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Assam : Preventing Another Kashmir
|by Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle|
Assam may become another Kashmir, if control of militancy is not converted into permanent peace through smart political negotiations with the ULFA. The signs of peace are ominous, so are portends of doom if we ignore this opportunity. A brief survey would reveal the reason why?
India's Independence Day, 15 August 2008, passed off peacefully in the entire North East except Lower Assam areas which was rocked by three bomb blasts. This was one of the few years when Upper Assam has seen peace. This has been the result of relentless pursuit of ULFA terrorists by security forces in the area particularly by the Army. Thus a Truce group of 28 Battalion, the deadliest of the ULFA was formed from those released from confinement. Prabal Neog was the last leader to be released from Dibrugarh jail on 23 July which considerably boosted morale of the Truce Group.
The differences between the Truce group and the main ULFA leadership however came out in the open with the Truce group admitting that for lasting peace the whole organization would have to join the peace process. The key Truce Group leader, commanding officer of the so called 28 Battalion, Prabal Neog addressing a public gathering at Gondhoiguri in Tinsukia district, on 27 July stated,: 'It will not be possible for only a handful of Ulfa leaders and cadres to ensure that the peace process yields results if the top leadership does not respond positively to the peace process.'
On the same day being ULFA Martyrs Day, Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa appealed to the cadre from Bangladesh to stay together and not give up as the 28 Battalion had done. 'Ulfa's stand is that the ceasefire should follow only after the commencement of the political parleys. It is the ploy of the occupational forces to force Ulfa to give up arms in the preliminary stage of the peace process,' Rajkhowa said. He went on to add that, 'There is no justification for them to flee from the movement, blaming the Ulfa leadership.'
There are also differences in perception between the State government and the Truce group. While the Assam Chief Minister has been stating that the Truce group has deposited 50 arms, Jiten Dutta said, 'We have not surrendered. We have come over ground on our own to begin the peace process.' The main leaders of 28 battalion forming part of the Truce group include Mrinal Hazarika, Jiten Dutta, Joon Bhuyan and Prabal Neog.
The government is also mulling over a unilateral cease fire to allow the cadres of the 27, 109 and 709 battalions to discuss the issue and formulate their proposal. 'They have been talking over phone, but it is not possible to take decisions over the phone. So we want to give them a chance,' an Assam police officer stated adding that a cease fire will provide the cadres an opportunity to discuss modalities to come over ground.
On the other hand the influence of the ISI could prevent any mass exodus. 'The ISI has an influence on the 109 and 709 battalions since they are controlled by the leadership sitting in Bangladesh, unlike the 28 battalion which has its bases in Myanmar,' inspector-general of police (special branch) in Assam Khagen Sharma is said to have stated.
With the 28 Battalion now in a truce mode, it would be essential for the government and intelligence agencies to concentrate on the 109 and 709 battalions operating in Lower Assam. Bringing them to the peace table may not be an option at present, but there has to be constant pressure on Bangladesh to reduce the support to the leadership of the ULFA based in this country.
These leaders are stated to have assumed fake identity of Kamruj Zamal, Mizanur Rehman and Khan Baba and Bangladeshi citizenship. Zamal is the cover name for the outfit's commander-in-chief Paresh Barua, Mizanur for Chitraban Hazarika and Khan Baba is Antu Chowdang. Paresh Barua is reported to be staying in Dhaka's Motijheel Lane with his wife and two children ' Babu and Baby. Drishti Rajkhowa, Antu Chowdang and Pradyut Gohain were very close to Barua and stay together. ULFA's foreign secretary, Sasadhar Choudhury, and Raju Baruah are also reportedly staying on the outskirts of Dhaka. These elements are reportedly being fully supported by the DGFI.
Working out a peace agreement with the ULFA in Assam is likely to be highly complicated as there are a number of factors at play. The split in the ULFA is also likely to impact on the peace process for the central leadership based in Bangladesh will attempt to hinder the process even as the leaders who are a part of the same could be endangered hence adequate security is important. While there are best chances of a cease fire now than ever before, it is not yet clear how the contours will manifest.
The efforts by the state government in Assam to negotiate with the terrorists who have come over ground however should continue. There are limited options before the government but to trigger a wave of militants coming over ground. The issue of weapons and amnesty granted to the terrorists will remain contentious in the days ahead for some of the militants have serious charges of kidnapping and murder of innocents. How the state government will over come this issue remains to be seen.
Speedy closure of a cease fire agreement with maximum elements of the ULFA operating in the state is also important as reports indicate that the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has joined hands with Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh(HUJI B) to operate jointly in Assam. HUJI B with the one time slogan of, 'Amra Sobai Hobo Taliban, Bangla Hobe Afghanistan' ('We will all become Taliban and we will turn Bangladesh into Afghanistan') is considered one of the most virulent anti India terrorist group and is accused of a number of blasts in the hinterland in the country.
Though its primary base is said to be the coastal area of Chittagong south through Cox's Bazaar to the Myanmar border, HUJI B has established a number of sleeper cells all over India. In league with the ULFA, this would provide it unlimited access in Assam. Possibly the agencies alleged of controlling the ULFA as the ISI and DGFI may be engineering such a coalition given that the organization has suffered a set back through defections by the Truce group.
The nexus between the HUJI and the ULFA would prove to be highly lethal. This would further increase the base available to the ULFA in Bangladesh and the HUJI with its communal politics and agenda would attempt to polarize the communities in Assam by strikes on migrant workers and also other communities. For the ULFA it could be a new lease of life as its activities in the Upper Assam area have been totally disrupted with the two companies of the 28 Battalion going in for a truce. This will also raise the level of violence in Lower Assam for the base for the ULFA operating there is in Bangladesh. With HUJI providing greater logistic support to the ULFA their strikes would be more lethal and greater in number.
The complexity of issues of cease fire relates to tactical as well as more substantial policy matters. At the tactical level, holding of arms by the militants who have surrendered may not be acceptable to the government but the terrorists are clear that they will be the targets in case they are unarmed. On the other hand at the strategic level is the issue of sovereignty. No cease fire or peace agreement is perfect, but the government has to ensure that this is driven to a logical conclusion through smooth bargaining so that ultimately the militants join the main stream.
Any delay in politicization of militancy in Assam may result in the state turning the Kashmir way where peace through control of terrorism could not be effectively converted into a political solution indigenously by a dithering central leadership and short sighted state politicians.
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