January 1, 2022 5:45:54 pm
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on Saturday said that while the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) remained the “last hurdle” in achieving peace in Assam, efforts with the outfit in the last eight months marked the “beginning of the end”.
“The era of tribal insurgency is over. All militant groups have come forward… our last hurdle is the ULFA-I,” Sarma said while addressing a press conference on the occasion of the New Year.
He said the only “stumbling block” was the outfit’s demand for sovereignty. “But in the last eight months, we have both [government and ULFA-I] taken steps. It is a difficult and complicated situation but I dare to say, the beginning of the end has been seen,” Sarma said.
In May, Sarma – in his first press conference after taking oath as the chief minister – had appealed to the ULFA-I chief, Paresh Baruah, to shun violence. After that, the group declared a unilateral ceasefire for three months, and has extended it twice since.
“ULFA’s unilateral ceasefire is a positive step… even the government has not done anything to disrupt that peace. That is why there has been no direct confrontation between the ULFA and the security forces in the last six months,” said Sarma, adding that the feedback he has received from Baruah has been “very positive”. “It is clear that he wants a negotiated settlement… but their demand for sovereignty is a non-negotiable position. We are working towards breaking the deadlock,” he said.
The ULFA was formed in 1979, seeking to establish a “sovereign” Assam. While a faction of the outfit, led by former ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, joined the peace process and came overground in 2011, the anti-talks ULFA-I, led by Baruah, has remained underground.
Speaking on militancy in Assam, Sarma referred to 2022 as the “year of hope”. He announced that the year would see “some positive movement” on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Assam.
“Assam will see some rationalisation of the AFSPA in 2022. After four months, the AFSPA is set to be renewed and at that stage, Assam is going to take some pragmatic decisions regarding it,” Sarma said.
The AFSPA — which grants special powers to armed forces to maintain law and order in “disturbed areas” — was imposed in Assam in 1990 and has been extended every six months, after a review by the state government.
He added that with regard to Nagaland, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Shah’s approach was “very positive” since they had formed a committee to review the AFSPA, with a deadline of 45 days. “This is a very important step by the Centre and will help in addressing their [Naga] issues,” he said.
In his address, Sarma also announced that starting with him, no former chief ministers would be entitled to government accommodation or security. “No former chief minister will get houses or security because of his office… today, the Cabinet has decided that this will change,” Sarma said. “It is another matter if there is a security threat — and that can be reviewed,” he added. Cars in Sarma’s convoy will also be reduced by half (from 22 to 7-8) in the next couple of days.
Sarma added that there will be a change in the policy of deploying Personal Security Officers (PSO), and only those with constitutional posts (like cabinet ministers, deputy commissioners, chief secretaries) will be entitled to them. Sarma said that nearly Rs 400 crore was being invested on four battalions to provide security personnel in Assam. “A PSO cannot become a status symbol,” he said.
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