Calling ULFA's Bluff
The cogs in the wheels of political militancy in Assam seem to have turned a full circle within six months. The cycle of carnage perpetrated by the ULFA in a resurgent mode in the past few months puts paid hopes of civil society in Assam of resumption of peace. The response of the security establishment has been predictable.
Launching Operation Rhino II appears more of the same thing, neutralize the terrorist infrastructure but keep the head alive.
The perils of this strategy have been evident in Guwahati with the cycle of peace and violence continuing interminably over the past decade and a half. The price of inability of the state to convert the dividend of neutralization of terrorists into politicization of militancy is being paid by innocent victims of violence. Those on the margins of society such as the 70 odd migrant laborers in Assam will continue to be vulnerable, while the state may demonstrate its power by executing the 33rd National Games flawlessly through a surge in security deployment. However the final mark of a credible state is the ability to secure lives of common citizens, not those barricaded behind layers of protection.
In the light of the recent killings which in the first week or so of the year have accounted for almost 60 percent of civilians killed in Assam in 2006, intensified operations launched by security forces will no doubt successfully eliminate large bases, training camps and other support facilities of the organization. This however may not lead to preventing violence against the common citizen who will continue to be susceptible to incidents of bomb attacks, targeted killings, extortions and kidnappings, which has been ULFA’s forte of late. Such attacks do not require large infra structure but small groups of dedicated cadre supported by criminal elements who can be outsourced some of the actions as placing bombs and targeting innocents. The timing in the coming months is fortuitous for the ULFA with the Republic Day and National Games within the span of a fortnight, the NSCN (Khaplang) group in a resurgent mode in Nagaland after support by the Naga National Council and elections in Manipur which will take up a large quantum of security forces. The need is therefore to call the ULFA’s bluff by adopting a more innovative approach.
Conventional counter militancy wisdom dictates that the government talks peace only once the back of the insurgency is broken. The spate of killings by the ULFA may give an appearance that the organization is on the upsurge. However the nature of the attacks, the selection of soft targets, lack of support to the outfit in Assamese society which is at the lowest ebb and restricted area or influence to the Upper Assam districts of Tinsukia, Sibsagar, Dibrugarh and Dhemaji, indicates that the ULFA is reasonably marginalized. Simultaneous rather than sequential counter militancy and political initiatives should enable elimination of potency of the ULFA permanently within a short period.
The first essential appears to be to set aside the divergent approach of central and state government towards the ULFA which has been more than evident in the past year. Thus while New Delhi was actively pursuing talks, the state government demonstrated marked disinterest which finally proved counter productive to the initiative by the PCG. The dissonance between the intelligence agencies is also apparent demonstrated by the embarrassment of the recent attacks which followed a day after the Union Home Secretary declared an all clear after a security review in Guwahati. The intelligence sleuths either failed to warn Mr Duggal or were discounted, both of which does not augur well. The agencies need to be taken on board the peace efforts underway and should be able to provide valuable political intelligence on the path to peace.
The state government also needs to accept the genuine role that civil society can play in bringing about peace. Greater tolerance of such initiatives would provide more clout to well meaning groups as the PCG which lost its credibility with the ULFA as well as the Central Government due to lack of support from its base. Given the leanings of the constituents of this group towards the ULFA, antipathy by the state government especially with an organization which is directly interacting with the Centre was expected. The time now is to bury old hatchets in Assam and adopt a unified approach, not just in coordination of security but also peace within the state.
Breaking the link of ULFA’s leadership with the ISI and DGFI of Bangladesh may prove to be the toughest part. ULFA’s support in Bangladesh also lies in the business network established there including investment in properties. The flux in Bangladesh at present will prevent government pressure from working. However undermining business interests can considerably negate the influence of the leadership which could be exploited. In the interim, a diplomatic strategy to sway the incoming government, what ever be its contours should be evolved for implementation with due urgency.
Peace through political coordination, suavity and subterfuge at home and abroad thus need to compliment the present counter militancy overdrive taking it beyond the immediate objective of peaceful conduct of National Games in Guwahati in February.
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Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle
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