By Namrata Goswami
On August 5, 2011 seven pro-talk United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) leaders led by Arabinda Rajkhowa, the Chairman of ULFA, submitted a “Charter of Demands” to the Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram in New Delhi. The submission of the “Charter of Demands” is the first step towards holding formal peace talks between the Union government and the ULFA later this month. The list of demands included the following significant issues:
- A fresh look at the issue of Assam’s sovereignty;
- Amend the Indian Constitution to protect the rights and identity of the indigenous people of Assam;
- Find a honourable solution to the three decade old armed conflict led by the ULFA;
- Address the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh into Assam;
- Status of 50 missing ULFA leaders and cadres since 2005.
To quote, in brief, the “Charter of Demands”: “The United Liberation Front of Assam reiterates that the ongoing issue between Assam and India can be honourably and meaningfully resolved peacefully only by a fresh look at the issues of sovereignty, so as to ensure that the people of Assam can assert their inalienable rights to control their land and their resources therein …To achieve such objectives, ULFA proposes that negotiations be initiated between India and the people of Assam to bring in measures, constitutional or otherwise…to ensure a peaceful democratic solution of the historical Indo-Assam question”.1
This “Charter of Demands” put forward by the ULFA with the inherent claim that the outfit speaks for Assam as a whole needs to be questioned and analysed. While the ULFA might continue to enjoy support in a few districts of Assam like Sibsagar and Tinsukia, it has lost credibility over the years in the rest of the state. The killing of unarmed civilians through bombing of public places and the untoward killing of poor labourers coming from Bihar to Assam has resulted in a loss of support for the outfit. Also, the massive real estate businesses that the ULFA leadership own in Bangladesh have made it clear to the people of Assam that the outfit’s motive was to amass wealth and stow it away in banks in Bangladesh. In 2009, Arabinda Rajkhowa’s Sonali Bank deposits in Bangladesh totalled 3,990 crore taka (Rs 2,710.9 crore) and were held under the false name of Arabinda Ray.
Because of these two failings, the ULFA leadership faces the challenge of the three Rs: Representativeness, Rationality, and Responsibility — which usually qualify a group or party to represent a community.
When it comes to representativeness, 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 do not hold water since major indigenous tribes in Assam like the Bodos, Dimasas and Karbis do not look upon the ULFA as representing them in peace talks with the Union government. 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) in peace talks with the Union government. And the Karbis are represented by the United Peoples’ Democratic Solidarity (UPDS).
ULFA’s rationality is also under serious doubt due to its bombing of civilian targets during the last two decades. When it comes to responsibility, the outfit’s engagement in extortion, killing of surrendered cadres and creating an atmosphere of fear has dented its image to a large extent especially since the 1997 killing of Sanjoy Ghosh, the noted social worker. While the ULFA has never explained the reason behind Ghosh’s killing, the suspicion is that he was killed for exposing the nexus between the ULFA, contractors and government officials involved in corruption in Majuli.
The “Charter of Demands” appears to be a delaying tactic by the ULFA to keep itself alive by any means. Literature on peace negotiations indicates that the weaker group in a peace negotiation will engage in positional bargaining, take stands that are rigid and delay a resolution, thereby creating the space for spoilers to derail the peace process. It is critical that the scheduled peace-talks between the Union government and the ULFA move beyond rhetorical issues like Assam’s sovereignty, amending the Indian Constitution to accommodate indigenous peoples’ rights and the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration as stated in the “Charter of Demands”. On all these issues, ULFA has lost credibility and does not represent the people of Assam.
Instead of engaging with this unrealistic “Charter of Demands”, three significant issues which find no mention in the Charter must be urgently addressed. First, the ULFA leaders need to be accommodated into responsible roles in local government bodies and given constituencies to prove their representativeness. Second, the 1000 or more ULFA cadres need to be rehabilitated and disarmed. Third, it should be ensured that Paresh Barua is neither given space to play the role of a spoiler nor utilized as a bargaining chip by the ULFA leadership in the peace talks. He should be brought to the peace table.
The Union government must also avoid utilizing the ULFA’s “Charter of Demands” as a means to delay a final resolution of the conflict in the hope that the outfit will die a natural death in years to come. A situation where the ULFA issue continues to fester does not portend a bright future for Assam whose economic development is vital for the progress of the other states in the Northeast. A resolution within a year must therefore be the goal of these peace talks.
1. For the “Charter of demands”, see Sushanta Talukdar, “Peace Talks Last Opportunity, says ULFA Chairman”, The Hindu, August 8, 2011 at http://www.thehindu.com/news/states/other-states/article2334056.ece (Accessed on August 9, 2011).
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/ULFAsUnrealisticCharterofDemands_ngoswami_110811