Assam: Halting the Peace Process?

Assam: Halting the Peace Process?

Walter Fernandes
walter.nesrc@gmail.com

Two years ago it looked as though talks between the United National Liberation
Front of Assam (ULFA) and the Government of India (GOI) would begin and that a
solution would be found to the conflict which some describe as terrorism or
secession and others as a nationalist struggle or an identity search. A good
beginning was made when ULFA issued a manifesto that described its economic
ideology and political strategy. It had somewhat clear statements on the economy
it wanted but the political issues remained vague, probably intentionally so. It
spoke of the nation of Assam ready to deal with the nation of India as well as
other nations within Assam. It mentioned sovereignty but not independence. The
socialist Assamese nation would have the overall control of the economy,
especially of tea because the State produces 56 percent of India's tea but the
industry is controlled from Kolkata.

The general impression created was that ULFA wanted the manifesto to be the
starting point for talks with GOI. It could easily be so because for the first
time a militant outfit had spelt out its political as well as economic thinking.
It is true that the political issues remained somewhat vague and the socialism
on which the economy was to be built belonged to the 1980s. However, one could
begin the talks based on this manifesto. The Central Government responded
positively to the possibility of talks without committing itself openly. ULFA
formed the people's consultative group (PCG) as a think tank to assist it in the
parleys.

Problems began immediately after it. Within weeks came the army crackdown on
ULFA in a wildlife sanctuary in Dibrugarh district. The PCG intervened to stop
it in an effort to push the talks forward. An explosion attributed to ULFA
killed several children at Dhemaji on August 15 (independence day) 2005. Within
24 hours the person who allegedly planted the bomb was killed in an encounter.
There has been a spate of explosions in Guwahati and elsewhere during the last
few months, all of them attributed to ULFA. The final act is the killing of
Biharis in the Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts in January 2007.

These events have two commonalities. The first is that the official
spokespersons have invariably attributed the explosions and killings to ULFA but
have not produced any proof or have not tried those supposedly responsible for
it. The person who allegedly planted the bomb was killed but the security forces
have not explained till now how they identified the person within 24 hours when
they were not able to prevent the killing of so many children. The second
commonality is that with each event the possibility of a GOI-ULFA dialogue
recedes. The latest killings in Upper (Eastern) Assam seem to have delayed it
indefinitely.

One is inclined to believe that a link exists between the two. It can be better
understood if one realises that neither ULFA nor GOI are monoliths. There are
elements within each that are more or less open to a dialogue and there are hard
liners. Many political elements in the present Central Government seem to keep
an open mind but one would not say the same about the security forces, the
Defence Ministry and those from "Mainland" India who control the economy of the
Northeast in general and of Assam in particular. ULFA too has its hard liners
many of them in Upper Assam but not exclusively. They exist also in Lower
(western) Assam.

The difference between them is not merely in strategy but also of ideology and
the understanding of sovereignty and autonomy. The hard liners in ULFA seem to
veer towards independence. The thinking of the hard liners in "Mainland India"
is based on centralisation and on the Northeast of India as a buffer zone that
has to be controlled fully by the Union government. Their focus is on national
security and protection of the territory and they are not even ready to discuss
autonomy. This thinking extends to culture. They speak of a single culture of
India and that culture is of the Hindi-speaking region. As D. N. Datta says, in
their thinking the degree of Indianisation is determined by the degree of
Aryanisation. And the Northeast, including Assam, does not fit this bill because
it has many Mongoloid ethnic groups.

This thinking goes against the very concept of the struggle for an Assamese
identity that is central to the cause that ULFA represents. While the Assamese
people do not support violence and some of their other means, the cause of
culture, identity and of an autonomous economy has near universal support among
them. The hard liners in Upper Assam may take it to an extreme and may speak of
a break from India. The majority in Assam may not support it but the identity
issue can mobilise the masses who feel dominated by the Hindi speaking region.
As a result this thinking can alienate the people who need protection.

Many attacks that have stalled the peace process have to be situated within
these dynamics. The hard liners are wary of any dialogue. Besides, a long drawn
conflict creates its own economic and political vested interests. There is a
strong feeling among political analysts in the Northeast that the security
forces do not want peace. Some allege that they make economic gains from the
arms and drugs trade or that the region functions as a training ground in low
intensity warfare. It cannot be substantiated. One only reads news items every
now and then of a truck belonging to the defence forces being caught with drugs
in it. The forces controlling the economy would have a strong vested interest in
continuing their presence since economic autonomy would go against their control
over the region. Similar vested interests have developed in the militant groups.
Some extortionist groups use their banner while others see their social and
political power being eroded by prospects of peace.

Analysts are of the view that many security operations were meant to forestall a
dialogue leading to peace. There is even a feeling that the security forces to
whom peace is a threat, engineer some explosions. But none considers the hard
liners in ULFA innocent. They believe that the latest killings are their
handiwork. It seems to be a reaction to a "plebiscite" conducted on
"sovereignty". Out of some 3,000,000 Assamese polled 95% opposed sovereignty.
The newspapers that have very little sympathy for the cause of autonomy
highlighted this issue and identified sovereignty with independence and
presented ULFA as isolated from the Assamese population. The killings came two
days after it.

That seems to be the ULFA hard liners' way of telling the world that they cannot
be taken for granted. The target too was clear. The Northeast in general and
Assam in particular has a problem of immigrants. Focus of the media and of
political parties is on the Bangladeshi. In reality the 2001 census shows that
Bengali speaking Muslims are a little over a third of the immigrants. Assam has
an excess of some 40 lakh (4 million) persons compared to 1971. Around 17 lakhs
(1.7 million) of them are Bengali-speaking Muslims and the rest are Bihari and
Nepali Hindus. The Muslims live mostly in western and southern Assam while Upper
Assam is dominated by the Hindi-speaking population. It is true particularly of
Tinsukia the second commercial capital of Assam after Guwahati.

The Assamese view the growing number of outsiders, whether Bengali, Hindi or
Nepali as an attack on their identity and also as a threat to their economy
because they encroach on their land. Most ethnic conflicts are around land. The
immigrants also do low paid jobs as construction workers, rickshaw pullers and
others that the local people do not take up easily. However, in the context of
high unemployment estimated to be 30 lakhs in Assam, it is easy to direct
resentment towards the immigrants whom they perceive as competitors for jobs.
The Bengali speaking persons become the targets where they are the predominant
group. The main targets in Karbi Anglong and Upper Assam are Biharis. The real
resentment is against those who control their economy and devalue their culture.
But it is not easy to attack them. Besides, they also pay "taxes" on which the
militant groups live. Hence the hard liners who viewed the "plebiscite" as an
attack seem to have expressed their resentment by killing the immigrant workers
whom they perceived as a threat to their identity and as persons taking away
their jobs.

That probably explains the ambiguity in the reaction of the ethnic Assamese to
the killings. Most condemned them but local groups like the All Assam Students'
Union did not call a bandh. That call was given by the Bihari dominated Assam
Bhojpuri Association. Very few ethnic Assamese responded to it and the bandh was
observed mainly on the highway and in the Barak Valley i.e. Bengali speaking
southern Assam that has a good number of Bengali speaking immigrants. But the
reaction of the political and security forces is unambiguous. The fundamentalist
forces alleged that the killings were a conspiracy to turn Assam into a Muslim
majority State by sending Hindus away. A daily newspaper asked the ULFA why it
was attacking Hindu Biharis, not the Muslim Bangladeshi. That Upper Assam does
not have many Muslim immigrants was forgotten. The overall reaction of the
political parties and State bodies was to demand retribution with no talk of a
search for peace based on justice.

In the process the thinking that identifies sovereignty with independence is
legitimised. Dr Indira Raison Goswami, the main person behind the effort to
bring about a dialogue declared at a press conference that she does not support
sovereignty. The killings have also provided the security forces the legitimacy
required to take charge of the region. The Bihar Regiment has been brought to
Upper Assam. During the next few months one can expect every Assamese village to
be under threat. Fear will result in resentment and one can expect the cause of
the ULFA to get more sympathisers. Many such new "converts" will be hard liners.
It means that the hope of a dialogue has receded for the time being.

The Central Government too is to blame for this situation. All the dialogue with
the Northeast outfits be it the Boro, the Naga or the Dimasa, is with the
militant groups. The civil society can create a link between the opposing sides
but the Centre does not involve its representatives. The ULFA has got a civil
society group, the PCG to assist it as a think tank. Their presence is important
to ULFA because most of their cadres who had a political understanding of the
issues were killed in the Bhutan Operation. But the State and Central
Governments as well as the media are ambiguous towards the PCG.

It is important to realise that the ULFA represents the socio-economic and
political aspirations of the people of Assam most of whom do not support the
means it uses. This problem cannot be solved by the armed forces or only through
a dialogue with the militant groups. A political process has to be re-started.
Without it the national security issue will predominate. Protection of the
territory will get priority over people's security. It is important to
understand the identity and autonomy issues. That can only be done by getting
civil society to join the process and not through armed repression. If
repression becomes the main tool, one can expect resentment to grow and violence
to follow. This vicious circle has to be broken through a political process.