The peace initiative of the ‘28th battalion’ of the United Liberation Front of Asom is a small but significant step forward in the efforts to find a negotiated settlement to the insurgency in Assam. The ULFA leadership has so far been unwilling to engage the Central and State governments in talks in any meaningful manner, but the decision of the three companies of the 28th battalion operating in upper Assam to hold fire and push for negotiations could prompt a rethink. If firmed up, this move could mean that the realisation that insurgency offered only limited political purchase has trickled down to the level of at least a section of cadres. Even after they dropped the ‘precondition’ that talks with the government should be held in a third country, under United Nations auspices, top leaders of ULFA have insisted that the agenda should include the ‘sovereignty’ of Assam. What they desperately need is a reality check, which will demonstrate that negotiating separation from India is out of the question and achieving it by force of arms is a pipe dream.
Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, while welcoming the unilateral ceasefire of the 28th battalion, has laid down these ground rules for talks: the militants should live in designated camps, stop extortion, and negotiate within the framework of the Indian Constitution. Too often, ULFA has used ceasefires as breathers before returning to its violent ways. The People’s Consultative Group, which initially held the promise of serving as a bridge between the government and the insurgents, has been ineffective, with some members functioning as a mere front for the banned outfit. Contrary to expectations, the PCG made no attempt to bring the demands of the militants down to earth. ULFA remains a banned terrorist organisation and its top leaders must be made to realise that militarily as well as politically they are approaching a dead end. Setting off bombs in public places has claimed innocent lives and occasional headlines but it has not succeeded either in demoralising civil society or softening the state. Indeed, such tactics have seen the evaporation of whatever public sympathy the militants used to enjoy. The outfit, if it is to be anything other than a gang of extortionists, must listen to sober voices within its own ranks and go for a negotiated political settlement within the framework of a sovereign and united India. With its fighters on the run from the Indian army and the scope for using camps in Bangladesh and in different parts of north-east India steadily diminishing, ULFA needs to follow the political instincts of its 28th battalion. For the government, this may be the time for a fresh peace initiative.