I assured them that we will engage them in sincere and meaningful talks, says Chidambaram
For the first time in the past 31 years, leaders of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) on Thursday opened unconditional talks with the Union government with the aim of finding a “just and honourable solution” to the problem of insurgency in Assam.
“As you are aware, they [ULFA] have offered unconditional talks with the Government of India and government of Assam to find an honourable and just solution to the issues raised by them. I welcome them. I assured them that the Government of India and government of Assam will engage them in sincere and meaningful talks and I am confident that we will find a just and honourable solution,” Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram said after an eight-member ULFA delegation, led by its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, met him.
“They called on me which is a courtesy call. These are very preliminary stages and you [media] should cooperate and they will feel confident which will help to find a solution through talks,” Mr. Chidambaram said.
After the meeting, the ULFA leaders held talks with senior Home Ministry officials, led by Home Secretary G.K. Pillai. The face-to-face maiden session lasted for about an hour.
Among the top Assam government officials who attended the meeting were Home Secretary N.K. Das, Additional Director-General of Police Khagen Sharma and Home Commissioner Jishnu Barua. Centre's interlocutor P.C. Haldar, Secretary (Internal Security) U.K. Bansal and Intelligence Bureau chief Nehchal Sandhu were present in the first round of talks.
Besides Mr. Rajkhowa, the other ULFA leaders at the talks were vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi, political adviser Bhimakanta Buragohain, “foreign secretary” Shashadhar Choudhury, “finance secretary” Chitrabon Hazarika, “cultural secretary” Pranati Deka, “publicity secretary” Mithinga Daimary and “deputy commander-in-chief” Raju Barua.
At a press conference at the Press Club of India, Mr. Choudhury termed the first round of talks “cordial.” He recalled Mr. Chidambaram's promise that the Centre would talk to them with sincerity to resolve the conflict through negotiations.
Mr. Gogoi and Mr. Hazarika were also present at the press meet.
Mr. Choudhury said the agenda for the coming rounds of talks would be shaped and formulated by the State people who were yearning for peace.
Asked if the talks would be affected in the face of opposition by ULFA's commander-in-chief Paresh Barua, he replied in the negative, saying the decision to hold unconditional talks was endorsed by their general council.
The ULFA would have “zero involvement” in the Assembly elections, he noted.
Asked if the ULFA leadership, in view of the talks with the government, would appeal to its cadres to abjure violence and refrain from calling for economic blockade, Mr. Choudhury pointed out that for the past one year, ULFA cadres had not indulged in any acts of violence.
To another query if he would agree to a ceasefire agreement with the Centre, Mr. Choudhury said the proposal had to come from the government. “As of today, the ULFA remains a banned outfit. The question of lifting the ban did not figure in our talks with the government.”
“The people of Assam today desire peace, but with dignity and honour. We respect their wishes and hence we have proposed unconditional, honourable talks with the Government of India to find out a meaningful, permanent solution to the ongoing conflicts, which had plagued us for the last 60 years,” a statement circulated by the ULFA said.
“We have noted the recent statement of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Hyderabad wherein he has declared that the Constitution of India is flexible enough to accommodate the desire and aspirations of all people. Through talks, therefore, we propose to evaluate various facets of the Constitution of India and explore the viability of protection and enrichment of sovereignty of the people of Assam in all its dimensions — political, economic, social, cultural within the flexibility as proposed in the Hyderabad declaration of the Prime Minister,” the statement said.