Dec 17, 2015

Spiritual guru Ravi Shankar says brokering peace with ULFA chief

Rahul Karmakar
Hindustan Times, Guwahati
December 17, 2015

Spiritual guru Ravi Shankar, who was in the Assam capital for a mass meditation camp on Wednesday, said he has been brokering peace with elusive United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) chief Paresh Barua.

The latter has denied discussing truce with the founder of the Art of Living Foundation.

“I have been in touch with Paresh Barua, and I spoke to him today too. I have been trying to convince him to pursue peace that would be good for Assam and India as a whole,” Ravi Shankar told reporters here.

He was hopeful of a positive outcome. “Let’s see when that happens.”

Hours later, Barua called up a couple of TV channels and denied having let the spiritual leader be a mediator for peace. “We have not talked about the possibility of giving up our armed struggle against a colonial New Delhi,” he said.

Before Ravi Shankar, several celebrities had offered to mediate between New Delhi and Barua. Prominent among them were music legend Bhupen Hazarika and Assamese litterateur Mamoni Raisom Goswami, both of whom died within a fortnight of each other in November 2011.

Barua, police officials said, is virtually the last man standing in the ULFA as most of its leaders have either left the organisation to pursue business, surrendered, or are in jail awaiting trial.

Formed in 1979, the ULFA became a major subversive force until military operations since 1990 broke its back. Many leaders and cadre surrendered in 1992 but the top leadership continued to wage war from bases in Bangladesh and Bhutan.

A flush-out operation in Bhutan in December 2003 killed a few of its top leaders. Some disappeared without a trace while others were handed over to India.

Despite the Bhutan setback, ULFA leaders allegedly enjoyed the patronage of the Khaleda Zia government in Bangladesh. But the return of the India-friendly Sheikh Hasina government in 2008 made it difficult for the rebels to use Bangladeshi soil.

The action against Northeast rebels in Bangladesh since 2009 led to the arrest of ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, deputy commander-in-chief Raju Barua and several others. National Democratic Front of Bodoland chief Ranjan Daimary met a similar fate too.

Rajkhowa subsequently led the pro-talks ULFA group for several rounds of dialogue with the Centre. Opposed to his forum, Barua formed the ULFA-I with his band of supporters in 2013.

Intelligence officials said Barua’s position has been considerably weakened after Bangladesh handed over ULFA founding-member and general secretary Anup Chetia to India in November. Chetia is Barua’s cousin and their ancestral homes at Jerai Chokolibhroia village in eastern Assam are side by side.

The pro-talks faction wants Chetia, who was in captivity in Bangladesh for 18 years, to be part of the peace process. But officials said certain formalities needed to be fulfilled before he could do so.

Chetia, accused in a number of kidnapping, murder and extortion cases in Assam, said he was ready for peace talks. He also sought forgiveness from the people of Assam for “our past mistakes”.

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