He has been branded a dreaded militant, responsible for killings, extortions and misguiding youngsters of the North-east for an elusive Swadhin Asom (independent Assam), but he has escaped the net of security agencies for decades. From a young man, who joined the separatist movement chasing an improbable dream, he is now a senior citizen.

Seemingly, he maintains the same spirit and that is why Paresh Barua is regarded as an unconquerable militant leader in some quarters.

The recent news about his death, somewhere in the China-Myanmar border areas, spread like wildfire across Assam. If not all dwellers, a sizable part of the population remained concerned with the news. And amazingly, most of them almost prayed for his well-being.

The relief they felt after confirmation of Barua’s satisfactory health, was visible on social media. Even veteran Congress leader Tarun Gogoi expressed satisfaction that he continued to be alive.

The news, sourced from a web portal, said that Barua, the top leader of banned militant outfit United Liberation Front of Assam-Independent, had died because of a road accident in the hilly terrains of Myanmar, a few days ago.

The content was immediately picked up by Guwahati-based satellite news channels and portals. Soon hundreds of updates were put up on Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter. And most of them were laced with grief.

For the whole of 7 November, when almost everyone was busy with Diwali, the news of Barua’s death rolled along. The pro-talk faction of Ulfa came forward with television bytes that Barua was fine, even though he had had an accident somewhere in Myanmar. Finally, responsible police officers were contacted by the media but they too could not authenticate the news of his death.

Despite all the terror activities masterminded by Ulfa-I rebels, a sizable section of Assamese society still regard Barua as an icon. For reasons best known to them, they argue that because of him, Assamese people in the Brahmaputra valley are safe today because otherwise, outsiders (read non-North-east residents) would have grabbed their resources by now. And so they are ready to forgive Barua for any misdeed, even the killing of innocent children and women.

But it is astonishing that Ulfa, which was born in 1979 with the demand for a sovereign Assam, has been continuing its activities for nearly four decades now. Down the years, the armed outfit has lost its public support and government machineries have succeeded in eliminating, arresting or bringing most of its leaders to the negotiation table. But the Barua led Ulfa-I continues to wage war against New Delhi.

61-year-old Barua alias Paresh Asom alias Kamruj Zaman alias Zaman Bhai functions as the self-styled vice-president and commander-in-chief of Ulfa-I and operates from his hideout near Ruili, a China-Myanmar border township. He is among three top rebels who were charge-sheeted by the National Investigation Agency for waging an armed war against India.

The other two accused rebels are Abhijit Asom, who functions as the new chairman of Ulfa-I, and Gagan Hazarika alias Joydeep Cheleng. Abhijit Asom alias Abhizeet Barman alias Mukul Hazaria hails from Nagaon in central Assam and lives in London whereas Gagan Hazarika is presently in government custody.

Since peace talks with the militant outfit were initiated by New Delhi, Barua continues to oppose the process. A few senior Ulfa leaders left the outfit to join the peace process and finally the outfit split into two factions. The original faction led by Arabinda Rajkhowa and Anup Chetia preferred to sit for talks for a favourable outcome.

But Barua ignored all initiatives and separated the outfit with a new nomenclature, Ulfa-I, and new chairman — Abhijit Asom. He maintains that Assam must get its independence from the colonial Indian forces. Allegedly, Barua now runs his camps with indirect support from the Communist China regime in Beijing and goes for disruptive activities mostly in eastern Assam.

Years ago, when Chetia was deported from Bangladesh and finally released on bail, he commented that Barua was necessary for any fruitful peace initiative. In fact, it was Chetia who influenced Barua, one of his close relatives, to join the Ulfa and hence, he carries goodwill from the hardliner rebel.

But even though Chetia has not succeeded in bringing Barua to the peace process, he once stated in a media interaction at Guwahati Press Club that in the days of Islamic terrorism, one cannot sustain ethnic armed struggles. People would inevitably compare their activities with the Islamic State or similar terror outfits and hence insurgent leaders would find it difficult to sustain the revolution.

Ulfa leaders, even though most of them had taken shelter in a Muslim- majority country like Bangladesh, maintain their pluralistic character. They have neither introduced themselves as Hindus nor expressed hatred against any other religion. They have only continued their stand for a homeland of indigenous Assamese irrespective of their religious practices.

Initially, the Ulfa leaders did not make harsh statements against Bangladesh, even on the issue of illegal migrants from that country flooding Assam and other North-eastern states. But soon after the Bangladeshi government in Dhaka took a tough stand against the North-eastern militants, who were taking shelter in that country, the outfit started criticising the Sheikh Hasina regime.

Now that Barua is taking shelter in China-dominated localities, he has said in numerous media statements that China was never an enemy to Assam. He argued that the Han Chinese would be helpful to the indigenous people of Assam in various aspects, once they get separated from mainland India.

When the 14th Dalai Lama last visited Tawang, the Ulfa (I) leader released a statement asking His Holiness to not make any anti-China comments. Rather, the outfit urged the Tibetan leader to help the native people of Assam get their due political rights from New Delhi as the militants believe that Assam was an independent country till the Yandabo Agreement was signed by the British with Burmese invaders in 1826. It barely warrants mention that Beijing may use Barua as a revenge card for India’s support to the Tibetan government in- exile at Dharmashala.

More recently, New Delhi had officially requested the Chinese government to trace Barua along with other militants and clamped down on his smuggling of arms and narcotics into the North-east. Once financed by the ISI of Pakistan, Barua left Bangladesh for the China-Myanmar areas, prior to the secret mission of the Hasina regime to hand over top North-eastern militants to Indian security agencies in 2009.

Barua may be detained, handed over or even eliminated someday, but by now he has succeeded in creating a cult-like figure among the parochial Assamese and the government must address this phenomenon with tact. Otherwise, if Barua dies a natural death outside the country without sitting at the negotiation table, he would live on as a legend among a sizeable number of Assamese.

The writer is The Statesman’s Guwahati-based Special Representative.