The facts and circumstances of the return of the chairman of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom, Arabinda Rajkhowa, its deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah (both aliases though their actual names are widely known), with eight others — mostly women and children —, to Assam from Bangladesh on December 4 were surrounded by some controversy. Fugitives from law, they had been living in Bangladesh, with several other leaders and cadres of ULFA, for long. The huge popular interest that greeted their return and the carpet bombing coverage by the media also contributed to the controversy.

Confusion over ‘surrender’

First, there was the question of whether they had ‘surrendered’ or were ‘arrested’. This created considerable heat immediately in the wake of their arrival at Guwahati, with the two ULFA leaders vehemently maintaining when they were produced in court on the evening of December 5 that they had not surrendered, that they would never surrender; and that they would never compromise on their ‘demand for sovereignty.’

Two, the handcuffing of the two militants as they were brought to the court created some more heat, some of it perhaps contrived. In Indian political tradition, as ULFA leaders know well, being handcuffed is more a badge of honour than a mark of disgrace for a political prisoner. However, Rajkhowa pointedly noted that instead of returning wearing a victory garland, as he had expected — the clearest suggestion that his return had been, in a way, ‘negotiated’ — he had been treated as a criminal. He also said there was no question of negotiations, with handcuffs on.

Interestingly, these words and sentiments echoed the response of Nelson Mandela in 1985 to South African President P.W. Botha’s announcement in Parliament that the government would ‘conditionally’ release him if he renounced armed struggle. Mr. Mandela gave his answer in a famous statement, read by his daughter Zindzi on February 10, 1985, at a mass rally in the Jabulani Stadium in Soweto: “What kind of freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? …Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.” The two situations are not comparable but the resonance is clear, perhaps intended.

Three, there was some confusion on where exactly the ULFA leaders were picked up. Initially, it was claimed that they had “surrendered” to the Border Security Force after being “pushed” across the border by the Bangladesh Rifles, a routine exercise by the BSF inherent in the “expulsion” of illegal migrants. They were then “arrested” on the Indian side of the border and brought to Guwahati. There were contradictory reports on where exactly they were pushed back, for four of the seven States of the region — Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura — share 1,879 km of the 4,095 km of the India-Bangladesh border, which include riverine areas and the ‘borders’ of several Indian enclaves surrounded by the Bangladesh territory.

For the record, and to give an indication of the complexity of the India-Bangladesh border problems, West Bengal has the longest border with Bangladesh (2,216 km), followed by Tripura (856 km), Meghalaya (443 km), Mizoram (318 km) and Assam (262 km). There were reports, all attributed to intelligence agencies (who were saying nothing) that they had been picked up in Tripura, Meghalaya and even Mizoram. Eventually, it was clarified that they had been picked up from the most commonly used point on the Bangladesh-Meghalaya border — Dawki-Tamabil area.

Such misdirection and cock-ups are inevitable in clandestine operations involving competing intelligence and security agencies of two countries, as well as the tacit consent and co-operation of the main actors without which the ULFA leaders could not have been brought over. However, for appearance’s sake, the pretence of surrender or arrest had to be maintained.

Damage control

Damage control exercises are already on. Instead of asking for further police custody of two other ULFA militants arrested early in November — foreign secretary Sashadhar Choudhury and finance secretary Chitrabon Hazarika — the two have been sent to judicial custody and lodged in the Guwahati Central Jail where three of their senior colleagues, all members of ULFA’s central committee facing trial, have been lodged When, eventually, Rajkhowa and Baruah too are sent to judicial custody — the court has extended their police custody by nine more days — they would join the five other leaders in prison. There are reports that another senior leader, Bhimkanta Burhagohain, arrested during the Bhutan operations in December 2003, presently in judicial custody in Tezpur jail, may also be moved to Guwahati jail, facilitating exchange of views between persons who have for years not had direct contact with one another.

Yet there are serious, although not insurmountable, impediments to the clinching of any kind of settlement or deal.

First, there are the contradictions between the stated stands of the Centre and the ULFA. The Union Home Minister is categorical: “Lay down arms, and give up ‘demands for sovereignty.’ Then, the talks can be held.” ULFA’s stated stand is equally categorical: Talks can be held only if the ‘demand for sovereignty’ is on the agenda. There is, however, an element of make-believe in such posturing, for ‘sovereignty’ can never be demanded, let alone granted. No sovereign nation has ever ceded sovereignty over a part of its territory except under two conditions: defeat in war and occupation by the conquering power.

The circumstances of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, two recent events that seem to have enthused the separatist/sovereignty aspirations in Assam and the northeast, were specific to those countries and are not a universal principle. It is true that the Indian state is beset with several challenges to its authority but the inspiration and the objectives of these struggles differ sharply. For instance, the challenges posed by the CPI (Maoist) is quite different from the one posed by sovereignty assertions based on exclusive and exclusionary ethno-nationalism. The CPI (Maoist) wants to capture state power in India, in the name of the Indian people, however illusory that objective may be, not establish an ethno-nationalist sovereign republic in a part of the country that would by definition exclude other Indian people outside that ethno-nationalist framework.

However, the ongoing talks with the Naga nationalist leaders who have not given up the ‘demand for sovereignty’ may provide a formula for talks to be held, without either side formally climbing down.

A more serious impediment is the absence of the outfit’s commander-in-chief, Paresh Baruah, whose whereabouts are a matter of free speculation. With amazing regularity he has been sending faxes and e-mails to the media in Guwahati, occasionally speaking on the telephone to individual journalists, reiterating the outfit’s stand on sovereignty. His most recent intervention in an email sent on December 11 reiterating the demand for a plebiscite (or referendum), on the issue of sovereignty. “We will continue to fight the occupation forces unless they agree to hold discussions on sovereignty or conduct a plebiscite”.

Vested interests

Finally, there are powerful forces inside and outside the state, not in the least sympathetic to ULFA’s strategic objective of Swadhin Asom, who would rather want ULFA to carry on, for only the presence of such an insurgency will ensure that the Centre will “not neglect Assam.” Such a structural nexus between insurgency and development is complex is evident to even the most superficial observer, especially in the glitz and splurge and squalor of cities. ULFA is the other side of such development.

However, overriding these is also the impending danger to the very existence of Assam as it exists, with the recrudescence of demands for the creation of other states, starting with the demand for a full fledged state of Bodoland, following the developments over Telangana. These developments may induce some rethinking. The Swadhin Asom that ULFA seeks is not an Assam truncated further.

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