A Bangladesh court has awarded the death sentence to United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) chief of staff Paresh Baruah in the sensational Chittagong arms haul case. The fallout of this judgment would have to be assessed in terms of the existing scenario in the region and recent indications of the plans firmed up by the outfit for the separatist campaign in the Northeast.
In 1992, weeks after Operation Rhino was launched in Assam to check the outfit‚Äôs activities, the ULFA commander-in-chief escaped to Bangladesh. He left Bangladesh after the Awami League-led government was swept to power towards the fag end of 2008. Over the years, unlike his colleagues who were apprehended and handed over to India, Baruah has successfully evaded arrest. In due course, he landed in Eastern Nagaland and began reorganising the outfit.
In the past two decades or so, the outfit had been able to carve out a massive network in Bangladesh, involving politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, evidenced from the high-profile personalities convicted in the case. The base in the neighbouring country helped the chief to invest funds, strike arms deals and also campaign for Assam‚Äôs independence at the international fora. In addition, he was able to interact closely with a section of Pakistan‚Äôs Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) of Bangladesh, who were entrusted to assist the outfit.
These activities will not grind to a halt even if Baruah doesn‚Äôt turn up in Bangladesh. For one, the returns from the investments and their transfer to other destinations do not require Baruah‚Äôs presence in the country. Like some Manipuri groups, the ULFA still has several hideouts and cadres stationed in that country. And it must be borne in mind that the Awami League-led government is more keen to settle scores with its political rivals than wiping out Northeast militants from its soil. It wouldn‚Äôt go hunting for militants beyond a certain point since some of its demands have not yet been accepted by India.
Back in India, ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia‚Äôs extradition, which was expected to give a boost to the ongoing peace process (between the Centre and pro-talks ULFA), seems to have got stuck and nobody knows the precise reason why he is still in jail in Dhaka.
Weapons can still be purchased in Bangladesh, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to transship large quantities across the border. The setting up of a fence and the BSF being equipped with sophisticated surveillance gadgets have complicated matters.
When the BNP-led regime was in power, arms-laden ships came all the way from Thailand (and other destinations) to Bangladesh‚Äôs Cox‚Äôs Bazar. Consignments were then taken through circuitous routes into the Northeast, which were sometimes seized by security forces.
Nowadays, supply into the Northeast is much cheaper and easier from China and the bases in Myanmar. The illicit trade is facilitated by Chinese agencies and it has the blessings of a section of the Myanmarese army who have to be given fixed percentages. What‚Äôs more, the Indo-Myanmar border is porous with less deployment of security forces and the free-border regime allows the border population to travel up to a distance of 16 km on both sides.
Baruah‚Äôs movements had already been curtailed after a Red Corner notice by Interpol. He occasionally travelled from Dhaka on a Bangladeshi passport to only two countries, either for meetings or for arms deals. He would still be able to do that since both countries are hostile to India. Two years ago, I interviewed him at a jungle hideout deep inside Myanmar‚Äôs Sagaing Division, where no government exists except the Government of the People‚Äôs Republic of Nagaland headed by SS Khaplang.
Confident that the Indian government would not dare to venture so deep to apprehend him, Baruah has taken the lead in stitching an alliance of sorts of all separatist groups in the Northeast. He does not seem bothered about the Myanmarese army either since it has a ceasefire agreement with Khaplang‚Äôs outfit (NSCNK). Travelling in the region and staying there for close to four months convinced me that the army is unlikely to pay heed to the increasing pressures from New Delhi to eliminate these camps.
The alliance is aimed at giving a greater thrust to the campaign of separating from India. Recruitment of new cadres is on, although in the past five years, the overall level of insurgency-related violence has come down considerably in the Northeast.
The rebel leaders dropped hints that they have embarked upon a different strategy to achieve the goal. They were quite certain that the days of ‚Äúcolonial rule‚ÄĚ in the Northeast were numbered. A war between India and China, they said, would erupt within a few years, paving the way for the region‚Äôs independence. Without delving into the merits of the argument, it can be safely concluded that the groups are heavily banking on China and less on any other country for carrying their agenda forward. In this new scheme of things, the importance of Bangladesh has somewhat lessened compared to its role a decade ago.
The separatists turned to China also because efforts at cultivating the support of other countries have not yielded positive results. It was easier from Bangladesh to liaison with representatives from other countries, which they had done relentlessly for several years.
In the latter half of 1996, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisations (UNPO) was approached and subsequently the ULFA had planned to brief dignitaries of as many as 20 countries on the merit of its case.
Even as last-minute preparations were being made at a destination in Europe, the news leaked that noted social activist Sanjoy Ghosh had been killed by the outfit in Assam. Indian diplomats went on an overdrive to unmask the ULFA and all its senior functionaries ducked for cover and cancelled the meeting.
So Baruah will be compelled to fall back upon the base in Myanmar and strengthen his ties with other like-minded groups in the region. He has reiterated that talks with the Indian government would be possible if, and only if, the sovereignty of Assam (and now the Northeast) is accepted as the core issue of the discussions. The government had turned down the demand but had never ruled out a dialogue with the chief. Now with the verdict, it is highly doubtful if New Delhi would evince the desire again for talks with him. Bangladesh has cracked the whip on the militants following pressure from New Delhi. The Centre would not like to be seen talking to a rebel leader who is a wanted man in a neighbouring country with which cordial relations are deemed necessary for commercial and strategic interests.
Bhattacharyya is the author of¬† Lens and the Guerilla: Insurgency in India‚Äôs Northeast