Buying time is not the best way to tackle insurgencies. As they blasted an oil refinery and a gas pipeline, the rebels belonging to the United Liberation Front of Asom also exposed a gaping hole in New Delhi’s policy towards militancy. Strangely, no substantive steps have been taken to start a dialogue with the group, although peace initiatives with Naga and Bodo underground outfits have yielded positive results. There is thus some justification in Dispur’s complaint that the Centre’s indecision has prompted the ULFA to mount more vicious offensives. The Assam government’s inability to deal with the ULFA on its own is understandable. It is not just the rebels’ sophisticated arms and guerrilla tactics that make it difficult for the state police force to contain it; the ULFA bases inside Bhutan make the Centre’s intervention absolutely crucial. But additional Central security forces only add to the state’s measures to check the violence; the political solution can only come through a dialogue. Even if the ULFA’s strategy to force the dialogue at gun-point is to be condemned unequivocally, there is no denying that any further delay in opening peace negotiations would harm both Assamese and national interests.
The ULFA’s “terms” should not be a major problem for beginning the talks. Like most hard bargains, these may seem unacceptable to any government worth its salt. The demand for “sovereignty” by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, led by Mr Isak Swu and Mr Thuingaleng Muivah, once appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle to the Naga peace talks. So did its other demand for the talks being held in a “third” country. These two are also among the ULFA’s terms for any talks, but the experience of the Naga negotiations has proved that a determined peace initiative can overcome the hardest of hurdles. The latest rebel offensives should dispel any misgivings about the ULFA being a spent force. Its influence among the Assamese youth may have been vastly reduced from what it had been a decade ago. But an outlawed organization’s capacity to strike terror is not dependent on its mass support. Assam has bled for a long time because of its many mutinies; it is time that its most important peace deal was seriously attempted.