Assam: Peace is Elusive
With one top ULFA leader reportedly in China, the peace talks with the other faction are trapped in a stalemate
Chandrani Banerjee Delhi
The rift between the pro-peace talks group and the anti-talks faction within the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) runs visibly deep. It puts a large question mark on the government’s ongoing peace process with ULFA. Experts say it is a farce unless both groups become part of the talks but this appears impossible in the current circumstances.
In January 2016, ULFA chief Paresh Baruah reiterated to the media that he would participate in the talks with the Indian government if the sovereignty of Assam and the Northeast was accepted as the core issue. Like other separatist leaders, he thinks that the ‘handing over’ of the region by the British to the Indian government after Independence was illegitimate and unjustifiable.
Once the issue is discussed with ULFA, the government would also have to accept it if the same demand is pushed by other rebel groups in the Northeast and Jammu & Kashmir. So the government will never accept the precondition especially when the peace process with the pro-talks faction of ULFA has reached an advanced stage. ULFA General Secretary Anoop Chetia, who had been in jail in Bangladesh for 18 years, has returned to India and has joined the peace talks.
Speaking to Hardnews, Chetia said, “I cannot ask Paresh Baruah to join the peace talks. The government will have to initiate this process from their end. I have nothing to say about his armed struggle because I believed in it once.”
This is an election gimmick, but a good one. Peace can be restored if there is no violence. To ensure that, the other faction needs to join the talks. The government is trying at different levels to include Baruah. I am hopeful that it will take time but, eventually, Baruah will have to join the talks
There are other reasons that would prevent Baruah from participating in the talks. As senior ‘overground’ functionaries of the outfit say, he has gone “too far” to return to Assam and he could meet the same fate as the venerable Angami Zapu Phizo of Nagaland (who supported the secessionist movement in that state from exile in London). Baruah is reportedly a ‘trusted man’ of many ‘agencies’ in India’s neighbourhood and giving up that ‘role and responsibility’ would be tough. He will not be allowed to return to India even if he were to change his plans in the near future.
There are reports that he lives in Ruili in China’s south-western Yunnan province. This could not be possible without the knowledge of the Chinese authorities. Some experts believe that China would not support these rebel groups but those acquainted with the ground reality disagree.
Dr M Amarjeet Singh, Associate Professor, Centre for Northeast Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, says, “This is an election gimmick, but a good one. Peace can be restored if there is no violence. To ensure that, the other faction needs to join the talks. The government is trying at different levels to include Baruah. I am hopeful that it will take time but, eventually, Baruah will have to join the talks. Consistent efforts to involve him would make a difference and that can be a huge breakthrough in achieving peace in the state.”
The delegation of the pro-talks faction was led by Arabindo Rajkhowa, while the government was represented by Assam Chief Secretary PC Haldar, Additional DG (Assam) VK Pipersenia, Additional DG, (Border, Assam) Pallab Bhattacharya, Commissioner and Home Secretary of Assam, Secretary (Internal Security, Ministry of Home Affairs-MHA) AK Cassyap, and Joint Secretary (North East-MHA) Satyendra Garg.
Nava Thakuria, President of the Northeastern Journalists Association, says, “Paresh Baruah is important. He needs to be involved, but the fact is that he is slowly losing ground. He has a big hold in eastern Assam, but his support base in other parts is growing thin. He has the support of China and that makes him all the more important for the Indian government.”
‘We never wanted any bloodshed’
ULFA leader Anoop Chetia spoke to Hardnews about the peace process while Assam goes to the polls
What is the bare minimum you will accept?
Well, whatever we have asked for, from day one. We want development, jobs and security. We want concrete plans that will ensure all of these. There is a huge problem in the health and education sector. The government needs to ensure a better education and healthcare system.
Is it not strange that you are now negotiating peace, after a long spell of conflict?
We never wanted any bloodshed. Initially, we tried to continue without arms and staged peaceful processions. Sadly, it failed to yield any positive results. Therefore, the option of launching an armed struggle was the option we chose. However, whenever the government offered to pay heed to our demands, we decided to welcome it. We have the right to talk peace because we picked up arms to ensure peace and development for all.
What about Paresh Baruah?
He has a different line of thinking. I have no opinion about it. At one point of time I believed in it. The government can do something about it if they want. I have nothing much to say.
If the talks are conclusive, how will you help in the forthcoming elections?
Talks are certainly constructively going ahead, but elections are a different thing. I am with the party which will work for the development of Assam; any political party which will ensure better education and healthcare system for the people of Assam. We need jobs, better infrastructure and security of women and children. I will be with the party which will offer these solutions.
With the peace process succeeding, will you contest elections later?
That will only happen after five years. Let’s wait till then. It is too early to predict. I would say that if I am still alive to fight elections, we would certainly talk about it.