'We disbanded for the people of Assam': ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa

We are now part of a peaceful, democratic process, he says

54-Arabinda-Rajkhowa Arabinda Rajkhowa | Sanjay Ahlawat

Interview/ Arabinda Rajkhowa, chairman, ULFA

IT IS A BITTERSWEET moment for ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, who lost the battle for a sovereign Assam. After 44 years, he has decided to disband the organisation, signing the historic peace settlement with the Central government and the government of Assam. The guerrilla fighter is facing some criticism after he returns to Assam as a common citizen, committed to roll out the promises in the settlement. In an exclusive interview, Rajkhowa tells THE WEEK that ULFA has let go of its cause for the people of Assam. Excerpts:

Q/ How does it feel to disband the ULFA faction that you have been leading?

A/ I have been a guerrilla fighter for 44 years—from April 7, 1979 till December 29, 2023—fighting for a sovereign Assam. We have lived in jungles braving hunger, difficult weather and terrain, running from country to country. Over the years, our senior leaders got arrested and had to spend many years in jail. It has been a long struggle. The civil society and intellectuals gradually asked us to adopt peaceful means to resolve the India-Assam conflict. ULFA’s demand has always been a sovereign and independent Assam. But the proposal for a peaceful political solution is the demand of the people of Assam.

We were in discussion with the Indian government for the last 12 years and four months, honouring the agendas prepared by civil society organisations. The proposal for a peaceful political process was brought before the leaders of ULFA by 131 civil society organisations. It was then that we decided to honour and respect the will of the Assamese people. Therefore, we signed the agreement which resulted in disbanding the organisation.

Q/ It has been a very long negotiation process. Are you happy with the outcome?

A/ Happiness will come after the implementation of the agreement, when the original inhabitants will be satisfied. Many long discussions—some bitter, some sweet—have taken place. We stuck to our demands and the government stuck to its stand under the federal structure of the Indian Constitution. Our mentality was that of fighters who were waging a battle of independence, while the government had to look at administrative, security, diplomatic and many other concerns. There was no meeting ground initially and it was a slow process. As individuals fighting a specific cause for which we have suffered for 44 years, it is natural for us to feel disheartened and sad at the loss of our battle for independence. We have let go of our cause for the benefit of the people of Assam.

Q/ How do you see the peace deal with ULFA impacting people of Assam?

A/ We do not call it peace talks or peace deal; instead we call it the peaceful political solution process. It is a positive development for the people of Assam as they have finally got a peaceful and democratic environment. The earlier allegation that the Central government adopted a step-motherly treatment towards Assam was true, but slowly, an amicable solution has been achieved.

One of the points of the agreement is to constitute a committee to initiate and allot Scheduled Tribe status and assure reservation for OBCs (Other Backward Class)/MOBCs (More Other Backward Class) in urban local bodies and panchayats.

The government will also consider recommending to the Election Commission to follow the broad guidelines and methodology adopted for delimitation in Assam in 2023 in future delimitations as well. The government has also promised to take effective measures to prevent enrolment of illegal migrants in the voters’ list. A lot of developmental measures will also be taken by the government. Many youngsters took up guerrilla life because of dissatisfaction with the state. We are happy there is scope for employment for them in the development of Assam.

Q/ Do you think ULFA can integrate with the civil society?

A/ We have been a banned organisation fighting security forces, Army and police, but now we are part of a peaceful, democratic process and will work towards building peace in Assam. The civil society asked us to join the peaceful political process in 2011 and brought us out of jail. They told us that if we came out of jail and went back to the jungle to restart the battle with security forces, then they would not support us. Hence, we assured them that we would keep the interests of the people of Assam before us. We fulfilled that commitment on December 29.

Q/ But there may be some criticism from within ULFA and outside accusing you of settling for an economic package and giving up the fight for sovereignty.

A/ Yes, people will ask us many questions and there will be analysis and criticism. It is the sign of a living and conscious society. The agreement cannot be implemented overnight and everybody needs to be patient and avoid any misunderstanding. Otherwise, it will all be in vain.

Different political parties have different views as many people lost their families during the struggle in Assam. ULFA cadres who went to the jungles to fight for sovereign, independent Assam will definitely feel the pain as our beloved organisation has to be dissolved. But we have to convince ourselves to prioritise peace, prosperity and development of Assam.

Q/ Is Paresh Baruah in touch with you?

A/ No, but he is in touch with a few senior leaders. He is sticking to his demand for sovereignty and we have appealed to him to start a peaceful political solution process. In my opinion, if he joins the process, it will only strengthen our efforts for a lasting peace as he, too, is fighting for Assam. ULFA (Independent) is a separate organisation and it will take its own decision.

Q/ What about China’s support to ULFA?

A/ I am the first ULFA leader who contacted the Chinese Communist Party in the mid-1980s. I spoke through an interpreter who was a lecturer at Yunnan University. I travelled by foot from Assam to China crossing rivers and mountains over several days. They talked about Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle and expressed support only if we adopted peaceful political means. When we told them that we were armed revolutionaries, they did not support us, but directed us to the arms once given by the Chinese to the Burmese Communist Party. We picked up a few and formed networks and connections through individual links. But there was no “state” support from China.