Home Coming of Anup Chetia and the Prospects of Peace
Now that several of the most wanted men from Assam are around, New Delhi and Dispur are busy working out effective negotiation strategies with the outfits. The recent hustle has been regarding the extradition by Bangladesh and eventual release on bail of the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) General Secretary Anup Chetia alias Golap Barua. Chetia was one of the founder members of the outfit in 1979 along with Paresh Baruah the Commander in Chief and Arabinda Rajkhowa among others. Chetia was arrested in 1997 by Bangladesh on charges of illegally crossing the international border with a forged passport and in possession of illegal foreign currency. Chetia was sentenced for a 7 years term in prison in Bangladesh but remained there for longer in absence of an extradition treaty between India and Bangladesh, until one came up in 2013. Anup Chetia was handed over by Bangladesh on November 11, 2015 and the Indian side reciprocated by extraditing one of Bangladesh’s most wanted, Nur Hossain from a West Bengal prison. This perhaps is a great leap in the diplomatic relationship between the two South Asian neighbors and is obvious to eliminate the decades-old trust deficit between the two.
Immediately after Chetia landed on the Indian soil, he was detained in New Delhi in four different cases and was finally brought to Assam on a transit remand. The government’s interlocutor for peace talks with ULFA, P C Haldar, had earlier pushed for a “calibrated approach” towards Chetia in a communication sent to the home ministry. It was more than obvious of Chetia being granted an unconditional bail and all the criminal proceedings were nothing more than mere eyewash. The Additional Sessions Judge in Guwahati granted a bail to Chetia on December 24, 2015 on a personal bond of Rs One Lakh and two sureties from two individuals.
The Politics of Peace
Every offer comes with a list of terms and conditions overleaf. The fact that the role of the Congress led Assam government was mostly limited in the negotiation process involving the extradition makes it clear that the campaign was steered primarily by the BJP government in New Delhi. The release of Chetia is yet another continuation of several electoral strategies in the poll-bound state – few others being the release of religious census showing rise in Muslim population in Assam, naturalization of Hindu refugees, talks for granting scheduled status to 6 tribes from Assam etc. The inclusion of the ULFA general secretary into the mainstream is expected to boost the ongoing peace process between the outfit and the Government of India. The peace negotiations are already underway with the pro-talk ULFA leaders Arabinda Rajkhowa, Pradip Gogoi et al and the inclusion of Chetia is expected to further isolate the Paresh Baruah led anti-talk faction. Chetia is known to be close to the ULFA Commander in Chief Paresh Baruah who is opposed to talks without ULFA’s founding objective of ‘swadhin’ or Sovereign Assam being placed on the table. It also requires mention that Baruah is Chetia’s cousin and as claimed by Chetia, was pulled to ULFA by Chetia in 1979 at the time when Baruah used to serve the Indian Railways and was a Northeast Frontier Railway footballer. Chetia has agreed to speak to Paresh Baruah if need be but has refused to take media as the medium to avoid misunderstandings. Although it is explicit that the chain of events is nothing more than electoral calculations in the largest democracy, the people in Assam are optimistic about sunny days in case a peaceful settlement is reached.
Will Peace get a Chance?
The return of Anup Chetia and his desire to join the peace process has been presented as an event which will make peace inevitable in Assam. But the point requires mention here that despite all the optimism peace still is a distant dream as of now. The militant wing of the ULFA is sufficiently active and away from peace talks with its Commander in Chief Paresh Baruah remaining untraced as of now. The claims that Chetia will engage in talks with Baruah and might be successful in eventually making him join the peace process is not more than a magnificent dream until a word comes in from Baruah. The significance of Chetia’s return and involvement in the peace process cannot be denied. But, the fact must not be ignored that most of ULFA’s violent show of power has been witnessed during the period when Chetia was already in prison in Bangladesh. One prominent among them being the 2004 Independence Day blasts in Dhemaji. As observed by Udayon Mishra, the ULFA has a militaristic structure, which has stood in the way of inner-party democracy and has often led to lack of proper coordination on policy matters. The military wing under Paresh Baruah has always been the more influential and powerful, mostly acting autonomous of the political wing since the very inception.
Brushing the dust of memory, the advocates of peace might recall that it was not very long ago in 1992 when a similar round of optimism was in the air. Post Operation Bajrang and Rhino of the Indian Army when the ULFA was in its tough days, the leadership had agreed to a ceasefire and peace talks. Anup Chetia (arrested for the first time during Operation Bajrang) was granted the bail in a manner not very different as now. In March 1992 Chetia was a part of the delegation that went to meet the then Prime Minister of India P.V. Narasimha Rao. He also attended a human rights conference at Geneva alongside Paresh Baruah in the same year. History shall not forget and for that matter the advocates of peace should also keep in mind the way in which Chetia backstabbed and disappeared until his re-arrest in 1997. Chetia on his release has apologized for his act in 1992 and has assured his unconditional support but this does not redeem us of the classical realist understandings of human nature being corrupt by default.
The ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa alias Rajiv Rajkonwar has been around since his arrest in 2009 but not much has been achieved in terms of signing a comprehensive peace agreement. Rajkhowa, Chetia and other senior leaders of the outlawed outfit have as of now agreed for unconditional peace talks and have dropped the initial objective of attaining a sovereign Assam. But, the commander in chief and the present leader of the armed anti-talk faction has time and again made clear his stand that there could be no peace without the issue of sovereignty being placed on the table. Thus, the inclusion of Chetia into the pro-talk group is expected to produce some moral impact but the strategic impact and outcome of his extradition, release and desire to engage in peace talks is blurred as of now.
Uddipta Ranjan Boruah
(Uddipta Ranjan Boruah is a student of International Relations at South Asian University. His write ups feature in International Policy Digest, Eurasia Review, South Asia Monitor and Greatway among others)