Much of the blame for the slow progress of talks with Ulfa lies at the door of its commander Paresh Baruah, who has been accused of maintaining links with the intelligence agencies of Pakistan and China.
Home Minister P. Chidambaram wanted him to join talks, but his reluctance and the incessant attacks in Assam have pushed the dialogue process into a stalemate. Baruah insists that he will engage in talks only if the sovereignty of Assam is on the agenda. In fact, he has given the pro-talk faction an ultimatum: break talks with the government and return to the outfit within three months.
Baruah has dubbed the peace talks a sell-out by Ulfa chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and other leaders, and has threatened to continue his fight for Aai Asom (motherland). In his monthly ministerial report, Chidambaram, while referring to the last round of tripartite talks with Ulfa in April, said: “The home secretary held the talks and he has reported to me that it is making progress but it will be slow progress because there is an anti-talk faction. So the pro-talk leaders are proceeding with great caution.”
Both Delhi and the Rajkhowa camp say they are committed to the peace talks. The government has promised the Ulfa leadership that all its men who have left arms and are living in designated areas will be taken care of, and that the government will make efforts to secure the release of Ulfa leader Anup Chetia, currently in prison in Bangladesh.
Ulfa, on its part, has declared that its demand for sovereignty does not mean secession. But its 12-point demand list includes special status for Assam and the right to engage with foreign countries for promotion of Assam's trade and cultural relationship—two tricky issues.
The Ulfa leadership hopes that the government will finally agree to guarantee certain special provisions to Assam, on the lines of the special constitutional protection to Jammu and Kashmir or Nagaland. But, for the UPA government, which is already facing political heat on the handling of the Telangana issue, any concession to Ulfa on constitutional matters may backfire.
The stalemate has left the pro-talk faction in a fix. Many Ulfa leaders believe that the talks could end up like the one with the Nagas, which has seen no outcome in 14 years. “We have done our bit. We have left guns, joined talks and we remain committed to our stand for a peaceful negotiation to end the conflict [in Assam],” a senior Ulfa leader told THE WEEK. “The ball is now in the government's court. They have to deliver on their promises.”
The guiding hand of Ulfa godfather Bhimkanta Buragohain or Mama, as he is known, who died last December, is sorely missed. His meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last year had raised hopes of a breakthrough.
Buragohain was a staunch advocate of peace talks and his dream was to see Assam peaceful. “I'm sure that if we make some progress in talks, then he [Paresh Baruah] will have no choice but to join us,” Mama had told THE WEEK in a rare interview. “But if we fail, then he will have a big party in the jungle.”