By Namrata Goswami
On June 29, the fourth round of talks between the pro-talk United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) led by its Chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, and the Union Government led by Home Secretary, R.K. Singh was held in New Delhi. The talks concentrated on the ULFA’s 12 point “Charter of Demands” and specifically on the grant of greater autonomy to the state of Assam, constitutional amendment to safeguard the rights of the indigenous people of Assam, status report regarding the 50 or so missing ULFA cadres since the 2003 Bhutan operations, the issue of illegal Bangladeshi immigration and rehabilitation of ULFA cadres. A framework for observing the cease-fire ground rules under the Suspension of Operations (SoO) signed by the ULFA last year and the surrender of arms and ammunition were also discussed.
While these peace talks are a positive sign, there are certain fundamental contradictions that need to be kept in mind with regard to some of the core demands of the ULFA. First, it is ironical that Rajkhowa has listed the influx of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants into Assam as one of the main talking points with the Union government. It is a fact that ULFA’s entire top leadership including Rajkhowa himself had taken refuge in Bangladesh before they were arrested near the India-Bangladesh border in December 2009. At that time, illegal Bangladeshi immigration into Assam was not amongst the ULFA’s list of priorities. Hence, to now change course and state that the illegal flow of Bangladeshi immigrants into Assam is amongst the top issues in their “Charter of Demands” is opportunistic at best.
The second problematic issue is the ULFA’s demand to amend the Indian Constitution to safeguard the indigenous peoples’ rights in Assam. The question that arises in this context is: who are the indigenous people of Assam? Article 1 of the 1989 International Labour Organization Convention no. 169 with regard to Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries offers a working definition on the concept of “indigenous” which needs to be seriously considered. “Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.” Further, indigenous communities must have common ancestry with the original occupants of the land, occupy ancestral lands, and most importantly, be accepted by the original population as indigenous and belonging to their group. This problematises the issue of “who is indigenous in Assam” given the wave of migrations from Thailand, Yunnan and other parts of India. Therefore, the original inhabitant discourse in Assam as projected by ULFA can create political tensions between the ethnic communities due to claims and counter-claims and hamper movement in the ULFA talks.
Third, for the ULFA to appropriate for themselves the status of “representatives” of the people of Assam in peace talks does not stand the test of democracy. It is not clear whom the ULFA really represents in the present context. The people of Assam have moved beyond the ULFA’s separatist narrative based on an exclusivist ethnic base and suspicion of outsiders. Also, the ULFA’s claim that it represents the indigenous people of Assam does not hold water since major indigenous tribes in Assam like the Bodos, Dimasas and Karbis do not look upon the ULFA as representing them. The Bodos have their own armed group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). The Dimasas are represented by the Dima Halam Daogah (Nunisa Faction), which is in peace talks with the Union government. And the Karbis are represented by the United Peoples’ Democratic Solidarity (UPDS).
Given all this, it is important that the talks do not get enmeshed on issues that create divisions, counter-claims and result in lack of consensus leading to a locked positional dialogue with no resolution in sight. Instead, there are certain other issues raised in the ULFA’s “Charter of Demands” that need to be seriously considered by the Union and Assam governments for effective policy intervention.
First is the issue of flood management. This is an issue that plagues Assam every year during the monsoons. Flood management needs greater policy focus and scientific collobaration with countries that have managed floods well through drainage systems and diversion of flood waters via the canal system. Second, the rehabilitation of ULFA cadres is an urgent necessity. Skills need to be imparted to these youths so that they can rejoin society in a dignified and meaningful manner. Third, ULFA has raised the issue of social and economic deprivation in Assam. This is related to the issue of governance. A state, in order to ensure effective governance in service of the people, must possess both a capability and a capacity to create legitimate procedures for political decision making, strengthen administrative institutions, provide public services in an effective and transparent manner, and work under the rule of law. These aspects are lacking in Assam with high levels of insecurity in conflict affected districts like Dima Hasao, Karbi Anglong, Korajhar, Tinsukia, Sivasagar, etc. Policy intervention is the urgent need of the hour to provide security within the framework of the rule of law, establish health facilities, offer good quality education, jobs, etc. The disarmament of the ULFA cadres is also another priority as they can create nuisance and insecurity in society. Use of legitimate violence must be the monopoly of the state for a rule oriented society and non-state actors should be provided incentive structures to give up violence.
Most importantly, the Union and Assam governments must remain vigilant on the possibility of the anti-talk ULFA faction led by Paresh Barua engaging in violent activities within Assam to derail the peace process. This can be effectively done with the cooperation of the Myanmar government since Barua was last sighted in an NSCN (K) camp in central Sangaing division of Myanmar. Given that the Myanmar government has signed a cease-fire with the NSCN (K) this year, pressure can be brought upon the former to caution the NSCN (K) not to extend support to the anti-talk ULFA faction. Intelligence can also be shared between India and Myanmar with regard to the movement of Paresh Barua across the Myanmar-China border. India must recognize that like Bangladesh, Myanmar’s cooperation in ensuring that its territory is not used as base areas by Indian armed outfits is a key to ensuring sustainable peace in states like Assam.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/ULFATalksFocusingtheDialogueonResolvables_ngoswami_030712