The Indian government’s peace pact with the United Liberation Front of Assam is another step towards lasting peace in the North-East
The Indian government announced on 29 December that it, along with the government of the state of Assam, had on that day concluded a “historic” tripartite peace deal with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), an armed insurgent outfit known for its penchant for violence that had been dreaded by the people of the North-East Indian state of Assam in the 1980s and 1990s. The Indian government described the signing of the peace deal as a significant milestone on the road towards fulfilling Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of a peaceful, prosperous and insurgency-free North-East and everlasting peace, prosperity and all-round development in Assam. Even though some local opposition leaders were unimpressed with the achievement and Paresh Baruah, the leader of the Myanmar-headquartered and China-backed ULFA (Independent), a faction of the original ULFA, rejected the peace deal, the reality is that coming on the back of several other such peace pacts signed with other North-East based insurgent groups, the Indian government, by taming the larger and more powerful ULFA, has indeed sent the message that it is serious about ushering in peace and prosperity in the region, and conveyed that it possesses the authority, the skills, the resources and the acumen to make that a reality.
ULFA had been formed during the ‘Assam Movement’ of 1979-85 that was characterized by street-protests against illegal migration from neighbouring Bangladesh that the protestors believed threatened to reduce Assam’s indigenous population into a minority. Assam’s plight as a less-developed state of India provided ULFA with a further opportunity to exploit. In its heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s the then unified ULFA, which demanded sovereignty for Assam, enjoyed considerable public support on the back of the emotive issue of illegal migration and the idealistic narrative that the outfit subscribed to and propagated. The idealism of the group of young Assamese men that formed ULFA in Sibsagar district of Assam in 1979, however, soon gave way to opportunism and greed that manifested itself in the excesses of indiscriminate violence and ruthless extortion, with even the indigenous Assamese population being considered fair targets.
A string of violent attacks in Assam by ULFA in the early 1990s prompted firm retaliation from the Indian State. Sustained pressure from the Indian security forces weakened ULFA and drove the majority of its leaders and militants to seek shelter in neighbouring countries. Bhutan and Bangladesh, both of which share land borders with Assam, were convenient bases that not only afforded ULFA safe sanctuary but also enabled it to carry out violent operations and extort funds from its nearby zones of operation in Assam. The geography of Bhutan and the scant presence of Bhutanese troops in the rugged mountain terrain bordering Assam facilitated the setting up of several ULFA camps in the Samdrup Jhonkar region of the country by the mid-1990s. In Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) party, both of which have a marked anti-India hue, enthusiastically hosted ULFA as well as several other North-East Indian insurgent organizations as a de facto State policy during their period in power.
Concerted pressure from India, combined with the dawn of the unsavory reality that the ULFA presence in Bhutan had grown to be a menace for the local population, led to the launch of the highly successful India-Bhutan joint ‘Operation All Clear’ in 2003, in which ULFA militants were flushed out en masse from their Bhutanese camps and pushed across the border into the thankful hands of waiting Indian security forces. In Bangladesh, the tide for ULFA turned with the landslide electoral victory of the traditionally pro-India Awami League (AL) party headed by Sheikh Hasina in December 2008. Hasina reversed the policy of the BNP-JEI combine by launching an all-out attack against ULFA and other Indian insurgent groups that had been ensconced in comfort in the country. Most of the top leaders of ULFA, including chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, were apprehended and handed over to Indian authorities. These leaders, having discarded their earlier demand for independence, began negotiating a peace settlement with the Indian Government in 2011, which eventually culminated in the signing of the recent 29 December peace deal. However, ULFA’s commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah had fled to Myanmar, where he was sheltered by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang). He announced the formation of ULFA-I, which was a pale reflection of the undivided ULFA, and pledged to continue the armed insurgency in pursuit of sovereignty. As per reports in the media, Paresh Baruah is presently living in the Myanmar-China border region.
Announcing the settlement that was reached with the Arabinda Rajkhowa faction of the ULFA on 29 December, India’s Home Ministry said in a release that “In the presence of Union Home Minister and Minister of Cooperation, Shri Amit Shah, a Memorandum of Settlement was signed between the Government of India, the Government of Assam, and representatives of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), in New Delhi, today”. It quoted Shah as describing the signing as a “golden day for Assam”, whose people had been “bearing the brunt of violence for long”. He added that the agreement, which would usher in a new era of peace in the entire North-East, and especially in Assam, was the result of Prime Minister Modi’s broader vision of an insurgency-free North-East. He said that Modi, after becoming the Prime Minister in 2014, had initiated efforts to bridge the gap between New Delhi and the North-East and had started talks with all groups with an open mind. These efforts yielded 9 peace and border-related agreements in the past 5 years, as part of which more than 9000 cadres of insurgent groups surrendered, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was lifted from 85 percent of Assam’s territory.
Outlining the contours of the deal, Shah said that the ULFA representatives had agreed to abjure the path of violence, lay down all their arms and ammunition, and disband their armed forces. Apart from this, the ULFA has also agreed to vacate all camps occupied by its armed cadres, engage in the peaceful democratic process established by law, and maintain the integrity of the country. ULFA’s founding leaders, including Anup Chetia and Sasadhar Choudhury, who participated in a press meet following the signing, said they would disband the outfit and harboured no political ambitions.
The Government of India, in turn, agreed to provide a substantial package comprising several large projects aimed at the all round development of Assam. The political demands of the ULFA, including issues such as maintaining the territorial integrity of Assam through amicable settlement of boundary disputes with neighbouring States in the North-East and continuation of the “guidelines and methodology” adopted for the delimitation exercise conducted in 2023 in future delimitation processes, dealing effectively with illegal immigration, and ensuring the land rights of indigenous communities, would also be addressed. The Home Ministry would fulfill its commitments made in the agreement through a time-bound program, which would be closely overseen by a monitoring committee formed specifically for this purpose. Shah stressed that “We want to assure the ULFA leadership that their trust in the Centre to ensure the success of the peace process will be honoured”.
Commenting on the signing of the agreement, Modi said in a post on X that “Today marks a significant milestone in Assam’s journey towards peace and development. This agreement paves the way for lasting progress in Assam. I commend the efforts of all involved in this landmark achievement. Together, we move towards a future of unity, growth, and prosperity for all”. Assam’s Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who played an important role in negotiating the agreement and who participated in the signing function in New Delhi, wrote, “Today is a historic day for Assam. During PM Modi’s tenure, under the guidance of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, work for Assam’s peace was always underway...three accords have been signed and with three accords tribal militancy has come to an end in Assam”.
Some opposition leaders in Assam were not as convinced. Leader of the Opposition Debabrata Saikia opined that “This pact does not look like an agreement between a sovereignty seeking group and the government. Many of the clauses mentioned in the agreement are just some routine duties of any elected government. The government said Rs 1.5 lakh-crore investment will be made. This is a natural duty of a government. I hope that a new rich contractor class is not created out of this”. Saikia also underlined that the agreement made no mention of the Assam Accord of 1985. Akhil Gogoi, the president of the Raijor Dal and a Member of Assam’s Legislative Assembly, wondered whether it was a peace agreement or an “election manifesto of the BJP”. He elaborated, “It has not fulfilled any of the aspirations of the Assamese people. Land, political and economic rights, culture, language and identity – none of these have been protected through the pact”. Demanding that the government make the agreement public, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Assam state secretary Suprakash Talukdar pointedly asked, “The Assam Chief Minister has been repeatedly saying that without the participation of ULFA(I) chief Paresh Baruah in this process, it won’t fructify. So what will be the outcome of this accord? Is the CM sticking to this position now also?”
Paresh Baruah, meanwhile, has termed the tripartite peace agreement as “shameful”. His hardline ULFA-I has been unwilling to come to the negotiating table unless the issue of “Assam’s sovereignty” was on the agenda, and his faction, albeit much weakened, has continued to engage in sporadic acts of violence. Baruah told the Assamese television channel Pratidin Time in a telephonic interview after the signing that “We are not surprised, concerned or angry but ashamed of the pact. We were aware of the outcome as when revolutionaries give up their goals, ideals and ideology, a political settlement is not possible”. Asked about Chief Minister Himanta Sarma’s conversation with him on possible talks with his faction, the rebel leader said, “Yes, he did speak to me. He is a catalyst for negotiations. We will not sit for talks just for the sake of it. We have demanded a political settlement and will not waver from this goal and betray the people of the state. If political demands are not met and only a package is given, it is not acceptable. We have been saying from the beginning that they (pro-talks faction) are proceeding on the wrong path of a so-called arrangement”.
Paresh Baruah was also asked whether he had discussed these issues with his former ULFA comrades-in-arms who were in talks with the government. He responded that the outfit’s general secretary Anup Chetia had spoken to him, and he had tried to convince Chetia about a political settlement, but Chetia informed him that this demand had been turned down by the government negotiators on the grounds that “there was no such provision in the Indian Constitution”. Baruah then queried, “Did they go for talks without knowing what was in the Constitution? Talks will have to be held outside the ambit of the Constitution”. Baruah also claimed that Chetia had told him that the pro-talks faction had no other option, to which Baruah retorted – “If there was no other option, they should tell the people that they have been deceived”. The ULFA-I leader concluded that “We cannot cooperate with them (pro-talks faction) as we have not given up our ideals and ideology. We are not sitting at the negotiating table unless there is discussion on the lines of the Naga Framework Agreement, which includes control over resources, a separate constitution and flag”.
Despite his reservations over the peace deal and his continuing demand for “sovereignty”, the ULFA-I is largely an inconsequential outfit that is barely surviving in exile today, and the threat of militancy from it in Assam has subsided dramatically over the years. Noted journalist and author Rajeev Bhattacharyya, who has extensively covered and written about the ULFA, believes that the agreement is a step in the right direction. He feels that while the BJP may gain political mileage, the real challenge lies in the effective and timely implementation of the agreement.
The people of Assam, long terrorized by multiple insurgencies spearheaded by the ULFA, will, meanwhile, heave a sigh of relief that the curtains have effectively been brought down on one of the biggest and bloodiest insurgencies in North-East India.