Anup Chetia, general-secretary of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), who was in Bangladesh’s custody for over 17 years, was extradited to India last week. His extradition is significant. Not only does it signify improving India-Bangladesh relations but also, his return could provide a shot in the arm to the peace process in the Northeastern Indian state of Assam.
Third in the outfit’s hierarchy, Chetia went underground in 1979 to found ULFA. He was arrested in 1991 in Kolkata but was let off on parole. He then fled India but was arrested in Bangladesh in 1997 for illegally entering the country using a forged passport and carrying arms and foreign currencies. Chetia was sentenced to a seven-year jail term in Bangladesh. On completion of his jail term in 2005, he sought to remain in Bangladesh by applying for political asylum.
India’s requests to successive Bangladeshi governments to extradite Chetia – he is wanted here for murder, extortion and abduction – went unheeded as Chetia was a valuable bargaining chip in Dhaka hands. However, things began changing soon after the Awami League came to power in Bangladesh in December 2008. Its crackdown on anti-Indian insurgents taking shelter in Bangladesh forced some like ULFA’s military commander, Paresh Baruah, to flee the country. Others were handed over to Indian authorities. Among these was ULFA chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa.
In January, the Indian and Bangladeshi governments signed an extradition treaty facilitating Chetia’s deportation.
All eyes are now on Chetia’s next moves. Will he join Rajkhowa and his other comrades who are part of the Assam peace process? The Bangladesh government says he asked to be sent back to India. This bodes well for his participation in talks which began in 2011 between the central government and the Rajkhowa-led faction of ULFA.
Should Chetia join the pro-talks faction of ULFA, Baruah who is operating out of bases near the Sino-Myanmar border will be the only major ULFA leader to remain outside the political process. A hardliner who is strongly opposed to talks, Baruah reaffirmed his tough anti-India position recently when his faction of ULFA joined hands with the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) and other militant outfits to form the United National Liberation Front of West South-East Asia.
Baruah may be isolated and operating from outside India. But he remains lethal. He is said to enjoy patronage of Chinese and/or Myanmarese military officials. ULFA-I has camps in several northeastern states including Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Importantly, Baruah’s faction continues to espouse Assam’s independence from India.
Indian authorities will be hoping that Chetia will convince Baruah to come on board the peace process. The two are cousins and went underground together. Will Baruah follow his younger cousin into the political mainstream? Reports in the media claim that Chetia and Baruah have remained in touch over the years, even during the former’s incarceration. Apparently, Baruah was not happy with Chetia’s decision to return to India.
Chetia’s return to India comes just months ahead of state assembly elections in Assam. Both, the Congress party which is in power in Assam and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which heads the federal government, are likely to claim credit for the peace process. Already the state unit of the BJP, which is hoping to end 15 years of Congress rule in the state, is trumpeting Chetia’s return to India as the outcome of its efforts.
India’s political parties must avoid making Chetia a part of their election campaign. It will give the agreement that emerges from the peace process a political color.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
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