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India & Bangladesh: Fleeting Bonhomie

POSTED ON OCTOBER 6, 2008

Bibhu Prasad Routray
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi

On the face of it, it looks like a change of heart. As the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) personnel handed over 18 All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) militants to the Border Security Force (BSF) in Tripura on September 14, 2008, they were acting in complete conformity with the wishes of the Indian government, which has been pleading for years to act against the northeastern insurgents, who have made that country their second home. Bangladesh , optimists now argue, is coming out of its denial mode and henceforth, would pay due attention to the Indian sensitivities. The hopefulness can be even taken further to predict rough days for the insurgent outfits such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) in the near future. This commentary examines the Bangladeshi response in the context of the fluctuating fortunes of various insurgencies in Northeast India . It is possible that the euphoria over Bangladesh ’s latest cooperation could be a source for a temporary relief.

The ATTF militants, who were handed over, were reportedly arrested during a BDR raid on the ATTF headquarters at Satcherri in Habiganj district on October 10, 2004 . They were later booked under the Arms Act and were sentenced to three years’ rigorous imprisonment which ended in July 2008. All these militants were lower rung cadres of the outfit and had joined the outfit only a year and half back before their eventual arrest. Prior to this handover, the BDR had handed over at least one National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) cadre to the BSF authorities and according to unconfirmed reports, had facilitated the journey of Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) chairman Julius Dorphang from the outfit’s camps to Meghalaya, where he eventually surrendered on July 24, 2007 .

A clear pattern to these incidents of cooperation by the BDR is noticeable. It is certainly not a coincidence that all the militants, who have been handed over by the BDR to the BSF until now, belong to outfits, which have grown militarily irrelevant in their respective states. Take the example of ATTF, which operates in Tripura. Till 2004, Tripura recorded significant militancy related activities. However, a significant victory against militancy has been scored in this State. Compared to 167 militancy related fatalities in 2004 alone, the State recorded a total of 169 deaths in three years between 2005 and 2007. During the current year, till September 11, only 19 fatalities including that of 13 militants were reported from the State. Both the active militant outfits in the State, the NLFT and the ATTF have been thoroughly marginalised and are today a pale shadow of the dominance they exhibited few years back.

Similarly in Meghalaya, the HNLC activities are on the decline. Effective police action, withdrawal of popular support and high-profile surrenders like that of outfit’s chairman Dorphang has broken the outfit’s back. The other militant outfit, the Achik National Volunteers Council (ANVC) is observing a ceasefire with the Government since July 23, 2004 . As a result, only seven militant fatalities, mostly belonging to those from Assam , have been reported in the State in the current year, till September 11. The NDFB is under a ceasefire agreement with the Assam Government since March 25, 2005 . Most of its cadres are presently based in the designated camps set up by the Government.

Indian insurgents, once described by the former Prime Minister and leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Khaleda Zia as “freedom fighters”, have served as critical instruments of the anti-India policy of the successive Bangladeshi regimes. Even the ascendancy of the ‘friend of India ’ in Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina has not brought about any significant change in Bangladeshi policy towards the Indian insurgents. This anti-India policy, believed to be authored by the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and supported by the Bangladeshi Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), has not only ensured safe havens for the militants, but has financed and trained them. The leverage and facilities provided to these militants by the Bangladeshi authorities thus, remains proportionally linked with their nuisance value. Hence, it is not surprising that the neutralisation of the individual outfits in their parent states have downgraded their footing and concomitant provision of facilities within Bangladesh .

Outfits like ULFA, however, are a different breed. In spite of the recent setbacks it has suffered in Assam , ULFA is still seen to be capable of executing the ISI/DGFI’s action plans in Assam for some time in future. As a result, Bangladesh , in sharp contrast to the Bhutanese military operations of December 2003 and the intermittent Myanmarese army operations targeting the outfit, have consistently refused to act against the outfit. It is not willing to allow ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia’s extradition to India, even after he has served his prison terms in that country.

The BSF, in its Directors General-level talks with the BDR on August 24, 2008 handed over a list of 263 militant leaders and cadres presently settled within Bangladesh and detailed location of 110 militant camps/safe houses. The list of militants include the ULFA top leadership, the NLFT chief Biswamohan Debbarma, the ATTF Chief Ranjit Debbarma, the HNLC commander-in-chief Bobby Marwein and general secretary Cheristerfield Thangkhiew and the NDFB chief Ranjan Daimary. The BDR reportedly agreed to the joint verification of militant camps indicated by the Indian side. Very little, however, is expected to be achieved from such an unlikely venture, due to the very fluid nature of these facilities in Bangladesh and the procedural delay between action proposed and its actual implementation.

It is important to analyse the recent signs of cooperation by the BDR in the context of the caretaker Government’s complete failure to achieve any of its self-professed goals in Bangladesh . In spite of the high profile anti-corruption movement, it failed to bring about any change in the fundamental nature of domestic politics. As a result, both the AL Chief Sheikh Hasina and the BNP Chief Khaleda Zia have been released on bail. This has ensured that either of these two leaders would again be heralded to the helm of power in the December 18 general elections this year. In that scenario, there is little reason to believe that either of the begums would choose to continue the policy of addressing India ’s concerns.