A rebel group’s ability to kill people and strike terror is no measure of its strength or popularity. It may be premature to dismiss the United Liberation Front of Asom as a spent force. But few in Assam doubt that it has lost much of its popular appeal and even its capacity for major armed offensives. Its latest strike in Nalbari does not alter these basic facts. The Ulfa’s latest act of violence is better understood as a desperate ploy to try and wriggle out of a major organizational crisis. Two of its senior leaders were arrested in Dhaka earlier this month. The outfit’s leaders may have anticipated a crackdown on their hideouts in Bangladesh after Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s return as prime minister. Most of its shelters in Bhutan had earlier been destroyed in joint raids by Indian and Bhutanese authorities. The loss of its old shelters and hideouts is, however, not the most important setback for the group. The Ulfa’s worst crisis seems to be its near-total alienation from the common people of Assam. The violence in Nalbari does not change the fact that the Ulfa has never been as weak and as directionless as it is now.
Yet, most people in Assam would like both New Delhi and Dispur to seriously engage the Ulfa in the peace process. The use of the peace talks has little to do with the decline of the group. And it should have nothing to do with its power to trigger violence at regular intervals. The peace initiative needs to be guided by the larger principle of providing security and social and economic benefits to the common people. New Delhi has recently appointed a special representative to mediate in the peace talks with three other rebel groups in Assam. But there is clearly a lull in the peace process involving the Ulfa. The chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, would do well to reopen the process. The latest violence has sparked another wave of popular anger at the Ulfa’s ways. There seems to be a general yearning for peace that makes this the right time to reopen the dialogue with the Ulfa.