ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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An Opportune Moment

ULFA and the Indian state both have a chance now to end violence in Assam.

The arrest of senior United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) leaders, chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, who was “returning” to Assam from Bangladesh, “foreign secretary” Sashadhar Choudhury and “finance secretary” Chiraban Hazarika, has created an opportune moment for the Indian state to work for a lasting peace in Assam. Much of the leadership of the proscribed organisation, barring its military chief Paresh Baruah, are now either in Indian or Bangladeshi custody although the recent arrest of Rajkhowa came about in mysterious circumstances. What is clear though is that the change in regime in Bangladesh – the coming to power of the Awami League – has resulted in the recent return to Assam of the ULFA leaders. A similar crackdown by military forces of the Bhutanese government in 2003 had weakened the ULFA leadership.

Following the return (and arrest) of the ULFA leaders and their recent incarceration in the same jail, there has been speculation about talks between the ULFA leaders and the government of India. While the government has announced that anything barring the issue of sovereignty could be discussed and that the militant outfit had to first lay down arms, the ULFA has refused to compromise on its demand for “Swadhin Asom” (“Free Assam”). As M S Prabhakara pointed out in his commentary (EPW, 2 January), the ULFA’s “demand” for sovereignty is problematic as there is no historic precedent for a government’s “grant of sovereignty” and equally problematic is the government of India’s insistence on the group laying down its arms as a precondition for talks, for that leaves not much to negotiate in the first place. But while both ULFA and the government will begin at maximalist positions, they must then decide it is best to sit down for negotiations for much has changed in the two decades that the separatists have been undertaking their war for independence and the government should be aware that peace will not come by the exclusive use of the army.

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