Govt holds peace talks with ULFA leaders

The first round of peace talks aimed at ending 30 long years of insurgency in Assam were held here Thursday between leaders of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and union Home Minister P. Chidambaram. A seven-member core group, under Home Secretary G.K. Pillai, is to take the peace process forward.

Updated: Feb 11, 2011, 00:44 AM IST

During the hour-long deliberations with Chidambaram, it was decided to set up a seven-member core group to discuss the modalities of carrying forward the peace process, official sources told IANS.

The group will have joint secretary (northeast) as its coordinator and comprise three ULFA members and two representatives each of the state and central governments. G.K. Pillai will supervise the group, the source said.

The group will discuss the designated camps, surrender policy, deposit of arms and other issues for maintaining peace in the state.

Chidambaram later told reporters that "the ULFA leadership has agreed for unconditional peace talks, and from our side we are committed for a just and honourable solution of the conflict".

The ULFA team later met Home Secretary G.K. Pillai along with central government-appointed interlocutor P.C. Haldar.

"It was a historic day for us with the first round of formal talks concluding on a very cordial note although there was no fixed agenda from either side," ULFA leader Sasha Choudhury, who was part of the delegation, told IANS after the meeting at the home ministry.

The ULFA leadership is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi Monday although it would only be a courtesy call.

Addressing a press conference after the talks, Choudhury said the outfit had noted Manmohan Singh`s statement that the Indian constitution was flexible enough to accommodate the aspirations of all people.
"I welcome them. I assured them that the Government of
India and Government of Assam will engage them in sincere and
meaningful talks and I am confident that we will find a just
and honourable solution," Home Minister P Chidambaram said
after ULFA leaders led by their `chairman` Arabinda Rajkhowa
met him before entering into talks here.

"They called on me which is a courtesy call... These
are very preliminary stages (of talks), you (media) should
cooperate and they will feel confident which will help to find
a solution through talks, he said.

An eight-member ULFA delegation led by Rajkhowa went
into a full session with senior officials led by Home
Secretary G K Pillai for about an hour.

This is the first time that such unconditional talks
are being held in ULFA`s 31-year-old history.

The meeting was also attended by Assam Home
Secretary N K Das, Additional Director General Police (Assam)
Khagen Sharma, Assam Home Commissioner Jishnu Barua, Centre`s
interlocutor P C Haldar, Secretary (Internal Security) U K
Bansal and Intelligence Bureau chief N Sandhu.

On February 5, the ULFA announced that it will sit for
unconditional talks with the Centre "respecting the wishes of
the people of Assam". It also apologised for the violent acts
it committed.

Apart from Rajkhowa, `vice-chairman` Pradip Gogoi,
`political advisor` Bhimakanta Buragohain, `foreign secretary`
Sasha Choudhury, `finance secretary` Chitrabon Hazarika,
`cultural secretary` Pranati Deka, `publicity secretary`
Mithinga Daimary and `deputy commander-in-chief` Raju Barua
participated in the talks.

The ULFA delegation arrived here last evening and were
whisked away by security personnel to an undisclosed
"We proposed (to the government) to evaluate various facets of the constitution and to explore the viability of protection and enrichment of the sovereignty of the people of Assam in all its dimensions -- political, social and cultural."

The much-hyped talks hit a major roadblock when elusive ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah rejected the initiative.

Baruah, said to be hiding in the Myanmar-China border area, said in an e-mail statement: "We cannot support the peace talks as the ULFA leadership led by Rajkhowa is under the influence of our enemy (government)."

Asked about this, Choudhury said it was a decision of the outfit`s highest decision making body. "Baruah is still our commander-in-chief.

"We were compelled to hold peace talks as our General Council resolved to open negotiations with the government. It is the wish of the people of Assam that we go for peace talks."

Asked about ULFA`s role in the coming Assam assembly elections, Choudhury said: "We have been saying we have zero involvement in the elections." But he didn`t urgem the people to boycott the elections.

The ULFA, one of the biggest rebel outfits in the tea and oil-rich region of Assam, has fought for an independent homeland for ethnic Assamese since 1979.

At least 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in Assam because of fighting between government forces and various rebel groups.

The Assam government welcomed the talks.

"We are happy the peace process initiated by the Assam government has reached a stage when the first round of formal talks has started," Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told IANS in Guwahati.

He said the government was "still hopeful (that) Paresh Baruah would endorse the peace process".
All the eight ULFA leaders who took part in the talks Thursday are out on bail, with the government facilitating their release from jail in order to pave the way for negotiations.

Apart from Rajhkowa, the other ULFA leaders who were in the talks include vice chairman Pradep Gogoi, deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah, self-styled foreign secretary Sasha Choudhury, finance secretary Chitraban Hazarika, cultural secretary Pranati Deka and political ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain.