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A tale of two men: Conflict between Ulfa’s elusive leader Paresh Baruah and its surrendered chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa

Posted on: December 6, 2011

 

 

 

Arabinda Rajkhowa has a weapon in his hand — but it’s a blunt knife to cut a cake. The chairman of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) is in a missionary school in Lakwah, outside Sivasagar in upper Assam, where he has been invited with his wife for an interaction with schoolchildren.

Rajkhowa is on a mission. He believes the time has come to talk peace. After years of hiding and acts of violence, he is out in the open, following a normal routine.

He starts his day at six, with an hour of yoga. He reads the daily newspapers while sipping black tea. After a bowl of boiled vegetables and two rotis — his staple morning diet — he leaves for a series of meetings in his white Innova, escorted by two security guards.

“I meet civil society members and also family members of those who were killed in the violence. We want to know their opinion about the peace process that we have initiated with the Central government,” says Rajkhowa, whose daughter and son study in a private school in Digboi.

Rajkhowa, 54, is a man of few words. Sitting in the drawing room of his pink, two-storeyed house in Lakwah, he is willing to pose for pictures but is reluctant to talk in detail about Ulfa’s plans. He, however, underlines that the Ulfa is not a divided house.“It is not necessary that all leaders of a party should be present for negotiation with the government,” he says.

The reference is to his former comrade-in-arms, Paresh Baruah, who has been cocking a snook at the government. In hiding somewhere on the Myanmar-China border, the Ulfa commander-in-chief is out of the peace process, but likes to make his presence felt. Recently, he released a video that showed him in an unknown location, celebrating Bihu with his armed supporters.

Many in Assam believe that unless Baruah, 53, joins the talks, the process will not bear fruit. “Baruah is a problem,” admits chief secretary Naba Kumar Das. “He has a nuisance value,” adds a senior police officer. “He will hinder the peace initiative.”

But Rajkhowa, who was picked up from Bangladesh and jailed in December 2009, is unfazed. “A political solution will bring peace to Assam. And peace will only come if the people of Assam accept the political package that the government offers,” he says.

His words mark the end of an era. Rajib Rajkonwar, later better known as Arabinda Rajkhowa, joined Ulfa a few months after schoolteacher Buddheshwar Gogoi formed the group on April 7, 1979, in Sivasagar for a “sovereign” Assam. Soon, he had replaced Gogoi as chairman. Over the years, Ulfa became a formidable force, with an armed wing commanded by Paresh Barua.

Rajkhowa says he was in the first Ulfa batch to be trained by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. “Some former Indian Army and Intelligence Bureau men from Assam also trained us in intelligence gathering. They helped us because they were Assamese and believed in our cause,” he says. Training in guerrilla warfare, he adds, took place in the dense forests of Kachin in Myanmar.

It was ironical, for his parents — freedom fighter Umakanta and Damayanti Rajkonwar — were ardent followers of Mahatma Gandhi. But Rajkhowa had other dreams. He dropped out of a Dibrugarh college, where he studied science, and moved to the jungles. It was there that he married Kaberi, a member of Ulfa women’s wing.

The Ulfa flourished for years, spreading terror with abductions, killing and extortion. Police records hold that it had killed 1,296 civilians since 1991, though many believe the number is not less than 6,000. Among those killed was social activist Sanjoy Ghosh and public works department and forest minister Nagen Sharma.

But the Indian Army’s counter-offensives — Operations Bajrang and Rhino — weakened the force considerably. Ulfa publicity secretary Sunil Nath and 4,000 cadres surrendered in 1991, and Baruah’s trusted lieutenant Anup Chetia was arrested in 1997.

The tide turned soon after Rajkhowa and Ulfa vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi were arrested in Bangladesh and handed over to the Border Security Force in December, 2009. Two months later, Gogoi was out on bail. Since then, he has been persuading a group of civil society members, who later formed the Sanmilita Jatiya Abhibartan (SJA), to start the peace dialogue.

“The government wanted to talk inside the jail but we thought it would be unconstitutional to negotiate with handcuffs on,” says Rajkhowa, who was released in January. Once it was decided that the government would not oppose their bail applications, eight Ulfa leaders were released over eight months from February 2010.

The Ulfa did its bit too, replacing its demand for “sovereignty” with a desire for a “political and honourable” settlement. It would have been smooth sailing, but for Baruah. “Baruah is a hardliner. He will never compromise,” says a Guwahati-based businessman close to him.

Though Rajkhowa says he has not spoken to Baruah over the last many months, he is aware of the role that the commander plays from across the border. He dismisses home secretary G.K. Pillai’s view that Baruah has less than 150 armed men with him. “He has around 500 men,” he says.

But the Central government believes Baruah has been effectively sidelined. “Since he is not interested in peace, we are trying to isolate him,” says Pillai.

Baruah, however, was not always against talks. In 2004, he closely interacted with a group headed by Assamese writer Indira Goswami, formed to negotiate peace with the government. However, after two rounds, the talks broke down.

Once the unquestioned leader, Baruah’s image has taken a beating over the years. “He is intelligent but obsessed with leadership,” says Mrinal Hazarika, former Ulfa commander who surrendered in 2008.

Differences have been cropping up in the Ulfa over the years, stresses the Guwahati-based political scientist Nani Gopal Mahanta. Baruah’s detractors believe that he diluted the movement when he started hobnobbing with arms dealers in the subcontinent while hiding in Bangladesh.

Intelligence reports hold that he has business interests in tanneries, departmental stores, garment factories and transport companies and a hotel in Bangladesh. “The people of Assam question the source of his wealth,” says Dhiren Bezboruah, founder-editor of the English daily Sentinel.

Meanwhile, as Baruah tries to make his presence felt from behind the scenes, the SJA is chalking out the Ulfa agenda in the talks. “We will demand a special status for Assam in the Constitution like Kashmir,” says a forum member.

The sceptics, however, are convinced that the process is a sham, aimed at helping the Congress in an election year. “To rush into talks before the April elections would mean politicising peace,” says former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta.

The ball is in the government’s court. But it remains to be seen whether Rajkhowa scores a goal, or Baruah, once a goal-keeper, blocks it.

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