The release of United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa on bail on New Year’s Day has given the Assam Congress a peace plank as it seeks the third straight term in 2011.
But it has increased the pressure on CM Tarun Gogoi to free leaders of tribal outfits too, who are perceived to be more villainous than the Ulfa bosses.
Rajkhowa’s capture near the India-Bangladesh border in November 2009 was more than a lucky break. He was arrested a month after two other Ulfa leaders were caught in a similar fashion.
Apart from Ulfa military chief Paresh Barua, all other members of the Ulfa central executive committee are either dead or in jail.
Among the factors responsible for curtailing the run of the Ulfa are the rise of Sheikh Hasina to power in Bangladesh, New Delhi’s diplomacy with Myanmar, the fallout of Bhutan’s 2003 decision to eject all northeast militants and the erosion of Ulfa’s support base in Assam.
According to counter-insurgency experts, Rajkhowa’s release in the election year could help the Congress, which benefited from relative peace in 2006 and “hopes to cash in on the proposed peace process”.
The Ulfa did talk peace in 2005 too, but Barua’s rigidity saw the outfit backing out and letting loose a reign of terror. Intelligence agencies have since tried to drive a wedge between Barua and the rest of the “malleable leadership”.
This has become apparent with Barua — believed to be in northern Myanmar — being the last defiant man standing.
Ulfa was a civil-political organisation founded on April 17, 1979 by Rajkhowa, Barua and four others till the military wing under Barua virtually took over the outfit in 1990 and the first army offensive — Operation Bajrang — was launched.
With or without Barua, the government’s decision to free Rajkhowa to start the peace process could increase pressure on Gogoi to release other tribal leaders, such as NDFB chairman Ranjan Daimary.
“You cannot have separate yardsticks for two outfits with similar subversion record,” said Noni Gopal Mahanta of the Institute of Conflict Studies. “Besides, there are ethnic connotations.”
Daimary is considered a bigger villain for the October 30, 2008, serial blasts that killed 92 people in Assam. He was caught near the India-Bangladesh border in May last year.
The issue of Daimary, a Bodo tribal, warrants a balancing act for Gogoi, who cannot be seen as “betraying” either the mainstream Assamese or his tribal ally — the Bodoland Peoples Front, a crucial player in 25 of the 126 constituencies.