Thursday, December 10, 2009

WILL PARLEYS WITH ULFA BEAR FRUIT THIS TIME?

Guest post by Shyamal Barua

The chairman of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Arabinda Rajkhowa, was not arrested by Bangladesh authorities but "detained" and turned over to India. But there is a big if. Rajkhowa is the head of the political wing and has been known for some time to be eager for talks and absconded to Bangladesh. The ULFA has been considerably weakened in the past few months by army action and may also be using the talks as a fig leaf to regroup.

Home minister P. Chidambaram has made it clear that he is waiting for a political statement from Rajkhowa before any movement takes place. But the military commander of ULFA, Paresh Baruah is still holding out. He does not want peace. According to intelligence reports, Baruah has fled to the jungles in Myanmar with around 500 armed men.

In lower Assam, the 709 battalion is intact. But their main strike force, the 28 battalion, has surrendered to the government. Baruah's army is depleted, but still capable of carrying out terror strikes. People in Assam are bracing themselves for stepped up attacks as Baruah is said to have ordered his cadres to get cracking.

The proposed peace talk with ULFA was not a result of a well-thought out strategy by the Govt. Of India, but had more to do with Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s decision to crack down on north-eastern militant rogues operating from Bangladesh.

Since last month, the Bangladesh authorities have been rounding up and handing over ULFA cadres to India, including biggies in the outfit like Sasha Chowdhury and Chitrabon Hazarika. But since Tuesday evening, intelligence agencies in India were talking about a bi catch by Dhaka. By Wednesday, it was clear that person was Rajkhowa.

The Centre and the Assam government were both in a fix about what to do with the ULFA chief. Initially, the home ministry thought he would be arrested as soon as he landed in Delhi. But Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi, scenting a political opportunity, pleaded with Delhi that Rajkhowa should not be arrested, instead the Centre must offer talks. He said that “signals” were encouraging and things were right direction. Asked whether his government will offer safe passage to top leaders if they come for talks, he said, “I am for it.”

Centre is trying to work out a deal with Ulfa chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa that will "protect his honour" as well as project him as a negotiator in a peace deal with the "Delhi durbar". "It is a very politically sensitive matter and it must appear to be an honourable deal for Rajkhowa so that his outfit accepts it," a source said. "It must not appear to be surrender by the Ulfa leader."

According to sources, as part of the deal, once an agreement is reached between the two, Rajkhowa could be taken back to the Tripura border or even to Bangladesh and officially given "safe passage" so that he can attend the proposed talks in Delhi. Sources said the ITBP, RAW and other agencies interrogated him through the day while the backroom boys in the Union home ministry were engaged in an in-camera exercise: to look for ways through which Rajkhowa finds himself on a level playing field when he begins treading the path of peace.

According to the sources, the government is planning to draw up a "declaration" for Rajkhowa to ink which will spell out his decision to hold peace talks. "Rajkhowa has a mind of his own and contents of the declaration are being discussed with him threadbare. He is certainly not a rubber stamp," a counter-terrorism expert linked to the Centre said. "The document should not lack credibility."

The entire operation, being kept under tight wraps, began with their handing over by Bangladesh authorities, somewhere in Tripura sector to Border Security Force (BSF). The duo was flown in an Indian Air Force aircraft from Agartala to a defence airfield and was taken to an ITBP camp. Later, he was shifted to an IB safe house.

Though officials here were tight-lipped about the whole affair, even refusing to confirm the presence of the leaders in India, it has been learnt that a safe passage formula is being worked out. The possibility of Rajkhowa being arrested now seems remote, as pressure to start a dialogue has taken precedence, sources said.

Sources said the initial plan was to arrest them at Tripura border after their 'surrender' to BSF, was abandoned and instead a different strategy was adopted. The same strategy adopted in case of Sasha Choudhury and Chitraban Hazarika after Government of Bangladesh handed them over to India. Sources said Rajkhowa is a prize catch and hence the Government has adopted a different strategy to deal with him working overtime to ensure that he takes part in the peace process.

When the state has in its grasp the leader of a group waging an armed struggle against it, the sense of elation may prompt it to get carried away. The status of Arabinda Rajkhowa, the founding chairman of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), is enveloped in mystery. Yet the sweet feeling that he is almost captured in his lair may give New Delhi the feeling of the victor. Any rush to crush the separatist movement by force will be a mistake.

Some sections of people in Assam and other states in the North-East have been up in arms against the Indian state for decades. Crushing them with the might that the state has at its command is the option that the state has been trying all these years. New Delhi will do well to remember that armed suppression is no solution under the circumstances. Had it been so, New Delhi should have solved the problem long ago.

Chances of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah coming for talks by accepting the pre-conditions laid down by the Government seems remote as the militant leader called up a member of the People's Consultative Group (PCG) to assert that the struggle for sovereignty of Assam would continue.

The ULFA C-in-C called up PCG member Hiranya Saikia to assert that the struggle would continue even if some members of the outfit have come forward for talks by giving up the demand and ideology of the ULFA. When contacted, Saikia confirmed the phone call and said that the ULFA C -in-C was very assertive. "He said that if any member of the outfit gives up the demand for sovereignty and come for talks with the Government they are free to do so. He also asserted that he would not give up the demand and ideology of the outfit and is ready to continue the struggle for which more than 11,000 youths laid down their lives," Saikia said.

With the "deal" being offered to Rajkhowa by the government coming into focus, experts said Gogoi was acting as a front man for the Centre, allowing it to buy time while testing the waters with Rajkhowa to avoid embarrassment over the issue. Echoing home minister P Chidambaram -- who has told Parliament he expects a political statement from the Ulfa soon and that the Centre was ready for talks if the outfit gave up its sovereignty demand -- Gogoi said the government was ready to "discuss anything" with Rajkhowa, except "sovereignty".

According to sources, Rajkhowa is waiting for Baruah's reply before issuing a formal statement on joining talks. That reply could come as early as Friday. The Centre's strategy to mount pressure on the elusive Baruah was reflected in Gogoi's words. On Thursday, the CM told a press conference, "If Paresh Baruah comes, it is well and good. If he doesn't, we should still go ahead with the talks. This is the decision of the people of Assam to end violence. The Naga talks were held without Phizo. Ulfa can do it too," Gogoi said. He refused to believe peace talks without Baruah would be fruitless. "We want to go step by step. Someday, he (Baruah), too, will come and join the peace stream," he added.

Officials said the government could offer Rajkhowa two options - denounce the Ulfa and give up violence and the sovereignty demand in exchange for safe passage or be projected as a militant leader who surrendered in Bangladesh and was handed over to India. Lot of critics are voicing their displeasure of such kid glove treatment to ULFA leaders by the government, despite their violent past and connection with Pakistan’s ISI.

However, considering India’s security forces being stretched out to contain other hotspots like Kashmir, the disturbed belt of Red corridor, they cannot let go the opportunity to strike a peace accord with ULFA, which has been waging a violent battle against the state, in the sensitive North Eastern region, for 30 years.

Meanwhile, ULFA is firm on its demand for sovereignty despite the arrest of its top leaders, the group's 'vice chairman' Pradip Gogoi said and accused the Bangladesh government of betraying it. "After Bhutan (referring to the operations of Royal Bhutan Army in 2003 to flush out northeast rebels), Bangladesh has betrayed us, and they (Government) should be prepared to face the consequences," the jailed leader said.