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By TT Bureau
  • Published 20.02.06

The developments in Assam over the past few days have made one thing clear: that reports in recent years of the United Liberation Front of Assam losing influence have been highly exaggerated. At least that is not the case in those parts of rural upper Assam ? the home ground of ULFA?s exiled top leadership and the site of the recent unrest.

For a number of days, pro-ULFA slogans and sentiments have been in open display as villagers of the Kakopathar region blocked a national highway, stormed army pickets, vandalized vehicles and even dug up the highway to protest against the custodial killing of a fellow villager by the Indian army. That the army describes the victim as an ?ULFA hit-man? has had no effect on the public?s sense of outrage. Nine persons were killed in a police firing of protesters. ULFA called an Assam bandh on February 13, protesting against the Kakopathar firing and its chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, compared the incident with the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre.

The backdrop to these developments might initially seem awkward. The second meeting between the government of India and the ULFA-appointed people?s consultative group had just taken place in Delhi where the government even promised confidence-building measures to facilitate what could some day be called a peace process. However, important differences exist on the government side on whether to negotiate with ULFA. No less a person than Assam?s governor, Lieutenant General Ajai Singh ? architect of two counter-insurgency operations against ULFA ? publicly opposes negotiations. ?What is there to negotiate with them?? he asks. Instead, he favours ?instilling fear? in the rebels so that ?they cannot dictate terms?. By contrast, Assam?s elected chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, has been strongly supportive of negotiations. Singh and some others in the security establishment would probably interpret Kakopathar as no more than a temporary setback. But if a single incident could become a trigger to such public anger and expression of pro-ULFA sentiments, one can hardly have confidence in the security establishment?s reading of the ground situation and its recipe for bringing about peace.

India?s track record of ending internal armed conflicts is quite poor. Today the world has numerous intra-state armed conflicts, and everywhere they last long ? on average about seven years as opposed to six months for international wars according to one count. However, the duration of intra-state armed conflicts in India ? and in the rest of south Asia ? have been much longer than the world average. The Naga war ? despite the nine-year old ceasefire ? will soon enter the sixth decade, making it one of the world?s oldest armed conflicts.

There are many reasons why most of our conflicts have been long-lasting. But one common factor seems to suggest itself. Those who study armed internal conflicts emphasize the role of a ?mutually hurting stalemate? ? felt by conflicting parties ? as a necessary condition for pushing conflicts in the direction of a negotiated settlement. These theorists argue that when parties realize that further military escalation would not produce victory and that the costs of the status quo are unacceptably high, a conflict becomes ?ripe? for resolution.

But in India, even when conflicts have been terribly hurtful, localized suffering has not easily translated into high costs for the government side. Doing something about conflicts in the Northeast may be important for our national-level politicians, but no government has fallen because of the way it has handled or mishandled them. And after decades of counter-insurgency and attention to security, we have further cushioned our decision-making elites from the hurting effects of a stalemate.

In a new two-tiered order, the top echelons of the bureaucracy, the army and the political establishment who live and travel with very high levels of security are now the ?security haves?. Under these conditions, despite enormous suffering by civilians, those who favour a military solution or rather a victor?s peace tend to win policy arguments. They seem to believe that given the obvious military superiority of the government?s side, all armed groups can be eventually bullied into submission. This of course has meant, in effect, stalemated long-duration armed conflicts and the costs being paid almost entirely by the security have-nots.

One obvious lesson of Kakopathar is that counter-insurgency operations and efforts toward a negotiated peace do not go together. Kakopathar underscores the absence of a solid coalition on the government side in support of negotiations. What has made the two meetings with the PCG possible is simply an electoral calculation that in post-Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act Assam, the ethnic Assamese vote might matter to the Congress more than usual. Appearing to be on the side of a negotiated peace with ULFA might give the Congress an edge over the Asom Gana Parishad among this segment. But since this posture does not have to be maintained beyond the elections, there is no need to try to build a stable political coalition to support a negotiated peace. Thus the serious differences between the governor and the chief minister can just be put aside. Were we serious about a negotiated peace, there might have been pressure for the governor to resign. After all, there could be no better confidence-building measure than making a civilian, and someone untainted by counter-insurgency operations, the next governor.

Decisions made under these political conditions can only reinforce the existing stalemate. Daniel Ellsberg had coined the term ?stalemate machine? to describe the American political logic of successive presidents committing just enough resources to Vietnam so as not to violate two critical domestic political rules of thumb: to not lose South Vietnam to the communists before the next election and not commit US ground troops to a land war in Asia. Pretending to work towards a negotiated peace with ULFA while carrying on counter-insurgency operations is an Indian version of a stalemate machine.