In a PMO-driven move, the Union Home Ministry has at last announced a conditional and limited ceasefire with ULFA and this has been reciprocated in good faith by the armed group, although it has to be said that the ‘surprise’ first move by New Delhi has flabbergasted many including security analysts from the region. The gesture is however significant because the Centre had for long remained nonchalant to initiate peace moves with ULFA. One of the reasons is that much of the confusion had centered on just how to kick start the peace process in the first place as both sides wanted to start from a position of strength. As a result what was seen for the last six months was not any sincere effort to take the all important first step but rather playing a mind game so much so that neither side could really transcend the status quo.
Now that the much sought after delicate first step has been taken, it will be advisable for both the Centre and ULFA to start the process of putting into place a formal ceasefire agreement. It may not be an easy task to work this out given that any written agreement has to be a unanimous one, drawing approval of both sides. Due care should therefore be taken to ensure that a ceasefire acceptable to both sides is worked out. Much of the onus here will fall on the ULFA as it will have to negotiate from a certain standpoint as the NSCN (IM) has done in its dealing with New Delhi. As far as the Government of India’s (GoI) position is concerned, it cannot deviate from the general policy stand it has already taken with its other dialogue partners. It is obvious therefore that the use of terms such as sovereignty, within-outside the Constitution etc. will be a problem area for both sides to spell out in written and as such it is advisable that the use of such sweeping terms is not allowed to stand as a road block to begin negotiation process in the first place.
The ULFA has insisted on the release of its five top leaders from jail to help it name its representatives to hold direct talks with the Government of India (GoI). This is a reasonable demand and there is now no reason why New Delhi should not concede to this. The Tarun Gogoi led government in the State if it wants to act as a genuine facilitator for the peace talks, should take the first step to approach the Centre to immediately release the leaders. While it is important for the ULFA to silence its guns, the elected government in Delhi must take control of the peace initiative before it disintegrates as a result of the whims and fancies of the military establishment.
The suspension of military operations now reciprocated by ULFA should be used as a golden opportunity to push forward the direct peace talks. And since one of the demands made by ULFA—calling for a suspension of Indian military action before holding any direct talks—has been fulfilled, the responsibility to shun violence is now one of moral conscience that needs to be perched on the minds of the ULFA leadership and the opportunity presents itself to address its grievances across the talks table with New Delhi. Both sides should get on with the task of talking to each other while ensuring that goodwill and reciprocity remains the basis for ending the years of acrimony and bloodletting.