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In the mood for talks

Print edition : Jan 17, 2003 T+T-
At Rongbin, 450 km from Guwahati, rebels of the United People's Democratic Solidarity observe Martyrs' Day on December 6.-ANUPAM NATH/AP

At Rongbin, 450 km from Guwahati, rebels of the United People's Democratic Solidarity observe Martyrs' Day on December 6.-ANUPAM NATH/AP

Insurgent groups such as ULFA, the UPDS and the BLT in the northeastern region are ready for talks with the Central government, following in the footsteps of the NSCN(I-M).

WITH the talks between the Centre and the extremist National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isaac Chishi Swu, taking a positive turn, other insurgent outfits in the northeastern region are showing interest in negotiations with the Government of India. The Centre has held talks since 1997 with the Naga leaders, who have been in self-imposed exile in Thailand, both at the prime ministerial level and with the help of emissaries - Swaraj Kaushal and K. Padmanabhaiah - outside the country. Now the two leaders have agreed to come to India for a final round of talks with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani. To ensure their "safe passage" the Centre has lifted the ban on the NSCN(I-M) and the Nagaland government has withdrawn all arrest warrants issued against the two leaders. The progress of the Centre-NSCN(I-M) negotiations has generated hope of an end to the insurgency in the northeastern region.

Soon after the Centre decided not to extend the ban on the NSCN(I-M) in November, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which has been carrying on an underground armed struggle for the last one decade for a "sovereign" Assam, urged New Delhi to withdraw the Army from Assam and pave the way for a "political solution". Besides ULFA, insurgent groups operating in Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura are watching closely the outcome of the negotiations between the NSCN(I-M) and the Centre.

Pradip Gogoi, the arrested vice-chairman of ULFA, told newspersons at the designated court in Guwahati on November 15 that the Centre and the Assam government must "take the initiative of declaring a unilateral ceasefire first" to enable talks with ULFA. He offered to take the "initiative of bringing the parties concerned to the negotiating table if I am authorised to do so by my (ULFA's) central leadership". However, a top official of Assam Home Department said Gogoi would not "know much about ULFA's official stand" as he had lost touch with its top leaders, chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and self-styled "commander-in-chief" Paresh Barua after his arrest in Kolkata in April 1998.

But senior functionaries at the Kamrup district jail, where Gogoi has been lodged, told Frontline that "he is abreast with all relevant developments", and his suggestion for a "unilateral ceasefire from the government's side may carry weight".

On November 27, in a four-page statement faxed to some newspaper offices, Arabinda Rajkhowa urged New Delhi to withdraw the Army from Assam and create an atmosphere conducive to a "political solution to the conflict". ULFA has observed November 27 as "protest day" since 1990, the year military operations began against the outfit. The first such offensive was named Operation Bajrang.

Rajkhowa, who is believed to be holed up in Bhutan, said the Centre should discard its "policy of doublespeak" on crucial issues and give his outfit "due respect" if it wanted to end insurgency in Assam. He described the Tarun Gogoi government as a "puppet government" and alleged that it had masterminded the so-called killings.

Meanwhile, in the latest edition of its mouthpiece, Freedom, ULFA stated that it was monitoring the outcome of the talks between the Centre and the NSCN(I-M). "The Indo-Naga talks will be the acid test of Indian sincerity. We have the patience to wait till the Indo-Naga conflict is resolved," the fortnightly said.

The fortnightly also claimed that it was "sincere" about its preconditions. "These pre-conditions are the consequences of Indian trickery experienced in the past. The former 16-point Naga agreement, the Mizo accord and the Assam accord are the mirror of our suspicion of Indian sincerity and so we set pre-conditions for the good health of a most sought-after peaceful negotiations," it added. The ULFA also said the talks must focus on sovereignty, an issue New Delhi is not prepared to discuss. The question here, and with other insurgencies, is whether they will settle for something substantially short of sovereignty, such as wider political and economic autonomy and a huge amount of funds.

A day after Pradip Gogoi spoke of a "unilateral ceasefire" as a prelude to talks, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi lobbed the ball back into the outfit's court, saying his government would declare a truce if the rebel leadership promised to abjure violence. He pointed out that the government had agreed to a cease-fire with the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and the United People's Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) after receiving "formal and positive" indications from them of a change in their attitude. "We will be very happy to recommend to the Centre a cease-fire, but it has to be two-way traffic," he told Frontline.

The Chief Minister's guarded reaction to the ULFA leader's "offer" stems from the fact that the outfit has repeatedly spurned the Assam government's peace overtures. Until November 15, ULFA was adamant on three conditions: the discussions must be on Assam's "sovereignty", the presence of United Nations observers at the talks, and the negotiations must be held outside India. Asked if the State government would release Pradip Gogoi if the ULFA leadership authorised him to be the mediator, the Chief Minister said his government would help anyone who came forward to mediate. "But before any such move, we must get a positive indication from the ULFA leadership," he said. The ULFA leadership's rejection of the government's previous offers was reason enough for it to be circumspect, he added.

Pradip Gogoi, however, appears to be in a hurry to begin negotiations. "If the Centre and the State government are really sincere about solving the problem, there is no reason why they should shy away from negotiations on the pretext of these conditions," he said.

But will the ULFA leadership ask Pradip Gogoi to mediate on its behalf? On November 25, family members of several militant leaders staged a sit-in demonstration in Dispur, Assam's capital township near Guwahati, to urge the State government not to accept Pradip Gogoi as the mediator. They want a person who does not belong to ULFA and whose sympathies do not lie with the government.

The demonstrators accused the State government of double standards, as reflected in its policy of inviting the ULFA leadership for talks and continuing the military operations. "The government invites militants to the negotiating table and simultaneously continues its counter-insurgency operation, which is actually a licence to terrorise the people. We would like the government to call a halt to the operation and then sincerely appeal to ULFA to agree to talks," said a demonstrator, reflecting the opinion of the majority.

The day-long demonstration was not just against the government's attitude, but also against the ULFA's refusal to dilute its stand. The parents and relatives of several top ULFA leaders, including Punakon Deka, Ramu Mech, Jitu Das and Hemanta Medhi, were among the demonstrators.

The majority of the demonstrators felt that the peace talks should be held in the State and not in a foreign country. The dialogue can be mediated by someone who is "unbiased and established as a well-wisher of the State by virtue of social contributions".

AFTER the NSCN(I-M)'s positive response to the Centre's offer of a final round of peace negotiations in Delhi sometime in early January, the hardline faction of the UPDS, the dominant militant outfit of Assam's Karbi Anglong district, put out four conditions for a dialogue process with the Centre. The general secretary of the UPDS, H.E. Kathar, in a statement issued on December 8 from the outfit's "central militia commission" said his group would hold talks with the Centre if all the four conditions were met.

The UPDS, whose base extends to the adjacent North Cachar Hills, had split recently. The faction led by Herensing Bey agreed to a ceasefire with the Centre, but Kathar's group stuck to its guns. Both factions profess to be fighting for the "Karbis' right to self-rule". Shifting from his rigid stand, Kathar, in his latest statement, said his group was not opposed to talks. "The UPDS would readily sit for talks if the Centre brings about a drastic transformation of the Indian Constitution to fulfil the aspirations of the indigenous Karbi people," he told Frontline over telephone.

The militant leader, whose outfit observed its fourth "martyrs' day" on December 6, said the agenda for the talks should focus on hemprek kangthim (self-rule) for the Karbi and Dimasa communities. Difu in Assam is the headquarters of Karbi Anglong district.

He said: "We are not for secession from India. What we want is a federal State, by limiting the federal government's powers to a handful of subjects like defence, external affairs, currency, communications and some residuary powers." Kathar added: "We want the government to spell out its position on this issue prior to negotiations, as we have seen the outcome of unconditional discussions other organisations have opted for."

In a big step towards breaking the Bodo deadlock, the Assam government has invited the BLT for final discussions on the issue of bringing an additional 93 villages under the purview of the proposed Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in Bodo-inhabited Lower Assam. Prodded by the Union Home Ministry, representatives of the Tarun Gogoi government and the BLT met on December 5 and removed most of the obstacles that had delayed the creation of a new administrative set-up for Assam's troubled Bodo region. While the BLT demanded the inclusion of an additional 93 villages in the BTC, the State government's four-member Cabinet sub-committee recommended bringing 11 additional villages under the proposed territorial council. On December 5, it was decided that since most of the other problems had been resolved there should not be any delay in the formation of the BTC. The contentious issue of including the 93 villages would be tackled after the territorial council was set up. The discussions centred on an economic package for Bodos. As promised, both sides adhered to the "spirit of give and take".

The Bodos initially demanded a separate State, but most organisations representing the community finally agreed to have a subsidiary, administrative set-up. The outlawed National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), however, continues to fight for a "sovereign" Bodoland.

In Manipur, those groups fighting for independence are worried about the Centre-NSCN(I-M) talks. Their point of concern is supported by all political groups among the majority Meitei (Manipuri) community - that no part of Naga-inhabited Manipur, close to the Nagaland border, should be handed over to the larger Naga homeland sought by the NSCN(I-M).

Tripura's armed groups, the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), which operate from camps in Bangladesh, will be weakened by an accord involving the Nagas. The NLFT has links with the NSCN(I-M) and the ATTF with ULFA. For the insurgents of Tripura, the State is not their enemy, though the NLFT talks of secession. Their targets are the Bengali settlers who migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) after the 1971 war and reduced the indigenous tribal people to a minority.