Assam CM invites ULFA (I) chief for peace talks

The chief minister said that Assam is celebrating Independence Day without any bandh called by militant groups, including ULFA, for the first time in decades.

Guwahati: Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on Sunday appealed to ULFA (I) chief Paresh Barua to come to the negotiating table.

Sarma also expressed his gratitude to COVID warriors for their unrelenting fight against the pandemic, and reaffirmed his government’s commitment to the war against drugs and human trafficking.

He made 10 ‘requests’ to the people of Assam, including taking care of aging parents and marrying off daughters not before the age of 21, to mark the 75th Independence Day.

Speaking at the state function organised on the occasion, the chief minister said that Assam is celebrating Independence Day without any bandh called by militant groups, including ULFA, for the first time in decades.

“On behalf of the people of Assam, I appeal to Paresh Barua to come forward for dialogue. Let no youth of our state be killed anymore,” he said.

The ULFA (I), which had been calling for Assam Bandh on Independence Day and Republic Day for several decades, refrained from the practice for the first time for Independence Day this year.

The outfit has also declared a unilateral ceasefire since May this year in view of the pandemic situation. The chief minister had earlier urged Barua to come for peace talks after assuming power in May this year.

Sarma thanked all COVID warriors, including doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians and ambulance drivers, for working tirelessly in the pandemic. Noting that COVID-19 vaccination for all eligible people was progressing well in the state, he said that 1.5 crore doses will be administered in the next one week.

He congratulated boxer Lovlina Borgohain for her Olympic bronze medal and said that her success is an inspiration for all.

Sarma paid tributes to the six Assam Police personnel killed in violence along the inter-state border with Mizoram on July 26, and conferred them the ‘Chief Minister’s Special Service Medal in a Crisis Situation’ posthumously.

He said that the Assam government is committed to resolving the border disputes without compromising with the state’s constitutional boundary. “I urge the northeastern states to resolve the disputes through talks to keep the ‘soul’ of our region alive,” he said.

The chief minister said that the Assam Cattle Preservation Bill, 2021, which was passed by the assembly on Friday, shows the state government’s resolve to protect the cultural ethos of the state.

He said that the government is committed to eradicating poverty through population control and will carry on its war against drugs, human trafficking and other social menaces.

Sarma said his government will fulfil its pre-poll promises including providing one lakh government jobs and waiving loans taken by women from micro-finance institutions. “We want to do away with red-tapism in bureaucracy,” he said.

The chief minister announced that freedom fighters’ pension issued by the state government will be increased to Rs 36,000 at par with the central remuneration and state honours will be accorded to all these former revolutionaries during their last rites.

He made 10 ‘requests’ to the people of the state and urged them to comply with these to build a better Assam.

Sarma urged people to observe birth and death anniversaries of Vaishanvite preachers Srimanta Sankardeva and Madhabdeva as opportunities to emulate their teachings. He called on people to make it a tradition to begin all programmes with a rendition of the state song and conclude those with the National Anthem.

Urging people to take care of their aging parents, the chief minister said that his government will sanction seven days leave per year to its employees to visit their parents and requested other employers and businessmen to follow suit.

To improve the work culture, he requested government employees to spend an extra hour at the office and leave no work pending. He appealed to people to stop using single-use plastics and do at least one ‘good deed’ this year like giving free tuition to needy students or organising health camps.

Sarma urged people not to marry off their daughters till they attain the age of 21, and cooperate with police to fight drugs and human trafficking.

Peace talks with ULFA-I can progress if it drops sovereignty demand: Assam CM

Guwahati: Peace talks with the banned ULFA (Independent) outfit can progress if it is prepared to discuss grievances and issues other than sovereignty, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said.

“ULFA (I) chief Paresh Baruah insists that he will not discuss anything beyond sovereignty but I have taken an oath to protect sovereignty. These two are irreconcilable,” the chief minister told PTI in an interview.

“At the same time, if we can coin another term to discuss their grievances or various issues, then we can make some progress. There are many well-intended people who are working on the issue with the ULFA chief to convince him to discuss something substantial without insisting on (inclusion of) the word. Let us see what happens,” Sarma said.

“The word is not a terminology for us but is solemn and we take oath that it is our duty to protect our sovereignty and not cede an inch of our land. For him also there is a compulsion, so there is a need to arrive at a certain definition which can address the issues of both concerned,” the chief minister said.

“There is no immediate answer to the problem but it will evolve over time. I remain hopeful, though at the same time nothing can be predicted on these issues,” he said.

The talks have made slow progress. The chief minister said the climate is positive but added that as talks progressed, sometimes it becomes entirely different. So one cannot be definite about it (solution through the talks) but we can hope and pray, he added.

Sarma after taking oath on May 10 had appealed to the ULFA (I) to come forward for peace talks and resolve the more than three decade old insurgency problem in the state.

Asked about the current status of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), Sarma said that its State Coordinator has filed a petition in the Supreme Court for a re-verification and a re-look at the document.

“It is now up to the Court to hear the petition. Maybe it has been delayed due to the prevailing COVID situation but as the petition has been filed, it will definitely come up for hearing,” he added.

The final NRC, published on August 31, 2019, had excluded the names of over 19 lakh people. Many stakeholders, including the BJP government in the state, described it as a flawed document and have demanded a re-verification, particularly in districts bordering Bangladesh.

A number of communities have been demanding Scheduled Tribe status. The chief minister described the demand as a complex issue and felt a solution should emerge from among the tribal communities.

“The moment a community is granted tribal status, other tribal communities start opposing it. I do not want a clash between them. We have to address these issues tactfully and not in a hurried manner,” he said.

Six communities in Assam — Moran, Motok, Tai Ahom, Chutiyas, Koch-Rajbongshis and the tea tribes or adivasis — have been demanding ST status. Some of these communities are already categorized as Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Former Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had formed a Group of Ministers, headed by Sarma, to prepare a report on the issue.

On the issue of coal mining in Tinsukia district, which had led to widespread protests by environmentalists and concerned citizens, the chief minister said that there is a need to protect the fragile biodiversity of the region but at the same time many livelihoods are dependent on mining.

“Mining in the area was going on till last year from the early 1900s and since many livelihoods are dependent on it, we are of the view that wherever it is possible mining activities may continue without disturbing the biodiversity of the area,” he said.

In Bongaigaon, NTPC had started a power generation project for which coal is to be transported from Margherita in Tinsukia district but there has been no supply for the last one year.

“As a result, we are purchasing power at a very high price and who is paying for it? The common people of the state. We need to balance various approaches, but at the same time, we will not do anything that will affect the biodiversity of Upper Assam,” he added.

There is, however, no proposal to start mining in the Joypur area, near the newly created Dehing-Patkai National Park in the state, Sarma asserted.

Also Read: Border disputes stumbling block in unified policy for NE states: Assam CM

ULFA-I sets Feb 16 deadline for oil company employee hostages

The outlawed terror outfit, United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) has said it has set a deadline i.e February 16 to decide the fate of the two employees of private sector oil company it had abducted last month.

Pranab Kumar Gogoi, a drilling superintendent, and Ram Kumar, a radio operator of Delhi-based Quippo Oil and Gas Infrastructure Ltd, were kidnapped at gunpoint by ULFA (I) insurgents from the drilling site in Innao area of Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district on December 21 last year.

The ULFA-I, which is currently headed by its “commander-in-chief” Paresh Barua, in a statement issued to the media, said that if the drilling company “fails to take positive steps to secure the release of their employees by February 16, the outfit would take action against one of the hostages, Ram Kumar, on February 17”.

“If Quippo Oil and Gas Infrastructure Ltd fail to meet our demands, the company would not be allowed to operate in Assam and South East Asia,” it said but did not specify its demands.

Arunachal Pradesh Police chief R.P. Upadhyaya said from Itanagar that the militants had earlier demanded Rs 20 crore to release the two.

The security forces of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh are searching the location of the hostages to rescue them.

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