The anti-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has asked an oil and gas company engaged in exploration work in Upper Assam to quit the state within 45 days. There can be little mistake in assessing the situation - it's a desperate measure by the marginalised faction led by Paresh Baruah to make its presence felt. And it's doomed to fail.
There is, for sure, no need to panic at the threat. Yet Baruah is someone you can dismiss only at your own peril. If nothing, his faction still has considerable nuisance value. A group of hardcore ULFA cadres is reported to have recently entered Tinsukia district from Myanmar through Arunachal Pradesh, while another has entered Sivasagar district from Myanmar through Nagaland. They have enough hardware to create trouble.
True, both militarily and politically speaking, the ULFA is today a pale shadow of itself. In fact, if it figures in headlines at all, it is because of its historical clout. Its military liquidation started much later in its timeline even when its cadres were waging a war against the Indian State from sanctuaries in Bhutan and Bangladesh. The political decline actually had started earlier - when it willy-nilly went against the same people it claimed to be fighting for.
For the organisation turning into the dreaded and prevailing ULFA that it was at the peak of its popularity, considerable credit must go to Baruah. At the same time, if the organisation stands significantly marginalised now, he needs to take his share of the blame too.
The ULFA had rebuffed peace overtures from the Indian government for a long time, but was finally brought to its knees with the arrest of its recalcitrant chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa in November 2009. Since then many senior leaders have been released, and the organisation has been brought to the negotiating table. Talks are to begin sometime later this month. It's
premature to say where the talks may be headed; the issues will always remain contentious, less about sovereignty, and more about the land and its people.
There had been talks once, when the Assam movement had culminated in the signing of the historic Assam Accord in 1985. The agitation's leaders, drawn mostly from the All-Assam Students Union (AASU) had gone on to form the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) that stormed to power soon after. No popular movement in India had ever received as much goodwill and love from the people as the Assam Agitation had. The AGP, however, failed miserably, as it remained dogged by inefficiency and corruption. They lost at the hustings the next time out, but were given another chance five years later. They failed yet again, and were booted out for good. This time, the AGP has been decimated by the Congress-led alliance.
Political circumstances may have changed since the Assam Accord, but ground realities haven't. Both the ULFA and the AGP now stand marginalised for almost identical reasons - they let their own people down, miserably so. No movement, non-violent or insurrectionist, can sustain itself without the all-pervading love and support of the people. Their abject failures, all results of their own immature handiwork than that of their enemies, may have left a political vacuum; but that doesn't mean that the issues have been wished away. The question of illegal migrants is as much a reality as it was in 1979. Allegations of neo-colonialist exploitation of the state's natural resources are still as real. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has time and again tried to fill up this political space but come a cropper every time. Its communal outlook doesn't always curry favour with the people.
Baruah knows this, and hence the rhetoric in the email that was sent out, "Shiv-Vani Oil and Gas Exploration Services Limited is robbing Assam of its natural wealth. The company is also depriving local entrepreneurs in all spheres and hence they should stop their operations and leave the state within one and half months. If it fails, ULFA will launch an armed protest against the company."
If one leaves the idiom and the threat aside, the grim reality remains. But then, the defiant Baruah is a prisoner of another era. Rajkhowa, however, has been able to react. Late last month, he publicly sought forgiveness for the killing of 10 children and three women in a bomb blast in Dhemaji district in 2004. It may be rejected as opportunistic political posturing in the run-up to the talks, but you need to start somewhere. Rajkhowa has.
It's difficult to say how many are willing to forgive the ULFA for the miseries it heaped on its own people. But the ULFA still enjoys considerable support. They may have faltered, more than once, but they remain the sons of the soil.