Trans-border terror in South Asia received a severe setback on November 4, 2009, when two top leaders of the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) fell into the hands of the Indian Security Forces (SFs). The official version of the story is that ULFA’s self-styled ‘foreign secretary’ Sashadhar Choudhury and ‘finance secretary’ Chitraban Hazarika were trying to sneak back into India from Bangladesh, when they were captured by Border Security Force (BSF) troopers near Gokulnagar in Tripura.
The duo was then handed over to a visiting Assam Police team on November 6, who brought them over to Guwahati and produced before a magistrate. The next day, the magistrate sent them on a ten-day Police remand. Though there is reason to believe that the duo were actually picked up by Bangladesh authorities and informally handed over to the Indian side, there are complex reasons why both New Delhi and Dhaka prefer that people believe the official version. In any event, the fact remains that the pair has been captured and is now in Indian custody, after years on the run.
It required just a squeeze by authorities in Bangladesh to actually uproot Northeast Indian insurgent leaders like Choudhury and Hazarika from that country’s territory. India and Bangladesh do not have an extradition treaty yet, and have consequently shied away from giving details of how a dozen armed security men in civvies captured the ULFA duo from a house in Dhaka’s up-market Uttara locality on November 1, 2009, before they landed up in the hands of Indian authorities. Nevertheless, a confirmation that the rebel leaders were picked up by Bangladeshi security officials came from none other than the exiled ULFA ‘chairman’ Arabinda Rajkhowa, who issued a Press Statement on November 7 saying ‘unidentified armed men from Bangladesh’ had abducted the duo around midnight, November 1. The ULFA ‘chairman’ and remaining leaders may actually have panicked and issued the statement disclosing the capture to prevent the possible ‘disappearance’ of the two men, Choudhury and Hazarika. The rebel group has not forgotten how some of its important leaders went missing after the Bhutanese military assault against the ULFA in 2003.
The arrest of the two ULFA leaders has great significance, because it demonstrates Dhaka’s seriousness in tackling trans-border terror, particularly in dealing with Northeast Indian insurgents, who have been enabled to make Bangladesh a safe staging area for nearly two decades now.
"Dhaka has greatly increased its pressure on the ULFA and other (Indian) militants operating from there," Union Home Secretary G. K. Pillai told this writer after Choudhury and Hazarika’s arrest. He confirmed that ULFA’s elusive ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah was no longer in Bangladesh. Indian intelligence officials say Paresh Baruah, along with some 50 of his trusted fighters, is currently in China’s Yunnan province, close to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) headquarters in northern Myanmar. The ULFA has managed to open shop in Yunnan province because elements in China had been supplying arms to rebels in Northeast India. Union Home Secretary Pillai confirmed, earlier in November 2009, that China had been arming Naga rebels and that leaders of the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) were making frequent visits to that country.
The arrest of the two ULFA leaders has definitely put the rebel group, formed in 1979 to push for a ‘sovereign, Socialist Assam’, on the back-foot. G. M. Srivastava, former Assam Police chief and now a security advisor to the State Government, observes, "Sashadhar Choudhury as the ULFA’s so-called foreign secretary was responsible for maintaining the group’s links with foreign sympathizers like the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence. Chitraban Hazarika was responsible for the group’s money bags. The ULFA cannot replace this loss easily." The group’s chain of command has been totally disrupted. While its ‘c-in-c’ Paresh Baruah is on the run, ‘chairman’ Rajkhowa is said to be lying low in Bangladesh. ULFA ‘general secretary’ Anup Chetia is under detention in Bangladesh since 1997. Publicity and cultural ‘secretaries’, Mithinga Daimary and Pranati Deka, respectively, have long been in custody in Assam, along with ‘vice-chairman’ Pradip Gogoi. With ‘foreign secretary’ Choudhury and ‘finance secretary’ Hazarika trapped in the security net, that leaves the group with Paresh Baruah’s close aide and ‘deputy c-in-c’ Raju Baruah and a few other middle-level leaders.
The crackdown by Bangladesh could not have come at a more inopportune time for the ULFA. The group has been unable to recover from the split it suffered in June 2008, when the ‘Alpha’ and ‘Charlie’ companies of its crack ‘28th battalion’ called a unilateral cease-fire. "We have given up our original demand for sovereignty. We are now looking for an acceptable solution to our problems within the framework of the Indian Constitution," Mrinal Hazarika, a leader of the erstwhile ‘28th battalion’, declared. Hazarika now says his faction be called the ‘pro-talks’ ULFA group. Earlier in November 2009, New Delhi held an exploratory round of talks with the pro-talks faction, raising the question whether this faction could, at some point in time, actually make the Paresh Baruah-led ULFA hawks irrelevant in Assam’s insurgent politics.
But what explains Dhaka’s sudden change of heart? It is true there has been a change of guard in Bangladesh, with the return of the supposedly pro-India Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina in December 2008, but the mood among the Bangladeshis had remained anti-India during Hasina’s earlier tenures. It was the enduring anti-India sentiment, among other things, that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Begum Khaleda Zia had also capitalized on. Begum Zia had, in fact, told this writer in an interview a couple of years ago that her party regarded the ULFA as ‘freedom fighters’, much as the Mukti Bahini of Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rehman were freedom fighters. It has, in large measure, been pressures of the ‘global war on terror’ and the general worry among affluent Bangladeshis that the country was being hijacked by fundamentalists and foreign terrorist elements operating from its soil, which led the Awami League regime to crack down on terror. New Delhi has also been on a diplomatic overdrive to persuade Dhaka to act, and this has yielded dividends.
There were, however, more pressing reasons for Dhaka to act against the ULFA. ULFA’s linkages with the official establishment in both Bangladesh and Pakistan have been confirmed with the May 16, 2009, arrest of two former chiefs of Bangladesh’s main spy agency, the National Security Intelligence (NSI), Maj. Gen. (Retd) Rezzaqul Haider Chowdhury and Brig. Gen. (Retd) M. Abdur Rahim. The duo, who had been directors general of the NSI, were held for their alleged involvement in the 2004 seizure, in the port city of Chittagong, of ten truckloads of arms and ammunition meant for the ULFA. One of the reasons why Paresh Baruah fled Bangladesh was Dhaka’s decision to reopen this case, in which Baruah was named as one of those involved.
ULFA had opened shop in Bangladesh in 1985, setting up safe houses at Damai village in the Moulvi Bazaar District, bordering the northeastern Indian State of Meghalaya. When the Army, assisted by the Police and the paramilitary forces, launched a crackdown against the ULFA in Assam, its top leaders were nowhere in the State, having secured themselves in their safe havens in Bangladesh. Dhaka, however, bluntly denied the presence of Indian separatists in that country, although confirmation came in December 1997, when ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia was arrested with satellite phones and a huge amount of foreign currency, by Bangladeshi authorities in capital Dhaka. Things have evidently changed now and Dhaka has confirmed, in more ways than one, the presence of ULFA and other Northeast Indian militants in Bangladesh. India is expected to give Bangladesh a great deal in return.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will pay a three-day visit to India from December 18, 2009 and the two neighbours are expected to settle the issue of putting an extradition treaty in place. New Delhi has already rushed Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao to Dhaka to meet with the Bangladeshi leadership, ahead of Sheikh Hasina’s visit. Dhaka hopes to get several major concessions from New Delhi, including a land route to Bhutan and Nepal for purposes of business and trade. India is also expected to take concrete steps to reverse the trade imbalance between the two countries, which is heavily in New Delhi’s favour. Over the past ten months, Bangladesh has been trying hard to demonstrate its clear intent through a crackdown against Indian insurgents operating from its soil, and that is something New Delhi would clearly want to see continuing.
The ULFA is clearly down, but not out as yet. With evidence of some Chinese support, there is certainly some potential for a regrouping. Bangladeshi cooperation has been critical in crippling the rebels, but India will need further cooperation from its neighbours if it is to bring down the curtain on this 30-year-old insurrection in Assam, the gateway to the Northeast.