The ULFA’s elusive commander, Paresh Barua, could come overground and sign a peace accord with the Centre as early as April to potentially end a decades-old insurgency in the northeastern state, multiple sources have confirmed.
Barua told a Guwahati-based news channel on Tuesday that he will “have no hesitation” for talks if the “core issue of sovereignty” is on the agenda. Barua, who leads the ULFA’s Independent faction, has been waging an armed rebellion for a “sovereign Axom” since 1979. “If the Indian government conveys even in a one-line communication that they are ready for talks on all issues, including the core issue of sovereignty to Assam, we have no hesitation to sit for talks. We will send a delegation,” Barua said in the phone-in interview.
Sources say the Modi government is trying to expedite the talks and offer the accord as a “Bihu gift” to Assam, especially to pacify large sections of people who are protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). Assam’s biggest festival, Rongali Bihu, is celebrated in mid-April.
One of Barua’s childhood friends, Rebati Phukan—who “disappeared” in April 2018—is said to be acting as the intermediary between the banned outfit and the Centre. He was apparently drafted by Indian intelligence agencies to break the ice with Barua.
“Talks with ULFA are in final stages and an agreement is likely to be signed soon. Most issues have been resolved with ULFA, including granting constitutional safeguard to the state’s indigenous people, one of the main clauses of the Assam Accord,” a home ministry source says.
Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma also dropped broad hints about the Centre’s keenness to engage with Barua. “The Central government...has resolved the demands of the Bodos through the Bodo Peace Accord. And I have been told that if the ULFA faction shows interest in peace talks, it would be reciprocated by the Centre,” he told newsmen in Guwahati on Tuesday.
The ULFA has owned up four explosions in different places of Assam on Republic Day. The home ministry sources describes the incidents as “minor irritants” to the peace process.
The Bodoland accord, signed between the Centre, Assam government and Bodo outfits, is likely to provide the template for the ULFA peace treaty.
Before the accord is signed, the Centre is also likely to finalise the definition of “Assamese”, people who can be considered eligible for constitutional safeguards under the 1985 Assam Accord. A panel looking into the issue is expected to submit its report by mid-February.
A Guwahati-based source with close links to the BJP says Barua needs an “honourable exit” after chasing the dream of an independent Assam for 41 years. Another ULFA faction led by the outfit’s former chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa, has been negotiating for several years now. Anup Chetia, another leader of the pro-talks faction, says that an “agreement with the Centre is in the final stages. We appeal to the government to sign the agreement soon. It depends on Paresh Barua if he wants to come…”
An accord with Barua—who had turned down several peace overtures from the government—will give the BJP bragging rights and even help the party regain popular support ahead of next year’s assembly polls. Amid the statewide anti-CAA protests, there are also speculation of a political alternative to protect the state’s interests.
By Anupam Bordoloi and Bhavna Vij-Aurora with inputs from Sadiq Naqvi in Guwahati