A rebel goes mainstream

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ULFA’s Arabinda Rajkhowa is a free man. But will peace follow? asks Ratnadip Choudhury

Hero’s welcome Rajkhowa arrives at Sivasagar
Photo: Luit Chaliha

THE HISTORIC Rang Ghar in Assam’s Sivasagar district — the seat of the Ahom kings — had thousands of visitors like any other day. But for once, on 2 January, they hadn’t come to see Asia’s oldest amphitheater but to get a glimpse of rebel leader Arabinda Rajkhowa, who, along with five other comrades, formed the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) at this very location on 7 April 1979.

Released on bail from the Guwahati Central Jail in six TADA cases, Rajkhowa, 54, travelled back to Upper Assam, the ULFA stronghold. The ULFA chairman’s release clears the decks for proposed peace talks between the government and the banned outfit. But Rajkhowa’s homecoming goes much beyond that.

“If a honourable situation for talks is not created, I will return to the people and ask them whether I should pick up arms again,” Rajkhowa thundered while addressing a crowd at Boarding Field in Shivasagar. “Should I opt for a political movement, should I go for peace talks, whatever you tell me, I will do that. But I’m in favour of a peace process. Long live ULFA.”

The proposed talks will not only decide if ULFA will shun violence but it might also see Rajkhowa and other top leaders of the banned outfit, who are now out on bail, join mainstream politics. There are also indications that, perhaps for the first time in the past 30 years, ULFA could possibly split. Earlier, members have quit the outfit or surrendered but by and large, ULFA has remained intact.

There have been ideological differences between Rajkhowa and ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Barua, who has been reportedly shuttling between China and Myanmar. But now it seems Rajkhowa wants a political solution rather than a military one. This comes at a time when Assam is getting ready for Assembly polls in a couple of months.

For the ruling Congress, Rajkhowa’s release will not only boost the government’s image but also divert attention from issues like corruption and illegal immigration from Bangladesh that have left the Tarun Gogoi government on a sticky wicket.

Perhaps, New Delhi has learnt a few lessons from the botched peace process in Nagaland with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah). The peace parleys have been going on for 13 long years. As a result, status quo has prevailed and a lasting solution remains elusive. Now, the Congress does not want to repeat the same mistakes.

New Delhi is counting on ULFA’s top leadership to join mainstream politics. Rumour has it that the ruling Congress might even go in for a pre-poll tie-up with a political outfit backed by ULFA leaders. Interlocutor PC Haldar and Union Home Secretary GK Pillai are reportedly acting as ‘floor managers’ to ensure that alliance.

Away from the political permutations and combinations, Rajkhowa’s release meant the end of a long wait for 98-year-old Damayanti Rajkonwari. “When will he come? Where is he now? Meeting him is the only wish I have left,” his frail mother had earlier remarked in a choked voice. Finally, she got to hug her beloved son. Holding his mother’s hands, Rajkhowa sounded emotional: “I cannot describe my happiness in reuniting with my family, my mother. But I have a big responsibility.”

Rajkhowa’s father Umakanta Rajkhowar, who died in 2003 at the age of 103, was a freedom fighter and an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi.

Rajkhowa’s journey home was euphoric. Many underground ULFA cadres accompanied him, chanting slogans and carrying the ULFA flag, an act not permitted by law as the outfit is banned.

“We are eager for peace talks but for that an honourable atmosphere has to be created. I want to make one thing clear: there are no ideological differences within the ULFA on peace talks,” says Rajkhowa.

Young admirer A girl waves the banned ULFA flag

But the big question is: can he walk the talk? In ULFA, it has always been Barua who has called the shots. While Rajkhowa has given indications that he is ready to begin talks without pre-conditions, Barua has always maintained that the core issue of Assam’s sovereignty has to be on the agenda for any meaningful negotiations.

“Our general secretary Anup Chetia should be extradited from a Bangladeshi jail to India if the peace process has to be taken forward. Other jailed leaders have to be freed as well. Only then we can meet the people, take their opinion and explain our point of view,” says Rajkhowa.

Interestingly, Rajkhowa remains silent on Barua’s participation in the talks. “We need to hold the executive council meeting to decide about the talks,” he says. “The media has to understand that ULFA has not given up on its ideology. We have not forgotten the sacrifices of our cadres but Assam-India conflict cannot get a meaningful solution from military action.”

Perhaps, both the Central and Assam governments want to keep Barua out of the peace process at least till the elections are over because he is a hardliner.

This is not the first time that Rajkhowa is talking peace. After the successful military operations against ULFA in the early 1990s, many activists had surrendered. In 1992, top leaders such as Rajkhowa, Chetia and vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi were flown to New Delhi. They had assured the Central government of bringing Barua along for talks. However, the process failed because Barua was not convinced.

The crackdown by Bangladesh against ULFA made life difficult for the outfit’s political leaders and has given Delhi a fresh chance to broker peace. ULFA has lost two major trans-border sanctuaries — Bhutan and Bangladesh. Myanmar is the only shelter left. Thus an isolated Barua is lying low, keenly watching the development but he definitely has the power to regroup.

A BUMPY road lies ahead for Rajkhowa and the government because ULFA has lost its popular support among the Assamese people. “Rajkhowa will have to answer why ULFA killed innocent schoolkids on Independence Day in 2003 in Dhemaji,” says an angry villager in Sivasagar, on the condition of anonymity.

‘The Assam-India conflict cannot get a meaningful solution from military action,’ admits Rajkhowa

Earlier, ULFA ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain had said that New Delhi has to come clean on the whereabouts of leaders such as Robin Neog, Asantha Bagh Phukan, Bening Rabha and Robin Handique who went ‘missing’ since the Operation All-Clear in 2003 in Bhutan.

“As ULFA chairman, I had always pushed for a political solution but some people have always sabotaged the process due to vested interests,” reveals Rajkhowa. “We are sincere and I know that I have taken up a big responsibility. If the talks fail, the people of Assam will decide what should be the next step.”

While Rajkhowa has made it clear that the people of Assam are the main stakeholders in the peace process, New Delhi must remember the fate of the 1975 Shillong Accord, which failed to settle the vexed Naga problem. History has a bad habit of repeating itself. If the peace process fails again this time, ULFA will certainly strike back, as Rajkhowa perhaps knows better than anybody.

 

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