The peace process between the United Liberation Front of Asom or UlfaA, which began over a decade ago, has reached the final stage, according to the chairman of the outfit, Arabinda Rajkhowa. However, Paresh Baruah, who leads a smaller faction called Ulfa (Independent), has so far shunned the government’s offer, insisting on the “sovereignty” demand. In an exclusive interview with Jayanta Kalita, Rajkhowa said constitutional safeguard for Assam’s indigenous people is one of the core issues which the Centre has agreed to fulfil. Excerpts:
Q: Is it true that talks have resumed between Ulfa and Centre after a gap of two years?
A: Yes, that’s true. Unlike in the past, this time, we have not visited Delhi for the talks. All previous interlocutors (appointed by the Centre) have retired. Of late, we have had a few rounds of discussions with the current representative AK Mishra (former special director of the Intelligence Bureau) in Assam itself. He is also holding talks with other outfits (especially, Naga rebel groups) in northeast.
We requested him for an early resolution of the matter. All our core issues (demands) were discussed threadbare with previous interlocutors. There is nothing more to talk about, as such. The only thing now left is the signing of an agreement.
Q: So, what’s next?
A: They (the government) are yet to decide on the final announcement. It looks like there is a competition going on as to who will take credit (for these negotiations). But we are not looking for any such thing. We are not publicity-hungry. We just want that indigenous people of Assam get their rights and their rights are protected. If that is ensured, we are ready to sign an accord or agreement.
And if we see any dilly-dallying or uncertainty on these issues, we will not sign it. Then, we will leave the entire matter to the next generation. They can take it forward, if they want.
We believe we have done enough. So many of our colleagues have sacrificed their lives for the cause of Assam. When the next generation will realise this and face the same problems that we have been highlighting, they will decide what is to be done.
Q: Do you still have doubts about government’s intention?
A: We are hopeful given that both sides are finally on the same page after years of negotiations. The latest round talks gave us an indication that they (the central government) are serious about reaching a final agreement.
From our side, we expect a deal on or before August 15 this year. The ball is now in their court. There is still some time, and we believe that the government will take a call on this soon.
Q: Does that mean that the Centre has accepted all your demands?
A: We put forward all our demands, and they assessed those issues. Both sides exchanged their viewpoints and then, they offered a solution which is acceptable to us.
Q: There is some speculation that land rights for indigenous people and granting of tribal status for six communities are part of your demands?
A: There are people who spread such rumours. We want protection for all indigenous communities in Assam, not just six communities (while the Union cabinet approved scheduled tribe status to Tai Ahom, Moran, Matak, Sootea, Koch Rajbongshi and tea tribes, in January 2019, Parliament is yet to pass a Bill).
Our stand is — all communities who have been living in Assam for centuries need protection. No matter how small or big they are, their identities and rights must be protected. They must be enlisted as indigenous communities.
We have had concrete discussions with the government on this matter and we stick to this. We will not allow any change of word or phrase on this. And the government has also agreed to this. Our only appeal at this stage is — stop spreading rumours.
Q: So, this whole issue is linked to illegal immigrants?
A: Illegal immigrants (from Bangladesh) are the biggest threat to the existence of the Assamese people. We are also deeply concerned about the problem of “outsiders”. For instance, the Dhubri district, where the indigenous Koch Rajbongshis cannot play a decisive role at present (because they have been reduced to a minority).
The situation is similar in Tinsukia, Digboi, parts of Guwahati and several other places in the state. Now, will you allow or accept a person who came to your place a few decades ago as your representative. Nobody will…
The issue of foreigners or illegal immigrants was the main reason behind the six-year Assam Movement (a popular uprising in the 1980s demanding detection and deportation of such people). Names of foreign nationals were detected in electoral rolls and that’s how the movement began. People with vested interests allowed this problem to persist for years, which is now encroaching on our democratic rights and posing a threat to our political identity.
We have had detailed discussions on this matter as well. This is the reason why we have been waiting for so many years (almost a decade) to reach an agreement with the government. None of our leaders have joined any political party or taken up a government job or accepted any government contract. Our sole aim is to reach the final point and we have not compromised on that. We will stick to his commitment.
Q: The 1985 Accord that was signed to bring an end to the Assam Movement has not been fully implemented yet. So, what is the guarantee that the Ulfa agreement would not meet same fate?
A: I cannot disclose what kind of assurances we have been given, at this juncture. But I can tell you that we have demanded constitutional guarantee. If the government of India accepts that, we will sign the agreement.
Q: Do you mean constitutional safeguard for indigenous communities?
A: Exactly. We said this openly in the past and the government also said it was possible. If the Centre keeps this issue hanging, then there will not be any agreement and we will let the people of Assam to decide.
Q: Did you appeal to Paresh Baruah (the elusive leader of the Ulfa-Independent faction) to join your talks?
A: This is a separate organization and they have a separate council. Their (core) demand is different from ours. He (Baruah) speaks to our members over the phone occasionally, but he has nothing to do with our talks.
Q: What is your take on the fresh recruitment drive being carried by Ulfa-I?
A: Media has highlighted this based on information shared by some people on social media. Such recruitments are part of a regular process. And it’s not a matter of concern at all. The general public is not aware of the number of people who have returned (quit the organisation). I can tell you there are many who are back home and doing their normal work.