Govt signs peace pact with key ULFA faction | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Govt signs peace pact with key ULFA faction

By, New Delhi/guwahati
Dec 30, 2023 06:34 AM IST

The Centre, the Assam government, and a faction of Assam's oldest insurgent group signed a peace agreement to end violence in the region.

The Centre, the Assam government and a key faction of Assam’s oldest insurgent group signed a tripartite peace agreement on Friday, with Union home minister Amit Shah describing the pact as a watershed that will end decades of violence in the restive northeastern state and usher in a new era of prosperity.

Union home minister Amit Shah with Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and ULFA leaders in New Delhi on Friday. (AP)
Union home minister Amit Shah with Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and ULFA leaders in New Delhi on Friday. (AP)

The pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), led by Arabinda Rajkhowa, signed the accord, agreeing to shun violence, disband the organisation, and join the democratic process. Shah, who was present along with Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, said it was a very big day for the people of Assam.

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“It’s a new era of peace for Assam and the entire northeast. With this agreement, ULFA cadres will give up arms, vacate their camps and join the mainstream to be part of the democratic process,” Shah said.

The hardline Paresh Baruah faction of the ULFA was not part of the agreement. The pro-talks faction has 726 members as opposed to some 200 members of the extremist faction, according to police officials familiar with the matter.

The home minister said the pact was possible due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s broader policy of bringing Delhi and the North-East together and develop the region.

“In Assam alone, there are 87% less incidents of violence, 90% less deaths while 7,500 cadres have surrendered. Today, 700 more cadres (of ULFA) will give up arms, taking total surrenders in Assam up to 8,200,” Shah said.

Sarma said an Indian Institute of Management (IIM), new railway lines, and more national highways worth around 1.5 lakh crore were part of the deal, and that outsiders cannot procure land within a 5km radius of iconic structures in the state.

“Except one person (Paresh Baruah) who is leading the anti-talks faction of ULFA, all the founding members of the outfit were here in Delhi today... They have assured us that ULFA will be disbanded, they will leave the designated camps where they were staying (after coming forward for talks in 2011), they will deposit their arms and 726 cadres will join the mainstream,” he added.

ULFA-sponsored attacks first rocked Assam in April 1979, ostensibly spurred on by an “anti-foreigner” agitation against the influx of undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh.

In 1985, the Centre signed a landmark accord with leaders of the All Assam Students Union and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad that brought a sweeping and violent agitation to an end, but ULFA continued to operate in and around Assam. The group established camps in reserved forests of Assam, and collaborated with other rebel groups in Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, and even Bhutan and Myanmar. It was banned in 1990 even as attacks hobbled the economy in Assam and a cloud of fear hung over the state.

In February 2011, ULFA split into two groups. The one led by Rajkhowa decided to give up arms and sit down for talks with the Union government without preconditions. Baruah decided against any negotiations, and rebranded his faction as ULFA-Independent, which still runs training camps, including in Myanmar, and has maintained that for any conversation with the state to happen, sovereignty of Assam must be on the agenda. He is wanted by Indian agencies and is said to be hiding around the China-Myanmar border.

In the past, the Rajkhowa faction submitted a 12-point charter of demands that included the rights of “native inhabitants” to land and natural resources, specific relationships with foreign countries for mutual trade and commerce, and the rehabilitation of ULFA cadre.

Though there were initial talks in 2011, these conversations remained on the back-burner for several years, until April 2023 when the home ministry sent ULFA a draft agreement, and then held one round of talks in August. The details of the draft have thus far not been released.

Representatives of the Centre, Intelligence Bureau, Union home secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla’s office, and the Assam government were in regular talks with the Rajkhowa faction for years before the historic signing on Friday, officials familiar with the development said.

The pro-talks faction had sought constitutional and political reforms for the protection of the identity and resources of Assam’s indigenous people including their right to land.

As part of the memorandum of settlement with ULFA, a big package will be given for the development of Assam, Shah announced.

“A huge amount of package has been approved, besides development of areas in Assam. I assure that all these conditions will be fulfilled in a timebound manner,” Shah said.

He assured the pro-talks faction that a committee will be formed to look into the terms of agreement.

The home minister highlighted that violence in the northeast had drastically decreased in the last nine years and nine peace agreements with different groups were signed, leading to the surrender of 9,000 armed cadres.

The Centre signed peace deals with rebel Bodo, Dimasa, Karbi, and Adivasi outfits in Assam since 2020. Last month, a similar peace deal was signed with Manipur based insurgent group - United National Liberation Front (UNLF).

After Friday’s agreement, ULFA-Independent is the only major insurgent outfit in the state.

According to the ministry’s 2022 annual report, the security situation in the northeast improved substantially since 2014, when the BJP swept to power. “Compared to 2014, there has been 76% reduction in insurgency incidents in 2022. Similarly, in this period, Security Forces casualties have come down by 90% and civilian deaths by 97%,” the report said.

Without details of the deal, there was scepticism about how relevant the deal is for the state.

“This is an incomplete deal as ULFA-I is still active and wants creation of an independent Assam. The details of the deal are not available. So, we won’t be able to speculate on what its outcome will be. It would have been good if all factions of the outfit had signed the agreement,” said Congress MLA and leader of opposition in Assam assembly, Debabrata Saikia.

“The accord signed on Friday is certainly another step towards peace and development in Assam. It would have been a complete agreement with the participation of the anti-talks faction led by Paresh Baruah. The fact that the faction has not joined the peace process means that the campaign for Assam’s sovereignty will continue,” said Rajeev Bhattacharyya, journalist and the author of two comprehensive books on the outfit.

“As 12 years have already passed since the ULFA faction came for talks, it has lost a lot of public importance and attention in Assam. The agreement can be seen as a political strategy for the government at the Centre and the state (both ruled by Bharatiya Janata Party) ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls,” said Akhil Ranjan Dutta, columnist and professor of political science in Gauhati University.

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    Utpal is a Senior Assistant Editor based in Guwahati. He covers seven states of North-East India and heads the editorial team for the region. He was previously based in Kathmandu, Dehradun and Delhi with Hindustan Times.

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