By Ajit Kumar Singh*
In a dramatic development, on November 11, 2015, Bangladesh Guard Border personnel handed over Golap Baruah alias Anup Chetia, the ‘general secretary’ of the undivided United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and his two prison mates — Babul Sharma and Laxmiprasad Goswami aka Shakti Prasad who were arrested along with him in Bangladesh in 1997 — to personnel of India’s Border Security Force (BSF) near the Dawki border point in the Sylhet District of Bangladesh. Chetia was brought to the Indian capital, New Delhi, on the same day. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) placed him under arrest in New Delhi a day later, in connection with a murder incident in 1998 in Golaghat (Assam). On the same day, a court in Delhi issued a six day transit remand to the CBI to hold Chetia. Chetia was brought to Guwahati, Assam, on November 18, 2015, where a special CBI court forwarded him to a further five days in CBI custody. Chetia has long been wanted in India to stand trial in various cases of extortion, abduction, murder and attempt to murder.
Chetia was first arrested in Kolkata (then Calcutta), capital of the Indian State of West Bengal, in March 1991 for allegedly aiding and abetting the murder of Kolkata-based tea planter Surendra Paul and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) activist Sanjoy Ghosh. Later that year, he was released by the then Assam Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia to facilitate the first ever peace talks between the Government and the ULFA. As the talks failed, Chetia disappeared and took shelter in Bangladesh. On December 21, 1997, he was arrested by Bangladeshi authorities along with his two bodyguards from his plush apartment in North Adabar under the Muhammedpur Police Station in Dhaka, on charges of illegally crossing into Bangladesh, unauthorized stay in Bangladesh, illegal possession of a satellite telephone and illegal possession of foreign currency. He was sent to jail. Even after completing his jail term on February 27, 2007, he continued to remain in jail till his deportation, as a court in Bangladesh had ordered, in August 2003, that Chetia be kept in custody until a decision was made on an asylum plea filed by him. However, on May 13, 2013, in a petition submitted to the Rajshahi Central Jail, where he had been in detention, Chetia stated: “Earlier, I wanted to stay in this country. I have changed my mind and I have decided to live the rest of my life with my children in my country (India).”
Chetia is the seventh top leader from the undivided ULFA who have been ‘deported, or handed over to Indian authorities, from Bangladesh so far. In November 2009, the then ‘foreign secretary’ of ULFA, Sasadhar Choudhury, and the then ‘finance secretary’ Chitraban Hazarika, had been handed over to Indian authorities at BSF’s Gokul Nagar post, before they were brought to Guwahati by an Assam Police team. On December 4, 2009, the then ‘chairman’ of undivided ULFA, Arabinda Rajkhowa, and the outfit’s then ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Raju Baruah, were handed over to Indian authorities at Dawki by the then Bangladesh Rifles. ULFA ‘captain’ Antu Chaudang and ‘second lieutenant’ Pradeep Chetia were handed over to Indian authorities on February 5, 2011.
Chetia was one among the six founding members of the undivided ULFA, which was established on April 7, 1979, by Bhimakanta Buragohain, Rajiv Rajkonwar alias Arabinda Rajkhowa, Samiran Gogoi alias Pradip Gogoi, Bhadreshwar Gohain, Paresh Baruah and Chetia, at the Rang Ghar in Sibsagar, with the objective of establishing a “sovereign socialist Assam” through armed struggle. While Rajkhowa and Chetia were ‘deported’ from Bangladesh, Pradip Gogoi was arrested from Kolkata on April 8, 1998. Bhimakanta Buragohain died on December 19, 2011, of cardiac arrest after his release from jail in December 2010. He was arrested by the Royal Bhutan Army during Operation All Clear which was executed against insurgent groups operating in India’s northeast from safe havens in the southern regions of Bhutan, between December 15, 2003, and January 3, 2004. He was subsequently handed over to the Indian authorities in January 2004. Bhadreshwar Gohain gave up militancy in the early 1980s and was elected as a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) in the Assam State Assembly Elections of December 1985 on an Asom Gan Parishad (AGP) ticket. Subsequently, he went on to serve as the Deputy Speaker of the State Legislative Assembly between April 1, 1986, and April 10, 1990.
Thus, apart from Paresh Baruah, all the other founding members of undivided ULFA are no more associated with the ‘movement’. In fact, the parent organisation vertically split into two when, on February 5, 2011, leaders of undivided ULFA led by ‘vice-chairman’ Pradip Gogoi, along with ‘foreign secretary’ Sashadhar Choudhury and ‘central publicity secretary’ Mithinga Daimary announced that the outfit’s general council had endorsed the resolution of the central executive council (CEC) to sit for talks with the Central Government without any precondition. The then ULFA ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah described the general council itself as unconstitutional and rejected the resolution. The ‘formal’ split of the group took place in August 2012, when Paresh Baruah ‘expelled’ Arabinda Rajkhowa and appointed Abhijit Barman as the outfit’s ‘chairman’. Thus emerged two factions of ULFA – the Anti-Talks (ULFA-ATF) and Pro-Talks (ULFA-PTF) factions, led by Paresh Baruah and Arabinda Rajkhowa, respectively. The ULFA-ATF renamed itself as ULFA-Independent (ULFA-I), following its ‘central executive committee’ meeting between April 2 and 5, 2013.
Not surprisingly, the ‘movement’ has weakened considerably. While ULFA-PTF is now engaged in negotiations with the Government, the Baruah led ULFA-I is struggling for survival, as is evident from the fact that it has been forced to play second fiddle to the Khaplang faction of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) in the newly formed United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWESEA). UNLFWESEA has scored some ‘successes’ in keeping insurgency alive in the region. On June 4, 2015, 18 Army personnel were killed and another 11 were injured when militants ambushed a convoy of 46 troopers of the 6 Dogra Regiment of the Army, at Moltuk, near the India-Myanmar border, in the Paralong area of the Chandel District of Manipur. The attack was attributed to UNLFWESEA.
It is expected that Chetia will join the peace process between the Government and the ULFA-PTF which got underway in 2010 with ULFA softening its demand over sovereignty. Assam Director General of Police Khagen Sarma, who according to reports is steering the peace talks, observed, “Chetia will go for the peace process and that is why he had to be brought in.” ULFA-PTF ‘vice chairman’ Pradip Gogoi, after meeting Chetia, asserted, on November 18, 2015, “Chetia will certainly cooperate”.
Chetia’s participation is likely to have a positive impact on the peace process. An unnamed Government source was quoted as stating, “It would definitely be a boost to the talks with ULFA and further weaken Baruah’s position. Whatever little hope Baruah had of some support from his community, Chetia being from the same community and being the original founder of ULFA weakens Barua that much further… Chetia’s presence and endorsement of the talks was important for Assam.”
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi also noted, “… He [Chetia] is very influential and his presence will help the India-ULFA talks see a solution. He is more influential than the chief of ULFA anti-talks faction Paresh Barua.” Moreover, ULFA-PTF ‘foreign secretary’ Sashadhar Choudhury noted that Chetia’s participation will legitimize the peace process: “…if Chetia joins then the peace process will be legitimized more than the existing one.” Choudhury also said that it now depends on the Government if it wants to resolve the Assam problem or not, adding, “I do not think that the Government is trying to intentionally delay the peace process but if it wants a quick solution, it needs to speed up.”
On November 10, 2015, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju stated, “Talks with ULFA will be held after the Diwali festival and the Centre is soon likely to wind up talks with the pro-talks faction of the ULFA.” According to reports, the proposed date for the next round of peace talks between ULFA-PTF, the Centre and the Assam Government is November 24, 2015. It is expected that the process will be expedited in the context of this latest positive development in the form of Chetia’s’ deportation.
Significantly, however, Baruah’s ULFA-I remains active, principally from safe havens in Myanmar, and unless this group is brought to the table, or neutralized, this stream of violence in Assam will persist.
* Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management