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Bangladesh in dilemma over ULFA


DIRECTOR, Centre for Development and Peace Studies

Over dinner at the plush Gulshan Club on Monday, December 7, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Mohamed Mijarul Quayes regaled some thirty of us by singing not one, but two Tagore songs. Quayes just needed a mild prodding from one of his predecessors Farooq Sobhan---who had been Bangladesh’s High Commissioner in India before returning to Dhaka as Foreign Secretary---to break into song. An eloquent speaker, Quayes is a 1982 batch Foreign Service officer and is just about 49, quite young to hold the coveted job in any country. “My wife has family linkages in Assam,” he told me as we engaged in a conversation.

The mood was expectant as I landed in Dhaka last week for a Bangladesh-India Dialogue among members of the strategic community in both countries. No prizes for guessing why the mood in the Bangladesh capital was so---prime minister Sheikh Hasina is due to make a visit to India, and, of course, one of India’s best known militant bosses, ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, had just landed in the hands of Indian authorities. Sheikh Hasina’s impending visit to New Delhi is expected to be a ‘path-breaking’ one in Indo-Bangladesh relations, but it is over the ULFA or the issue of Arabinda Rajkhowa’s arrest that Dhaka is in a great amount of discomfort, even dilemma.

Trouble began for Dhaka when the Indian media last week said the ULFA chief was arrested or picked up by authorities in Bangladesh and then handed over to India. Both India and Bangladesh preferred to remain ambiguous on the matter, but the media in Dhaka wanted the government at home to clarify things. Home Minister Sahara Khatun had this to say to journalists in Dhaka: “The media reports (of Bangladesh arresting Rajkhowa) are baseless. Since we did not arrest him, there is no question of pushing him back.” Well, this is Dhaka’s stand on the Rajkhowa issue, but Bangladesh does not want to be ambiguous on the issue of clamping down on terror. “We shall not allow Bangladesh soil to be used by terror groups or terror activities against India,” Foreign Minister Dr Dipu Moni said after inaugurating the Bangladesh-India Dialogue on Sunday.

What is more than clear is that top ULFA leaders like Rajkhowa, ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Raju Baruah, ‘foreign secretary’ Sasadhar Choudhury, and ‘finance secretary’ Chitrabon Hazarika have landed in Indian custody only because Dhaka has cooperated with New Delhi and decided to tighten the noose on the ULFA leaders based in that country. This actually is an extension of Dhaka’s seemingly determined effort to crackdown on terror in general and to dispel notions that the country has become a hotbed of Islamist and other forms of terrorist activity. What is not clear is the reason why Bangladesh is shying away from acknowledging its support to India on the matter. One of Bangladesh’s former Ambassadors had this to tell me: “India has embarrassed us by flashing the news of Arabinda Rajkhowa’s arrest. You want our help and when we help you, you disclose things to the media…”

The perceptible change on the ground is that unlike the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) regime, the present Awami League government does not flatly deny that ULFA leaders are present or were present in Bangladesh. But Sheikh Hasina’s party or government is just not ready to go to the people on this least the party is projected as a ‘stooge of India.’ Anti-India rhetoric still cuts ice among vast sections of people in Bangladesh’s murky political landscape, and, therefore, the Awami League is treading cautiously although the party is set on improving ties with India. I heard a very interesting coinage this time used by some members of the Bangladeshi strategic community: they are talking about ‘regime compatibility’, referring to the equations between the Awami League and the ruling Congress in India. One has to wait and see if the Awami League is willing to admit any ‘regime compatibility’ with the Congress party and prepare the ground for an improved or lasting relationship between the two populous neighbours.

The overall mood among the majority of objective opinion makers is that Bangladesh should have a mature relationship with India, based on mutual trust, and that New Delhi, as the larger neighbour, should do lot more in so far as reaching out to Dhaka is concerned. As Foreign Minister Dr Dipu Moni said, “India and Bangladesh today stand at a moment of opportunity. We are aware of our secular and pluralist heritage and we are confident of resolving our problems.” Foreign Secretary Quayes would not like to use the word ‘problems’ between Bangladesh and India, he would prefer to talk about ‘issues’ between the two countries. Known for pushing for better ties between New Delhi and Dhaka, Farooq Sobhan thinks an improved relationship with India can add at least two per cent to Bangladesh’s GDP. “In the last 40 years, India-Bangladesh relations did not fulfill the expectations raised by India’s help in 1971. But the path-breaking visit of Sheikh Hasina to India may change things and bring relations back on an upward trajectory,” Sobhan said. It remains to be seen if the circumstances leading to the landing in Indian hands of the top ULFA leaders is an indication of Dhaka’s decision to cooperate with New Delhi and remove the mistrust of the past decade.