Last fortnight, I had the opportunity to elicit the views of spiritual leader and Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravishankar as well as ULFA (Independent) chief Paresh Baruah (Paresh Axom) on the issue of possible peace talks between the rebel group and the Government of India. It all began with Sri Sri telling me in a interview at his ashram in Pandu, overlooking the Brahmaputra, that he was in touch with Paresh Baruah to explore the possibility of ULFA (I) agreeing to talk peace with New Delhi. “The response (from Paresh Baruah) is positive...let’s see where it goes,” Sri Sri said, smiling. He had come to the ashram straight from the Guwahati Central Jail where he confirmed having met Rajkumar Meghen alias Sayaima, the detained leader of the United tiol Liberation Front (UNLF), Manipur’s oldest insurgent group. “I had an hour-long meeting with him (Meghen). We explored the possibility of peace...the response has been good,” Sri Sri said. This is the first major peace mediatory effort by anyone with Meitei insurgent groups in Manipur, and, therefore, Sri Sri’s initiative is significant.
Within less than 24-hours of my interview with Sri Sri, I got a phone call from Paresh Baruah who identified himself as Paresh Axom. It is rather common for him to telephone jourlists in Assam and express his views on different issues. Paresh Baruah confirmed having had conversations with Sri Sri, but said the Art of Living founder was approaching the subject (of ULFA-I talks with the Government) from a spiritual point of view. In fact, Sri Sri had told me during the interview that ‘sovereignty’ was an ‘outdated concept’ and that in today’s age, the world has become inter-dependant. He confirmed having told the rebel leaders he has been talking to that they should give up their ‘sovereignty demand’ and look at solutions within the framework of the Constitution of India.
Paresh Baruah said: “Sri Sri said Prime Minister Modi had asked him to speak to us. We are not against peace talks, but we cannot give up our core demand of sovereignty...of a sovereign Assam. We are still firm on our three pre-conditions—talks centering around our sovereignty demand, in a third country, and under United tions supervision.” The ULFA (I) leader told me that the moment the Government of India accepts these three conditions, his group would be sending a delegation to begin talks. “I have told this clearly to Sri Sri Ravishankar...we don’t believe in playing a hide and seek game,” Paresh Baruah said.
I sought Paresh Baruah’s views on the ongoing peace dialogue between the pro-talk ULFA group headed by Arabinda Rajkhowa and the Government. Will the talks gather momentum now that Anup Chetia will be joining the peace process with his release on bail? Paresh Baruah replied: “We don’t want to attach much importance to the talks with this group (headed by Rajkhowa). A deal or an agreement with the pro-talk group would be one-sided and unequal. It you want peace, the conflict has to be resolved. If the Government of India really wants peace, it can do so by amending the Constitution. After all, India cannot simply go on calling itself the world’s largest democracy and not initiate real measures...”
Has the ULFA (I)’s concept of ‘sovereignty’ undergone any change in the 35 years since its inception? To this question, Paresh Baruah said: “Our concept of sovereignty is a holistic one, it is total and envisages economic, political and territorial sovereignty.” What does his group believe in—a political or a military solution to their problem—meaning will the ULFA (I) continue with its armed insurrection? “Our military campaign is part of our political struggle. This is our chemistry,” Paresh Baruah said. But, the ULFA (I) leader made it clear that his group was not trying or hoping to achieve a military victory over the Indian state. “The guns we have are meant only for self-defence,” he said. What about reports and allegations that his group has the backing of elements in Chi? “We have certain code of conduct and we cannot obviously say who are supporting us. But yes, to survive, we, or any other outfit, will have their own alliances,” Paresh Baruah said. He said the umbrella group of insurgent outfits, the United tiol Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA), of which the ULFA (I) is a constituent unit, will emerge in a stronger shape by next year.
I asked Paresh Baruah his thoughts on the coming Assam Assembly elections and the ULFA (I)’s stand on the polls. “We do not believe in Indian democracy and electoral exercise. But, we shall not oppose the polls. We have, however, issued a code of conduct for the political parties and the voters,” he said. The political parties are asked not to mix religion with politics and politicians from outside Assam are advised not to sermonise the people of Assam. The voters have been advised to look for those parties who have in their agenda to set up agricultural, economic and industrial zones in Assam, have a clear stand on the issue of big dams, promises to include proper history and geography of Assam in the educatiol system and work for peace, tranquility and harmony among all sections of people in the State.