Whither dialogue with ULFA: Why government must be careful while holding talks with insurgent outfit


If reliable reports are anything to go by, formal dialogue with ULFA (Pro-Talk) — which began in 2011 but had stalled with the end of the interlocutorship of the Avadhesh Behari Mathur — is, in all probability, going to experience a revival soon. This is despite the fact that every ounce of New Delhi’s sights and energies are presently concentrated towards anvilling a possible resolution of the NSCN (IM) imbroglio.

But the fact of the matter is that ULFA, too, constitutes an important insurgent group in the North East and one which ultimately came to the dialogue table: (a) as a result of the important leaders of the organisation being handed over to India by Sheikh Hasina — incidentally, it was Mathur as a senior functionary in R&AW that midwifed the “apprehensions” of ULFA and NDFB leaders in Bangladesh; and (b) because the split with Paresh Baruah ascertained that leaders of ULFA — who came to be known as ULFA (Pro-Talk) — were no longer harping on Swadhin Asom (Sovereign Assam), perhaps because they realised the futility of an armed struggle for such an utopian concept.

In an event, while it is not immediately known as to why Mathur was removed from his station as the interlocutor, a task he was performing with great vision, wisdom and pragmatism, the last round of talks which he had conducted ended on a positive note with ULFA (Pro-Talk) expressing its satisfaction about the initiatives which New Delhi was taking.

ULFA’s 12-point charter of demands was formally handed over to New Delhi on 5 August 2011. The demands were broad in nature and scraped out by the Arabinda Rajkhowa faction of ULFA (Pro-Talk) from a 37-page charter that was presented to the Pro-Talk group by Sanmilito Jatiyo Abhiborton, the civil society body that took the initiative to bring about an interface between the Pro-Talk faction of ULFA and the government.


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Indeed, not all the demands are unreasonable. Some of the demands including prevention of illegal migration from Bangladesh and correct redressal to the problem of floods in Assam stand at the very heart of every Assamese’s expectation from New Delhi. Demands such as constitutional reforms may not be acceptable to New Delhi, but negotiations always proceed from the intractable to the acceptable by application of compromise.

But the question that is being asked is how far is New Delhi prepared to go in its accommodative posture vis-à-vis the demands of ULFA (Pro-Talk)? It can possibly grant certain rights to a backward state such as Assam, especially by way of rights over natural resources and land, prevention of illegal migration and proper management of floods. Indeed, the manner in which New Delhi has sought to assuage the sentiments of five Assam-based Adivasi militant outfits on 15 September 2022 and has agreed to set up an “Adivasi Welfare and Development Council” in order to “fulfil the political, economic and educational aspirations of the Adivasi community of the state” will also go a long way in addressing the demands of ULFA (Pro-Talk).

There have been myriad attempts to engage the ULFA in a dialogue in the past. But the process has never quite reached a station that it is presently positioned in. Indeed, for the first time ever a solution seems to be within arm’s reach, and one that could be acceptable to the Pro-Talk faction of the organisation. But an important question that is also being raised is whether there is merit in talking to a group that has no guns or one that holds all the guns.

However, signs — at least during the pandemic — were one that seemed to showcase a mellowed ULFA chief of staff, Paresh Baruah, as compared to his earlier avatar who would not be moved from his position that sovereignty of Assam must be discussed. Baruah and his faction, albeit considerably depleted as a result of desertions during the Wuhan scourge, had also made welcome announcements by way of three back-to-back unilateral ceasefires. These were interesting pointers which both New Delhi and Dispur took note of and steps were taken to anvil a comprehensive peace process with a unified ULFA. But there has been an about-face in Paresh Baruah and he has once again begun to bare his fangs. He has exhibited his intransigence by executing deserters during the last couple of months including two cadres that he stated were spies of state agencies.

It has also become clear that he has come into some sort of alliance with members of the Coordination Committee that operates in Manipur as well as NSCN (K) with which he has always maintained a traditional relationship. In the days to come the policy planner of the Indian state must put their heads together and ferret out a way to wean away not only the cadres of ULFA (Independent) that are billeted in four important camps in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, namely (a) Arakan Camp which is also known as Camp 779 (b) Hachi Camp (c) Nilgiri Camp and (d0 Everest Camp, but if necessary exercise the kinetic option against hard-line cadres in a manner that at least the Indian army is particularly capable of.

But to return to the dialogue with ULFA (Pro-Talk), New Delhi must be ready to provide certain concessions, some of which may be unacceptable. But, it may wish to closely examine some of the demands and actually profitably gain from the close nexus that ULFA has with NSCN (IM), aiding thereby the vexed interstate boundary problem that continues to beleaguer the North East. It can also witness economic development, further people to people interface providing thereby a fillip to the “Act East Policy” that New Delhi wants to succeed. It must also be caveated at this juncture that the cadres of the organisation should be rehabilitated in a manner that would make them self-reliant. Mere transfer of funds would disallow them from standing on their own feet and could witness a scenario of return to belligerence. The accent should be not to present them fish to eat, but teach them how to fish for an honourable livelihood.

New Delhi, it is understood, can hold talks only within the ambit of the Constitution and after wayward groups abjure violence. Dialogue with ULFA must be a comprehensive affair. Dialogue in the absence of Paresh Barua, who continues to maintain an anti-talk stance, is not going to be all-inclusive. The analogy that can be proffered at this juncture is to stress on the point as to whether peaceful nights would prevail if even one tiger out of the nine caged is on the prowl. But as aforesaid, if Paresh Baruah continues to be belligerent because of the influence he is under from his Chinese or Pakistani chaperons, then it may even be so that the anti-India agencies may prevent him from returning to India even if he wishes to. Furthermore, a psychological profile of Paresh Barua leads to the summation that he does not quite perceive a role for himself in a peaceful settlement. He prides himself on his militant character, considers himself to be a modern day Lachit Barphukan and would, if the need arises, go down fighting. An obituary that he had written in a vernacular newspaper of Assam about Velupillai Prabhakaran after the LTTE leader was killed on 18 May 2009 is stark testimony to Paresh Baruah’s “revolutionary innards”.

The writer is a conflict expert and author of several best-selling books on security and strategy. The views expressed are personal.

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Whither dialogue with ULFA: Why government must be careful while holding talks with insurgent outfit
Whither dialogue with ULFA: Why government must be careful while holding talks with insurgent outfit
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