ULFA chief of staff Paresh Baruah has reiterated that he will participate in the talks with the Indian government only if sovereignty of Assam and the Northeast is accepted as the “core issue”. Like the other separatist leaders, he is of the opinion that the decision by the British rulers to hand over the region to the Indian government after Independence was illegitimate and unjustifiable.
The region, they argue, had never been part of any empire carved out by Indian rulers earlier . In 2005, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had agreed that all “core issues” would be negotiated with ULFA but weeks later it made an about-turn on its stance and the talks collapsed. Perhaps the Centre understood the implication of agreeing to that demand.
Once the issue is discussed with ULFA, it would also have to accept if the same demand is forwarded by other rebel groups in the Northeast and Jammu & Kashmir. So the government will never accept the precondition and especially when the peace process with the pro-talks faction of ULFA has reached an advanced stage. Its general secretary Anup Chetia who had been in jail in Bangladesh for 18 years has been handed over to India and he has voiced his support for the talks.
There are other reasons as well that would prevent Baruah from participating in the talks. As some senior overground functionaries of the outfit said, he has gone “too far” to return to Assam and that he would have the same fate as the venerable Angami Zapu Phizo of Nagaland (who supported the secessionist movement in that state from exile in London). Baruah is a trusted man of many agencies in the neighbouring countries and giving up that ‘role and responsibility’ would be tough. He would not be allowed to return to India even if he were to change his plans in the near future. In fact, there are regular reports in the media that he lives in Ruili in China’s south-western Yunnan province.
This could not have happened without the knowledge of the Chinese authorities although there are some “Northeast experts” who do not easily accept that the big neighbour would support these rebel groups. Those acquainted with the ground reality know what is true and what is not.
I stayed for over two weeks with the “chief of staff ” at a base deep inside Myanmar’s jungles four years ago. He appeared to be a disciplined but stubborn man who would not easily accept defeat. He is endowed with great managerial skills although it is doubtful if he can be termed a strategist. ULFA has been caught on the wrong foot several times — in 1990 when the army launched Operation Bajrang, in 2003 when all camps were eliminated in Bhutan and again in 2010-11 when the crackdown began in bangladesh . But Baruah can sense danger and on every occasion he was able to duck for cover and avoid getting apprehended.
But the “chief of staff” is not the kind to lie low for a very long time. Not surprisingly, he has gone into preparation mode and has been sending some of his trusted cadres to different countries. He has also joined hands with the other rebel groups from the Northeast that have pitched tent in Myanmar. Baruah was the mastermind in the formation of a new alliance called the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA) last April.
There are bright chances that the alliance would expand and form a government-in-exile with a moving capital. Unity has always eluded the rebel groups of the Northeast and it remains to be seen if these endeavours would really make a difference in the campaign at a time when there is a desperate yearning for peace in the region and employment rather than a war against the India. The number of insurgency-related incidents in the Northeast has also registered a downward trend in the past few years .But Baruah is of the view that all these are temporary trends that would wither away and that the new alliance would be able to make a “decisive impact” in the campaign for independence.
There is no other option for him except focusing on the base in Myanmar and the resources available with him. The Bangladesh government has found evidence of his involvement in the Chittagong Arms Haul of 2004 and there is a death sentence against him in the neighbouring country. It will be an embarrassment for New Delhi to engage Baruah in the ongoing peace talks when he is a wanted man in a friendly country. Moreover Bangladesh has cracked the whip on all the insurgent outfits that have had a presence in the country. It will be difficult for the Indian government to turn a blind eye to the judgment and sign an agreement with an organisation represented by Baruah.
(Bhattacharyya is author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men)
this author is not nclues