“Frankly”, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram told the Rajya Sabha last month, “in my assessment of the situation, talks with the United Liberation Front of Asom are leading nowhere”. Part of the reason for that, he explained, was that the group’s three key leaders — Paresh Baruah, Arabinda Rajkhowa, and Raju Barua — were based overseas, and, moreover, divided on the way forward. But just days after Mr. Chidambaram’s speech, events have raised hopes that a new peace initiative could be possible. On Friday, ULFA chairman Rajkhowa, and the group’s deputy military chief, Barua, were held on the Bangladesh-India border in Mizoram. India claims the ULFA leaders surrendered along with their families. But the ULFA chairman, Mr. Rajkhowa angrily rejected the suggestion of talks, insisting that he and his colleague Mr. Barua had been arrested. Whatever the truth, many observers believe the men could now conceivably be persuaded to join in negotiations on the terms laid out by Mr. Chidambaram in the Rajya Sabha: “give up violence, give up arms, give up any claim for sovereignty.”
How likely is it that such talks will come about — and what might their ground level impact be? No one knows for certain. Dialogue with leaders like Mr. Rajkhowa could help marginalise ULFA hardliners. But many in ULFA are bound to see such a dialogue on Mr. Chidambaram’s conditions as a sell-out. Like other pro-dialogue ULFA leaders, Mr. Rajkhowa and Mr. Barua have little influence over their organisation’s military assets. These are controlled by its still-fugitive military chief, Mr. Paresh Baruah. A former Dibrugarh University soccer player, Mr. Baruah says he is willing to hold talks, but only if they are focussed on securing a sovereign state — something the Government of India is not prepared to discuss. India’s intelligence services believe Mr. Baruah, who is claimed to be hiding out along Myanmar’s border with China, has been making efforts to reorganise and re-equip his cadre. If talks do begin, they could precipitate a determined terror offensive by these forces. There are also difficult ethical issues to be considered in granting amnesty to ULFA leaders, a likely precondition for a dialogue. Mr. Raju Barua, for example, is alleged by the Assam Police of personal involvement in several terrorist attacks, including an attempt to assassinate the State’s Revenue Minister, Bhumithar Burman. Nonetheless, any movement forward on ending a conflict that has consumed thousands of lives since ULFA was born in 1979 can only be welcomed. It must be hoped that all the key actors will display more wisdom — and concern for human life — than they have in the past.