The end of armed insurgency may be nigh in India's Assam
The COVID-19 disease, the second wave of which has ravaged India for the past two months, appears to mercifully be easing somewhat. The pandemic has left deep scars on the battered nation that will take a long time to heal, but it has also had some unexpected ramifications. One fresh example of this was the announcement last Saturday by the Assamese insurgent group the United Liberation Front of Asom – Independent (ULFA-I) of a unilateral ceasefire in consideration of the challenging COVID-19 situation confronting the state of Assam. The announcement has ignited hopes of an eventual end to the violent insurgency waged by ULFA-I for over four decades, much to the detriment of growth and progress of the state. The significance of a long term peace deal with the ULFA-I, a possibility that is being broached afresh with some optimism after the ceasefire announcement by the outfit, extends to beyond the boundaries of Assam. By far the largest in terms of population amongst the 7 states that make up India’s resource-rich north-eastern region, Assam is also the land link for all the other states of the region with the rest of India. ULFA-I is the largest remaining active insurgency in the north-east region. The peace and stability that the mainstreaming of the ULFA-I will bring to Assam will equally percolate to all other neighbouring states. It will also enable quicker and more efficient implementation of India’s Act East programme, which when completed promises to transform the region’s hitherto sluggish economy.
The ceasefire announced by ULFA-I’s commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah on 15 May appears to have been the result of parleys between Baruah and Himanta Biswa Sarma, the newly appointed Chief Minister of Assam, that have been going on for the past several months. Sarma has been Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s man on the ground in the north east, and his dedication and effectiveness have been rewarded with the Chief Minister’s chair. The empowerment of Sarma, apparently, was accompanied by the expectation that he would tackle the rankling insurgencies dotting the north-east. First on the list was ULFA-I. PM Modi has been keen for quite some time that the ULFA-I chapter is closed once and for all. In January this year his government had reiterated its call that the ULFA-I give up arms and hold talks with the government for a peaceful resolution of its grievances. Baruah, at that time, had communicated his reluctant to negotiate unless the government of India assured him in writing that the issue of Assam’s sovereignty, a long-standing demand of ULFA, would be on the table. He told a TV channel that “We are demanding sovereignty and that is the one point agenda for us. Let the government of India keep sovereignty on the negotiable table. We will put our points and let the government of India also put their comments. Just give a one-line statement, we will send a team to the negotiating table. This is the problem between Government of India and us”. As sovereignty was not something that the Indian government was willing to consider, that effort came to naught.
Despite Baruah’s firm stand, it soon became clear that discussions between the Indian government and Paresh Baruah were continuing on the quiet, and that it was Sarma, at that time Assam’s Health Minister, who was fronting the initiative. Less than a week after Baruah’s insistence on sovereignty, Sarma told the media that “We have offered ULFA-I leader Paresh Baruah to join the peace process, but it is not easy as they have stuck to their demand of sovereignty”. He added that despite efforts to initiate a peace process with ULFA-I being a complex matter, the government’s efforts to convince Baruah were continuing. He expressed optimism about reaching a conclusive solution soon.
Having done the ground work before the election process in Assam got underway last month, Sarma did not lose time to capitalize upon it once he was elevated to helm the state. Within hours of taking charge as Chief Minister, Sarma on 10 May appealed to Paresh Baruah to give up violence and come to the negotiation table in the interest of restoring permanent peace in the state. He said, “I appeal to ULFA leader Paresh Baruah to give up the path of armed struggle and join hands in bringing permanent peace to Assam. We have to solve the problems through dialogue. Killings and abductions do not solve problems. A dialogue with the ULFA is a two-way process. Paresh Baruah has to come forward. Similarly, we have to go to him. If both sides have the will, communication won’t be difficult. Over the past five, people saw a process of peace and development in Assam. Peace returned to Bodo areas and Karbi Anglong. Our efforts now will be to bring the remaining rebel groups to the talks table for the establishment of permanent peace in the state”. Sarma’s message exuded a degree of confidence and a willingness to make compromises, and he asserted that he intended to resolve the ULFA-I and other smaller insurgencies within the next 5 years of his term.
Indicating that the most recent moves by Sarma and Baruah are part of an ongoing process, within 5 days of the Chief Minister’s offer of talks, as if on cue, the ULFA-I leader announced the three-month unilateral ceasefire. Baruah, in a statement, said, “With utmost sincerity, we would like to inform the indigenous people of Assam that in view of the Coronavirus-induced situation, the ULFA (I) has decided to suspend all its military operations for the next three months with effect from today”. The last time the ULFA had declared a ceasefire was in 2005, when the People’s Consultative Group headed by the late author Mamoni Raisom Goswami had been constituted by the Indian government to hold talks with it.
Although the peace process gave the impression of picking up momentum with the ceasefire announcement, Sarma was not entirely satisfied with it. It appeared that he expected more from Baruah when he asserted, “They did not declare the ceasefire in consultation with the government. There are no ground rules, we don’t know where the outfit’s cadres are… this is not a ceasefire like the one with the NSCN (IM). In this case, we can at max say that there is a ray of hope. I am thinking positively. But, based on this statement, the government will keep silent in future or instruct police not to continue operations - it will take time to reach such a stage. The government will continue to do its work. If someone roams around with arms, then it can’t happen that we will not catch him. If a ceasefire is declared after coming to the discussion table, then some grounds would be prepared like allotting camps to live. I hope a discussion proposal may come from ULFA (I). We consider the ceasefire as a positive step. The next step should be discussions considering the limitations of the government. If that happens, our community will get a new lease of life”. Sarma also felt that there was lack of clarity about the reasons behind Baruah’s announcement. He said, “So, we don't know whether it is his (Baruah’s) military move, tactical move or something else. I don’t want to give any negative comment”.
Despite this criticism, Sarma indicated that he remained hopeful of the process moving ahead. He added, “I am saying that as the ceasefire issue has come, let us prepare the ground rule and proceed a little more. The government’s doors are open. I don’t want to spoil the environment by stating some harsh words. What is the harm in embracing the ray of hope? If Paresh Baruah thinks to proceed to the next step with this ceasefire and prepares the ground rule, then it will be a different matter”.
Even if several earlier efforts to get the peace process with the ULFA-I rolling had achieved little, this time around Baruah appears to be displaying some eagerness to get things moving. No longer a spring chicken, none of Baruah’s contemporaries in ULFA remain with him. While several were killed in operations by Indian security forces, others surrendered before the government and are in talks with it. The last of Baruah’s generation, Jibon Moran, was allowed by ULFA-I to leave the outfit’s camp in Myanmar for his home in Assam due to his failing health last month. The drying up of ULFA’s coffers, meanwhile, has coincided with the steep erosion of the goodwill and support that the outfit once enjoyed in Assam. Recruitment of fresh cadres to man the insurgency has also reduced to a trickle. Lording over such a crumbling outfit from the loneliness of his basic dwelling unit in Ruili in the Yunnan province of China, where he is at the mercy of his Chinese hosts, Baruah is probably feeling the futility of his present existence and sees little hope of the situation taking a more favourable turn. He also seems to be obsessing over his legacy, as his plan to release an autobiography shortly would suggest. Baruah appears to want to bid adieu with dignity in his home state, and not in distant Ruili, suffering the ignominy of being reduced to a mere tool of the Chinese system.
Baruah’s response to Sarma’s comments on the ceasefire came quickly, on the same day and within a few hours, and that too suggested a keenness to engage with the Indian government. Praising Sarma for his courage and initiative, Baruah told a TV channel that he was ready to find a negotiated settlement to the “Indo-Assam” conflict if the government of India was sincere about the same. He said, “We never said arms could resolve the issue, we took up arms because there was no other alternative after our democratic move failed. The government only played the divide-and-rule game with us all this time… It now depends on how he (Sarma) takes it forward and convinces Delhi. If he can do that then along with the people of Assam, Ulfa (I) would welcome and accept it”. Using the same term that the Chief Minister had done earlier in the day, Baruah said that he saw a ray of hope in Sarma’s offer. He added, “The credit will go to him (Sarma) if he is successful in convincing the government of India”.
Sarma will, indeed, be due a lot of credit if he is successful in pulling off a peace deal with the ULFA-I. Over the past 20 years, and especially in the last six, Sarma has built the reputation of being ambitious and having fire in his belly. Having now reached the pinnacle, Sarma will believe, as some analysts certainly do, that he has the mettle and the making, if fortune plays along, to be counted a few years down the line on the list of Assam’s most notable leaders. Bringing the ULFA-I into the mainstream, even if the outfit is a pale shadow of the ULFA of the 1990s, will certainly set him off on the right track. He will then have achieved what many of his illustrious predecessors have tried and failed. Already a very influential leader across the north east, Sarma’s clout in the region will only increase further. Importantly, it will boost his image nationally as the mainstreaming of the ULFA would encourage and facilitate India’s Act East Policy. And, if it happens soon enough, it will also be a welcome positive in the midst of the COVID-19 induced gloom that has enveloped India.
The people of Assam today see no place for a violent ULFA-I in Assamese society. The youthful idealism of the group’s founders in the early stages of their anti-foreigner movement in the early-1980s had generated sympathy and support from a sizeable section of the Assamese intelligentsia and academics. That, however, dissipated as the political movement turned first into an armed insurgency and then degenerated into a murderous killing and extorting machine. Today, most Assamese people would welcome the return of their misguided brethren into the mainstream. Along with the relief that the end of violence would bring, a tinge of sentiment may also touch a few as old memories of the firebrands of the 1980s, who had promised so much, are fleetingly revived.
There are many reasons to venture that the efforts that Sarma is putting in seem resolute enough to have a shot at success, even as Baruah’s predicament may finally be such that it no longer makes sense for him to drag the flailing ULFA-I misadventure laboriously on.