On December 29, a faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom signed a peace agreement with the Centre and the Assam government in New Delhi. The Union home minister Amit Shah described this as a “golden day” for Assam.

Shah claimed that the accord marks the “complete resolution” of the insurgency led by the armed separatist organisation since 1979. However, the ULFA faction led by Paresh Baruah – ULFA-Independent – sat out the talks as it insisted on “sovereignty” as a core issue of negotiations.

In Assam, the accord has been met with bitter criticism.

The pro-talks faction led by Arabinda Rajkhowa, say observers and critics, has been able to extract little more than “paltry” economic promises from the Indian state – after over a decade of negotiations.

Hiren Gohain, arguably the state’s best-known public intellectual, described the agreement as a “gross betrayal of trust”.

Hiranya Saikia, a former member of the People’s Consultative Group, a civil society initiative formed in 2005 at ULFA’s behest to initiate peace talks, was also unimpressed. “This is a political conflict but the current treaty is an economic package,” he said. “The pro-talks leaders have degraded their revolutionary spirit and character.”

ULFA has not been able to negotiate for the rights of the indigenous communities on the state’s land and resources, or secure them against the alleged influx of immigrants from Bangladesh, say the critics. The pact makes no mention of the ULFA demand for reserving seats in the state Assembly for the state’s indigenous communities.

The lack of political teeth in the accord, the observers say, is a reflection of ULFA’s diminished power – both when it comes to the support it has among Assamese and the military strength it can command.

The accord

From the promise of an Indian Institute of Management in Guwahati to centres of excellence for football in the state’s districts and a visual arts university, the accord is a curious mix of assurances. It promises a development package of Rs 5,000 crore for Assam to be implemented over five years, as well as investment of Rs 1.5 lakh crore in various development initiatives in the state.

But its political promises hew closely to the current Bharatiya Janata Party government’s agenda.

“The text of the agreement actually shows them [ULFA] acting as tools of government policy,” Gohain told Scroll.

For instance, the delimitation exercise carried out by the Assam government under chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is an important element of the accord.

“The Government of India will consider recommending to the Election Commission of India to follow, as far as possible, the broad guidelines and methodology, which was adopted for the delimitation exercise held in Assam in 2023, in future delimitations as well,” the agreement document read.

The delimitation exercise has been accused of skewing the electoral playing field in Assam and reducing the number of legislators from the Bengali-origin Muslim community, who are often vilified as “illegal migrants” in the state.

Sarma has repeatedly claimed that the latest delimitation exercise secures the victory of “indigenous” legislators in “94 of the state’s 126 Assembly seats”.

However, the pro-talks leaders defended the pact, saying they “received more than expected” from the government.

The reservation of seats in the state Assembly, they said, has been achieved through delimitation.

The agreement has also been criticised for failing to put in place a mechanism like the one that exists in Nagaland – Article 371A of the Constitution grants residents of the hill state a certain degree of autonomy over land and natural resources. Akhil Gogoi, a peasant leader and legislator who had called for such a protection, called the pact a “complete surrender”.

An old issue, a weak outfit

The United Liberation Front of Asom was born on April 7, 1979, when Assam was in the throes of an anti-foreigners agitation directed against Bengalis and undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh.

ULFA took up the cause of a sovereign nation of Assam for the indigenous Assamese people with an armed struggle. It had widespread support from the ethnic Assamese communities, and drew hundreds of young men to its cause.

The group was banned in India in 1990 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

The outfit led one of the most intractable insurgencies faced by the Indian state in the North East. In the last 44 years, over 10,000 people including 4,500 civilians have been killed in the conflict between Indian armed forces and ULFA, according to the agreement.

The first attempt at convincing ULFA to join peace negotiations was made in 1992, when the group had direct talks with PV Narasimha Rao, the prime minister at the time. They were unsuccessful.

Over the next few years, operations by Indian security forces drove the militant group from its base in Bhutan to Bangladesh and, finally, Myanmar.

The Awami League government assumption of power in neighbouring Bangladesh in 2008 was a tipping point, forcing ULFA to join the peace talks with India.

“The situation suddenly changed in Bangladesh after Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League won the elections in 2008 and formed the government,” ULFA leader Sashadhar Choudhury said at a press conference in Guwahati.

In 2009, working its diplomatic channels in Bhutan and Bangladesh, India was able to apprehend Rajkhowa and other senior leaders of the outfit.

In 2011, the faction signed a suspension of operations agreement with the Assam and Indian governments, initiating peace talks.

Those talks have concluded now – 12 years later.

“The Arabinda faction of ULFA began their negotiation from a position of weakness,” former Assam police chief Harekrishna Deka told Scroll. “Having lost the safe shelter of Bangladesh in 2008, they had to surrender. Once they were overground, the government of India tired the group by deliberately protracted negotiations.”

Militarily cornered

Over the years, the group’s support among the Assamese, barring an undercurrent of sympathy in Upper Assam, has also waned, reducing their bargaining power, pointed out Deka.

Gohain agreed. “In the beginning the group had plenty of goodwill and support,” he said. “But they depended a lot on the force of arms and had practically no other politics. They slipped into sheer opportunism. This cost them the support and esteem of the people and importance in the eyes of the government.”

Veteran journalist Sushanta Talukdar argued that unlike the Naga insurgent groups, ULFA lacked “proportionate military capability” to get the desired response from the Indian government on their demands.

The Naga rebels have been fighting for a sovereign ethnic homeland called Nagalim. The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah), the largest of the Naga groups, had signed an agreement with the Indian government in 1997. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government signed a “framework agreement” with the NSCN(IM). But since then there has been a deadlock over a separate constitution and a flag.

Talukdar also pointed out that while the NSCN(IM) signed the framework agreement in presence of the prime minister, ULFA signed the “final accord” in Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s presence. “This puts this accord in perspective,” he said.

According to security analysts, the present situation in Myanmar, where the ruling junta is increasingly under siege from other armed groups, has also closed off options for the organisation.

“For an insurgent group to thrive in the present-day world under sustained pressure from police, Army and paramilitary forces, without external help is a very difficult proposition,” said Pallab Bhattacharya, a security analyst and former special director-general of police, Assam. “This [accord] clearly indicates the dominant position of the government of India over the group.”

BJP gains?

According to observers from the state, with ULFA apparently in its corner, the Bharatiya Janata Party stands to gain electorally in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls.

One of the strongest fronts of opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act, the contentious law passed by the Narendra Modi government that sparked widespread protests across India in 2019 and 2020, came from Assam.

The law offers citizenship to refugees from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the condition that they had lived in India for six years and entered the country by December 31, 2014.

While the law has been criticised for excluding Muslim refugees from India’s neighbourhood, in Assam it is seen as a violation of the Assam Accord, which bars any migrant who entered the state after March 24, 1971, from being considered an Indian citizen.

A scholar and author from the region, who did not want to be identified, said, the accord is “an ideological victory of sorts” for the BJP. “To have ULFA on its side is symbolically important for winning over whatever little resistance to the CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act] that is still there in Assam,” he said.

Similarly, he pointed out, the ceasefire agreement in 2011 had helped the Congress government under Tarun Gogoi win a third term.

Deka, the former director-general of police, also agreed that the BJP stands to benefit from the accord.

“Nothing seems to have been conceded by the BJP-led Centre on ensuring indigenous people’s existential security vis-a-vis the CAA, which seeks to grant citizenship to lakhs of Hindu migrants who illegally infiltrated into the state,” he said. “But they [BJP] will take credit for resolving the issue.”