Guwahati, Wednesday, January 13, 2010
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EDITORIAL

What do the Assamese want?
— Sanjoy Hazarika
Soon after last month’s seizure and subsequent arrest of Arabindo Rajkhowa, chairman of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom, his colleague and head of the remnants of the organization’s armed wing reaffirmed, along with Rajkhowa, that Ulfa would only talk about sovereignty of Assam with the Central Government and that Ulfa could change its stance if there was a referendum on the issue in the State.

This was part of a series of statements made by the two leaders including one in which Baruah, rarely known for taking his words back, apologized to the people of Assam for the bomb blast in Dhemaji on Independence Day, when an explosion killed school children and others. The apology followed years of denials by Ulfa. But how is this sovereignty, never actively sought by the people of Assam or those elected by them yet demanded so vociferously by one group which has never tested its strength in elections, to be secured? The prescription is nothing new: the people of Assam, whose will has been tested in election after election, are asked to express their views in a referendum.

It is such a nice idea: but how and where will the referendum take place? And who will supervise it? In whose Assam or more precisely in which Assam? The Assam that the Nagas claim in their Nagalim and which takes in huge parts of Jorhat and Nagaon, all of Karbi Anglong and the North Cachar Hills? This is part of the NSCN map which was distributed at international conferences by the NSCN (I-M). Does Ulfa agree to this map which seeks the vivisection of Assam: it is not a position that the NSCN has resiled from. Maps and map-making are important to history. To ignore these basic facts shows a worrying lack of realism.

So, that is the Naga view of Assam. What about the Bodos who are in a coalition with Tarun Gogoi in Dispur, holding up the Congress-led Government? They too now have revived the demand for a separate State. Do they want to take part in a referendum on sovereignty, since one group is in the government and the other in a ceasefire mode, despite the occasional attacks by the faction which still owes allegiance to Ranjan Daimary, the head of the organization? And what of the Dimasas and the Karbis, each with their own group seeking greater autonomy and with the existing powers under the Sixth Schedule, much abused as it is, where they virtually run a state within a state in the shape of the Autonomous District Councils, with their own funds, personnel and powers.

The Assam of today is not the Assam that the young men left many years ago thinking that armed struggle would bring about change; it has – Assam has suffered in this conflict and contestations, through agitations and unending confrontations, divisions and ethnic cleavages. It is not the Assam of yesterday. People have been fighting for their rights for many years; they may not have got what they sought but they have got where they are after a long struggle and they have no intention of throwing it away on a chimera, which is no closer to what it was in 1979 when Ulfa began its story. After nearly 30 years of killings on all sides, with the economy and social conditions torn apart, what is there to celebrate as we approach Bihu?

The Rajbongshis, Morans, Rabhas and Deoris do not want sovereignty either, a notion that a handful of youth thought up in a burst of enthusiasm and resentment against the system. Just as it is important to review the failures and shortcomings of the political system in India, it is also important to consider the state of the organization and of the hundreds if not thousands who have died as a result of this armed struggle.

Several “civil society” groups are calling for talks, appealing to both sides to work for the welfare of Assam. There are demands for talks from several groups. But what will the two sides talk about? Sovereignty? The official side could easily say, “Let us talk about India’s sovereignty for Assam is part of India.” Ulfa will stick to its guns and it will go nowhere. The important thing is for both sides to talk directly to each other, not through interlocuters, and define the greatest flexibility they can show and then negotiate around the imponderables – just as China and India have sought to improve relations by trying to improve trade and other areas of cooperation while letting the border issue take its time.

What’s next on the table: proper development of natural resources – no more of this colonial extraction, right – and protection of local identities and better governance and economic growth and development and rights for the original inhabitants. Of course – that has been demanded by every group seeking these rights for decades: so there’s nothing new in that, either.

But what about the Bangladeshis in Assam? Some two million of them live there, at least one say one of every 15 persons in the state? How is it going to be resolved when Ulfa doesn’t even speak of it? The question is why doesn’t the organization address an issue which has been burning issue in Assam for decades?

So, let’s have a referendum but let’s change the focus a bit: it should not just about what Ulfa wants but also what the people of Assam want of Ulfa and New Delhi.

The issues Ulfa speaks of are argued by many others and, barring the issue of sovereignty, have a resonance: of extraction of natural resources and Assam not getting a fair share from the Centre, on lack of governance and delivery of services, of continuing poverty and lack of growth, on a colonial mind set in Delhi.

There are regular dialogues and workshops, seminars and policy formulations, vigorous interactions and Governments – in Delhi and in the North East – pay attention. They don’t do as much as been sought of them. But which government does, wherever in the world?

These roads and discussions are well-traversed. And they see solutions within the Indian democratic framework, not outside it, even though democracy is flawed and has limitations. After all, there is so much of identity reinvention that can be done.

It will take great courage to talk, to accept that a war of weapons has not led to the achievement of the goal. It took courage to take up arms; it will take guts to try and resolve the issue peacefully, through dialogue, for the sake of the greater good. The sacrifice of those who have died, on all sides, should encourage a process that should declare: “No more violence, no more lives.” That must be the talisman, without which no real progress or growth can take place despite the much vaunted Vision Document of the Government of India for the North-east.

After all, what people want is very different to the political demands made by many groups, within and without the democratic framework: These are simple things: as in anywhere in this country and the world, where marginalized and the poor live, they want basic needs met, essential services delivered (health, education, drinking water and sanitation, jobs and decent housing) as well as core aspirations satisfied: empty hands with work, empty stomachs with food and empty hearts and minds with ideas which really satisfy, abandoning the pursuit of a false dawn.