The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA)’s elusive commander, Paresh Barua, is likely to come overground and sign a peace accord with the Centre as early as April to potentially end a decades-old insurgency in the northeastern state, multiple sources confirmed to the Outlook.
Barua told a Guwahati-based news channel on Tuesday that he will “have no hesitation” for talks if the “core issue of sovereignty” is on the agenda. Barua, who leads the ULFA’s Independent faction, has been waging an armed rebellion for a “sovereign Axom” since 1979.
“If the Indian government conveys even in a one-line communication that they are ready for talks on all issues, including the core issue of sovereignty of Assam, we have no hesitation to sit for talks. We will send a delegation,” Baruah said in the phone-in interview.
Sources said that the Narendra Modi-led government is trying to expedite the talks and offer the accord as a “Bihu gift” to Assam, especially to pacify large sections of people who are protesting for over a month against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Assam's biggest festival, Rongali Bihu, is celebrated in mid-April.
One of Barua’s childhood friends, Rebati Phukan—who “disappeared” in April 2018—is said to be acting as the intermediary between the banned outfit and the Centre. He was apparently drafted by Indian intelligence agencies to break the ice with Barua. Phukan was earlier a member of the now-disbanded People’s Consultative Group, a citizens’ initiative to bring Barua to the negotiating table. The PCG was led by Gnanpith winner Assamese writer late Mamoni Raisom Goswami.
“Talks with ULFA are in final stages and an agreement is likely to be signed soon. Most issues have been resolved with ULFA, including granting constitutional safeguard to the state's indigenous people. This was one of the main clauses of the Assam Accord,” a source in the Home Ministry said. Successive governments at the Centre have maintained the same line for talks with militant outfits: unconditional and within the ambit of the Indian Constitution, which rules out secession.
Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma also dropped broad hints about the Centre’s keenness to engage with Barua. “The Central government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has resolved the demands of the Bodos through the Bodo Peace Accord on Monday. And I have been told that if the ULFA faction shows interest in peace talks, it would be reciprocated by the Centre,” he told newsmen in Guwahati on Tuesday.
The ULFA has owned up four explosions in different places of Assam on Republic Day. The home ministry sources described the incidents as “minor irritants” to the peace process.
The Bodoland accord, signed on January 27 between the Centre, Assam government and Bodo outfits, is likely to provide the template for the ULFA peace treaty.
Before the accord is signed, the Centre is also likely to finalise the definition of “Assamese”, people who can be considered eligible for constitutional safeguards under the 1985 Assam Accord. A panel looking into the issue is expected to submit its report to the Centre by mid-February.
A Guwahati-based source with close links to the BJP said Barua needs an “honourable exit” after chasing the dream of an independent Assam for 41 years. Another ULFA faction led by the outfit’s former chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, has been negotiating for several years now. Rajkhowa was arrested in Bangladesh and sent to India in 2009.
Anup Chetia, another leader of the pro-talks faction said that an “agreement with the Government of India is in the final stages”. We appeal to the Government of India to sign the agreement soon. It depends on Paresh Barua if he wants to come. We have no knowledge of the talks and no comments to make. If he comes then our power will be strengthened,” Chetia added.
An accord with the recalcitrant Barua—who had turned down several peace overtures from the government earlier—will give the BJP bragging rights and even help the party regain popular support ahead of next year’s assembly polls. The ruling BJP has faced massive public anger in Assam—as in other parts of the country—over CAA, which many fear will hasten demographic changes in the state. Amid the statewide protests, there are also speculations of a political alternative to the BJP and Congress to protect the state’s interests.
Home ministry sources added that a peace accord with Karbi militant groups was also likely around the same time.
(With inputs from Sadiq Naqvi in Guwahati)