Guwahati: A significant chapter in Assam’s 44-year-long journey of twists and turns in the ULFA insurgency has been written with the signing of a tripartite Memorandum of Settlement with the pro-talks faction of the outfit in New Delhi on Friday, December 29.
The ULFA (Independent) faction led by Paresh Baruah remains opposed to talks.
The peace deal with the oldest insurgent group of Assam aims to address issues such as illegal immigration, land rights for indigenous communities, and a financial package for Assam’s development.
Speaking to reporters after signing the MoU, Union home minister Amit Shah said in Delhi that the Centre will ensure all the reasonable demands by ULFA will be met in a time-bound manner. He further said that ULFA as an organisation will be disbanded.
“We want to assure the ULFA leadership that their trust in the Centre to ensure the success of the peace process will be honoured,” Shah said. He also credited Prime Minister Narendra Modi for bringing peace and stability in the northeast.
Contemporary Assam has been marked by many milestones affecting the lives of people, but the ULFA issue, which initially started as a movement but transformed quickly into an armed struggle characterized by kidnappings, extortions, killings, and bomb blasts, continued to remain at the top of the many contentious issues that needed a resolution.
The signing of the settlement, however, is being viewed as an incomplete solution to the four-decade-old problem with the Paresh Barua-led ULFA (Independent) faction unwilling to come for negotiations unless the issue of Assam’s ‘sovereignty’ is discussed. Its cadres have been engaged in sporadic incidents of violence, with security forces intensifying operations.
Absence of ULFA(I)
Notwithstanding the absence of the ULFA(I) and being touted as a half-baked solution by opposition parties and civil society organizations, the accord marks an important landmark because, despite several attempts for a negotiated settlement with the outfit since 1991, there has been no major breakthrough or a document of commitment with the stakeholders concerned.
The ULFA, formed on April 7, 1979, at the historic Ahom-era amphitheatre Rang Ghar at Sivasagar by a group of 20 youngsters from Upper Assam districts, had expressed willingness for talks on several occasions but had been firm on its stand on’sovereignty’.
It was only after the outfit split for the second time in 2011 with the top leadership, including chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, returning to Assam from a neighboring country, that they agreed to come to the negotiating table without the sovereignty clause and submitted a 12-point charter of demands to the central government.
The outfit had earlier split in 1992, with a section of leaders and cadres expressing a desire for talks, but both Rajkhowa and Barua had then been firm on the ‘sovereignty’ clause.
‘Secret killings’ by SULFA
Those desiring talks surrendered before the government and organized themselves as Surrendered ULFA or SULFA, holding formidable sway in the state in the 1990s and early 2000s, with both the Congress and the subsequent AGP governments using them against the ULFA. The AGP government, during its second term in office, is alleged to have used SULFA members in the killings of several family members of ULFA leaders, which was termed ‘secret killings’ in the state.
Brief history on conflict
The ULFA, initially influenced by the insurgency in neighboring Nagaland and Mizoram, had in its early days gained popularity among the rural masses, particularly attracting rurally educated but unemployed youths.
The outfit is reported to have wielded considerable power during the first Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government in 1985, but the bonhomie with both the state government and the masses gradually waned as the state slipped into turmoil with a spate of kidnappings, extortions, and killings unleashed by the ULFA.
The situation in the state came to a turning point in November 1990, when the ULFA extortions from the tea gardens were at their peak and the Doomdooma-based Unilever lifted seven of its executives to New Delhi with the help of the Union Home Ministry but by keeping the state government in the dark.
This was followed by the launch of ‘Operation Bajrang’ by the army on November 28, 1990, against the ULFA, and the next day, President’s Rule was imposed in the state with the dismissal of the Prafulla Mahanta-led AGP government.
Simultaneously, with the commencement of ‘Operation Bajrang’, leading to the arrest of 1,221 militants, Assam was declared a ‘disturbed area’, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA, was imposed, and the ULFA was declared a separatist and unlawful organization, which remains in force.
It was during this operation, which continued till January 30, 1991, that the doors for negotiations with the outfit opened for the first time, with the then prime minister Chandrasekhar stating in Rajya Sabha that the central government would take necessary steps if the insurgent group expressed willingness for political talks.
The ULFA responded by stating that no talks could be possible as long as army operations and President’s Rule continued, and that there would be no compromise on their demand for Assam’s’sovereignty’.
In June 1991, a Congress government led by Hiteswar Saikia assumed office, but killings and violence by the ULFA continued unabated, and the army was called in again. On September 15, 1991, ‘Operation Rhino’ was launched.
The AGP government returned to power in 1996 with Mahanta at the helm, and he agreed to the Union Home Ministry’s suggestion for a coordinated strategy and plan of action to contain militancy and a unified command structure, constituting the army, state police, and paramilitary forces with the state chief secretary as its head, which came into being on January 20, 1997.
Following the two army operations against the outfit, the ULFA militants had reportedly relocated to camps in Bhutan, but after they refused to comply with an ultimatum by the neighboring country to close down the camps, the Royal Bhutan Army launched ‘Operation All Clear’ on December 13, 2003, with the Indian army assisting along the border to evacuate the injured rebels.
All the camps were destroyed, more than 120 militants were killed, and 90 insurgents surrendered, but the top leaders escaped and regrouped in other neighboring countries.
Following the spate of’secret killings’ and increasing demands by civil society for dialogue, there were attempts to bring the ULFA to the negotiating table, and in 2004, the outfit agreed to hold talks with the government.
In September 2005, the ULFA constituted an 11-member ‘People’s Consultative Group’ (PCG) to prepare the grounds for an eventual negotiation, which was welcomed by the government. The PCG, headed by eminent Jnanpith award-winning author Indira (Mamoni) Raisom Goswami, held three rounds of talks with the Center, but it failed to make any headway.
ULFA continued with violent activities, targeted mostly at tea estates and oil pipelines, but cracks had developed in the outfit with the leaders of its 28th Battalion, led by Mrinal Hazarika and Jiten Dutta, declaring a unilateral ceasefire on June 24, 2008.
In December 2009, top ULFA leaders, including Rajkhowa, were arrested in Bangladesh, deported to India, and jailed in Guwahati.
The jailed ULFA leaders took the initiative of forming the ‘Citizen Forum’, comprising intellectuals, writers, journalists, and professionals from various fields, to urge the government to have talks.
Rajkhowa and the other jailed ULFA leaders were released from prison in 2011, while the outfit’s general secretary, Anup Chetia, was released from a Bangladesh jail in 2015 after serving a term of 18 years in 1997.
Since then, talks have been held periodically between the Center and the ULFA (pro-talks) faction, with the latter submitting a 12-point charter of demands to the government in 2012.
The Center sent a draft of the proposed agreement to the pro-talks faction in April this year. Another round of discussion was held with the faction in New Delhi in August. In October, Chetia said the pro-talks faction had sent its suggestions regarding the draft proposals to the Center.
Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, on assuming office in 2021, sent out an olive branch to the ULFA (I) for talks with the latter, announcing a ceasefire of operations, but recently it carried out three blasts in Tinsukia, Sivasagar, and Jorhat, which they claimed were in response to the ‘arrogant’ attitude of Director General of Police G P Singh.
(With inputs from agencies)