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Reason to hope?

Ulfa’s offer signals how diplomacy and counter-insurgency have changed Assam.

Written by The Indian Express |
February 8, 2011 3:57:07 am

The United Liberation Front of Asom’s decision to begin talks with the Union government on February 10 without preconditions is the clearest sign so far of Assam’s sanguinary history of militancy nearing its end. While a full end is still in the domain of hope,Ulfa has appeared to be edging nearer to the democratic mainstream for a while. According to the statement read out to the press by the Ulfa spokesperson,the organisation has come round to “unconditional” talks because it believes that continuing to seek “a military solution” would be “suicidal”,given the current political situation in

Assam. It is significant that Ulfa has dropped the “core” issue of “sovereignty” and its insistence that talks be held in a third country in the presence of a UN observer.

While announcements such as this are hardly ever spontaneous and draw from behind-the-scenes negotiations,the situation in Assam has indeed changed. Ulfa’s decision not only seems to reflect that change but it is also an admission of the game having slipped out of its hands. Ulfa “chairman” Arabinda Rajkhowa’s statement of intent after his release on bail on January 1 had indicated as much,although “commander-in-chief” Paresh Barua still eludes Indian authorities. The inherent difficulties of waging a prolonged armed struggle against the state,involving the murder of civilians,begin to weaken and crack open the mechanisms of terror. The process of securing the peace and mainstreaming the militants begins the minute those cracks appear. That’s what the Indian state has learnt from Punjab to Mizoram,Jammu and Kashmir to Nagaland; and that’s how Ulfa has been tamed. The process involves a careful calibration of armed offensives on one hand and political overtures and diplomacy on the other. Thus,over the last few years,most of Ulfa’s top leaders had been caught,either in India or its neighbourhood,and jailed. And now,Ulfa’s general council has agreed to unconditional talks.

But there is an equally important strand in the Ulfa story. It tells us of the possibilities that open up when relations with neighbours are substantively addressed. The Centre may not have been in a position to sit with Ulfa for unconditional talks without Bangladesh’s cooperation in catching,imprisoning and handing over Ulfa leaders. It is important that these gains are not frittered away in an Indian state’s internal politics. The focus of the talks and the government’s priorities should therefore seek to both normalise Assam and further strengthen partnership across the Indo-Bangladesh border.

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