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North-East Echoes: Expected Battle Cry

Paresh Barua dances Bihu and the Ulfa commander-in-chief with other rebels at an undisclosed location. Picture Credit: UB Photos

The news that Paresh Barua, the commander-in-chief of Ulfa, is averse to any kind of settlement with New Delhi has dashed the hopes of millions that peace would return to Assam. But was Barua’s grand declaration a surprise? Obviously not. It serves the renegade well to continue living on foreign soil and foment anti-India sentiments, which unfortunately do have a few impressionable takers. There are far too many unemployed youths in Assam, some educated, others half educated, who can be brainwashed into investing their youthful energy in hollow anti-state rhetoric. The photographs that landed at the news desk of all media houses show a young brood of recruits into the militant Ulfa wing with the logo ‘new mission, same vision’. The vision, as we have rightly guessed, is the same old demand for a sovereign Assam which today only Paresh Barua and his small band believe in. Even Arabinda Rajkhowa has jettisoned that plank after having touched base with reality.

Does this mean then that Assam regresses into another bout of violence? Did Union home minister P. Chidambaram speak too soon when he said that peace would return to the Northeast within a decade simply because a couple of other insurgent outfits are currently on peace talks?

When the Ulfa chairperson and those in the higher rungs of the outfit were either arrested in Bangladesh or surrendered because the Bangladesh government was in hot pursuit of some of the more recalcitrant militant groups, it was believed that the era of bloodshed has crossed its shelf life. Now the centre of gravity of Ulfa has shifted to Yunnan province of China!

To facilitate talks with Ulfa, the Assam government did not contest the bail petition of its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and right-hand man Sasha Choudhury.

Goodwill gesture

The Tarun Gogoi government believed this was a goodwill gesture, which would pave the way for peace talks in a climate of mutual trust and confidence. Central interlocutor P.C. Haldar also conferred with the former militants and was hopeful that the talks would be on track with or without Paresh Barua who runs the military wing and Anup Chetia, the Ulfa general secretary, who has served a term in a Bangladesh jail on a forged passport case.

What is now called the pro-talks faction led by Arabinda Rajkhowa had been in communication with Barua, asking him to be a part of the peace talks. Rajkhowa had meanwhile dropped the ‘sovereignty’ bogey from the agenda of the proposed talks, as Delhi was reluctant to proceed with any discussion unless the Ulfa made it unconditional from their side.

Barua, who is safely ensconced on the other side of the international border/borders and a prosperous businessman, was hardly expected to toe the line of his colleagues. He has nothing to lose in his current position and everything to gain because his writ still runs and cadres continue to extort from big business even today.

Leading the anti-talks faction, Barua has also vowed that he would strike with a vengeance and has once again raised the ‘Jai Aii Ahom’ slogan because he needs an alibi to carry out his strikes. That is an expected battle cry. But are there any lessons to be learnt from the present imbroglio?

Did the Assam government or Delhi believe for a moment that Barua would simply fade into obscurity even while Rajkhowa and his gang moved forward with the peace negotiations? Such notions are in the realm of selective, collective naivety. No militant who still enjoys his freedom in a host country and knows he can still pull the strings in his own country will give up that favored status quite so easily. Unless criminals know they are being hounded and have slim chances of survival, they will continue to trumpet their noble fantasies and remain belligerent. Extortion, the mainstay of their income, is far more lucrative than any business they can take up at this point of time in their lives. As long as crime pays, criminals are unlikely to play softball. That’s the bottom line and that’s how the state has to look at this issue.

Innocent abroad

For the moment, Paresh Barua continues to remain an innocent abroad. He is currently a guest of the Chinese government, and, given our blow-hot blow-cold relations with that country, it is unlikely that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who never misses an opportunity to needle India, would agree to play ball with India the way Sheikh Hasina is, and help us get a lead on Barua and his mates.

The photo that stared at us from the computer screen was captioned, ‘taken at an undisclosed location’. Our intelligence agencies both internal and external and the satellite-savvy generation of IT professionals do not appear to know exactly where Barua is. Or that may be a closely guarded secret for reasons best known to the espionage brigade of this country.

That, in fact, is the paradox. Intelligence agencies operate on a remote control formula and with only about 500 field operatives they are unable to fan out to ground zero where all the plots are usually hatched.

With a very poor system of accountability, many operatives in the states spend time gathering information that is neither authentic nor actionable. They also depend a lot on hearsay or second hand information.

Intelligence agencies, moreover, do not bleed or suffer consequences if they give wrong information. It’s the police who are rushed into a counter-insurgency scene, or the army and paramilitary forces who bear the brunt of misinformation.

Having said that, it is also true strategic information provided to the powers that be is disdainfully ignored by babus in the home ministry or even by the home minister himself who perhaps believes in more instantaneous, politically expedient action, rather than a sustained effort which involves a deeper understanding of the underlying causes of conflicts in this country and a way out of the seemingly irredeemable maze.

Many believe Ulfa is not an insurgent outfit; that it is bereft of any lasting ideology. They hold the view that the Nagas can at least be respected for assiduously pursuing a dogma they have believed in since 1947 and have remained constant towards that pursuit. Ulfa, on the other hand, has made its targets the Hindi-speaking people, mostly laborers who have little political clout in Assam. If the Assamese have lost their lives in the Ulfa bloodspill, they are unintended casualties (something that is termed in counter-insurgency parlance as collateral damage).

The Ulfa has apologized for Dhemaji because that incident rankles in the minds of the kith and kin of the blast victims and has distanced the outfit from the Asomiya people. But has Ulfa apologized for the other targeted killings of Hindi-speaking people over the years? For them the non-Assamese is not even a human being. Their lives are expendable.

Lost ideology

The Ulfa ideology, if there is one, is pathologically defective and parochial to the core. It has come into the limelight by touching a parochial chord in a people who are paranoid of being swamped by ‘illegal immigrants’ and will invest in any individual or group that promises to drive away the ubiquitous Bangladeshi into God-knows-where.

That the intellectuals of Assam have lent their unstinted support to this cause, often without a reasonable enquiry, is baffling.

Compare this with the Naga insurgency. It was and still is a straight fight between the Centre and Naga insurgents. Later, killings have taken place between the two factions of the NSCN. At no time did the Nagas carry out acts of terror on defenseless citizens to make a political point with New Delhi. It would be interesting to watch the political reactions to Paresh Barua’s perfectly timed salvo. Election time throws up peculiar and sometimes radical paradigm shifts in the political orbit.

Tarun Gogoi and his merry gentlemen were almost going to take credit for transforming Ulfa ‘dangoriyas’ from renegades to political activists. Let us see what Paresh Barua has to say. Or will he have the last word?

*The article is written by Patricia Mukhim.

*The writer can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com

(Courtesy: Telegraph India)

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