Arabinda Rajkhowa, self-styled chairman of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom, will feel a sense of déjà vu when he visits New Delhi on Thursday.
Exactly 19 years ago, Rajkhowa had led a ULFA delegation leaders to confer with then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao after the outfit's pro-talk faction thought it prudent to start talking to the government after two successive army operations had decimated its strength and forced many of its top leaders either to flee to Bangladesh or contemplate surrender.
Almost two decades down the line, Rajkhowa, whose real name is Rajiv Rajkonwar, is suing for peace with the government after spending over a year in a Guwahati jail. He and several of his close colleagues, high ranking ULFA functionaries, have this time decided to hold talks with the government without any pre-conditions -- a big departure from its previous stand that no negotiations are possible if the question of 'sovereignty' for Assam is not included in the agenda.
On February 5, when the ULFA formally announced its decision to sit for unconditional talks with the government of India, its leadership also admitted to continuing its armed struggle could be suicidal.
"The central executive committee and general council have resolved to sit for unconditional talks with the government, and this is in keeping in tune with the wishes of the people of Assam as reflected in resolutions of a convention held last year," Mithinga Daimary, central publicity secretary of the outfit, said at a press conference.
With that announcement, the outfit formed in April 1979, formally gave up its earlier preconditions, of (i) holding talks in a third country, (ii) including 'sovereignty' as an issue on the agenda, and (iii) and having an UN observer during the talks.
What made the ULFA which has cast such a long shadow over Assam's politics and society for nearly 20 years, suddenly opt for talks?
Two primary reasons immediately come to mind. One, Bangladesh, for long a safe sanctuary for the outfit's top leaders was not playing ball with the ULFA. Sheikh Hasina's Awami League, determined to help India, cracked down hard on the outfit and arrested Rajkhowa and others and quietly handed them over. Except for its military wing chief Paresh Baruah, all top ULFA leaders were rounded up and sent to India.
The second reason was the people's disenchantment with the outfit and its policies. The outfit, which started out with avowed aim to serve the people and rid Assam of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, ended up taking shelter in Bangladesh! Also it indulged in senseless killing, alienating the majority of Assam's population.
The leadership admitted as much during their maiden press conference citing two very prominent killings.
"It was a mistake, absolute mistake," Sasha Choudhury, self-styled foreign secretary of the outfit confessed talking about Sanjoy Ghose, an NGO worker killed by the ULFA on the Majuli Island in 1997.
Choudhury also described the death of 13 children in the Independence Day blast in Dhemaji in 2004 as a 'mistake'.
Ghose, an alumnus of Institute of Rural Management, Anand, was abducted by a group of ULFA militants on July 4, 1997 in Majuli, the island on the Brahmaputra in Jorhat district, and was killed the same day.
His body was later thrown into the Brahmaputra, never to be recovered.
While the CBI named ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah as the prime accused in the sensational abduction and murder, altogether 11 ULFA militants were charge-sheeted by the investigative agency in the case.
(When Ghose, an INLAKS scholar, founder of URMUL, Rajasthan, and CHARKHA, New Delhi, and the winner of Sanskriti Award, landed in Assam in April 1996 to launch a project in Majuli, the world's largest river island in Brahmaputra, he definitely raised many eyebrows. He discovered that huge sums of money sanctioned by the government for development were going into the pockets of contractors and officials, as also to the ULFA.)
The killings alienated people from the outfit which had sold the dreams of Swadhin (sovereign) Assam to at least two generations of Assamese youth. Depletion of ranks through desertion and military action was another contributing factor that has forced the ULA leadership to read the writing on the wall and agree to talks.
Although Baruah remains as recalcitrant as ever, neither the government nor the ULFA leadership is too worried. In fact, talking about Baruah, Daimary said his opposition to the talks was an individual stand that did not mean a split in the outfit.
The ULFA spokesman said the outfit did not think Baruah would create hurdles in the proposed peace talks. "We had invited him to attend the central council meeting. Though we haven't got any response, we are also sending him the resolutions adopted by the general council," Choudhury said.
When asked whether the ULFA had split with Baruah refusing to support the proposed peace talks, both Choudhury and Daimary said there was no such possibility as "all four battalions of the armed wing are with us. But anybody defying the general council is liable to face disciplinary action," Choudhury said.
Revealing the stand of the outfit in the aftermath of the arrest of most of its top leaders in the past few months, Daimary also said that given the (changed) political situation in the region and the world, sticking to the armed struggle could prove suicidal.
"There is every possibility of seeking a military solution turning suicidal in the (changed) political situation in the region. The global situation also plays a major role in determining the success or failure of a struggle," a statement read out by the ULFA spokesman said.
Later, answering questions, Daimary admitted that preconditions set by both sides had stood in the way of peace talks for nearly two decades. "The stand taken by both sides had stood in the way of talks since 1993," he added.
The first and preliminary round of talks between the ULFA and the government is slated for February 10.
Whether the talks will lead to an honourable rehabilitation of ULFA leaders or they will drag on like the negotiations between the NSCN (IM), another north-eastern rebel outfit and the government, only time can tell.
There is in fact no clarity on what exactly the ULFA wants and in which direction the talks will go but as a MHA official puts it: "We are at last engaging the outfit. Resolution may be far away but this is at least a beginning."
That perhaps best sums up the current status of the ULFA-govt negotiations.