THE 30-year-old insurgency in Assam entered a new phase in the last part of 2009 when India's sustained diplomatic engagement with Bangladesh finally yielded positive results. Sheikh Hasina's government handed over the chairman of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Arabinda Rajkhowa, and its self-styled deputy commander-in-chief, Raju Barua, to the Indian authorities. Two other top ULFA leaders, foreign secretary' Sasha Choudhury and finance secretary' Chitraban Hazarika, had been handed over about a month earlier.
The arrest of the ULFA leaders improved the prospects of reviving the peace initiatives between ULFA and New Delhi, which had been initiated when these leaders were in Bangladesh but reached a deadlock later. A convention held on April 24 in Guwahati, under the aegis of a group of intellectuals and leading citizens, added to the expectations of peace talks while stoking up the public debate on the sovereignty issue raised by ULFA.
However, both the Centre and the Assam government are still in doubt over the fruitfulness of initiating a dialogue with ULFA without involving its all- powerful self-styled commander-in-chief, Paresh Barua, who has shifted his base close to the Myanmar-China border and is still elusive. Public opinion in Assam is also sharply divided on the efficacy of such a peace initiative. The optimists want the government to start the talks with the jailed leaders, while the sceptics warn that a peace formula thus arrived at will not be binding on Paresh Barua and, hence, may not produce lasting results. New Delhi and Dispur are conscious of this while maintaining that they cannot wait indefinitely for Paresh Barua.
Two of the top jailed leaders, vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi and central publicity secretary Mithinga Daimary, after being released on bail (the Assam government facilitated their release by not opposing their bail applications), played a key role in garnering support for a peace initiative. After being approached by them, a group of intellectuals and leading citizens, led by Dr Hiren Gohain, organised the April 24 convention. Two members of the ULFA-constituted People's Consultative Group (PCG), Lachit Bordoloi and Dilip Patgiri, who are in regular contact with the jailed ULFA leaders, were among those who took the initiative for the convention. They played a key role in ensuring the participation of over 100 organisations representing different tribes and communities, opposition political parties, students and youth, women, and social activists.
The ruling Congress said it was not invited, but the organisers maintained that invitations had been delivered at Rajiv Bhawan, the Pradesh Congress Committee headquarters.
Paresh Barua seized the opportunity to stoke up a debate on the restoration of Assam's sovereignty, one of the core issues raised by ULFA. He rejected the peace initiative, saying that the militant outfit would never compromise on this core objective. He also urged the State's intellectuals to press the Central government to hold a plebiscite on a sovereign independent Assam if the forum could not ask the government to hold talks with ULFA on the issue on the pretext of the Constitution.
Paresh Barua's rigid stand may not have affected the convention's final resolution, but he succeeded in influencing the deliberations and bringing the sovereignty issue to the fore. Opinions were sharply divided as some delegates supported the ULFA demand that the sovereignty issue should be on the agenda of the government's talks with the outfit.Measured reaction
Arabinda Rajkhowa's reaction was cautious. He declined to comment ahead of the convention, both on this issue and on Paresh Barua's opposition to the convention. He issued a guarded, one-line statement: At this juncture personal opinion will only create confusion among the people of Assam. It is generally believed that the two freed ULFA leaders, Pradip Gogoi and Mithinga Daimary, had Rajkhowa's blessings when they approached the intellectuals with the request to take the initiative to revive the peace process.
In the final resolution, made public by Dr Gohain and others, the convention urged both ULFA and the government to sit for unconditional talks. But this was preceded by sharp divisions. Some participants put tremendous pressure on the presidium to include the core issues raised by ULFA in the text of the resolution, since direct mention of the sovereignty issue was not possible. They argued that ULFA could not be expected to give up the cause of sovereignty since this was the demand around which the organisation had been formed. They succeeded in modifying the text of the draft resolution. The modified resolution called upon the government and ULFA to start unconditional dialogue to discuss all core issues raised by the outfit towards the resolution of Assam's long-pending problems.
In a quick reaction to the draft resolution, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi ruled out any dialogue on sovereignty and said that negotiations, if any, should be unconditional. He also rejected the ULFA demand for a plebiscite, saying that the people of Assam, through their overwhelming participation in successive Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, had already rejected the demand for secession.
The convention's final resolution, which came after Gogoi's statement, urged both ULFA and the government to engage in unconditional talks. Other resolutions urged that the dialogue be held at the highest levels on both sides, that the jailed ULFA leaders be freed so that decisions could be made in a free atmosphere, and that the government show no reluctance to initiate the dialogue.
Mithinga Daimary, currently on bail, and Raju Barua said that the outfit would take a decision on the resolutions after holding discussions at the organisational level. This has kept alive the hopes for peace, and in the coming days, the government is likely to come under increased pressure to release the top leaders. However, any move by the jailed leaders to back the convention's resolutions and start talks without Paresh Barua will widen the cracks that have already surfaced in the outfit.NDFB: different reaction
In contrast to the general sentiment favouring dialogue after the arrest of the ULFA leaders, the arrest in Bangladesh and the subsequent handing over to India of the founder leader of another banned insurgent outfit, Ransaigra Nabla Daimary alias Ranjan Daimary of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB), evoked completely different reactions.
Members of the Guwahati Lawyers Association (GLA) and the All-Assam Lawyers Association (AALA) decided not to defend Daimary in court because he was named by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) as one of the 19 accused in a case relating to the October 30, 2008, serial blasts in the State. These lawyers' bodies had passed resolutions not to plead for anyone who was involved in the explosion at the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) in Guwahati; there were three lawyers among those killed. As many as 88 people were killed and 540 people were injured, and public property worth Rs.2.99 crore was damaged in the nine blasts. However, some lawyers have come forward to defend Daimary.
The stand of the lawyers' bodies evoked sharp reactions from Bodo political parties, student and youth bodies and the apex Bodo literary body, the Bodo Sahitya Sabha. The Bodo bodies argued that if the members of the two lawyers' bodies could plead for Rajkhowa, then there was no justification in their decision not to plead for Daimary. The Bodo bodies also accused the police and the government of discriminating against Daimary by not informing his family members about the arrest and not allowing them to meet him in court. They said that the families of the ULFA leaders were not barred from meeting them in the court premises.
The CJM's court witnessed a scuffle involving Daimary's supporters and relatives, including his younger sister and Sahitya Akademi award winner Anjali Daimary, when the arrested NDFB leader was produced in court. The police arrested nine supporters of Daimary for raising pro-NDFB slogans.
The police have refuted the allegations of discrimination against Daimary vis-a-vis the arrested ULFA leaders and clarified that leaders of both militant outfits were produced in court in the same manner and that the persons protesting illegally on the court premises were arrested in accordance with the law.Not much difference
There is not much difference between ULFA and the NDFB as far as their primary objectives and the means they have adopted to achieve them are concerned. Both want secession and both have been waging a war against India. Both have bases in Bangladesh and Myanmar and both have carried out blasts in public places in Assam.
The two lawyers' bodies, however, stood firm on their resolution. The GLA clarified that since its members had lodged the first information report following the blast that occurred at the CJM's court and since many of them were witnesses in the case, it was technically and legally not justified for them to defend persons accused in the case. The lawyers' bodies also pointed out that in the past their members had appeared for several Bodo insurgent leaders and hence the allegation of discrimination was baseless.
These arguments have failed to pacify the Bodo bodies. Several other tribal groups and organisations have also criticised the decision of the lawyers' organisations.
All this has aroused sentiments that could be used by sections with vested interests to stoke ill-feeling between the Bodos and other Assamese people. The situation has the potential of leading to dangerous conflicts and must be handled sensitively. Daimary, meanwhile, appears to have regained his lost support base, with Bodos taking to the streets to protest against the perceived discrimination.
However, his arrest has also revived the hopes for peace, with Bodo political parties and organisations, including the Bodoland People's Front (BPF), the coalition partner of the ruling Congress, urging the government to initiate peace talks with the NDFB faction led by him. These organisations have, however, spoken out against the discrimination against him. They have also urged Daimary to engage in peace talks with the government.
Daimary was the president of the NDFB for a long time since its inception on October 3, 1986, as the Boro Security Force. It was rechristened NDFB in 1993. On December 15, 2008, the general assembly of the NDFB replaced Daimary with a new leader, B. Sungthagra alias Dhiren Boro. However, 12 days after his removal, Daimary claimed that he was still the president of the NDFB. On January 1, 2009, the NDFB expelled Ranjan Daimary for his alleged involvement in the October 30 serial blasts. This split the outfit into two factions, one led by Sungthagra and known as the NDFB (Ceasefire) and the other led by the 51-year-old Daimary.
Daimary initiated a peace process by declaring a unilateral ceasefire on October 8, 2004, for a period of six months, which was extended to another three months. Subsequently, he signed a bilateral agreement on suspension of operations with the Central government on May 25, 2005. The same year, 855 NDFB cadre led by its general secretary, Govinda Basumatary, moved into three designated camps in Kokrajhar, Baksa and Udalguri districts.
Daimary, however, did not come overground; he continued to operate out of his bases in Bangladesh along with armed cadre of the third battalion of the militant outfit. The cadre strength of the NDFB (Ranjan Daimary) faction, which is fighting for Sovereign Boroland for the Bodos, is 225, according to official figures.