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Assam inches towards peace: report
BANGALORE, Jan 7 (Agencies):
Published on 8 Jan. 2011 12:01 AM IST
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Hopes of an end to the 30-year-long armed insurgency in India’s northeastern state of Assam have brightened with leaders of the secessionist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) expressing willingness to enter into unconditional talks with the government.
Last week, the group’s founder-chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, was released from jail - his bail application was not challenged by the government - paving the way for the start of a peace process. Several of Rajkhowa’s jailed comrades including vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi, deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah, central publicity secretary Mithinga Daimari, cultural secretary Pranati Deka and adviser Bhimkanta Buragohain were released on bail earlier.
No date for the start of negotiations has been announced yet but the government’s interlocutor, P C Haldar, a former Intelligence bureau chief, has confirmed that the government and the rebels are interested in negotiations.
Should talks start, it will mark an important turning point in Assam’s history. Like much of the other states in India’s northeast, Assam has been wracked for decades by an assortment of conflicts - powerful secessionist insurgencies against the state, tribal movements for autonomy, and inter-tribal conflicts, among others. But it is the ULFA that has dominated and defined developments in the state for the past two decades.
The rebel group was founded in April 1979 amidst a powerful “anti-foreigner” agitation in Assam led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) against an illegal influx from Bangladesh. Unlike the AASU’s more moderate demands and methods, the ULFA’s goal was to “liberate Assam through armed national liberation struggle from the clutches of the illegal occupation of India” and to “establish a sovereign independent Assam”. While the Assam Accord brought the anti-foreigner agitation to an end, culminating in a party formed out of the AASU leadership that contested elections and formed the government, the ULFA have remained active. The group’s violence against the Indian state peaked in the 1990s, forcing the government to declare it a terrorist organization.
Massive counterinsurgency operations through the 1990s failed to break the ULFA’s back. The outfit was flush with funds raised through an arms and drugs network and extorting tea plantation companies. The ULFA also reportedly benefited immensely from largesse extended to it by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and sections of Bangladesh’s security establishment. Close ties with other powerful insurgent groups in the region as well as sanctuaries in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan helped the ULFA’s leaders and cadres escape India’s counter-insurgency operations.
Analysts have said that his charter could form the basis of a peace formula. If it does, the government should have no problem conceding many of its demands.
There is a sticking point however. The first demand is full autonomy within the framework of the Indian constitution. “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?” asks Wasbir Hussain, director of the Centre for Development and Peace Studies in Guwahati.
In the strife-torn northeast demands of one ethnic group often collide with those of another, conceding one group’s demands to push it to lay down arms often prompts another to turn to armed struggle. This then will be the challenge that the government will have to tackle: how to bring ULFA into the mainstream without pushing others to take up arms.
Officials say that this is not just about peace talks. The government has been engaged in talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland- Isak-Muivah in neighboring Nagaland since 1997. While the ceasefire has held it has not resolved the conflict. Delhi does not want a repeat of that story in Assam. They want ULFA’s leaders to join mainstream politics. State assembly elections are due in Assam in May. All eyes are on Rajkhowa and his comrades. They could spring a surprise on Assam and Delhi by throwing their hats in the electoral ring.

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