Thursday may well mark the beginning of the last chapter in Assam’s troubled history of recent decades. For the first time, leaders of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) and representatives of Union and Assam governments met for talks.
For its part Ulfa agreed to “unconditional” talks and also apologized for the violent acts it committed in the past. Union home minister P. Chidambaram welcomed them and assured them of sincere and meaningful talks. The state government under chief minister Tarun Gogoi has done its bit to ease matters especially by releasing Ulfa leaders who were in its custody.
This, however, is only the first step in what is bound to be a prolonged process. Assam’s insecurities, cultural and political, are deep and require careful handling. This process will have its share of difficulties as illustrated by the fate of the Assam Accord of 1985. One key part of that accord was the detection and expulsion of illegal migrants from Assam. The instrument for that task, the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, proved to be a dead letter. In the meantime, Assam’s demographic picture was twisted out of shape by the presence of huge numbers of illegal migrants.
That issue became a political football and continues to defy resolution till date. It is a key source of Assamese insecurities that has been ignored, so far. If, as Chidambaram said, there will be a sincere dialogue, this issue will have to be addressed satisfactorily. Even if foreigners are detected and their names struck off the electoral rolls in Assam, deporting them will be well-nigh impossible. But this, however, need not be a deal-breaking roadblock. There can be other solutions to this problem.
This opportunity should not be lost. On its part, the Union government should be sensitive to the demands of the Ulfa leadership, which has a measure of support among Assam’s people. Ulfa leaders, especially its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, should ensure that the leader of their “military” wing, Paresh Barua, does not scuttle the talks. Assam is a key state of India, which, if only for the reason of its strategic location, requires careful attention and help from the Centre.
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