Seeing the light in Assam

One of the most violent separatist movements in the country has been persuaded to call it a day, and the credit for this has to be shared widely. A preliminary round of discussions has been held between the United Liberation Front of Asom and the central government after the militant group agreed to unconditional talks. Previously, ULFA held firm to the condition that talks must include its demand of sovereignty for Assam. Over the last year, it has evolved politically to realise that this pre-condition was unrealistic. Its own military and political position had been rendered precarious by a combination of factors. Not only did it suffer reverses in operations by Indian security forces, Bangladesh and Bhutan made it clear that ULFA leaders and cadres could no longer seek safe haven on their soil. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has to be thanked for handing over a clutch of ULFA leaders hiding in her country. For their part, the people of Assam made known that they were put off by the group's violent methods that led to the death of hundreds of civilians. All this was instrumental in helping ULFA see the futility of its war against India. A statement issued by the group following the first round of talks in New Delhi suggests it has given up the idea of secession. ULFA now believes it is possible to find ways for the “protection and enrichment of the sovereignty of the people of Assam” within the Indian Constitution. The leaders of the group have also apologised for killing civilians, describing as “mistakes” the 1997 murder of social activist Sanjay Ghose and the 2004 bomb blast in which several children lost their lives.

The central government must be commended for the firm but open-minded way in which it has dealt with the Assam militancy in recent times. The agenda for the talks, which should take place in the next few months, is yet to be settled. Clearly, the two sides will talk about rehabilitation of ULFA cadres, as also lifting the ban on the group. After giving up its demand for independence, ULFA needs some time to reformulate its political goals and enter the democratic mainstream. The people of Assam have long-held grievances — the State's economic underdevelopment, the presence of large numbers of illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, and the feeling of being done out of a just share of revenue from tea and oil. Indeed, had the Centre paid timely attention to these issues, ULFA might never have come up. They will need to be addressed for a permanent peace in the State. The continued hold-out by ULFA's military wing leader Paresh Barua, who is still on the run and has pledged his opposition to the talks, poses a challenge. It is to be hoped that the force of public opinion in favour of talks will compel him to change his mind.