For an insurgent leader who has waged an armed struggle against the Indian establishment for 31 years, Arabinda Rajkhowa aka Rajib Rajkonwar, 57, chairman of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), appears calm.
There is optimism too, having finally got the ball rolling for peace talks by placing a framework of demands with Union home minister P Chidambaram. "I only hope the process paves the way for a historic resolution that is honourable and acceptable to the people of Assam… The main agenda and priority is to protect, safeguard, and preserve the identity of the indigenous people of Assam."
In 1979, Rajkhowa and a few of his colleagues formed the Ulfa at Ronghor in Sivasgar, to start an armed rebellion to fight for Assam's independence. Since then, the conflict has claimed more than 12,000 people.
Rajkhowa said, "For more than 3,500 years, Assam as Pragjyotishpur and Kamarupa, till 1826, had been able to ward off invaders and maintain her sovereignty. We seek that sovereignty — be it within or without the Indian constitution or by amending the Constitution."
Asked if picking up arms was the only recourse, the Ulfa chairman said: "We were compelled because of the lack of democratic space. Sovereignty is still the ultimate aim. But since these are talks without preconditions, we have not insisted on that otherwise the process will not move forward."
He added, "The Assamese don't have the right anymore to elect their own representatives. .... Assam is going the Tripura way. Not to speak of our future generations, in our lifetime itself, indigenous Assamese will be guests in their homeland."
"Nor has the Indian establishment been able to halt illegal immigration or safeguard rights of the Assamese resulting in a threat to our identity."
Asked then why he sought refuge in Bangladesh, Rajkhowa said, "When lives are in danger, it is natural recourse to seek refuge.... No government invited us, we went on our won and established bases."
On the organisation's elusive 'commander-in-chief'Praesh Barua, Rajkhowa said: "Even Barua has never precluded a peaceful and political resolution, so ideologically there is no division in the Ulfa."