Politics

ULFA and Centre Hit Pause on Talks, Stall Progress on Peace in Assam

ULFA leader Anup Chetia discusses the process of updating the National Register of Citizens, progress in talks with the Centre and more.

Anup Chetia. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Anup Chetia. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Guwahati: The talks between the central government and the the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has been long drawn, meeting many waves of ups and downs with successive central dispensations. The present round of talks gained pace after the outfit’s chairman, Arabindo Rajkhowa, was apprehended by Indian security forces in 2009. In April 2010, an umbrella group of the state’s civil society organisations that called itself Sanmilita Jatiya Abhivartan (SJA) held its first convention in the Machkhowa area of Guwahati to facilitate talks between the outfit and the Centre to resolve the conflict in the state. The SJA put together a charter of demands for the ULFA to take up with the Centre.

Since 2009, Rajkhowa has been joined by more leaders of the outfit even though one of the outfit’s tallest leaders, Paresh Barua, has expressed his decision to stay away from it and thereafter formed ULFA (Independent).

One of the leaders who joined the talks is the ULFA’s general secretary Anup Chetia, who was extradited to India in November from Bangladesh after 19 years of incarceration. Chetia was arrested by the Bangladesh police in 1997 on charges of cross-border intrusion, carrying fake passports and keeping foreign currencies.

In an interview to The Wire, Chetia, however, said, “The talks have been kept on hold now.” He said, “It is because the Centre wants to wait for the Supreme Court verdict on the cut-off year for citizenship of people in Assam.” A number of petitions have been filed in the apex court seeking reversal of the cut-off year from 1971 as per the Assam Accord to 1951, the year that applies to rest of India. The petitions have been referred to a five-member bench of the apex court.

Excerpts:

What is the status of ULFA’s talks with the Centre?

The final draft of demands from our side is not fully ready yet. We are still mulling over solutions to some key issues. Our last meeting with P.C. Haldar was in June this year, after the new state government was formed. We were supposed to meet him again but the talks have been kept on hold for now keeping in mind the Supreme Court’s impending judgment on the bunch of petitions (filed by many individuals and civil society organisations) seeking 1951 as the cut-off year for citizenship of people residing in Assam against what it is now – 1971 as per the Assam Accord. The hearing by the five-member bench is in the final stages.

Many in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) strongly feel that it is better to wait for the SC judgment and take the talks from thereon. Since this is an opportunity we (ULFA) may not get again to settle issues with the Centre, we also feel that we should wait for the judgment.

What will happen to the Assam Accord then?

Yes, it is an issue as the accord has the cut-off year of 1971; we will have to then see in such a scenario, what will happen to the accord.

Do you think P.C. Haldar is a good choice as the Centre’s interlocutor for the talks?

P.C. Haldar comes across as someone who really wants to do something for the people of Assam. He studies various issues concerning the state on his own. I think his presence will make a difference to the talks.

The NSCN (I-M) or National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) has demanded certain symbols of sovereignty, such as the demand for a separate flag, constitution and passport in their negotiations with the Centre. Though ULFA also fought for Assam’s sovereignty, it has not put out any such demands. Did ULFA’s bargaining power weaken with the Centre because the leaders were in detention?

The initial charter of demands put together by SJA should have given more thought on those lines. It is true that coming to the negotiating table at a weak moment is not the same as otherwise. In fact, there is a huge difference. The NSCN (I-M) could demand those things because they were in a strong position. We could have also done it, we could have brought everyone together, as one team, one voice. Our leadership ignored those who were in a strong position. This is our last chance (to talk peace with the Centre). So, we are now trying to form district committees so that we come across as a united voice. This is important because ULFA has lost the confidence of Assamese people lately, many laugh at us now, make fun of us, hate us like untouchables. This happened because of deliberate efforts by various forces. Many bomb blasts that took place in Assam and killed many Assamese people were not done by ULFA, some were even done by the government and other forces. Yet people were made to believe that they were done by ULFA to discredit it. Media also spread such rumours. When I was in a jail in Bangladesh, I heard a BBC correspondent from the region claim that those blasts were done by ULFA. On asked why did then the outfit issued denial, he said it was because it has been criticised it for killing Assamese people. Before the serial blasts in Assam, many bomb blasts, like the one in Barpeta Road, Panbazar area of Guwahati, were not done by ULFA but the media accused it of engineering them. Even though the serial blasts were done by National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), the media was quick to point fingers at ULFA.Those accusations led to discredit ULFA. So we feel, this time we have to be careful and deliver results to the people.

In order to create that one voice, will there be any effort by this faction of ULFA to bring ULFA (Independent) commander-in-chief Paresh Barua to the table? 

I don’t think such a move will be made now. The decision to exclude him was taken before I came out of jail and joined the talks.

The ULFA cadres on ceasefire have been living in camps for the last eight years. They are a demoralised lot due to the lack of any steps to rehabilitate them. The monthly stipend from the government is a paltry Rs 3,000, none have any steady means of livelihood, the stipend is also irregular. Will the ULFA leadership take any step in this regard?

It is an important issue; the boys are increasingly leaving the camps out of frustration; whoever have land are going back home for farming, etc. to sustain the families they created in the last eight years. Nobody (pro-talks leaders) thought of raising this issue with the government before I joined the talks. I met the state chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal twice so far on the same issue. People may ask why is he going alone to meet the chief minister but someone has to raise the issue.

I have urged the government to increase their monthly stipend from Rs 3,000 to Rs 10,000 and also give a plot of land to set up an office of Axom Jatiyo Nyas (Assam National Trust). In my last meeting with Sonowal (in early August), he said he raised my demand about hiking the cadres’ stipend with the MHA and state officials. He said we would have difficulty raising it to Rs 10,000 per month but we will certainly raise it soon, we have taken a decision on this. Sonowal said we had a series of meetings about it and it will include not just the ULFA cadre but also others, including the NDFB cadre, too. There are roughly 3,000 cadres in total, he said.

The central government is amending the Citizenship Act to facilitate Hindu refugees from Bangladesh and other countries to get Indian citizenship. Many in Assam are strongly opposed to it as they feel many undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh will become permanent residents of Assam then. The state government is agreeable to the Centre’s decision stating that the ‘burden’ will be shared by the entire country. What is your opinion?

If such a thing happens, the Centre will never take them away from Assam. I don’t think the state government will have any say in the matter. Just recently, newspapers have quoted BJP president Amit Shah as saying that the state government would have to do what we asked it to do. So the state government is not likely to have any independent thinking there.

Also, as far as Hindu Bangladeshis are concerned, at least one member from each family is already living in Assam. Earning a livelihood is somewhat easier in Bangladesh now than in Assam. So if a family has three brothers, two are living in Bangladesh and one in Assam. However, all the three brothers will have their names in the voters’ list in the state.

The process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is in its final stages. Has ULFA thought about what the government should do with those declared foreigners by the NRC? Also, what will happen to the NRC update results if the cut-off date becomes 1951?

Yes, many things will have to be relooked if 1951 really becomes the cut-off year. As far as the NRC update results are concerned, the SJA didn’t engage specifically on it. Some have been suggesting issuing work permits to such individuals. If that happens, we will actually be at a loss. If work permits are granted, they will never leave Assam. If we agree to it, it will mean we have accepted them.

It is also being said that those people who can get legal papers from Bangladesh should be granted such permits. But I ask, how many will go back to Bangladesh to get such papers? Also, why would Bangladesh give it to them so openly?

What, according to you, were the reasons for the BJP’s win in the last assembly elections in Assam?

They won on the issue of sub-nationalism. It is the weakness of the indigenous people of the state, both in the rural and urban areas. Also, people wanted a change from 15 years of Congress rule; there was no alternative, that is why the BJP won. BJP didn’t win because people of Assam have begun supporting Hindutva. You may see celebration of rituals like raksha bandhan, bol bom, etc. in some urban pockets but people in our villages don’t support them. I myself refuse to wear rakhi or even play Holi. These are not our rituals.

What is ULFA’s stand on granting Scheduled Tribe status to the six communities? The centre has agreed in principle but some groups are agitating against it.

It seems like the central government has a role in instigating those protests. We have spoken to many leaders of different communities on the issue of granting ST status to the Tai Ahoms, Moran, Motok, Sutiya, Koch Rajbonshis and the tea garden community. Organisations like the All Bodo Students Organisation have no problem about giving ST status to the communities living in Upper Assam. They are not very comfortable, though, about including the Koch Rajbonshis in the list as they fear that they might lose their reserved seats to the community living in the Bodo Territorial Council areas. However, the Bodo leaders are clearly opposed to granting ST status to the tea garden community. They are also not agreeable to the term ‘Adivasi’ being used by the community to claim the status. They argue that if they are the Adivasis of Assam then who are we?

Even though some sub-groups of the tea garden community have been included in the ST list in other parts of India, not all are. So, if the Centre offers the same model to the tea garden community in Assam too, the Bodo leaders might agree. However, there is no unity among various organisations of the tea garden community. There is no one voice there. Before the state assembly elections in April, the Centre played politics with the community. The young leaders were approached to get their votes (for the BJP) but the mother organisations were ignored. So there is a division among the community.

The committee formed by the Centre before the Assam elections to look into the matter (to grant ST status to the six communities) has not submitted its report yet. Let’s see what it says. P.C. Haldar is also a member of that committee. ULFA supports granting ST status to all these communities as we feel we will be able to save our land by doing so.

Besides this, are there any other measures being thought of to keep the land with the indigenous people?

Our concern is also how to save our farm land in the villages, as most of the urban land is gone by now. After a lot of deliberation, a mechanism has been thought of but I sometimes doubt its efficacy in a corrupt administrative system. As per it, a person would need a certificate from the office of the district commissioner to be a farmer. He/she should be a farmer for at least five years prior to getting the certificate. But we also know that the district collector himself will not check the paper work and other evidences, it will be done at the clerical level. In a corrupt system, anyone can bribe an official and get such a certificate. We need to discuss the issue a lot more to arrive at a foolproof solution. We need more suggestions on it. The document that the nine-member committee has put together has also sought a judicial commission to find out how much land of the state, such as the forest areas and grazing reserves, have been occupied since independence.

The clauses of the Assam Accord are yet to be fully implemented. Keeping that in mind, how much thought has been put by the ULFA leadership and the SJA to bring in a mechanism for early implementation of the clauses of the accord it will sign with the Centre?

We are concerned about it. Some of our well wishers are thinking that we are not bothered about it once the pact is signed. But I don’t agree, I will be worried about early and proper implementation of it. I feel it should be our responsibility, we will have to oversee it and for that we need to be in a strong position. How has NSCN (I-M) been able to demand so much from the Centre? It is because it is in a strong position. We need to be in such a position to implement the clauses of the pact but our leadership is not giving the necessary importance to whatever is still strong on our side.

From the recent actions claimed by ULFA-Swadhin, will it be right to deduce that there is resurgence of the outfit? Do you think it wil gain the support of the Assamese public?

Yes it seems to be getting active, causing some blasts, etc. lately. It also kidnapped the son of a BJP worker (he was later released) in Upper Assam recently. Paresh admitted his kidnap by ULFA- Swadhin but denied asking one crore ransom for his release as claimed by the family. People of Assam may not support killings and kidnappings but I can tell you for sure that most feel that there should be some power to safeguard their interests against the non-Assamese. The sense of sub-nationalism is extremely strong in the indigenous people of Assam. They feel the outsiders should fear, should bow, to some power.

India government presently has very good bilateral relations with the government of Bangladesh. The Supreme Court, in a 2014 directive, had asked the government to enter into “necessary discussions” with Bangladesh to streamline the process of deportation. Do you think it will make such efforts now?

I don’t think so. In fact, I feel the Centre’s Bangladesh policy is faulty. It is just a matter of time before it is proven unsuccessful. The anti-India sentiment has increased manifold in that country after the Awami League grabbed power. That party came to power without any contest but India was quick to recognise it. This is not a government elected by the public of that country. Awami League has the support of only 39% of people, what about the rest? The majority?

India should have maintained restraint there. But it didn’t. So the anti-India feeling is presently very strong there. This good relation of India with Bangladesh is with the government of the day, not with the public of that country. If free and fair elections take place there, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party will surely be back in power and then a lot of Hindu Bangladeshis, or what they say Maloung, will be attacked. They will be the soft target. This will happen only because of the wrong policies of the central government. So in such a scenario, more Hindus from Bangladesh will come to India seeking refuge. Instead of deporting people, we will have to take in people. The government of India’s Bangladesh policy is suicidal, in my opinion.