The handing over of Golap Baruah alias Anup Chetia to Indian authorities by Dhaka on Wednesday is an outcome of years of hard bargaining, despite the two countries having an extradition pact since 2013. Yet the question uppermost concerns the timing of this development. Is the rendra Modi government at the Centre trying to spring a surprise before the Assam assembly elections barely six months away? Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju has recently said that the government is keen to take forward direct talks with the ULFA ‘to bring about a lasting solution to the nearly four-decade-old insurgency problem in Assam’. Pro-talk ULFA leader Arabinda Rajkhowa has long been insisting that ULFA general secretary and founder member Anup Chetia should be a participant in the talks. So is Chetia’s handing over a precursor to some sort of agreement between the Centre and pro-talk ULFA, on the lines of the Centre-NSCN(IM) ‘framework agreement’ signed on August 3 this year? The contours of that agreement are still shrouded in mystery, with even the chief ministers of Assam, Manipur and Aruchal Pradesh in the dark about what sort of sovereignty the gas will get under the agreement. Dhaka has reportedly handed over Chetia following an initiative by Prime Minister rendra Modi himself, along with tiol Security Adviser Ajit Doval. In a tweet, Modi has thanked Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasi ‘for the help in fighting terrorism’. Rijiju soon followed up by praising Prime Minister Modi for his leadership in ‘improving ties with Bangladesh’.
In an obvious bid to wrest credit and nullify any political advantage to the Modi government, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has lost no time in demanding Chetia’s custody to Assam police so that the ULFA leader can ‘join the peace process’. Gogoi is also claiming credit that it was because of his continuous pressure on the Centre to get the Indo-Bangladesh land boundary agreement signed that ‘today we are seeing the good returns from Bangladesh’. So another round of politics has begun over possible peace talks with the ULFA, which will only defeat its purpose — as the Central and State governments need to be on the same page when it comes to putting an end to extremist violence. It is also a fact that Dhaka has long been using the extradition of Anup Chetia as a bargaining chip for progress on the land boundary agreement, checking cross-border crimil and terrorist activities, while at the same time insisting upon ‘zero killing’ of infiltrators on the border by the BSF. But the Sheikh Hasi government has lately been on the defensive after a series of high-profile killings of secular bloggers and foreign tiols in Bangladesh. Though the brutal murders have been ascribed to the Ansarullah Bangla Team, the dreaded ISIS is also said to be striking roots and raising the bar on terror. The order by a West Bengal court recently to repatriate Bangladeshi tiol Nur Hossain, the prime accused in a sensatiol murder of seven persons there, is also said to have strengthened New Delhi’s demand for a quid pro quo with Anup Chetia.
Back in 1991, Chetia had been arrested in Assam only to be freed by the Hiteswar Saikia government so that he could participate in peace talks in New Delhi, but then he fled to Bangladesh. His luck ran out after 1997, when he was sentenced to a ten year jail term for illegally entering Bangladesh, as well as for carrying foreign currency and a satellite phone. Since 2012, he was kept in safe custody on orders by the Dhaka High Court while the government mulled over his plea for political asylum. He reportedly changed his mind a year later, asking to be sent back to India to live the rest of his life with his children. After the ‘pushing out’ of Arabinda Rajkhowa, Sasadhar Chaudhury, Raju Baruah and Chitrabon Hazarika in February, 2011, the handing over of Anup Chetia now leaves no other major ULFA leader on Bangladesh soil. Assam DGP Khagen Sarma has said that this development now isolates the outfit’s commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah. While the pro-talk ULFA faction will get more weight and legitimacy with Chetia’s likely joining, it is ive to think Paresh Baruah will be pressurised by this development. Baruah has long shifted operations from Bangladesh where he has been sentenced to death in the 2004 Chittagong arms haul case. The anti-talk ULFA hardliner is likely to head the United tiol Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia, a platform of several NE and Myanmar insurgent groups, with its present ‘chairman’ SS Khaplang not keeping good health. These groups have their base somewhere in the Taga region of the Myanmar-Chi border, with Beijing assertively playing a role in keeping insurgency in the Northeast on the boil to pressurise New Delhi over Tibet and Aruchal. If Anup Chetia, a Muttock leader, plays an important role in any peace pact while the Centre pursues a diplomatic as well as military effort to neutralise Paresh Baruah — so much the better. But to bring this about, New Delhi and Dispur must see eye to eye, leaving aside games of political one-upmanship.