Talking Sense

Can Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s third running victory bring peace-through-dialogue to a long-embattled state?

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi waves to supporters after election results were declared in Gauhati, India, 13 May 2011. ANUPAM NATH / AP PHOTO
01 June, 2011

WHEN THE CONGRESS WON 78 of the 126 seats in the Assam assembly last month, no one was more surprised than the party’s senior leaders. The best projection, by CNN-IBN and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said the Congress would cut close to the halfway mark with 60-63 seats. Other pre-poll surveys projected a hung assembly. And although Congress leaders involved in backroom discussions with smaller parties were told to pull out by Tarun Gogoi, who has been chief minister for three consecutive seasons, this grand old man of Assam politics said that his party would continue its alliance with the Bodoland People’s Front (BDF).

"They helped us in 2006 when we were in trouble, having fallen way short of a simple majority. So we will keep them in our government," said Gogoi. When I asked him if there was one particular factor that could explain his party’s landslide victory, Gogoi said, "Assam believes we can bring back total peace to this troubled state. And, God willing, we will."

One of the first to congratulate Gogoi on his near-clean sweep was United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa . "The people of Assam and those in the ULFA welcome this great victory by the Congress under the leadership of Tarun Gogoi," he said. "We have great expectations from his government. We hope it will work for peace and a final political settlement in Assam."

Gogoi was all assurance that the peace talks would now begin in earnest. "We have stopped it because the opposition would otherwise complain we were using the talks to generate expectations that will influence the elections," he said. "We seek an early solution."

Gogoi first came to power in May 2001, elbowing out the Asom Gana Parishad and promising to start a dialogue with ULFA and the Bodo rebel groups. A state in unrelenting turmoil since 1979 had voted for the Congress in the expectation that it would return Assam to peace and steer it out of the financial distress of a massive debt burden. Although Gogoi immediately extended himself, he had to wait for three years, until the Congress returned to power at the Centre in 2004, to begin the process of compromise and conciliation. In 2006, Gogoi managed to retain power, although with a reduced margin and in coalition with the BDF, still balancing on the peace plank. He pushed the process forward by catalysing an unconditional dialogue between the Central government and ULFA, for which, in September 2005, ULFA created its own negotiating panel, the People’s Consultative Group (PCG), comprised of 11 Assamese civil society notables. But the dialogue floundered when the chief of ULFA’s military wing, Paresh Barua, refused to drop his demand for the inclusion of the contentious issue of Assam’s sovereignty on the talk’s agenda and to declare a ceasefire, following which sporadic fighting between the security forces and ULFA continued. After the calling off of the third round of talks, scheduled for May 2006, the PCG almost faded and was disbanded this February by Rajkhowa.

This time, though, the situation seems reparable. Bangladesh, in contrast to Pakistan, has cracked down hard on all anti-Indian rebel groups functioning from its territory, catching and handing over to India about 90 leaders and activists belonging to such groups from the Northeast. With the exception of Paresh Barua, the entire ULFA top brass was nabbed in Bangladesh and delivered to Assam. Although some ULFA leaders, including Rajkhowa, were initially unwilling to participate in a conditional dialogue, they soon realised that they had no real choice—their option was either to begin a dialogue by dropping the sovereignty demand that New Delhi hates to hear the merest mention of or rot in the Indian jails.

The ULFA leaders were released one by one—but only after each had agreed to a conditional, non-sovereignty dialogue. Rajkhowa later summoned a party meeting for a consensus, and got it. Barua was clearly upset: he is still insisting that the issue of Assam’s sovereignty must be discussed (if not granted), vowing, if the demand is refused, to fight on.

This essentially means that New Delhi has engineered a split in ULFA between the pro-talk and the anti-talk factions, although Rajkhowa continues to maintain that Barua is not opposed to dialogue per se. But creating a perceptual divide in ULFA is New Delhi’s biggest tactical gain so far; it leaves open ground for the Union home ministry for a launching pad, if one is ever needed, to decimate ULFA. This tactical gain can become a strategic one if ULFA’s doves agree to a settlement that involves greater autonomy, not sovereignty, for Assam. The Centre chose well its negotiator with ULFA—former Intelligence Bureau chief PC Haldar, who, like Home Secretary GK Pillai, knows the Northeast well.

ULFA had asked a committee of Assamese notables led by Marxist professor Hiren Gohain to prepare a charter of demands that should form the basis of negotiations. The charter that Gohain recently handed over to Rajkhowa demands a special constitutional status for Assam, such as the one Kashmir enjoys under Article 370, appropriate measures to stop infiltration from neighbouring Bangladesh in order to ensure that "the Assamese don’t become foreigners in their own land", and greater control over the state’s natural resources. The predicament the charterers are facing now is of how to deal with other ethnic groups such as the Bodos, who are expressing their resentment at the Centre discussing the "future shape of Assam" only with an Assamese rebel group like the ULFA. "We have resumed our agitation for a separate Bodo state because we are obviously not considered important enough to be represented in the dialogue," said Pramod Boro, president of the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU).

It is clear that the Centre will have to take other groups like the pro-talk faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) into confidence if it is sincere about a comprehensive settlement. The advantage the Centre now has is that ULFA and the NDFB—and other ethnic rebel groups—are, militarily and financially, at their weakest ever, mainly due to the crackdown by Bangladesh.

And the groups know it, too. The peace constituencies in these rebel groups have expanded, with only a hardline fringe still willing to fight on. At the least, the Congress has three more years in Delhi and five more in Assam. Analysts say that considering the moderate nature of ULFA’s demands and its obvious weaknesses, this is the right time to expedite the peace process and forge an early solution—better, in any case, than to allow the negotiations to drift, like in neighbouring Nagaland, where the dialogue that began in 1997 remains inconclusive.

"Speed is of the essence, and it is possible to work for a quick solution in Assam because there is no territorial demand involved, unlike in Nagaland, where the NSCN [National Socialist Council of Nagaland] wants a greater Naga state," said analyst Nani Gopal Mahanta.Others feel that the Union home ministry and the agencies under it will have to speed up their act. And the Congress has to prod and pummel various bureaucrats because the party has so much to gain from a settlement in Assam.