Septuagenarian separatist leader and political ideologue of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Bhimkanta Buragohain, stepped out of Guwahati Central Jail on Sunday after seven years in custody - the fifth top rebel leader to be released on bail in the past six months.
“I am happy to be freed on bail and now the priority for all of us is to see that political level talks are held to bring the curtains down on the conflict in Assam,” Buragohain told IANS soon after being released on bail.
Endearingly addressed as 'mama' (uncle) by all ULFA cadres and leaders, Buragohain was captured by the Royal Bhutan Army during 'Operation All Clear' in December 2003 - an offensive carried out to evict over 3,000 rebels belonging to the ULFA and other Assam- based militants from the Himalayan nation adjoining the state.
He was subsequently handed over to the Indian authorities and since then was lodged at various jails in Assam.
“Let the other jailed leaders be released and then only we can discuss modalities for peace talks,” the 71-year-old separatist leader said.
After being released early Sunday, he left for his ancestral home in Dhola in eastern Assam's Tinsukia district accompanied by a host of family members.
“The journey ahead is not an easy one as we have to seek a solution to more than 63 years of suppression and exploitation by India,” Buragohain said.
Barring ULFA's elusive commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah, the entire top brass of the outfit were in jail. The imprisoned leaders included chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, vice chairman Pradip Gogoi, publicity chief Mithinga Daimary, deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah, self-styled foreign secretary Sasha Choudhury, finance secretary Chitrabon Hazarika, cultural secretary Pranati Deka, and Bhimkanta Buragohain.
But with demands for releasing the jailed ULFA leaders gathering momentum to pave way for holding peace talks, the government embarked on a strategy not to oppose the bail applications of the separatists in court.
The process began and one by one five top jailed ULFA leaders were released on bail.
The first to be set free were Pradeep Gogoi and Mithinga Daimary, followed by Raju Baruah and Pranati Deka, and on Sunday the veteran Buragohain.
ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia, however, is in Bangladesh since his arrest there in 1997.
There are chances of Chetia now being extradited to India to help him take part in the proposed peace talks due to start soon once the three remaining jailed leaders are released on bail.
“We also want all the jailed leaders to come out and sit for talks. However, the question of release rests on the judiciary,” Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told IANS.
"We want that Paresh Baruah should also come and join the peace process, but we cannot wait indefinitely for him and so we will start the peace talks."
ULFA, formed in 1979, is fighting for independence with most of their leaders earlier based in Bangladesh and all of them subsequently captured in that country and handed over to India.