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Arms to farms
The Ulfa's Rajkhowa faction has decided to turns its killing fields into organic farms. And the men who led the insurgency in Assam for three decades say they are ready to go from guns to greens.
One of the country's most dangerous militant groups has decided to go in for a career shift - to farming. Some 600 men belonging to the pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) are all set to raise organic crops.
Arabinda Rajkhowa and his men are readying to turn their former killing fields, mostly large tracts of isolated wasteland, into farm land. About 30, 000 bighas have been acquired in Nalbari, Goalpara, Darrang, Tinuskia, Dibrugarh, Sibsagar and Kamrup districts for this venture.
"I have already started tilling the land near my home (Sibsagar district) and started potato cultivation. We have to live and for that, we need to earn a livelihood, " says Rajkhowa from his home in Lakuwa.
The ministry of home affairs, which is holding peace talks with the faction, has requested the agriculture ministry to help the group rehabilitate its cadres through farming. The proposal has now been sent to the state government for implementation.
Rajkhowa admits the three decades of armed struggle to 'free' Assam in political terms may not have worked out as intended. He now wants to fight a different battle - to make Assam selfsufficient in rice, its staple food. "Think of the day when we have our own rice, " says the newlyminted agriculturist. "Assam's economy has to be brought under control. There are middlemen, who have to be removed, and there is a need to change the work culture to boost productivity. "
Rajkhowa has on several occasions apologised in public for the killings spread over three bloody decades. But Paresh Baruah, who leads the small, still combative faction of the Ulfa, mainly from Myanmar with bases in Yunan, China, is not going to be a part of this green revolution.
Ulfa, among the biggest militant outfits in the region along with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and United National Liberation Front (UNLF) of Manipur, has witnessed two major waves of surrenders in the past. On both these occasions, rehabilitation came in terms of soft bank loans with the government as guarantor;this was then changed to stipends and bank loans. (The NSCN, which is also engaged in peace talks with the Centre, has doled out a rehabilitation package that consisted mainly of contract work. ) Rehabilitation through farming is, thus, a departure from the earlier strategies.
The Rajkhowa faction has proposed that it be treated as an NGO by the name Naba Nirman Kendra and has also sought government assistance in terms of finances as well as technological knowhow. "We have extensive plans for agriculture and hope to implement them within the discussion period, " says Rajkhowa, who claims that the efforts will benefit at least 50, 000 youth.
Of the land the group will acquire, the unused patches will be used to cultivate organic products (to be called organic, crops have to be raised on soil that has not been treated with chemical fertilisers). Once the produce is harvested, the action shifts to Guwahati, where exclusive organic food retail outlets will be set up. There are also plans to raise side crops and run piggeries, fisheries and hatcheries. "Last year, we started work on our fisheries and cattle farm. They are doing well, " says Rajkhowa.
The arrest of Arabinda Rajkhowa and the top Ulfa leadership in Bangladesh in 2008, followed by their release on bail from Guwahati jail, led to one of the most significant peace talks in the North-east in recent times. The government was ready to negotiate with the outfit and Rajkhowa and his men gave up the outfit's demand for sovereignty.
But unlike other outfits in peace talks, the Rajkhowa faction has not laid down arms. It claims that it has not 'surrendered' and wants to be treated 'honourably'. Last October, the faction surrendered 57 assorted weapons, believed to be only a fraction of its actual arsenal. These Ulfa cadre have been accommodated in nine designated camps or development centres, called Asom Naba Nirman Kendra, where they will take up various activities, including agriculture.
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