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OP-ED: A tale of militancy and impunity

  • Published at 10:40 pm September 21st, 2020
Representational photo: Bigstock

A timeline of the United Liberation Front of Assam’s activities in Bangladesh during the Khaleda Zia regime 

There was uproar among the political and diplomatic circles in Bangladesh, India, as well as Britain after declassified documents said that a British diplomat in Dhaka had met with North East Indian secessionist leaders of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) 30 years ago.

The secret parley with British High Commissioner David Austin took place on October 2, 1990, with three top ULFA functionaries -- Anup Chetia (real name Golap Barua), Siddhartha Phukan (Sunil Nath), and Iqbal (Munin Nabis).

Shortly after receiving the secret memo, the British foreign office in London cautioned its envoy in Dhaka to snap contacts with the banned outfit, which would jeopardize their historical relationship with India.

The ULFA decided to meet the envoy because the British have century-old investments in the Assam tea gardens. So they thought it would be easier to twist the arm of the UK government to help pursue their radical policy.

The declassified documents said the British diplomat was shown photographs of the outfit’s training camp in Assam, among other images and leaflets, and finally promised a tour of its militant camps. One of the photos was of the ULFA military Commander-in-Chief Paresh Baruah at the China border with a Chinese army liaison officer. Baruah is still believed to be in China.

The diplomat found the China link of the ULFA “new and interesting.” Claims of Chinese help to northeast insurgency are not new.

The meeting was presumably arranged with the British High Commission by unnamed officials of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), just two months before the demise of General HM Ershad’s dictatorial regime.

The rogue intelligence officials were able to convince the democratically elected government of Khaleda Zia to lend political support to separatist groups in the seven-sisters in North-East India.

Her party advocated anti-Indian policy, which attracted several rightist parties, and most importantly, Islamist parties.

In mid-1991, with tacit blessings of the Pakistan spy agency ISI, the separatist leaders of Assam, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Manipur opened their headquarters in Dhaka, while their foot soldiers set up camps in Bangladesh-India no-man’s-land, dotted in the northern and eastern frontiers.

In the border regions, for months and years, militants in uniform were seen buying groceries and essential commodities from village markets inside Bangladesh.

The covert operation, aided and abetted by ISI, functioned with impunity under the shadow of the Pakistan embassy in Gulshan. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who was also the defense minister, had full knowledge of the clandestine operation.

The ULFA and other militant groups had accounts in several private banks in Dhaka, Sylhet, and Chittagong. However, those bank accounts were frozen after Sheikh Hasina returned to power in January 2009.

The militant leaders lived in spacious apartments in Uttara, Shyamoli, Mohammadpur, and Shantinagar with their families. The unmarked shelters were guarded 24/7 by armed security with walkie-talkies provided by intelligence agencies.

The elusive ULFA military chief Paresh Baruah invested millions of US dollars in real estate, shipping, textile, power, and medical care in Bangladesh, according to a classified document of National Security Intelligence (NSI).

Not surprisingly, Paresh Baruah had direct contacts with Hawa Bhaban run by Tarique Rahman, former State Minister for Home Affairs Lutfozzaman Babar, and of course rogue intel officers, as well as ISI operatives in Dhaka.

India’s special operations unit, separately based in Guwahati, Assam and Agartala, Tripura, had made several attempts to capture the fugitive Paresh Baruah so that he could face justice in India.

ULFA’s founding member and general secretary Anup Chetia was detained by Bangladesh police on December 21, 1997, from his Shyamoli residence in Dhaka under the Foreigners Act and the Passports Act for illegally possessing foreign currencies and a satellite phone.

From his prison cell, Chetia thrice applied for political asylum in 2005, 2008, and 2011. His plea was rejected by authorities, possibly due to diplomatic pressure from New Delhi.

Sheikh Hasina, after becoming prime minister for the second time, decided not to allow foreign militants and terrorists to use Bangladesh territory against any neighbours.

Anup Chetia was released along with two other ULFA compatriots from Kashimpur High-Security Central Jail to be deported to India after 18 years.

Unfortunately, the two neighbours did not sign an extradition treaty. The North-East separatist leaders were handed over to India, including ULFA chairperson Arabinda Rajkhowa.

Presently, the deported ULFA leaders are smoking peace pipes in Delhi to end the four-decade-old militancy for a “sovereign” Assam in India.

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at [email protected]; Twitter @saleemsamad.

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