The Centre creates another chance for talks with ULFA by declaring a ceasefire, but mistrust of each other is the stumbling block.SUSHANTA TALUKDAR in Guwahati
AFTER blazing for decades, guns have fallen silent in Assam, though temporarily. After many hiccups, peace initiatives in the insurgency-ravaged State have reached a crucial phase, raising hopes that the Centre and the proscribed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) would soon be engaged in a dialogue process to resolve the 27-year-old conflict.
On August 14 the Centre declared a 10-day ceasefire unilaterally, leading to the suspension of Army operations despite a series of attacks on security personnel and soft targets. ULFA responded with a statement that it would "try to respect New Delhi's goodwill gesture of holding fire". The Centre then extended its ceasefire by 15 days and mounted pressure on ULFA to send it a communique that it was willing to take part in a dialogue.
"We have said that the suspension of operations would have to be reviewed if there are instances of violence. We have also insisted on a firm commitment from them for the talks in writing," said Home Secretary V.K. Duggal after talks with ULFA-appointed facilitators, noted Assamese writer Dr. Indira Goswami and Rebati Phukan, on August 23. National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and Intelligence Bureau Director E.S.L. Narasimhan also took part in these talks.
Even as the ceasefire raised hopes of a renewal of the peace initiative and direct negotiations, ULFA accused the Centre of going back on the promises made during its talks with the ULFA-appointed People's Consultative Group (PCG) on June 22 in New Delhi.
After that meeting, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil had said that the government would consider favourably the release of the five jailed ULFA leaders in consultation with the State government.
The ULFA said the release of the leaders was essential for its central executive committee to meet and discuss the Centre's invitation. The leaders were: vice-president Pradip Gogoi, adviser Bhimkanta Buragohain, cultural secretary Pranati Deka, central publicity secretary Mithinga Daimari and self-styled captain Ramu Mech.
Of the 15 members of ULFA's central executive committee, five are in a Guwahati jail, its general secretary Anup Chetia is in a Dhaka jail, and the group's chief Paresh Barua, chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, foreign secretary Sasha Choudhury, finance secretary Chitraban Hazarika, and two others Jibon Moran and Raju Barua, are out of the country.
ULFA said it was keen to find a permanent political solution to the problem and that it had appointed the PCG to facilitate direct talks with the Centre. It had also appointed Indira Goswami as the chief facilitator between the PCG and the Centre.
Before the release of the jailed leaders the Centre wants ULFA to send a direct communique expressing its willingness to hold talks instead of routing it through the PCG. New Delhi also insists that the communique should mention the names of the negotiators and the date for the talks.
ULFA perceived these demands as a ploy to create a rift in the outfit's leadership. Any communiqu sent without the sanction of the central executive was bound to create a rift, it said. One of the PCG members, too, felt that New Delhi's insistence on the ULFA letter was an attempt to weaken the outfit before formal negotiations. He said any move by the ULFA top brass to send a communique without securing the release of the jailed leaders and without prior sanction of a full-fledged central executive committee could create misgivings among the rank and file and undermine the constitution of the outfit.
Indira Goswami, on her part, did not see anything wrong in ULFA sending a direct communique if that helped break the deadlock. Accompanied by Rebati Phukan, she met M.K. Narayanan and V.K. Duggal twice in August to keep the hope of talks alive. The meetings yielded positive results as the Centre extended its ceasefire by 15 days.
On the issue of releasing the jailed leaders, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said he did not see anything wrong in the Centre's stand. He said the release of the five leaders was not a problem for the State government and the Centre was also not opposed to it. The Centre, Gogoi said, was only asking ULFA to give a letter indicating its willingness to hold direct talks and mentioning the names of the team of negotiators. He said that ULFA should realise that the Government of India displayed sincerity and political will in finding a peaceful political solution to the problem by declaring a ceasefire in the midst of the militant outfit attacking security forces and soft targets.
The Centre's dithering on releasing the leaders stems from the experience in 1991 when top ULFA leaders, who were released on bail so that they could come for talks, fled to the jungle instead.
The dialogue process should not be a repetition of 1991 when the militants had "a bitter experience of talks", ULFA cautioned the Centre. ULFA said that in 1991 some of its leaders were killed soon after they were released from prison. It further alleged that the Government of India "took the signatures of ULFA leaders on surrender agreements when they went to Delhi for talks on exchange of prisoners".
With the ghost of 1991 haunting both sides, ULFA has rejected the offer of safe passage for Paresh Barua and Arabinda Rajkhowa to take part in the talks. New Delhi apprehends that if the jailed ULFA leaders are set free without first getting a written assurance from the outfit for direct dialogue, there is no guarantee that the released leaders would not flee again. Sources said the Home Ministry was trying to devise a safe mechanism to ensure that the freed leaders cannot flee to the jungle on the pretext of attending the central executive committee meeting.
Apart from the leaders' release ULFA demanded that the Centre inform it about the whereabouts of its leaders following the December 2003 crackdown against the outfit by the Royal Bhutan Army. This was one of the three issues the outfit had raised through the PCG and it wants a categorical answer from New Delhi before coming for direct talks.
The Prime Minister's Office (PMO), in its first letter to the outfit, had stated that all core issues would be discussed and ULFA had responded clarifying that there was only one core issue - "Assam's sovereignty". Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had made it clear during the first round of discussions with the PCG that constitutional boundaries could not be crossed.
The Centre also opposed the publication of a list of names of ULFA militants, which the Ministry of Defence had submitted before the Gauhati High Court. These militants had been handed over by the Royal Bhutan Army to India during the crackdown on the outfit in Bhutan.
Additional Solicitor-General of India Vikash Singh, while submitting on behalf of the Centre on a set of habeas corpus petitions filed by wives of missing ULFA leaders, pleaded with the court that the list submitted by the Centre be regarded a privileged document and that the publication of its contents would endanger the security of the state and affect counter-insurgency operations.
Amicus Curie in the case P.K. Goswami, however, opposed the Centre's submission and submitted that the list was not a privileged document as it did not pose a threat to the security of the state and that the non-publication of its contents would result in denial of justice.
The Army is understood to have cautioned the Centre against extending the ceasefire indefinitely if the gesture failed to bring ULFA to the negotiating table. It cautioned that ULFA was using the opportunity to regroup.
Meanwhile, the People's Committee for Peace Initiative (PCPI) has intensified its campaign - through public rallies, meetings and dharnas demanding the release of the jailed leaders, a halt to the Army operations and the inclusion of the sovereignty issue on the talks agenda.
Security analysts feel that since the people's desire for peace is growing following the informal cessation of hostilities, the Centre and ULFA would be under pressure to find a way out to remove their mistrust of each other. Official figures show that over the past one decade 2,444 civilians, 549 police and security personnel and 1,978 insurgents have been killed in the State. Public pressure is likely to mount on them not to let go of the opportunity to resolve the conflict and give peace a chance.