India: Peace process in Assam

News and Press Release
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Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman
Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina's upcoming visit has been marked by an increasingly cooperative spirit by Bangladeshi security agencies, which have cracked down on the insurgent groups of Northeast India and have managed to bring forward key leaders of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), for talks with New Delhi. The past week has been buzzing with activity, with Union Home Secretary G K Pillai having constructive talks with the visiting Bangladeshi delegation ahead of Sheikh Hasina's visit to India. They have been negotiating on the bilateral arrangements being put in place for the extradition of such insurgents from Bangladesh to India, and Union Home Minister P Chidambaram has announced that the ULFA and the NDFB are likely to come forward for talks, with the arrest of their key leaders and their subsequent transfer to India. This sets the tone for the peace process to begin in Assam.

It was in November 2009, that New Delhi appointed the former director of the Intelligence Bureau, P C Haldar as the interlocutor for peace talks with the pro-talks faction of the NDFB and two other insurgent groups in Assam. In fact, the developments of the past week have been part of a larger concerted effort by New Delhi in collaboration with Bangladeshi security agencies, in order to reach out to these insurgent leaders for talks. The timing has been good, with bilateral arrangements now in place and a regime considered to be friendly with India. It was Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni's recent visit to New Delhi, which set the tone for this cooperative framework with India.

The announcement has come against the backdrop of more violence in the state of Assam, with bomb explosions in Nalbari and several killings by the NDFB in the Bodoland region of Assam over the past year. The split that has now been announced in the ULFA, with its Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, one of the founding members of the banned organization, likely to come forward for talks, has in fact been evident for a long time now. Operational differences between Chairman Rajkhowa and the ULFA's commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah have become apparent. Significantly, the A and C companies of the 28th Battalion of the ULFA had surrendered in 2008 and were living in designated camps in Upper Assam. This was described as a major setback for the organization and an indicator of ideological differences within the leadership. Several key leaders of the ULFA have now been 'arrested' in Bangladesh, which is an expression indicating their coming forward for talks with New Delhi.

Significantly, the NDFB leader Ranjan Daimary has expressed his willingness to come for peace talks after a split occurred within the NDFB after last year's serial blasts in Assam, in which it was implicated. This could spell a new phase of peace in Bodoland, which has seen a lot of violence in the past year, given intermittent factional clashes and fratricidal killings. The National Liberation Front of Tripura's (NLFT) Biswamohan Debbarma has also been detained in Bangladesh and will possibly be handed over to India as well.

The peace talks will take place between the insurgent groups and New Delhi and not with the Assam government. Moreover, the overall strategy for peace talks is not being formalized by New Delhi in consultations with the Assam government. P C Haldar will be the chief interlocutor for the talks taking place in Delhi with the ULFA as well as the NDFB. The stage has been set by several incidents in Assam, which have led to apprehension that a violent turn may take place, with a formal split taking place within the ULFA. There have been killings of various ULFA functionaries in Nalbari district, in the past month. It will indeed be a daunting task to bring about collective consensus on the domestic political front in Assam for the legitimacy of the talks, with many commenting that peace talks cannot happen without the participation of the ULFA chief Paresh Baruah.

New Delhi has an excellent opportunity to bring about a genuine political solution to the long standing insurgency in Assam, both on the ULFA and the NDFB front, against the backdrop of its recent success in tackling the Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel) faction, with the arrest of its chief Jewel Garlosa. The need of the hour is to have all inclusive talks with stakeholders in Assam, with the active participation of Assamese and Bodo civil society, as past negotiations have been mired by legitimacy questions amidst accusations of the peace process not being transparent. Transparency will be a key factor that will determine the success and the overall acceptability of the peace process in Assam, and the new peace interlocutor should learn from past lessons. The timeframe for conclusive peace talks is also important as Northeast India has seen lengthy peace talks, with violence still continuing among the factions. More attacks are likely to happen in Assam as the anti-talks elements in both the ULFA and the NDFB will try to sabotage the peace process. The security agencies should be prepared for the same.