New Delhi, Feb 14 (IANS) Even as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has begun peace talks with the government to end 30 years of insurgency in Assam, a top leader of the banned outfit has said the group wants the Indian Constitution “overhauled vis-a-vis Assam” to grant the northeastern state special status like Jammu and Kashmir.
Sashadhar Chowdhury, the outfit’s ‘foreign secretary’, in an interview to CNN-IBN news channel, said the group’s “basic demand will be to overhaul the constitution because that is the sovereign instrument with which a country is governed”.
Chowdhury was part of the eight-member group, led by chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, that paid a courtesy call to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his residence here. Jammu and Kashmir enjoys special status under Article 370 of the constitution.
Among other demands that the ULFA plans to put forward to the government are: opposition to the demand for a separate Bodoland; a solution within a specific time frame; and the decision on elusive ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Barua be taken by Arabinda Rajkhowa.
“Ethnic reconciliation in Assam and the problems arising out of it comes from the constitution of India. That’s why it has to change,” he said.
He said after the peace talks, the group would ensure that “no one goes back to the jungle again, takes up arms again, start a fresh insurgency”.
“We will ensure that we Assamese should come to Delhi on our own terms,” he added.
On opposition to a separate Bodoland, Chowdhury said: “We don’t want a separate Bodoland. We have a history of living together for 5,000 years. We have to stay together. Every ethnic group should stay together in Assam with own equal rights, and preservation of their own socio-cultural ethics and language.”
He added that “substantial peace talks” with the government would only begin after the upcoming assembly elections in the state.
Chowdhury also said the group wants a fixed timeframe for the talks. “We have told Home Minister P. Chidambaram that we need a specific time frame to reach a solution.”
Paresh Baruah, said to be hiding in the Myanmar-China border area, has rejected the peace initiative.
Speaking on Barua, Chowdhury said the general council of the ULFA has with an overwhelming majority mandated talks with the government of India “without any pre-conditions”.
“So ULFA is bound to talk. We have sent all our resolutions to him (Paresh Barua). It will take some days to reach his camp. Everything will depend on his official remark. Till now, someone is reacting on his behalf – we don’t know who. So, when Paresh Barua’s official remark reaches our chairman (Arabinda Rajkhowa), he will take a decision on him. Till the, Paresh Barua remains our honourable Commander-in-Chief.”
Chowdhury denied the group was trained by any foreign agency. “No foreign agency trained us. We were trained by the Nagas and Kachins.”
The ULFA, one of the biggest rebel outfits in the tea and oil-rich region of Assam, has fought for an independent homeland for ethnic Assamese since 1979.
At least 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in Assam because of fighting between government forces and various rebel groups.
All the eight ULFA leaders who took part in the talks last Thursday with Chidambaram are out on bail, with the government facilitating their release from jail in order to pave the way for negotiations.
Apart from Rajhkowa, the other ULFA leaders who were in the talks include vice chairman Pradeep Gogoi, deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah, self-styled foreign secretary Sasha Choudhury, finance secretary Chitraban Hazarika, cultural secretary Pranati Deka and political ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain.