In January 1992, the leadership of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), led by chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, converged in western Assam’s Nalbari to discuss farewell to arms.
Most decided to bid adieu to life underground, the rest returned to fighting for the secession of Assam from the Indian union.
This January, most of those who developed cold feet in 1992 gathered in Nalbari again to remove the last hurdle in the way of the peace process — Assam’s sovereignty. The two meetings had something in common; Ulfa commander-in-chief Paresh Barua stayed away to pursue the “same mission with new vision”.
More importantly for New Delhi, Rajkhowa and the other decision-makers were not in a position to back away this time, unlike in 1992. Their resolution to remove all preconditions for talks including sovereignty was thus expected following their release from jail “to facilitate the peace process”.
Rajkhowa and six others were arrested between December 2003 and December 2009 after being ejected from their safe havens in Bhutan and Bangladesh.
“This was inevitable; the Ulfa leaders do not have the kind of bargaining power the National Socialist Council of Nagaland has even after 13 years of declaring truce. The Naga outfit talked peace when still at its peak and it still runs a parallel government. In the case of the Ulfa, everything seems to be government-dictated,” said Haider Hussain, editor of Asomiya Pratidin and one of the members of the People’s Consultative Group Ulfa had formed in 2005 to pursue peace in vain.
“Autonomy has more or less replaced sovereignty now, but the Ulfa leadership must come out with a face-saving package that offers a Kashmir-like or better status for Assam. New Delhi also needs to respect the rebel leaders, not make it a victor-vanquished affair, to ensure an honourable solution to the 31-year struggle (Ulfa was formed in 1979). The exercise will be meaningless otherwise,” he added.
Others feel New Delhi should also realise a section of the people want an unseen force or pressure group (read Paresh Barua’s hardliners) to “check a corrupt system” and be an irritant like the Maoists, the striking power notwithstanding. “The strength of Ulfa cannot be measured by the number of the gun-carrying youth in its fold. It actually lies in the level of sympathy and sanction it enjoys in the mind of the common Assamese, despite all its follies and deviations,” said Sunil Nath, who quit Ulfa in 1992.
Whether or not Barua continues to play spoilsport, many in Assam agree that players on both sides of the table must “play their role boldly and sincerely”. Because the proposed peace process with Ulfa is linked to the fate of those with lesser outfits such as the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB). The NDFB also seeks sovereignty of areas — western and north-central Assam — dominated by the Bodo tribe. It has expressed willingness to talk, but from a position of strength, unlike Ulfa.