The political leadership of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)  is engaging in unconditional peace talks on behalf of the decades-old Assamese insurgency with India’s central government. Assam is considered vital to the Indian economy due to its crude oil, coal reserves, vast tea industry and its geographical connection to the rest of northeast India’s isolated states to the Indian “mainland.” The Delhi-initiated peace talks have caused a grave split within the ULFA movement between its Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and its military commander Paresh Barua who is protesting the negotiations from exile in either China or Burma. Rajkhowa along with Pradip Gogoi, ULFA’s vice chairman, and six other members of the outfit’s leadership have been released from detention in Guwahati, the northeast Indian state of Assam’s commercial capital, to meet with top officials from India’s Home ministry as well as leaders from the Assam state government (The Telegraph [Kolkata], February 9). For the time being, ULFA has been divided by what the Indian government dub’s “pro-talk” and “anti-talk” factions led by Rajkhowa and Barua respectively.
ULFA coming to the table in Delhi, similar to the Isak-Muivah wing of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-I-M), another northeastern Indian separatist outfit and an ally of ULFA that is engaging in peace talks with the central government concomitantly, is partly a result of the restoration of democracy in neighboring Bangladesh in January of 2009. With the improvement of Bangladeshi-Indian relations, Dhaka has been quietly arresting and extraditing formerly sheltered anti-Indian militant leaders in a bid to win favor with the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. ULFA Chairman Rajkhowa and several other top ULFA leaders, who are now negotiating in Delhi, were originally detained in Bangladesh and handed over to Indian authorities beginning in November of 2009 (Outlook India, February 5). The elimination of northeastern insurgent sanctuaries in both Bangladesh and the Kingdom of Bhutan has led many Indian analysts to believe that many “anti-talk” militant leaders have taken refuge in Burma’s northwestern Sagaing Region flanking India’s eastern border, its northern Kachin State bordering China’s Yunnan Province, or inside Yunnan itself.
Addressing a press conference in Delhi after ULFA’s initial meetings with Indian Home Secretary Gopal Krishna Pillai and Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, ULFA’s Foreign Secretary Sashadhar Choudhury insisted that the ever recalcitrant Paresh Barua, despite his snubbing of the peace process’ possible potential, is still be ULFA’s commander-in-chief. Choudhury somewhat incongruously stated of his rebel superior: “He [Barua] may or may not join the talk process, I cannot say what decision he would take” (The Assam Tribune, February 10). Upon the ULFA leaders’ return to Assam after the conclusion of their meetings in Delhi, Rajkhowa told journalists vaguely that his meeting with Prime Minister Singh was “cordial and satisfactory” while apparently disclosing no specific details about issues relating to the status of Paresh Barua, arguably ULFA’s most important figure (The Hindu, February 15). ULFA recently dropped its call for secession from the Indian state as a precondition for talks and has for the time being relented on its leader’s insistence that talks be mediated by a neutral international body (Reuters, January 3). The meeting was nearly six years in the making after a letter from PM Singh was delivered in late May 2005 asking ULFA’s senior leaders to discuss “core issues” so long as they did not include negotiating outside of India’s borders and Assamese independence. Thus far ULFA has conceded after being thrown out of Bangladesh. Though the fact that the Singh government and ULFA are talking at all is a huge step toward creating stability in the restive, resource rich state of Assam, it is possible that an unrestrained Paresh Barua could easily act as a spoiler in the process should the talks’ results not be favorable to ULFA’s core followers and financiers and ULFA return to full-scale violence. Barua’s checkbook alliance with the Kachin Independence Organization/Army, (KIO/A) which controls territory in northern Burma’s Kachin State, could quickly reinvigorate Assam’s decades of troubles. The KIO/A, by training new Assamese militants to re-infiltrate India for a price at Barua’s behest, could cause Delhi a major internal headache by forcing it to mount expensive security and counterinsurgency operations (Outlook India, November 22, 2010).
1. For a profile of ULFA, see Derek Henry Flood, Motivations and Methods of India’s United Liberation Front of Asom, Terrorism Monitor, April 10, 2009.
Source: Jamestown Foundation, UFLA Leaders Meet with Indian Government for Peace Talks, 28 February 2011, Volume: 2 Issue: 2, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4d6e1ec32.html [accessed 21 March 2011]