By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
In one more manifestation of growing cooperation, especially in the arena of conter-terrorism between New Delhi and Dhaka, the Sheikh Hasina government of Bangladesh handed over key leader of separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Anup Chetia, and his two associates, Babul Sharma and Lakshmi Prasad Goswami, to India on November 11 after being held in Bangladeshi jails for 18 years.
The Hasina-led Awami League (AL) government has always been steadfast in addressing India’s security concerns. Chetia was the most high-profile Indian insurgent leader held in Bangladesh’s custody. He and his two accomplices were arrested by Bangladesh police on December 21, 1997 for entering the country on fake passports, possessing firearms, unauthorised foreign currencies and a satellite phone. Chetia was tried by a Bangladesh court and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.
Chetia completed his prison term in February 2005 but refused to leave the jail fearing the Bangladesh government would hand him over to India, in whose state of Assam he is wanted on at least 14 criminal counts. Chetia was lodged in jail even after the completion of the term because of a High Court ruling in 2003 to keep him in safe custody until the Bangladesh government took a decision on his plea seeking political asylum in the country. He also wrote to the United Nations in 2008 requesting to grant him refugee status in a third country. In view of such developments, Chetia was kept in high-security Kashimpur jail since 2012.
In addition to these factors, Chetia could not be sent back to India earlier in the absence of an extradition pact between the two countries. To contain the problems of cross-border terrorism and crimes, India and Bangladesh inked an extradition treaty in January 2013. Meanwhile, Chetia also changed his decision in 2013 and released a letter to Bangladesh media expressing willingness to quit the demand for political asylum and go back to Assam.
The issue of Chetia’s repatriation figured in the recent bilateral consultations between India and Bangladesh as the Assam government had been persuading New Delhi to bring him back to add momentum to the peace process. An understanding was reached at the foreign secretary-level talks held at Dhaka in September 2014 on Chetia’s deportation in exchange for notorious Bangladeshi criminal Noor Hossain’s handover. Reports suggest that the personal initiatives of the two prime ministers—Narendra Modi of India and Hasina of Bangladesh – did play an instrumental role in Chetia’s smooth return to the country.
Both New Delhi and Dhaka have stepped up cooperation to curb cross-border movement of criminals and militants. A day after Chetia’s deportation, India handed over Noor Hossain to the Bangladeshi officials at Benapole border post. He fled to India after allegedly murdering seven persons, including former Narayanganj city councilor Nazrul Islam, in April 2014. Hossain was arrested by West Bengal police and brought under trial for illegal entry and possession of arms. However, a West Bengal court withdrew the case against him last month to facilitate his deportation to Bangladesh. The AL government also sought India’s assistance to get the custody of several other criminals and terrorists who had infiltrated into West Bengal to evade arrest.
Chetia’s extradition assumes significance in the contexts of home secretary’s November 16-17 Dhaka visit to hold secretary-level talks and the next round of dialogue between the Arabinda Rajkhowa-led faction of ULFA, Centre and Assam government on November 24.
Militancy has been contained in Assam and Tripura largely due to the cooperation of the AL government. The northeast insurgent groups were not allowed to use Bangladesh’s territory after for anti-India activities after Hasina’s return to power in 2009. Her government’s policy of zero-tolerance toward terrorism and the security forces’ relentless crackdown on militants have been widely appreciated in India. Lauding Bangladesh government’s efforts, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the handing over of Chetia demonstrates its “commitment and maturity to cooperate with India on issues like terror and organised crime”.
Chetia has been brought back ostensibly to participate in the ongoing dialogue to resolve more than two decade-old insurgency problem of Assam. The pro-talk faction of the ULFA led by its chairman Rajkhowa had previously demanded Chetia’s repatriation. The surrendered ULFA leaders maintain that Chetia’s participation in the political dialogue is crucial. The mood is upbeat in the ULFA camp after Chetia’s come back. Describing him as the organisation’s “think tank”, the leaders said his presence would help bridge the gap between pro-talk faction and the hardliner group led by Paresh Baruah and take the dialogue to its “desired goal”.
Chetia was the founder general secretary of the ULFA. It was established on April 7, 1979 in Sibsagar district—the citadel of Ahom kingdom, to achieve a “sovereign Asom” through armed struggle. Chetia’s homecoming could be a breakthrough for the peace process. He was a key strategist of the separatist group and leader of the first ULFA delegation that held discussions with the Narashima Rao government in 1991. He fled the country after the talks were failed.
Chetia’s coming back has been welcomed by the civil society and political leaders of Assam. State Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi observed that Chetia wields “strong influence” on the insurgent group’s members and his homecoming would have a positive impact on the ongoing peace talks. ULFA’s earlier killings of innocent people and widespread extortion drives had alienated the outfit from the cross-section of the population. The people of the state, who had suffered a lot due to insurgencies waged by various ethnic armed groups, including the most dominant ULFA, want peace and stability to be restored at the earliest.
The ULFA suffered a vertical split following the Bangladesh government’s handing over of about 50 senior leaders and cadres to India on November 30, 2009. With the surrender of ULFA’s almost all the top leaders, the outfit’s strength has been reduced to less than 50 cadres currently holed up in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division. Senior security officials of Assam think that Chetia’s extradition would further isolate the anti-talk faction of ULFA led by Baruah.
The Rajkhowa-led faction has been engaged in peace talks with the Centre and the Assam government since 2011. So far, seven-eight rounds of discussions are held but the process slowed down after Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in May2014. The surrendered ULFA leaders recently threatened to withdraw from the peace parleys and initiate “alternative path” if the NDA government did not convene the next round of talk by November 30, 2015. Chetia’s return has pacified the leaders to an extent. The Central Executive Committee of the faction headed by its chairman Rajkhowa will represent the outfit in the November 24 meeting in New Delhi.
Unlike the Naga imbroglio, Assam’s ULFA problem is not so intractable. After giving up the demand of independence, the leaders of the pro-talk faction are seeking special status for Assam within the constitutional framework of India, more control over the state’s natural resources, especially oil and gas, and job guarantee for the indigenous ethnic groups.
The rank and file of ULFA had been drawn from the numerous ethnic communities that constitute the greater Assamese society. Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Khiren Rijiju informed that the peace talks with ULFA have reached final stage and the granting of Scheduled Tribe status to six ethnic groups, a major demand of the pro-talk faction, would be settled before the upcoming assembly polls.
Chetia’s participation in the peace talks scheduled to be held on November 24 remains uncertain as the state government is yet to get his custody. But he is likely to take part in future talks. The NDA government would like to ensure his participation so that the peace process appears more credible. Chetia’s homecoming had been expedited to woo the Assamese community in the run-up to the 2016 assembly elections.
*Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst based in India. He can be reached at: [email protected]