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Paresh holds the key


The fifth round of tripartite talks promises some hope in Assam but key issues remain unresolved, reports Dulal Misra
DULAL MISRA | Issue Dated: March 24, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : ULFA | Assam | Assam government | Tripartite talks |

Kindling hopes of hammering out a peace settlement in the immediate foreseeable future, the fifth round of tripartite talks between Assam, the Central government and rebel ULFA on March 7 at North Block, were described as 'fruitful.' Terror-shackled Assam could do with some peace, and some hope, however tenuous, has arisen.

Till now, four rounds of such dialogue have largely meandered without any visible sense of direction, the last of them having been held in June 2012 where the pro-dialogue ULFA leaders reiterated their common charter of demands, the most significant of them being a constitutional amendment to protect the political and economic rights of the indigenous people of Assam so that locals get to control the state's natural resources.

In addition, the agitators want a status sheet of missing ULFA leaders and cadres during security operations in Bhutan, 2005. The seven-member ULFA delegation was led by ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and the centre was represented by Union Home Secretary R K Singh and Joint Secretary Home Ministry Shambhu Singh. The Assam government was represented by state Chief Secretary Naba Kumar Das and Home Commissioner Sailesh. Central interlocutor P C Halder was also present.

The main point is this: what consensus have the hour-long talks arrived at? As ever, while there was agreement on all sides that peace be established at any cost, there appeared to be no consensus on how to get there. While Rajkhowa sought necessary steps to amend the Constitution of India, the Home Secretary indicated that constitutional amendments like the ones demanded by the ULFA were a big ticket call but that the government will take all steps necessary to solve problems faced by indigenous Assamese.

Clearly, the sorest point of the negotiations remain the status of the ULFA faction led by Commander-in-Chief Paresh Barua, who is opposed to any dialogue with the government and is currently estimated to operate out of the dense forests of Myanmar. Barua says there cannot be any talks if the issue of sovereignty is not put on the table. His hard stand and absence from the scene ensures that the peace talks will be held ransom to illogical and unreasonable demands – and without a cogent end.

Pro-talk ULFA member Diganta Phukan says he is watching. "The talk process has moved in the right direction. But I am not too hopeful about the outcome. One ULFA faction still operates under the open skies of Myanmar. The Indian government and army can't do much as international laws bar any Indian military action against Paresh Baruah in Myanmarese territory. Barua is taking advantage by continuing his ‘struggle’ from that country. This is the great bottleneck in the peace process. I think the Indian government should first convince Paresh Barua to come to the table to ensure a solution of the three-decade-long insurgency in Assam," he told TSI.

Concurs senior journalist Hilloljyoti Bhitoruwal Phukan, "The peace process with ULFA is going in the right direction but I doubt if it can ensure a permanent solution to insurgency in Assam. It the government fails to bring Paresh Barua for talks, the peace process will not be a complete one."

Some hope has also come from Rajkhowa's statement earlier this month that ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia alias Golap Barua may also join the tripartite talks. Chetia has for years made Bangladesh the launching pads of his operations against India. He was arrested in 1997 on charges of illegally staying in Bangladesh, possessing forged passports and foreign currency. After ending his prison term in 2004, he has sought political asylum in Bangladesh. Since then, India has unsuccessfully asked the Bangladeshi government to hand him over at several bilateral meetings, but now with a friendly government in Dhaka, things could be changing.

The Union government's record of conducting peace talks with insurgent groups in North-East India has been patchy. For instance, peace talks with Naga extremist group NSCN (IM) has not made any significant breakthrough despite more than 12 rounds of discussions.

Social activist Prasanta Baruah, told TSI that the "Centre has not taken the problem of insurgency in Assam seriously. The ULFA problem is three-decades old. First the government used military force. That has created more complications. Delhi should find out the root cause of insurgency. It is clear that economic backwardness is the root cause of dissatisfaction of the people of the North East. That needs to be tackled. In the peace process, Paresh Barua is the main hurdle. He is stuck on issue of sovereignty of Assam. But it is an unrealistic dream. History says that no sovereign state was formed with an unorganized and scattered armed revolution. According to my view, ULFA is now an unorganized organization which has a number of factions."

There are some who claim that the ULFA influence on Assam is on the decline. Senior citizen of the Guwahati Metropolitan City Bibhuti Das says ULFA is not as strong as it was once. "Today ULFA has no influence over the common people in Assam. People are fed up and seek peace. We want an environment where people can live freely and peacefully. A few pro-talk elements in the ULFA are indulging in anti-social activities. It is not a good sign. I appeal to both the groups to come to the discussion table and arrive at an amicable solution." Easier said than done, given the state's turbulent and often intractable past.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017