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The Ray Of Hope, But…

It remains to be seen whether the nascent ULFA peace process will yield the desired results. The most powerful man in the outfit, Paresh Baruah, remains recalcitrant.

There is an impression that peace might be a reality in Assam very soon, given that a familiarization dialogue between the leadership of the Arabinda Rajkhowa faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Centre has already taken place and there are indications as to the flexibility of both sides as they have decided to embark on the course of a meaningful peace process without any preconditions. Rajkhowa, chairman of the outfit, and those who held meetings with Union Home Minister P Chidambaram and Union Home Secretary GK Pillai in New Delhi on February 10 were handed over to the Assam Government by Dhaka in December, 2009. They have been released on bail from judicial custody in order to facilitate peace talks between the outfit and the Centre.

After a short but important courtesy call on Chidambaram, ULFA foreign secretary Sasha Choudhury said, “The meeting was very cordial and he has assured us that he will help in finding an honorable and amicable solution to the ULFA’s conflict with the Government of India.” Formal talks will start once the outfit submits its agenda for the talks, which is being prepared by the Sanmilita Jatiya Abhibartan (SJA), a citizens’ peace broker group led by eminent intellectual Dr Hiren Gohain, in consultation with the people of the State, Choudhury added.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has termed the development in New Delhi as positive. “My meeting with ULFA leaders on Wednesday (February 9) was very cordial. They had expressed their desire for an honorable solution to the vexed problem. We too showed full respect to them and agreed for a meaningful solution to the problem,” he said. The Chief Minister has also appealed to the outfit’s elusive self-styled commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah and other hardliners with him to join the peace process in the greater interest of the people of the State.

At a meeting with about 50 Assamese students in the national capital on February 11, Rajkhowa claimed that Chidambaram had assured the outfit’s pro-talks leadership that the Centre would go to the extent of amending the Constitution, if required, in order to protect the rights of the indigenous people of Assam. “The Home Minister has promised us that he will take initiatives for amending the Constitution, if necessary, to safeguard the rights of the indigenous people of the State,” the ULFA chairman told the students. He added that the dialogue was only a “beginning” and would “end in an agreement”. Apart from Rajkhowa, Sasha Choudhury, publicity secretary Mithinga Daimary, finance secretary Chitrabon Hazarika, cultural secretary Pranati Deka and political adviser Bhimkanta Burhagohain interacted with the students and said that they needed the support of every Assamese for the success of the peace process.

The ULFA leaders met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on February 14. The meeting lasted for about 20 minutes. They said that the meeting was “incredibly good” and that the Prime Minister wanted that both sides should work with sincerity to resolve the issue.

After landing at Guwahati on February 15 along with other outfit leaders, Rajkhowa said, “The Prime Minister has welcomed our decision to hold unconditional talks to find a peaceful and political solution to the problem. He has assured us that the Govt will hold sincere and meaningful dialogue to find an acceptable and honorable solution.” He added that the ULFA had apprised the Prime Minister that their decision to come forward for talks was based on a letter written to them by the Union Govt on May 25, 2005 conveying its readiness to discuss all “core issues”. He also said that the outfit expected the Centre “to fulfill the commitments” given to the outfit and hoped that the “assurances” made to it “would not remain confined to the negotiating table and official files alone”. The ULFA chairman appealed to the people of the State, including all political parties, organizations, students, farmers and others, to remain united and cooperate with the outfit in creating an atmosphere where it could find “honorable solutions” to “the problems faced by the State through talks”.

But the million-dollar question is whether the peace process would be meaningful sans the presence of the most powerful man in the outfit, Paresh Baruah. The self-styled military chief, holed up somewhere near the Myanmar-China border in the Kachin-Yunnan region, is in full command of the outfit’s wherewithal. His obstinacy—that there cannot be any compromise on the issue of Assam’s liberation from “Indian colonialism”—stems from the power he wields within the outfit when it comes to launching terror operations. It is he who calls the shots in that sense; according to Union Home Ministry classified documents to which The Times of India has claimed it has access to, way back in 2002, Baruah had stripped the ULFA chairman, foreign secretary and finance secretary of their powers—so much so that the chairman had been living on a monthly stipend since then! So how durable can the peace being attempted be?

Let it not be glossed over that Baruah, going by various reports, has evolved into an international arms dealer and presides over a huge and flourishing industry of terrorism. Since it is clear that the ULFA has split into pro-talks and anti-talks factions, the former led by Rajkhowa and the latter by Baruah, and since Baruah is capable of running his industry by virtue of the ULFA resources he commands and the contacts he has with terror-sponsoring agencies like the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and elements in China that would love to see Northeast India being destabilized thoroughly, he might continue on the same terror mode by leading the anti-talks faction or float a new outfit. Given the vast and swelling army of the unemployed and unemployable in Assam for whom terrorism remains a coveted career option, Baruah might easily find recruits to help him operate his terror industry. This, the Government, both at the Centre and in the State, cannot afford to ignore.

The other aspect is whether the families of the victims of ULFA terror would get justice or whether whosoever from the outfit surrendering would be granted amnesty for the sake of “peace” but at the cost of the sentiments of the many innocent victims. The perpetrators of crimes against an innocent humanity, including, mind it, children, in the name of “revolution” must face exemplary punishment in a democratic society where the law of the land must be applicable equally to all. This will also send out an unequivocal message that the Indian nation-State will not dither or vacillate in the matter of punishing terrorists while negotiating peace deals towards achieving a durable order.

Only time will tell whether justice would be done and peace, in the real sense of the term, achieved. This of course is possible. Only, the Government needs grit and a road map not dictated by electoral considerations.

*The article is written by Bikash Sarmah.

(Courtesy: ADNI)

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