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ULFA battered with top duo’s capture


SENIOR FELLOW, Centre for Development and Peace Studies

“We shall die but not enter into any dialogue with the Indian government,” muttered United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) ‘foreign secretary’ Sasadhar Choudhury as he was being escorted to be produced before a judicial magistrate in Guwahati on November 7. His colleague Chitraban Hazarika, the outlawed rebel group’s ‘finance secretary’, had a smile on his lips but preferred to keep quiet, ignoring persistent questions from pursuing journalists. The top ULFA duo, members of the group’s decision-making central committee, has at last fallen into the security dragnet. Their arrest by the Assam Police is a reality but what is not are the circumstances under which they were captured. This actually raises several interesting questions that have significant trans-border ramifications.

The sequence of events that Indian officials would like everybody to believe is that the ULFA leaders were captured by the Border Security Force (BSF) on the intervening night of November 4-5 near Gokulnagar in Tripura, just along the border with Bangladesh. It is said they were detained as they tried to enter Indian territory. An Assam Police team then goes to Tripura, brings the duo over to the State and produced before a magistrate Saturday, who has sent them to 10-day police remand. Sounds simple! The reality, however, is that the top ULFA leaders were captured by authorities from a house in downtown Dhaka’s Uttara locality, perhaps on November 1 itself, and were ‘pushed back’ to India to the waiting hands of the BSF across the border.

“Bangladesh has increased its pressure on the ULFA and other (Indian) militants operating from there,” said Union Home Secretary G. K. Pillai. Indian authorities however would not confirm whether the two ULFA leaders were captured by Bangladesh security agencies and handed over to India. That is understandable because India and Bangladesh does not have an extradition treaty yet and a formal handover of anyone arrested in that country to India will raise question on human rights. But why would Dhaka do that because Bangladesh has all along denied the presence of any Northeast Indian militant operating from within its territory? Things have changed after the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina took over power in Dhaka in December 2008.

In fact, the Bangladesh premier is visiting India later this month and the two neighbours are expected to settle the issue of having an extradition treaty in place. Dhaka hopes to get several major concessions from New Delhi, including a land route access to Bhutan and Nepal for purposes of business and trade. Also, India is expected to take concrete steps to reverse the trade imbalance between the two nations which is heavily in New Delhi’s favour. Bangladesh in the past ten months has been trying hard to prove that they are actually cracking down on Indian insurgents operating from its soil. In fact, Dhaka’s decision to reopen the 2004 arms haul case (ten truck loads of arms meant for the ULFA were seized at the Chittagong port in 2004) has led to the arrest of two top security officials in the country. ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah has been named in the case by authorities in Bangladesh, a move that has forced the dreaded rebel leader to flee his adopted home of nearly three decades to somewhere in China’s Yunnan province.

The duo’s arrest has enthused the counter-insurgency strategists in Assam, battling the ULFA since its formation in 1979. “Sasadhar 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,” said G. M. Srivastava, former Assam Police chief and now a security advisor to the State Government.

It is true that the ULFA is now a battered group. While its c-in-c Paresh Barua is on the run, its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa is said to be lying low in Bangladesh. Its general secretary Anup Chetia is under detention in Bangladesh. Publicity and cultural secretaries, Mithinga Daimary and Pranati Deka respectively are already in custody in Assam for long now, along with vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi. Now, its ‘foreign secretary’ Choudhury and ‘finance secretary’ Hazarika have fallen into the security net. That leaves Paresh Baruah’s close aide and deputy c-in-c Raju Baruah and two or three other middle-level leaders.

The ULFA, formed to push for a ‘sovereign, Socialist, Assam’, had actually suffered a split in June 2008 when the ‘Alpha’ and ‘Charlie’ companies of the group’s crack ‘28th battalion’ called a unilateral ceasefire. “We have given up our original demand for sovereignty and we are ready to work out a solution to our problems within the ambit of the Indian Constitution,” said Prabal Neog, a leader of the erstwhile ‘28th battalion’ who now says his faction be called the pro-talk ULFA group. New Delhi last fortnight held an exploratory round of talks with the pro-talk ULFA faction. But, it may not quite be the end of the ULFA insurrection in Assam with the group having managed to resurrect itself after major reverses in the past.