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Peace politics: Rajkhowa’s rough road ahead

POSTED ON 8 JANUARY 2011

wasbir hussain
director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies

It took less than 48 hours for the euphoria over the release of ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa to fade away. On January 1, his supporters shouted ‘ULFA zindabad’ slogans even inside the premises of the Guwahati Central Jail just as he was being led out in a procession after being set free on bail. He was clearly sought to be projected a hero not just by his cadres and supporters, but, directly or indirectly, by the government as well. Else, how could nearly a hundred people been allowed inside the jail premises to accompany Rajkhowa as he came out to the entrance gate, in full view of television cameras. Then, of course, we saw almost every vehicle in Rajkhowa’s motorcade whiz past with ULFA flags fluttering and cadres raising ‘Arabinda Rajkhowa zindabad’ and ‘ULFA zindabad’ slogans in public meetings starting from Baihata Chariali to Sipajhar, and Sivasagar, all the way to his village in Lakwa. Perhaps, some people in the government wanted to give enough leeway to make sure Rajkhowa is established as the sole leader in the ULFA who calls the shots.

Rajkhowa is chairman of the ULFA and therefore must be guarded by a ring of security provided by trusted ULFA cadres only. Yes, he is busy and will therefore not talk to the media. He will speak only what he wanted to and nothing more. He cannot be subjected to any questioning by the fourth estate. He may do so sometime later, but at his own choice. But he decided to make it clear right on Day 2 of his release that he was not averse to politics. Is he in a hurry to join politics and be a part of the Indian political mainstream? I don’t know, but this is what he had to say during his rally, attended by a few thousand people, at the Boarding Field in Sivasagar on January 2: “We are not war mongers…if we do not get the opportunity to sit for peace talks with the government in an honourable manner and if we do not get to have an acceptable solution, we will come to you this time as seek your advice…If you ask us to take up guns, we have the experience, and if you want us to take to politics, we will do as you say…”

The days ahead are going to be tough for Rajkhowa and he knows that. “Never once during our 30 year old existence had we considered a military solution to our problem,” he said. That means, the ULFA has always been looking at a political solution to the conflict. But has the ULFA really applied its mind on what kind of a solution could be acceptable to it? I can bet Rajkhowa’s biggest challenge in the days ahead will be to come up with a charter of demands to be placed before the government. After all, sovereignty is not on the agenda of the government and the ULFA knows that only too well. Then what? Total autonomy for Assam? What happens to the areas dominated by the Bodos, Karbis, Dimasas and others who already enjoy a fair amount of autonomy in accordance with the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule? Before even preparing its wish list, the ULFA leadership will have to consider these issues. Dealing with the ethnic groups will be a big issue.

Now, talking about the political path that the ULFA chief Rajkhowa has said he is ready to tread if the people of Assam so wish, it is not going to be easy. Rajkhowa and his colleagues, more than anyone else, must have been surprised over the severe flak they received from sections of the people and the media over the actions of the ULFA, mainly the killing of innocent civilians across the state, over the years. Rajkhowa did seek an apology publicly on Day 3 of his release. Had he begun his new found freedom with an apology to the people over some of the actions of his group, like the killing of the school children in Dhemaji, perhaps he and his group could have faced lesser criticism. The key peace facilitator of the ULFA-government peace process, Dr Hiren Gohain, had this to say during an interview with me: “The ULFA cannot be exonerated for all its actions, but the people of Assam must allow the peace process to move ahead as only this can open up a new chapter in the state.”

Arabinda Rajkhowa and his senior colleagues have already given many assurances to many people, perhaps some of them in writing. But as the ULFA chairman embarks on the slippery path of political negotiations, he must realize that he is not just the commander of a rebel group, but someone who is going to be under close media scrutiny. He must be prepared to face criticism and come up with answers. Yes, we all want peace and there can be no two opinions about that.

(courtesy: The Sentinel)