From guns to roses, life turned full circle for close to 700 militants from nine separatist groups in Assam Tuesday when they laid down arms to join the mainstream in the presence of union Home Minister P. Chidambaram.
In one of northeast India's biggest surrender ceremonies in Assam's main city of Guwahati, a total of 676 militants laid down weapons and in return received roses from the home minister.
"Today is a historic day as not very often one sees so many militant groups shunning the path of violence and joining the national mainstream," said Chidambaram.
"Leave the past behind and look to the future positively. We assure that each one of you would be treated equally and be able to lead a life of dignity and honour," he added.
The nine groups are part of two major ethnic groups - the tribal Kukis in eastern Assam and the Adivasis inhabiting the northern and western parts of Assam.
The nine outfits are Adivasi Peoples' Army (APA), All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA), Santhal Tiger Force (STF), Birsa Commando Force (BSF), Adivasi Cobra Militant Army (ACMA), the Kuki Liberation Army (KLA), Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA), the United Kukigram Defence Army (UKDA) and the Hmar Peoples' Convention-Democratic (HPC-D).
"The peace talks with the pro-talk faction of the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) led by its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa are under way while the proposed peace talks with the Dima Halam Daogah (Niranjan) faction is in the final stage," the home minister added.
All the nine militant groups are already observing ceasefires with the government, although formal peace talks are yet to begin. Most of these groups were either fighting for secession, or some for greater autonomy.
"We have realised the futility of an armed struggle and decided to join the mainstream with the sincere hope that our grievances could be resolved through negotiations with the government," Javerez Khaka, chairman of the Adivasi Cobra Militant of Assam, told IANS soon after laying down arms.
Donning camouflage fatigues and bandanas, most of the militants recounted the hard life in the jungles and their acts of violence.
"Life was hard in the jungles, and at times we regret when our attacks leads to loss of lives of innocent civilians," a battle hardened Kuki rebel said requesting not to be named.
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, senior army, police, and civil officials, were also present at the surrender ceremony.
"This could be the beginning of a new dawn of peace and hope in Assam. Surely today is a historic day for Assam and we hope a few more factions opposed to the peace process also realise the futility of an armed struggle and join the mainstream," the chief minister told IANS.
Barring the anti-talk faction of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) led by the elusive commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah, almost all the influential rebel groups in Assam are now either holding talks with the government or in peace mode.
"Now almost all the militant groups operating in Assam have joined the mainstream and just a few factions are only active," said Khagen Sharma, chief of the Assam Police Special Branch.
According to plans, the government would lodge these militants in designated camps until peace accords are signed with the government following formal talks.