Patient approach


An opportunity for negotiating a settlement to the decades-long insurgency in Assam has opened up with ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, his deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah and eight others, including their family members, now in Indian custody. ULFA’s top leaders have been operating from Bangladesh since the early 1990s and despite repeated requests, successive governments there refused to hand them over, even denying their presence on Bangladeshi soil. The Sheikh Hasina government has broken with the past by facilitating the handover of not only ULFA leaders but of two Lashkar-e-Toiba militants wanted in India for their role in last year’s serial blasts in Bangalore. This co-operative approach on the part of Bangladesh could mark the beginning of a new phase in bilateral relations. ULFA has suffered a significant setback with Rajkhowa and Raju Baruah in Indian custody.

However, its fighting capability might not have been severely dented as Paresh Barua, its military commander, is still in hiding. It is possible that ULFA has split and ‘moderates’ Rajkhowa and Raju Baruah have surrendered with the aim of engaging in negotiations with the Centre and ultimately participating in over-ground politics.

The Centre has offered the ULFA talks on the condition that it renounces violence and the goal of independence. But Rajkhowa has responded with some tough words. He has ruled out giving up the demand for independence and has said he will not engage in dialogue as a prisoner. But this is no reason for despair. It is unrealistic to expect an insurgent leader to renounce his organisation’s long-standing goals even before talks begin. It is through talks that he can be persuaded to water-down his objectives.

There are lessons that the Centre can draw from its experience with negotiating with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) group. The NSCN-IM was not expected to abjure its sovereignty goal; the talks were unconditional. This flexibility paved the way for talks and has enabled the survival of the ceasefire and the peace process with the NSCN-IM. A similar flexibility will bring ULFA into the mainstream. There is no doubt that ULFA’s independence goal is against the Indian Constitution. But it is only through talks that its leaders and cadres can be convinced to give up that goal. Unconditional talks will bring ULFA to the table. A bit of patience and flexibility could prove rewarding.

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