Is it true that talks have resumed between ULFA and Centre after a two-year gap?
Yes, that’s true. Unlike in the past, this time, we have not visited Delhi for the talks. All previous interlocutors (appointed by the Centre) have retired. Of late, we have had a few rounds of discussions with the current representative A K Mishra (former special director of the Intelligence Bureau) in Assam itself. He is also holding talks with other outfits (especially, Naga rebel groups) in Northeast. We requested him for an early resolution of the matter. All our core issues (demands) were discussed threadbare with previous interlocutors. There is nothing more to talk about, as such. The only thing now left is the signing of an agreement.
So, what’s next?
They (the government) are yet to decide on the final announcement. It looks like there is a competition going on as to who will take credit (for these negotiations). But we are not looking for any such thing. We are not publicity-hungry. We just want that indigenous people of Assam get their rights and their rights are protected. If that is ensured, we are ready to sign an accord or agreement. And if we see any dilly-dallying or uncertainty on these issues, we will not sign it. Then, we will leave the entire matter to the next generation. They can take it forward, if they want. We believe we have done enough. So many of our colleagues have sacrificed their lives for the cause of Assam. When the next generation will realise this and face the same problems that we have been highlighting, they will decide what is to be done.
Do you still have doubts about government’s intention?
We are hopeful given that both sides are finally on the same page after years of negotiations. The latest round talks gave us an indication that they (the central government) are serious about reaching a final agreement. From our side, we expect a deal on or before August 15 this year. The ball is now in their court. There is still some time, and we believe that the government will take a call on this soon.
Does that mean that the Centre has accepted all your demands?
We put forward all our demands, and they assessed those issues. Both sides exchanged their viewpoints and then, they offered a solution which is acceptable to us.
There is speculation that land rights for indigenous people and granting of tribal status for six communities are part of your demands?
There are people who spread such rumours. We want protection for all indigenous communities in Assam, not just six communities (while the Union Cabinet approved scheduled tribe status to Tai Ahom, Moran, Matak, Sootea, Koch Rajbongshi and tea tribes, in January 2019, Parliament is yet to pass a Bill). Our stand is — all communities who have been living in Assam for centuries need protection. No matter how small or big they are, their identities and rights must be protected. They must be enlisted as indigenous communities. We have had concrete discussions with the government on this matter and we stick to this. We will not allow any change of word or phrase on this. And the government has also agreed to this. Our only appeal at this stage is — stop spreading rumours.
So, this whole issue is linked to illegal immigrants?
Illegal immigrants (from Bangladesh) are the biggest threat to the existence of the Assamese people. We are also deeply concerned about the problem of “outsiders”. For instance, the Dhubri district, where the indigenous Koch Rajbongshis cannot play a decisive role at present (because they have been reduced to a minority). The situation is similar in Tinsukia, Digboi, parts of Guwahati and several other places in the state. Now, will you allow or accept a person who came to your place a few decades ago as your representative. Nobody will…
The issue of illegal immigrants was the main reason behind the six-year Assam Movement (a popular uprising in the 1980s demanding detection and deportation of such people). Names of foreign nationals were detected in electoral rolls and that’s how the movement began. People with vested interests allowed this problem to persist for years, which is now encroaching on our democratic rights and posing a threat to our political identity.
The 1985 Accord that was signed to bring an end to the Assam Movement has not been fully implemented yet. So, what is the guarantee that the ULFA agreement would not meet same fate?
I cannot disclose what kind of assurances we have been given, at this juncture. But I can tell you we have demanded constitutional guarantee. If the Centre accepts that, we will sign the agreement.