (q) To construct a seventh bridge across the Brahmaputra to connect Nimatighat and Majuli. (r) Immediate release of the four central committee leaders of ULFA from jail.

Yes, the demands placed by the pro-talk ULFA group can be the basis for a peace formula. But the problem will be with the first demand, that is, full autonomy for Assam. This point needs both a serious debate and a solid clarification. Debate because the question will arise – is full autonomy to Assam supposed to cover Bodo, Karbi, Dimasa and other areas dominated by ethnic groups who already enjoy a fair degree of autonomy? Also, one would like to know what exactly is meant by ‘full autonomy’. Is it an extension of the demand made by regional parties like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) that has been seeking all powers to the State except for defence, foreign affairs, currency and communication?

It is now two years since the ‘A’ and ‘C’ companies of the ULFA’s potent ‘28th battalion’ had called a truce and transformed into the pro-talk ULFA Group by giving up the demand for sovereignty. Leaders of this group have gone to the people and have submitted its charter of demands to the Prime Minister after considerable deliberations. The need of the hour for the pro-talk ULFA Group is to sit with the jailed ULFA leaders (if the two sides agree and there are indications they have no problems on this) and deliberate on a feasible, acceptable and just solution to the group’s insurrection.

Tragically, however, time is spent on issues like release of the jailed leaders, whether the talks, as and when they are held, must first be held at the State Government level or directly with the Centre, and whether or not Paresh Baruah, the group’s elusive military chief, will be part of the peace process. Yes, Paresh Baruah ideally must be a part of the whole ULFA peace process, but he may not be interested in talking peace just yet or he may have his own conditions. But, the Government must take a call on whether to start the peace talks with those ULFA leaders who are willing to negotiate. The need of the hour also is to look out for vested interests out to sabotage any peace effort even before it gathers steam. And there is no dearth of such vested interests in Assam, already on an election mode!