By Sanjoy Hazarika
The United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) has another six months or so to get its act together and prepare for talks for the Centre. That’s the framework that has emerged from their interactions with New Delhi after brief meetings with Home Minister P. Chidambaram and the official team led by Home Secretary Gopal K Pillai.
Arabinda Rajkhowa, the organization’s chairman, and his team now need to put pen to paper and try and figure out what it is that they want (sovereignty isn’t on the table) although assurances for the “protection and enrichment” of the sovereignty of the “people of Assam” – whatever that means – are being sought. This also means that they can closely follow and be associated with elections in Assam, expected in May and likely to be announced soon, although they may not wish to be directly involved. Direct involvement could disturb whatever distance they seek to keep from the political processes they have spurned for so long.
The talks with the Centre can boost the ruling Congress party’s chances as it goes for a third term in Assam although the negotiating process is likely to have its share of ups and downs. Chidambaram says the Government is sincere and will persist. This, as one negotiator says, is the key — “the log jam is broken” although a question mark hangs over the future role of Ulfa’s armed head, Paresh Barua, who has denounced the talks. Yet, those who say they seek Assam’s good must ask whether the actions they contemplate will help or harm such their people and the homeland.
Ulfa needs time to redevelop new positions while abandoning the old. Its leaders say that the Sanmilita Jatiya Abhibartan (SJA), the civil society group, that has helped facilitate the process, is “preparing the agenda’ for public circulation, approval and then for presentation to the Government of India.
Today, public fatigue with decades of confrontation, bloodshed and devastation is influencing public opinion as much as any other factor.
We need to recognize – the public as well as Ulfa and the Centre and State Governments – that these are Assam’s and the North-east’s lost years. They and the lives shed, mostly in vain, are not coming back. These years of confrontation are as much to blame for the continuing and increasing poverty, ill health and vulnerability that have harmed our societies as any other factor.
Pradip Phanjoubam, the editor of The Imphal Free Press, reflected on this the other evening where he spoke of the “intangibles” of loss and harm that cannot be calculated in conflict zones. How are these to be repaired, how is trust to be rebuilt – many of us present, including top officials, had no answers. That’s why we need to keep our minds and hearts open for conversations; sustainable agreements can be built on the platform of healing and reconciliation, which, in turn, can come only through dialogue and counseling.
So let us use these months, the time we are gaining, the opportunities that are coming our way again– small but precious compared to the years and decades lost — to seek ways of healing and conciliation, to develop goodwill and denounce ill will, where those who have inflicted harm must seek forgiveness and those who have suffered must show the greatness to forgive. This must be at the top of the agenda.
We need reconciliation and to develop the resilience that is at the core of the suffering that people on all sides have gone through over all these years. The Centre must be bold enough to take at least one dramatic step to regain the public trust, a decision it has been stalling for years– let it throw out the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and put its faith in the true sovereigns on this nation, the people. Of course, it can always use extraordinary powers should the situation deteriorate; one is not asking it to be foolish.
It’s worth remembering that it has been more than 19 years since Rajkhowa first came to Delhi to negotiate but could not convince.
Barua, then in Bangladesh. Today, Barua does not have either the numbers or public opinion on his side. Nor does Ulfa or any other insurgent group have a base in Bangladesh. That is the principal change factor.