January 8, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Sunil Nath

'Nobody in Assam takes ULFA lightly'
'Nobody in Assam takes ULFA lightly'

Sunil Nath was, at one point in time, former publicity chief for the banned United Liberation Front of Asom. During those days, he functioned under the pseudonym Siddartha Phukan.

He was part of the first batch of leaders who came into the open after the organisation split in 1992. It was a move engineered by Nath and his colleagues, who believed the organisation was deviating from its avowed aim.

Today, Nath runs a successful business. As the following first person article indicates, he has not given up expressing his views on either ULFA or the volatile situation in Assam.

I have recently been interacting with a few well-established individuals who are leaders of the Assamese diaspora on the Internet. They are well-educated and reasonable people; definitely not the kind one would call xenophobic or ultra-national. But, beneath their genteel veneer, they are, to a certain extent, 'anti-Indian.'

Before I continue, I would like to qualify my remark; by saying anti-Indian, I do not mean they are for an independent Assam. The people I am referring to are aware of and recognise their Indian identity; only, they are more conscious and more concerned about their Assamese identity. In fact, even those Assamese with Bengali-speaking origins who now live in foreign countries appear to be more conscious of their Assamese identity.

I even saw this when I was in Guwahati a few days ago. I had attended an Eid feast hosted by an Assamese-speaking Muslim acquaintance. In local parlance, he would be known as an 'indigenous Muslim.'

In the ensuing discussion on the present political scenario, a common enough topic in any Assamese-dominated social gathering these days, he remarked that the people of Assam are not, historically-speaking, Indians. And went on to elaborate that, before the British took over Assam in 1826, Assam was not a political part of India.

I silently observed everyone's reactions. Most of the people seemed to agree with what he had just said, even though -- in typical middle-class fashion -- they forgot all about the discussion as soon as they parted at the end of the day. Yet, they seemed to harbour a certain amount of anti-Indian sentiment. I am again qualifying my remark: it does not mean they did not accept their Indian identity. However, they seemed to lay more emphasis on their Assamese identity.

A vast majority of the Assamese-speaking people tend to think they are Assamese by origin and Indian by their legal citizenship. However, this vast majority does not necessarily subscribe to ULFA's goal of swadhin Asom. ULFA, in fact, does not call such people -- who are not its members, but help the organisation by providing shelter, etc, to ULFA members -- supporters; they call them sympathisers.

During the so-called Kargil war, the people of Assam behaved like true Indians. Martyrs like Captain Jintu Gogoi were given much respect; the mood of the people was very 'pro-India.' They scornfully neglected ULFA's call to consider the infiltrators in Kargil as freedom fighters.

The Indian army -- generally perceived as a perpetrator of human rights abuses because of the counter-insurgency operations it carried out in Assam -- was suddenly seen as the brave sentinel at our borders. For some time, ULFA actually slid down the popularity scales. However, as Kargil slowly receded into the background, the sympathy for ULFA returned.

It is a fact that most Assamese-speaking people have a soft spot for ULFA. Though they do not subscribe to, or even support, its violent measures, the Assamese, in general, would rather not see an ULFA member die; they consider them to be 'our boys.'

Even the other indigenous language-speaking people of Assam are somewhat sympathetic towards ULFA. Till recently, Hindi and Bengali-speaking Assamese did not regard ULFA as their enemy. So much so, the recent massacres of people of Hindi-speaking origin aroused, at first, more surprise than anger or hatred. Even now, some of them are hesitant to accept ULFA as the culprit behind these massacres.

This attitude has nearly always been explained as an attraction towards ULFA's Robin Hood image. Yet, it could have influenced the people's attitude towards ULFA only in its early years. Today, ULFA's activities have firmly established it as a hardened extremist organisation; a far cry from the romantic notion of 'our boys playing at being militants.' Nobody in Assam takes ULFA lightly any more. But a sympathetic feeling for the organisation, specially on the part of the Assamese-speaking people, still exists.

Like I have stressed earlier, this sympathy is not support. It is a kind of 'eat your cake and have it too' syndrome. The general feeling is that while ULFA is right about New Delhi's misrule in Assam, a total secession from India is not exactly the solution. That, though, New Delhi's arrogance and neglect justifies ULFA's existence, a 'judicial separation' is a better solution than a 'divorce.'

The perceived neglect of Assam by New Delhi (which term represents the Indian State and national level politicians belonging to all major national political parties) is a deep-rooted grievance. Many Assamese suggest a more federal dispensation as compared to the present one. They argue that more autonomy for the state is necessary and desirable in order to promote its rapid development.

They comfortably forget that the Assamese politicians have already made a mess by misusing whatever power they have. I, in fact, shudder to imagine what our politicians would do if they are given more powers. However, I have to admit that my views do not represent the majority view of Assam.

To be able to bring peace to the troubled state, we have to begin by attempting to understand the Assamese psyche. Treating ULFA as a bunch of mischief-mongers who have to be quelled by brute force would only aggravate the situation.

ULFA survives on the latent dissatisfaction inherent in the Assamese psyche. It is not a simple case of a few disgruntled and misguided youth. Rather, it is the case of a disgruntled people. If the problem is understood in its proper perspective, a solution cannot remain far away.

The belief that 'Assam is neglected by New Delhi' is so well-entrenched that prosy Government propaganda will not change it. Matters are not helped by the arrogant attitude of senior officers (IAS, IPS, etc) from other states of India who are posted in Assam. What aggravates the situation is the fact that they are not immune to the all-Indian disease of corruption.

The situation is somewhat similar to the recent reaction of Kathmandu's students to certain alleged remarks made by the popular Indian star, Hrithik Roshan. Though he immediately refuted it, they still threw Nepal's capital city out of gear.

Later, it was realised that nobody was sure when and on which television channel the alleged remarks were made.

The Calcutta-based The Telegraph rightly commented in its editorial that the remarks actually did not matter. What mattered was the fact that the students of Kathmandu were ready to accept the rumours as true. There existed a pent-up anger against the perceived Indian hegemony. The rumour was only a spark, which set a dry haystack on fire.

This is quite similar to the situation in Assam where, rightly or wrongly, the feeling that Assam gets the proverbial step-motherly treatment from New Delhi is deeply entrenched in popular perception.

If we agree with this assessment, the natural corollary would be to find a way of uprooting this feeling. I, for one, do not believe in the theory of the colonial exploitation of Assam by the Indian State. But most of the Assamese people do. No amount of facts and figures can defeat this long-held belief. This is a case where it is not enough to 'do justice;' it is more important to appear to have 'appear to have done so.'

Sometime ago, a newly installed prime minister announced a 'special package' for the northeast. However, the Union Budget announced by his finance minister soon after did not have any provisions for his much-vaunted 'package.' This was pointed out in bold letters by the nationalist press in Assam.

More harm than good was done by the premier's perhaps well-intentioned but hollow promises. Though he was soon ousted and is now engaging himself with his state's politics in the south, his half-hearted schemes have had a more long-term affect on the already-hurt Assamese psyche. I mention this incident only to highlight the dangers of half-hearted measures.

Then there are some bureaucrats and politicians in New Delhi who fool themselves into believing that only strong-arm tactics can solve the problem. It is true that the state will have to flex its muscles to contain militancy in the short run. However, to believe that it is possible deal with the state's problems through the Disturbed Areas Act and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is to live in a fool's paradise. The Indian State can only assuage the feelings of the local people by making a sincere effort to push through genuine measures that will help develop economic infrastructure of the region.

Another important factor is the careful selection of the people sent to Assam as the Centre's representatives. They should be individuals of high moral integrity who can earn the respect and affection of the local people.

The people are aware that most local politicians who alternately occupy positions of power at the state level are a corrupt lot. If New Delhi's representatives to Assam can retain the image of being people of unimpeachable integrity, the effect would be magnified when held in contrast to corrupt local politicians. It would be a tactical victory for pan-Indian nationalism, plus an actual contribution in ensuring that the central funds invested to uplift the economic infrastructure of the state is utilised properly.

The common refrain amongst the state and central policy-makers is that development is not possible until the law and order situation is improved. But this will not happen until the region is developed. So, instead of arguing whether the chicken came first or the egg, it would be better to embark on a two-pronged strategy.

While continuing to contain militancy with an iron hand, the Indian State should initiate major developmental projects in Assam and the northeast region. Since private capital would not venture into the region until the law and order situation improves, the Indian State would have to begin by putting its hand in its own pocket.

The Brahmaputra Board has identified and prepared the conceptual framework for some major hydroelectric projects; these could go a long way in changing the economic climate of the region. The commissioning of the projects would transform this region from a power-starved one to one with lot of power to sell even after its optimum utilisation in the region.

The assured availability of power would also guarantee a rapid expansion of cold storages, which will in return ensure a regular market for agricultural produce. I am sure this would have a tremendous positive effect on this predominantly agricultural region.

A better standard of living and a substantial decrease in unemployment will dilute the sense of grievance in the region's people. A hungry stomach is prone to dissatisfaction; a full belly seldom entertains complaints.

Sunil Nath offers to broker peace talks

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