By Giriraj Bhattacharjee
On September 1,2013, Assam Governor, J B Patnaik expressed satisfaction over the progress of peace talks with the Pro-Talks Faction of United Liberation front of Asom’s (ULFA-PTF). The Government described the faction as the “real ULFA” and claimed there may be some significant announcement “soon” on the outcome of the dialogue held so far. Governor Patnaik added further, that the still active ‘Independent’ faction of ULFA (ULFA-I) leader Paresh Baruah and members of his group would not be “harassed” by security agencies if they come forward for peace talks with the Government to secure a lasting solution to the insurgency in Assam.
However, the Anti-Talks Faction of ULFA (ULFA-ATF), which had renamed itself ULFA-I during its central executive committee meeting on April 2-5, 2013, insists that talks on the issue of ‘sovereignty’ of Assam can only be held in a “third country”, in the presence of representatives of the United Nations, conditions that would be entirely unacceptable to the Government.
Further, on August 25, 2013, ULFA-I dismissed the peace talks by the Arabinda Rajkhowa-led ULFA-PTF, underlining the fact that it had adopted the “independent” tag to distance itself from the name associated with erstwhile leaders who “surrendered to the enemy”. In an editorial in its mouthpiece, Swadhinata (Freedom), the outfit termed ULFA as “the past of the united fight for Assam’s liberation” and ULFA-I as the present and future of the movement. The mouthpiece further stated that ULFA was not divided; the “uncompromising members” had just begun a new journey to attain its original objective.
ULFA-I continues to engage in violent acts and is also forming alliances with other militant groups in the State and region. Most recently, on July 28, 2013, suspected ULFA-I militants exploded a hand grenade, causing injuries to15 persons, at Paltan Bazar in the Guwahati city area of the Kamrup (Metro) District. Subsequently, on August 1, one of the wounded persons succumbed to his injuries.On July 23, 2013, suspected ULFA-I militants had hurled three grenades at three different places in the North Lakhimpur Town of Lakhimpur District, resulting in injuries to five civilians. The formation was also involved in the one major incident (resulting in three or more fatalities) of terrorist violence recorded in the State this year. On April 19, 2013, an Inspector of the Assam Police, identified as Lohit Sonowal, two militants, identified as Raktajeet Hazarika and Ananta Moran, of the ULFA-I, and one civilian, were killed in an encounter at Kordoiguri village in Tinsukia District. The civilian, identified as Pona Moran, died in the crossfire.
Meanwhile, after the recent (sixth) tripartite meeting involving representatives of the Central and Assam Governments and ULFA-PTF, held in Delhi on June 26, 2013, both State Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) officials announced ‘significant progress’ in the peace process. Government and ULFA-PTF have met six times since 2011.
On July 5, 2013, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, disclosed that the Central Government was “seriously considering” ULFA-PTF’s proposal to accord tribal status to the State: “One of ULFA’s major demands is the Scheduled Tribe (ST) tag for the six indigenous communities. I also demand the same. After the move, the tribal population of the State will be in majority.” Chief Minister Gogoi further observed that he was certain that the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs would give its nod to the proposal. The six communities include Koch Rajbongshis, Moran, Chutia, Muttock, Tai-Ahom and Adivasi. While the Moran, Chutia, Muttock and Tai-Ahom communities reside principally in the Upper Assam region, the Koch Rajbongshis are concentrated in lower Assam. Adivasis inhabit Upper, Central and Lower Assam.
An unnamed senior ULFA-PTF leader, however, said the group had discussed the tribal State issue mainly among themselves: “The issue is not on the official agenda for the talks yet.”
Crucially, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs had, on August 22, 2013, rejected a separate demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for the six communities of the State, stating that the communities could not fulfill the five criteria for identification as STs. Under the circumstances, it is not clear how a proposal for declaring the entire State ‘Tribal’ could receive any easy assent from the same Ministry.
After the meeting, Shambhu Singh, Joint Secretary (Northeast) in the MHA, stated, “We have reached a point almost close to finalising a working draft. Certain things are still under discussion but we hope the working draft will be ready very soon.” He said the Government has understood the concerns and demands of ULFA and was trying to reach an amicable solution to the three issues on which there was no agreement yet: protection of political and cultural identity of the indigenous people of Assam; land rights; and illegal immigration. Singh added, “From the three issues, the Union Home Secretary will start the process of consultation with all stakeholders.”
The parent ULFA, which had led the fight for ‘Sovereign Assam’, suffered a split on February 5, 2011, when its general council [in absence of Paresh Baruah] endorsed the resolution of the Central Executive Council (CEC) to sit for talks with the Central Government without any precondition. Earlier attempts to initiate peace talks with the then united ULFA had failed. However, the Bangladeshi action against the group in 2009-2010, when most of the top leadership of the outfit was handed over to India, induced the captured ULFA leadership to seek a compromise. Earlier, two companies [Alpha and Charlie] of ULFA’s Upper Assam-based ‘28th battalion’, the most potent strike group of the outfit, had announced a unilateral ceasefire with the Government on June 24, 2008.
Even before the peace talks initiative commenced in 2011, undivided ULFA ‘publicity secretary’ Mithinga Daimary [now with ULFA-PTF], on December 3, 2009, had expressed doubts about a peace process without the participation of the outfit’s top ‘commander’, Paresh Baruah: “It is possible to hold talks within the framework of the Constitution [Indian], but talks without Baruah [Paresh Baruah] would be unrealistic and would not solve the problem… sovereignty must be the basis for talks; though whether it will be achieved or not, the future alone can tell.”
Significantly, ULFA-PTF’s 12 point charter of demands does not include the original ‘core demand’ of ‘sovereignty’.
The idea of converting Assam into a tribal State has also met with some opposition, particularly from the Barak Valley region [consisting of the Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi Districts] of Assam. The Barak Upatyaka Banga Sahitya o Sanskriti Sammelon, the apex literary and cultural body of the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley, on July 15, 2013, expressed opposition to any such move and warned that if Assam is declared a tribal state, it result in a ‘deep crisis’. The literary body however maintained that it does not oppose granting tribal status to the six tribal communities and supports ULFA peace talks.
The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the principle opposition party in Assam, has stated that the grant of tribal State status to Assam would lead to the deprivation of political and other rights to over 50 per cent of its population.
The Asom Sangkhyalaghu Sangram Parishad (Assam Minority Struggle Forum), during its meeting with Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, on July 11, 2013, also stated that any move to declare Assam a tribal State would be “strongly opposed.”
The ULFA peace talks have also drawn criticism from a section of ULFA-PTF and surrendered militants due to their secrecy, the absence of surrendered militants and of Paresh Baruah. A senior ULFA-PTF member, Prabal Neog, warned “We have seen how the Assam Accord went. We do not want another accord, which will not be strong enough to safeguard the people’s rights. So, it is important that ULFA cadres are aware of the direction in which the talks are headed. We will not settle for a soft deal with the Centre. Any wrong move may lead to another armed movement.”
The All Assam Surrendered ULFA Committee, on July 23, 2013, further asserted that the ongoing peace talks with the Arabinda Rajkhowa-led ULFA-PTF would prove futile unless and until all the surrendered and ULFA-I militants were taken into confidence. The Committee also demanded withdrawal of nearly 15,000 cases pending against around 3,000 surrendered ULFA cadres in the State.
The ULFA-PTF militants have also been involved in crimes such as extortion and abduction. On August 20, 2012, Police arrested the ‘commander’ of ULFA-PTF’s ‘709 battalion’, Hira Sarania, from the designated camp at Helacha in Nalbari District on charges of extortion and abduction of a businessperson, Ranjan Lohia, of Guwahati city. According to a February 11, 2012, report, 26 ULFA-PTF militants had been arrested between October 2011 and February 2012 for flouting ceasefire rules. Security Forces (SFs) also recovered 18 weapons from the arrested militants.
Further, the fate of ULFA’s founding ‘General Secretary’ Anup Chetia, perceived to be a crucial signatory in any successful peace deal, remains unknown. Chetia is presently held in a Rajshahi Central Jail in Bangladesh, pending a political decision to determine whether his case would come under the extradition treaty signed with India.
The Government’s ‘positive engagement’ with ULFA-PTF, moreover, comes at a time when most past as well as recent accords with militant formation in the State are under strain due to renewed separate Statehood movements. Under the circumstances the outcome of any deal with ULFA-PTF is unlikely to secure lasting peace.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management