A nine-member group set up by ULFA harnesses public opinion to force a halt to the Army's anti-insurgency operations in upper Assam, but it wants the Central government to make the first move for a new round of dialogue.SUSHANTA TALUKDAR in Guwahati
ON September 27, hopes of a resumption of direct dialogue between the Centre and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) were rekindled as the Army called off the massive counter-insurgency operations that it had begun on August 31 in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in upper Assam. The Army move followed a spurt in public protest against the offensive.
Although the Army insists that the operation was called off as the task of flushing out the rebels was "successfully completed" and seeks to delink it from the protests, authoritative sources in the Union Home Ministry said that it was the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) that prevailed upon the Defence Ministry to call it off. Troops will, however, continue to be deployed at the entry points to the national park to prevent any attempt by the outfit to re-enter it and stockpile weapons.
The sources said that the Army had initially achieved success in cornering the 28th batallion of ULFA, the main strike force of the outfit used for carrying out sabotage operations in upper Assam districts. At least 40 militants who had returned from their bases in Myanmar were holed up inside the park. However, the operation soon turned out to be counter-productive as it gave ULFA the opportunity to regain its support base and whip up anti-Army sentiments.
In a tactical move, when the Army operation was at its peak, ULFA conveyed to the PMO its willingness to explore the possibility of direct dialogue. On September 7, ULFA's decision to nominate a group of "like-minded" people to prepare the ground for direct talks was communicated to National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan by the Assamese writer and Jnanpith award winner Indira Goswami.
A flurry of activity followed, as Indira Goswami spoke to Narayanan and conveyed to him the offer from ULFA chief Paresh Barua and chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa. ULFA named a nine-member People's Consultative Group (PCG) a day after Indira Goswami spoke to Narayanan. Its members are: Mukul Mahanta, an engineer; Pratidin Haidar Hussain, Editor of Asomiya, the highest circulated Assamese daily; Ajit Bhuyan, Editor of the Assamese daily Aji; Arup Borbora, senior advocate; Brajen Gogoi, a physician; Lachit Bordoloi, adviser of the Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti (MASS); Dilip Patgiri, Adviser of the Asom Jatityatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP); Hiranya Saikia, sports organiser; and Diganta Konwar, a journalist. ULFA named Indira Goswami the chief facilitator. She would be assisted by former footballer Rebati Phukan, it said.
The formation of the PCG gave rise to fresh hopes of a solution to the 26-year-old insurgency problem through negotiations as it came after the writer's initiative had hit the roadblock with the ULFA insisting that its core demand of "Assam's sovereignty" should be included in the talks agenda. Narayanan has now offered to travel abroad without any preconditions to hold talks with ULFA leaders.
The PCG, at its first sitting on September 11, decided to invite public opinion as to how to go about its task. However, its focus soon shifted to garnering public opinion against the Army operations.
Initially, hopes started fading as the Army intensified its operations in Dibru-Saikhowa. ULFA and the PCG threatened to call off the peace initiative. The public demand for a halt to the Army operations gained momentum after a PCG delegation that went to Dibru-Saikhowa was restrained by troops from entering the national park. Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee's statement ruling out the scaling down of the operations made during his maiden visit to the northeastern region, added to the resentment. The PCG and various other bodies dubbed his remark as "irresponsible and unwarranted" and accused him of being "insensitive" to the desire of the people of Assam for peace.
THE Dibru-Saikhowa National Park is spread over 756 square kilometres and has a core zone of 340 sq km, in Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts. The Army operations involved nearly 5,000 troops drawn from 181 and 82 Mountain Brigades of 2 Mountain Division based in Dinjan. The operations led to some quick results - the killing of four ULFA men, including the finance controller of its 28th battalion Achinta Saikia, and the recovery of some arms and ammunition. Arabinda Rajkhowa, however, claimed that 12 of its cadre had been killed and thrown into a river on September 13. The Army denied the statement.
As the operations have been called off, pressure will now be more on ULFA to enter into either a ceasefire or some formal arrangement for a cessation of hostilities, in order to prove its commitment to the peace talks. The PCG will also be under pressure from both the Centre and the State government to convince the rebel group to sign a ceasefire agreement as other militant outfits of the region have done to pave the way for actual talks.
For the time being, both sides seemed to be hesitant to make the first move, unable to get over the experience of an aborted peace initiative in 1990. In the past there had been allegations and counter-allegations by both sides over the failure of that initiative. The Centre accused ULFA of going back on its promise of holding the peace talks and ULFA on its part accused the government of killing several of its top leaders to force it to call off the initiative.
Security analysts feel that unless fresh confidence-building measures are initiated from both the sides, things are not likely to move. The PCG's argument that ULFA has not resorted to any offensive since it formed the civil society group to facilitate direct dialogue with the Centre is not going to cut much ice with the latter unless the peace overtures are carried forward to the next logical step of a formal truce.
The general public feels that both sides should declare a ceasefire to create an atmosphere conducive to peace talks, though some organisations such as the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) want the Centre to make the first move and ULFA to reciprocate.
The circumstances under which the Army had to engage the rebels in a sustained counter-insurgency operation often get blurred by the reactions of the public, which tends to forget the methods used by ULFA, such as bombings, extortion and kidnapping.
Now the expectations of the people for a solution to the insurgency problem have grown following the formation of the PCG. This was manifested in the calls by various organisations for a ceasefire. Under the circumstances, the PCG will be under pressure to devise the right strategy to make a breakthrough. However, much will depend on the mandate it receives from ULFA.
The role of the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government has also become crucial at this juncture as the outcome of the peace initiative is sure to have a direct bearing on the forthcoming Assembly elections, which are scheduled for May 2006. The ruling party will be keen to showcase any breakthrough in the peace initiative as its achievement. For the same reason, it will also seek to deny the Opposition parties any opportunity to ride a wave that may be generated in the event of a failure of the peace initiative.
The main Opposition party, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and its breakaway faction, the AGP (Progressive) led by former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, had joined the protests seeking a halt to the Army operations in Dibru-Saikhowa. The AGP managed to gain some mileage when it moved and secured the intervention of the Assam Human Rights Commission (AHRC), which came to the aid of about 10,000 residents of the villages inside the national park area who were caught in the crossfire.
Even as politicians make their calculations, the public is watching the moves of ULFA and the PCG, which will be crucial for peace.