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Last Updated: Friday, 20 October 2006, 12:39 GMT 13:39 UK
What hopes for peace in Assam?
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Assam

Thousands of angry locals have been protesting against the resumption of military operations in India's north-eastern state of Assam after talks between the federal government and the leading separatist group in the state broke down last month.

The protests look set to intensify (Photos: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee)

The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), formed in 1979 to fight for Assam's independence, has carried out a series of campaigns including targeting oil and gas pipelines, transport and telecommunication facilities and security patrols.

"We Assamese have suffered unrest and trouble for 25 years. We can take it no more. We want peace at any cost," says schoolteacher Smita Mishra.

When the separatist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) set up a committee of prominent Assamese citizens in September last year to start negotiations with the central government in Delhi, hopes rose high across the troubled tea-and-oil producing frontier state.

"The separatists were serious about talks and a settlement this time," says Assamese newspaper editor Ajit Bhuiyan, who was member of the ULFA-nominated Peoples Consultative Group (PCG). But "Delhi failed to take the chance and this will cost everybody very dearly".

'True colours'

The head of the ULFA's military wing, Paresh Barua, is equally critical of the government.

"We wanted the negotiations to continue for a final settlement," he told the BBC by phone from an undisclosed hideout. "But Delhi has shown its true colours by resuming military operations. So we will fight to the last."

Assam map

He also laid out his conditions for peace talks to resume: "They must release five of our top leaders and stop military operations completely."

India's Home Minister Shivraj Patil introduced a ray of hope this week when he told some MPs on his ministry's parliamentary consultative committee that the breakdown of talks in Assam was "a temporary setback".

Mr Patil said the talks would resume but the ULFA had to shun violence and agree to direct negotiations.

Meanwhile, as the Indian army intensified its operations in areas of Upper and Lower Assam dominated by the ULFA, thousands of Assamese came out on to the streets asking Delhi to stop military operations and resume talks with the rebels.

In Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts the army and police arrested nearly 100 people on suspicion of having links to the ULFA.

Smita Mishra, school teacher
We want peace at any cost
Smita Mishra
school teacher

"The army must spare innocent people. They cannot kill or harass anybody and everybody," said Biswajyoti Gohain, a resident of Moran, whose son was picked up by the troops on suspicion of links with the ULFA.

The People's Committee for Peace Initiatives in Assam (PCIPIA) , an umbrella group of 27 Assamese human rights and action groups, has played a leading role in the protests.

Intelligence officials say the PCPIA is full of ULFA sympathisers.

Police have broken up several attempts by PCPIA supporters to block roads and even march into the state admninistrative secretariat in the main city, Guwahati. Many were injured in the baton charges.

"The ULFA has changed tactics. Besides their normal hit-and-run attacks, they have mobilised the so-called peaceniks for creating pressure on the government," says retired Major General Gaganjit Singh. He commanded a division in Assam and worked as deputy-chief of the Defence Intelligence Agency until recently.

Electoral factor

Mr Singh says the ULFA is keeping its options open on going for peace until it sees the results of elections in neighbouring Bangladesh.

"The present regime in Dhaka does not want to offend and upset India before parliament elections in that country. So their agencies want the ULFA to stay quiet and play the peace game," said Mr Singh.

Soldiers salute at the coffins of dead colleagues
Soldiers salute the coffins of colleagues killed in rebel ambush

But he says if the BNP-Jamait coalition is re-elected in Bangladesh, the ULFA is likely to return to full-scale violence.

However, if the Awami League, seen as friendly to India, returns to power, the ULFA will want a way out, he argues.

"The ULFA fears expulsion from its bases in Bangladesh if the Awami League returns to power in Dhaka. So they are keen to keep the peace option intact," said Mr Singh.

Serving military officials and those heading India's security establishment endorse that view.

A few days before the talks with the ULFA broke down, the army issued a press statement in Assam alleging that the ULFA was simply using the negotiations as a breather to regroup and raise fresh funds and recruits on a large scale.

The ULFA dismisses such talk: "The ULFA takes decisions on the basis of what happens in Assam, not on the basis of what happens in Bangladesh," said spokesperson Rubi Bhuiyan.

On Thursday India's National Security Advisor, MK Narayanan pointed the finger at Bangladesh: "We regard Bangladesh as an area which gives sanctuary to these [militant leaders]," he said.

Meanwhile the street protests look set to continue.

Many analysts and Assam-watchers blame the federal government for mishandling the negotiations. But they expect both Delhi and the ULFA to get back on talking terms soon.

But even then the path to peace is not clear.

"It will naive for Delhi to imagine that they can militarily crush the ULFA," says Udayon Mishra, a writer on militancy in India's north-east.

"The problem has to be handled politically but at the moment I don't know how."

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15 Aug 04 |  South Asia

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