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Assam: Key to peace in Northeast

Much, if not most, of what happens in India’s Northeast, is seldom noticed outside its own limited confines. There has been an election in Assam and a new government sworn in – and of course, these events were widely reported, as was the violence that preceded these elections. Since then, however, the State has receded once again into the shadowy netherworld of national consciousness, and there is little sense or awareness of the fervency of expectation among the people who believe that Tarun Gogoi may be more faithful to his electoral promise than his predecessor was seen to be; or of the increasing feeling of alarm among a people who fear the possibilities of a new tide of violence in the succession of attacks launched by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) in areas that had, for some time now, been more less quiescent; or of the sweeping changes in counter-terrorism strategy that Gogoi has spoken of in his first weeks in office; or, indeed, of the administrative and economic vision that is currently being articulated, and that needs to be assessed in great detail, lest it result in continued failures that the State can ill afford.

Gogoi has taken charge on a pitch that had unfortunately been queered by the mismanagement of the election process by the Centre. Over the past year, dramatic changes had taken place in the context of terrorism in the State, and though 2000 had been a year of rising violence, it had also proven to be a year of shrinking militant influence. Indeed, the ULFA’s capacity to strike – along with that of the other major and active militant group, the NDFB’s – had been virtually contained within a relatively limited area along the Bhutanese border, and many of the hotbeds of terrorist violence in the mid-1990s had been entirely rid of militant activity and terrorist incidents by the end of the decade.

Unfortunately, it is the administrative incompetence of the Centre – and in the present instance, on the part of a Constitutional authority – that has, time and again, wasted away critical opportunities for peace. These opportunities are created out of the blood and sacrifice of hundreds of security personnel, but are destroyed by the crude and inaccurate picture Delhi has of events and ground realities on the country’s periphery.

The SFs and the Assam establishment were well aware of the situation in the State, and the potential for electoral violence long before the polls, as they were of crucial importance for peace during the polls; not just in a limited sense of holding free, fair and non-violent election, but in the larger context of political stability and the opportunity for resolution of the conflict in the State. Their apprehensions had been communicated to the Centre and the Election Commission, but their advice was ignored, and the ULFA succeeded in executing a number of demoralizing strikes in the run-up to the polls. Had the elections been staggered, and far greater Force been allocated much earlier, the mandate for peace could have been consolidated, and the legitimacy of the new regime would not have been tarnished by unverified allegations of collusion with militant elements. Such allegations have, of course, been given the clear lie by the Gogoi government’s sustained counter-insurgency thrust in the past weeks, but the damage had already been done.

The post-election period has seen a flood of extortion notices issued by the ULFA right across Assam, and fear is, once again, endemic. This has certainly made the new Government’s task the more daunting, but the emerging direction of response appears positive. For one thing, counter-insurgency operations have been stepped up, and have already notched up a number of significant successes. Gogoi has also displayed an understanding of the naunced character of responses that are required in multi-Force operations, and has emphasized the pivotal role that the State’s police and intelligence will have to play if the scourge of terrorism is to be defeated.

This is a time at which the State’s efforts will need the greatest of support, irrespective of narrow party affiliations and interests. In this, the Centre would do well to remember that peace in Assam is the key to peace in the Northeast; and the key to peace in Assam is the defeat or political neutralization of the ULFA. It is also important to notice that, though there has been a wild proliferation of militant organizations in the State over the past years – there are as many as 34 currently identified – it is the ULFA that is the backbone of the insurgency in Assam. Most of the important groups, including many that have apparently conflicting goals and ideologies from those of the ULFA, are in fact, trained, armed and supported by, and sometimes co-ordinate activities with the ULFA.

The sense of loss of control in Assam (and in the Northeast in general), notwithstanding, these are tangible, achievable, goals. Operations under the Unified Command structure over the past two years had virtually brought the ULFA and its affiliates to their knees – though this was at a rising cost in lives. Indeed, total insurgency related fatalities in the State in the year 2000 were as high as 816, the highest number since the beginning of the conflict, rising from 503 in 1999, and 783 in 1998, but a rising proportion of the casualties have been among the ranks of the militants themselves (1998:180; 1999: 212; 2000: 321), who had been contained within small corners of the State, where they could still strike and flee to safe havens across international borders. That is why much of the militant violence in the past year has taken a particularly aimless and brutal character, such as the repeated incidents of mass killing of poor villagers and woodcutters in forest areas in the Kokrajhar district along the Bhutan border.

What is needed now are strong, narrowly targeted intelligence-based operations, within the ambit of the State police, to bring substantially criminalized movements, which had lost their political and ideological moorings years ago, to their logical conclusion. Along with these, however, the Government will have to go a very long way to ensure the restoration of the integrity of the administration, to plug the ‘leakages’ that have consumed virtually the entire pool of developmental resources available to the State in the past, and to establish a measure of administrative competence and efficiency demonstrably superior to that of the predecessor regime.

A great deal has been written about the need for ‘new directions’, for a ‘creative’ vision, and for the exploration of ‘radical alternatives’ in policy, to address the crises of India’s Northeast. While such explorations and an open and experimental orientation are essential to the enterprise of democratic governance in such a complex, pluralistic society, the fact is, the restoration of peace and order in Assam demands much less: if even the minimal requirements of good governance are met by a leadership that displays a modicum of sagacity in dealing with the conflicting aspirations of different ethnic and communal groups – entirely within the ambit of the existing constitutional and legal order – the remnants of ‘legitimacy’ and presumed ‘public’ sanction for violent resistance that the various insurgent groups currently benefit from will vanish without a trace. And in their wake, so will the terrorists and their leaders.

(Published in The Pioneer, June 16, 2001)





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