GUWAHATI: For the first time in its 31-year-long struggle, the banned ULFA on Saturday decided to hold face-to-face talks with the Centre and said there was no split in its ranks on the issue.
The much-awaited talks will be held on February 10 in New Delhi.
Talking to reporters, ULFA leader, Sasadhar Choudhury said that the group “would like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to be present during the talks on Thursday as he represents Assam in Parliament”.
Terming the first round of talks as a “courtesy call”, the ULFA ‘foreign secretary’ said, “Respecting the wishes of the people of Assam and the Jatiya Abhibartan (a group of intellectuals), we have decided to go for talks.”
Asked whether ULFA’s core demand of ‘sovereignty for Assam’ would be discussed, Choudhury avoiding a direct reply saying, “We have decided to go for unconditional talks. Through talks, the process for resolution of Assam’s problems will be started.”
But when persisted on its reaction on the contentious demand, he said, “Talks will not be held if the sovereignty issue is raised again by us.”
Asked if the ULFA had dropped the demand, he said, “Due to the situation in the state in 1979 we wanted sovereignty for Assam. ULFA was born and we went out to carry on our struggle. Now we shall have to do what the people of Assam want.”
Centre’s interlocutor Mr P C Haldar termed the development as “very positive which will facilitate the ground for very constrictive and meaningful dialogue”.
The released leaders also claimed there was no split in its ranks as ‘chairman’ Arabinda Rajkhowa and elusive ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah were in frequent contact with each other.
“There is no division in the ULFA. Paresh Baruah is still our commander-in-chief,” ‘vice-chairman’ Pradip Gogoi said.
The decision to hold talks with the Centre was taken at the executive committee and general council meetings this week, Choudhury said, adding ULFA is yet to select its leaders to participate in the discussions.
“Our charter of demands is being prepared. We will let the people of Assam know what they are. We will carry the opinions of all sections of people in the state.
“Our agenda will, however, definitely focus on what is the best option for the solution to the socio-political problems of the state,” he said, adding the success of the talks will depend on the “sincerity of the Centre”.
“This will be a courtesy meeting. After this, the modalities will be worked out. We will meet all the (insurgent) groups and organisations in the state and take their opinion on what is good for Assam,” Choudhury said.
To a query if the talks would be successful without the participation of Paresh Baruah, he expressed optimism saying, “Why do you think the talks won’t be successful? We are positive the talks will be successful.”
When pointed out that Baruah has stuck to his demand for ‘sovereignty’ as seen in a recent video sent to the media, Choudhury said, “He has been informed about the central executive committee and general council’s decision for participating in the peace talks. Baruah will clear his stand when he receives our resolution. His stand will not affect the peace talks.”
Asked if Baruah was still the ‘C-in-C’ of the group in view of all the top ULFA leaders coming overground and expressing readiness for peace talks, he said, “Till now he is the ‘C-in-C’. Unless and until he formally rejects the resolutions, I have to say he is the ‘C-in-C’ of ULFA.”
He said Rajkhowa, now out on bail, was in touch with the ‘C-in-C’ frequently.
But the group’s hardline faction said it would continue its struggle till Assam’s “sovereignty is attained”.
In an e-mail, it said, “We are ready to take any measures for Assam’s sovereignty. If tomorrow our ‘C-in-C’ will say that Assam’s sovereignty is an impossible task, then he too will be expelled from ULFA.”
Earlier, the ULFA also admitted that it was a mistake on its part to have killed 10 schoolchildren in Dhemaji district in 2004 and social worker Sanjoy Ghosh in 1997.
Choudhury said that the Dhemaji incident and the killing of rural development activist Ghosh were “mistakes on the part of the ULFA”.
On Independence Day of 2004, ULFA cadres triggered a blast in the parade ground in upper Assam’s Dhemaji district killing 17 people, including 10 schoolchildren.
Ghosh of NGO AVARD-NE, along with a colleague of his, were kidnapped by ULFA on July 4, 1997 from the river island of Majuli where they were working for community health and development.
His colleague managed to escape but Ghosh was killed.