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A change of tack likely in Assam

Sushanta Talukdar

Sunday's blasts in Guwahati by suspected ULFA men could lead to a two-pronged approach to insurgency by the Centre and the State.



The former Lok Sabha Speaker and MP, P.A. Sangma, along with other members of the Nationalist Congress Party staging a protest in Guwahati on Tuesday against Sunday's bomb blasts. — PHOTO: RITU RAJ KONWAR

SUNDAY'S TWIN blasts in Guwahati, suspected to have been triggered by the United Liberation Front of Asom, have prompted the Central and State Governments to redraw their counter-insurgency strategy in Assam. The explosions killed 15 persons and injured more than 40 others.

Both Delhi and Dispur have decided to adopt a two-pronged approach — stepping up counter-insurgency operations against ULFA and simultaneously keeping the door open for negotiations provided the outfit shunned violence and expressed its willingness to talk.

The State is likely to witness, in the coming weeks, some "visible action" by the security forces against the outfit. However, the stepped-up operations, security forces caution, may prompt the rebel outfit to resort to retaliatory strikes against soft civilian targets and vital installations.

After a review meeting in Guwahati of the Strategy Group of the Unified Command — the three-tier command structure of the Army, the Assam Police, and Central paramilitary forces — Union Home Secretary V.K. Duggal spelt out the Centre's stand: "The Government of India's policy is that anyone who sincerely believes in pursuing the peace process will be encouraged. If anyone picks up a weapon to target innocent civilians, that has to be handled firmly. We still believe that they [the ULFA] are a misguided lot and one day they will have to come to the mainstream."

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi also explained the Government's strategy. "The operations will have to be intensified. The government cannot remain a mute spectator to such violence and attacks on innocent civilians. However, we have not closed the doors of negotiation. Doors are still open. They [the ULFA] should come forward, give up violence and talk to us if they want development," he told reporters at the Fancybazar blast site.

The Army is said to have opposed the declaring of a unilateral truce by Delhi on the ground that it would only allow the outfit to regroup. However, Delhi and Dispur apparently were ready to take a "calculated risk" in a bid to bring the outfit to the negotiating table. The Centre had called off the truce on September 23 after failing to get a response from the ULFA to its insistence on a formal communiqué expressing the outfit's willingness for direct talks.

The Army then resumed operations, and the ULFA-appointed People's Consultative Group (PCG), which initially pulled out from the dialogue, decided it would respond positively if the Centre was ready to work out the modalities for direct talks with the ULFA. The Centre reiterated that it was ready for a dialogue provided the outfit sent a direct communiqué. Political observers say the Union Government might not be interested in talking to the PCG as three rounds of parleys have neither led to the establishment of direct contact with the ULFA top brass nor a commitment from the outfit for direct talks.

Both Delhi and Dispur want to talk to the ULFA top brass as they suspect the outfit may try to avoid direct contact and prolong a dialogue between the PCG and the Centre in order to regroup. It could then aim for bigger strikes to show its strength and gain bargaining power.

The targeting of civilians by the insurgent outfits has also prompted the police chiefs of the northeastern States to put their heads together to evolve an effective strategy to curb militancy. Cross-border insurgency and the export of Muslim fundamentalism, with special reference to Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar, topped the agenda of the two-day annual conference of the Directors-General of Police and Inspectors-General of Police of the northeastern states and West Bengal in Guwahati on November 1 and 2.

After interactions with senior officials of the Army, the Intelligence Bureau, the Research and Analysis Wing, and the Ministry of Home Affairs, the police chiefs underlined the need for sharing real time intelligence and upgrading security equipment of the forces to effectively counter cross-border insurgency and jihadi activities. The conference also suggested constituting a Standing Committee on terrorism, militancy, and insurgency at the national level.

Another conference on November 6 and 7 saw security experts from all over the country converge on Guwahati to share their knowledge in fighting terrorism. The national-level seminar on terrorism was organised by the Assam Police.

Public reaction mixed

On the other hand, the reaction of the public in Assam has been mixed. Most people in Guwahati observed a bandh, took out processions, and staged a road blockade to protest against the attack on innocent civilians by the militants. However, a section of people took to the streets against the killing of hardcore rebels and shouted slogans such as "Long Live ULFA."

The State Government, in a bid to mobilise the public in the fight against insurgency, is planning to convene a "Peace Conclave" in December. The aim is to ensure that public pressure is put on the ULFA to end the violence and come to the negotiating table.

The Opposition parties in the State — the Asom Gana Parishad, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the Communist Party of India — have, on the other hand, accused the State Government of failing to protect the lives and property of innocent civilians and demanded that the Centre and the ULFA hold unconditional talks. An admission by Mr. Gogoi following Sunday's blasts that his government had "failed to provide protection to the people" is likely to be picked up by the AGP to press for the dismissal of his government.

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