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Hope of stability in the Hills: The peace pact with ULFA (Specials)

Published: 4th Jan, 2024

Context

The pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) signed a tripartite peace deal with the Centre and the Assam government. It has clauses for accelerating the State’s development and safeguarding the land and political rights of indigenous communities.

Historical legacy

Assam

  • Geographical location:Assam is the eastern most sentinel of India endowed with beautiful lush covers of greenery, a chain of hills and rivers mainly the Brahmaputra and the Barak. It has been the living place of various races, tribes and ethnic groups since time immemorial. The dynamics of synthesis and assimilation of the races make Assam glorified and rich. 
    • Assam covers an area of 78,438 km2 (30,285 sq miles). The state is bordered by Bhutan and the state of Arunachal Pradesh to the north; Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur to the east; Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, and Bangladesh to the south; and West Bengal to the west.
    • A significant geographical aspect of Assam is that it contains three of six physiographic divisions of India – The Northern Himalayas (Eastern Hills), The Northern Plains (Brahmaputra plain), and Deccan Plateau (KarbiAnglong).
  • Origin of name Assam:In the ancient Sanskrit literature both the names ‘Pragjyotisha’ and ‘Kamrupa’ were used as designation for ancient Assam. Its antiquity can be established from the fact that it has been mentioned in the two great epics- The Mahabharata and the Ramayana and also in the Puranas.The name ‘Aham’ or ‘Asom’ was probably given by the Ahoms who came to Assam in 1228 A.D. 
  • The rule of Ahoms:The Ahomdynasty was established by Sukaphaa, a Shan prince of Mong Mao who came to Assam after crossing the Patkai Mountains. It is between 13th and 19th century that several tribal communities also came into the historical forefront of Assam.
  • The colonial era and Post-Independence: The rule of this dynasty ended with the Burmese invasion of Assam and the subsequent annexation by the British East India Company following the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. The British emperor took charge of the state and thus begun the colonial era of Assam.
    • The British annexed Cachar in 1832 and Jaintia Hills in 1835. In 1874, Assam became a separate province with Shillong as its capital.Sylhet was merged with East Bengal on partition of India. With the partition and independence of India in 1947, the district of Sylhet (excluding the Karimganj subdivision) was ceded to Pakistan (the eastern portion of which later became Bangladesh). 
    • Assam became a constituent state of India in 1950. It saw further reduction of its area when Dewangiri in North Kamrupa was ceded to Bhutan in 1951. The capital of Assam was formerly Shillong (now the capital of Meghalaya), and later shifted to Dispur, a suburb of Guwahati, in 1972. The States of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram got their own separate states. 

There are 15 recognised tribes in the autonomous districts of KarbiAnglong and North Cachar Hills and 14 recognised tribes in the rest of the state.

Of these, the major tribes are Bodo (35% of the state’s tribal population), Mishing (17.52%), Karbi (11.1%), Rabha (7.6%), SonowalKachari (6.5%), Lalung (5.2%), Garo (4.2%), and Dimasa (3.2%).

Background of the ULFPA and Assam Movement

The roots of Assam’s Movement and Assam Accord

The Assam Movement (1979-1985) was a popular movement against illegal immigrants in Assam. The movement, led by All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam GanaSangramParishad (AAGSP), developed a program of protests and demonstration to compel the Indian government to identify and expel illegal, (mostly Bangladeshis), immigrants and protect and provide constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to the indigenous Assamese people.

  • The agitation programs were largely non-violent, but the Nellie massacre was a case of extreme violence. The agitation program ended in August 1985 following the Assam Accord, which was signed by leaders of AASU-AAGSP and the Government of India. 
  • The Assam Accord (1985) was a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) signed between representatives of the Government of India and the leaders of the Assam Movement in New Delhi on 15 August 1985.
  • A six-year agitation demanding identification and deportation of illegal immigrants was launched by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in 1979. It culminated with the signing of the Assam Accord.

The formation of ULFA-United Liberation Front of Asom 

  • The ULFA is a by-product of the anti-foreigners Assam Agitation that began in 1979 and ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in August 1985. The fear that the Assamese and other indigenous communities would be pushed out of their own backyard by “illegal immigrants” (people from Bangladesh) one day had triggered the agitation.
  • The founders of ULFA wanted to establish a sovereign Assamese nation through an armed struggle against the Indian state. For over 44 years, this ‘struggle’ has been chequered with kidnappings and extortion, executions and bomb blasts, leading to tragic loss of life in Assam and beyond.
  • While social organisations and students’ bodies chose the path of agitation, a group of radicals, including ArabindaRajkhowa, AnupChetia, and PareshBaruah formed the ULFA on April 7, 1979, to launch an armed struggle with the objective of establishing a sovereign Assam.
  • The group took a decade to recruit and train its members in Myanmar, China, and Pakistan before striking with a series of abductions and executions.
  • The government responded in 1990 with an offensive codenamed Operation Bajrang and banned the ULFA. Assam was declared a disturbed area with the imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

Assam Accord 1985

  • The Assam Accord (1985) was a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) signed between representatives of the Government of India and the leaders of the Assam Movement in New Delhi on 15 August 1985.
  • The accord brought an end to the Assam Agitation and paved the way for the leaders of the agitation to form a political party and form a government in the state of Assam soon after.
  • Key demands were – All those foreigners who had entered Assam between 1951 and 1961 were to be given full citizenship, including the right to vote.
  • Those who had done so after 1971 were to be deported; the entrants between 1961 and 1971 were to be denied voting rights for ten years but would enjoy all other rights of citizenship.
  • package for the economic development of Assam, including a second oil refinery, a paper mill and an institute of technology, was also worked out.
  • The central government also promised to provide ‘legislative and administrative safeguards to protect the cultural, social, and linguistic identity and heritage’ of the Assamese people.
  • Though the accord brought an end to the agitation, some of the key clauses are yet to be implemented, which has kept some of the issues festering.

Start of the peace process

  • Counter-insurgency operations led to the arrest of 1,221 ULFA members in the early 1990s. In 1992, a group of ULFA members decided to surrender and engage in dialogue with the government. Collectively, they came to be known as SULFA or Surrendered ULFA who were later allegedly used by the State forces to help identify and execute hardliners and members of their families in what came to be known as “secret killings”.
  • With support from terror groups such as Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the ULFA hardliners set up camps in Bangladesh and A military offensive by Bhutan in 2003 and the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League’s return to power in Bangladesh in 2009 saw most of the ULFA members being flushed out from these countries.
  • In 2005, the ULFA raised hopes of peace when it formed an 11-member People’s Consultative Group only to backtrack and unleash a fresh phase of terror. After falling in the net of the security forces in India in 2009, the leaders of the Rajkhowa-led faction signed a ceasefire agreement with the Centre in September 2011.
  • In April 2013, the anti-talks group was renamed ULFA (Independent). The pro-talks group signed the peace accord 12 years after the agreement to suspend subversive operations.

The provisions of Peace Accord

  • According to the memorandum of settlement, the ULFA has agreed to renounce violence, disarm, disband the armed organisation, vacate their occupied camps, and participate in peaceful democratic process established by the law.
  • Marking a shift toward non-violence, it aims to ensure the integrity of the country contrary to what the ULFA had initially demanded. The Ministry of Home Affairs will make a time-bound programme to fulfil the demands of the outfit and a committee would be formed for its monitoring.
  • The pact underlines a comprehensive package entailing an investment of ?1.5 lakh crore for the all-round development of Assam.
  • The most significant part of the accord is the commitment to address the political demands of the ULFA. These include maintaining the territorial integrity of Assam through amicable settlement of boundary disputes with neighbouring States in the Northeast and continuation of the “guidelines and methodology” adopted for the delimitation exercise conducted in 2023 in future delimitation processes.
  • The pact envisages ensuring maximum representation for indigenous communities in the 126-member Assam Assembly by keeping non-original inhabitants, primarily migrant Muslims, out. The 2023 delimitation is said to have made it impossible for non-indigenous communities to contest 106 of these seats.
  • Apart from the legislative safeguard, the pact seeks exemption for Assam from Section 3 of the Citizenship Act of 1955 dealing with people who have renounced Indian citizenship or whose citizenship has been terminated, to conditionally stop people of one constituency from being registered in another, and prepare an error-free National Register of Citizens, whose updated complete draft had put 19.06 lakh people out of 3.3 crore applicants on the rejection list.

What are the challenges ahead?

  • After the signing of the accord —Conflict specialists say the pact, provided the government shows its intent to implement the clauses, was a step in the right direction but lasting peace would be elusive unless Baruah and some 200 fighters of his ULFA (I) group talk truce.
  • The ULFA (I) operates from hideouts in the Sagaing Division of Myanmar. Baruah, believed to be based on the Myanmar-China border, has repeatedly said talks with the “Indian occupational forces” would be meaningless without discussing the sovereignty of Assam.
  • The government cannot discuss sovereignty because “no one in Assam wants to secede from India” but efforts to convince Baruah to come for negotiations would continue

Positives of the newer accord

  • The Assam government said that the accord with the 1979-born ULFA has paved the way to ensure legislative and land rights for the Assamese people. The pact has two major clauses – a commitment to following the principles applied for the 2023 delimitation exercise for future delimitation exercises in Assam and checking demographic changes by preventing people of one constituency from being registered as voters in another.
  • The delimitation ensured the representation of the indigenous communities in at least 106 seats — a minimum of 96 in the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra Valley and eight in the Bengali-majority Barak Valley — of Assam’s126 Assembly seats, the ULFA accord would make only the communities inhabiting Assam for 100, 200, or 300 years eligible for representation for at least 40 more years.
  • Referring to the Assam Accord of 1985, which prescribes March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for determining citizens, it was logical to move away from such dates and consider people living in Assam for at least a century as Assamese.
  • Assam’s political history has been marked by conflicts with Bengalis over culture and language. Barring Barak Valley, Bengali Hindus first came to Assam with the British in the mid-1800s primarily for clerical jobs and petty trades while the first set of Bengali Muslims settled for farming in the 1890s. The Bengali Muslims are considered outsider because of the perception that a majority of them crossed over during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 and thereafter for greener pastures. 
  • other safeguards sought in the ULFA accord are the demarcation of protected belts and blocks for general people on the lines of the British-era tribal blocks and belts where land rights are reserved for certain indigenous communities. The clause for reserving land within a 5 km radius of temples, namghars(prayer halls), and satras (monasteries) for the Assamese.

While the accord is considered a positive step, lasting peace hinges on engaging PareshBaruah and his ULFA (I) group, currently operating from Myanmar. Baruah's insistence on discussing Assam's sovereignty remains a major hurdle.

The state government is showing optimism, emphasizing ongoing efforts to bring Baruah to the negotiation table. The government's commitment to implementing the accord will play a crucial role in achieving sustained peace in Assam.

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