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SUBIR BHAUMIK
Date of Publish: 2016-02-06
AROUND THE REGION
 
SHERPUR OPERATION- DEADLY POINTERS 

 

Bangladesh stories dont get much play in Indian media. Only 'The Hindu' has a regular correspondent, while heavyweights like 'Times of India' dont even have a stringer. . But this is a story that should not have been missed . 
 
The country's elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) this week recovered a huge cache of ammunition from Sherpur's Jhenaigati Upazila -- 22000 rounds of sub-machine-gun ammunition, 17000 rounds of light machine gun ammunition and , most important , 2000 anti-aircraft missiles . Other equipment seized included wireless sets , walkie talkies and rifle cleaning machines.These were not the first seizures at Bakakura Gucchagram in Sherpur, an area where the ULFA ran atleastthree major bases before the crackdown by the Hasina government in 2009.

Earlier in 2010, 13,000 rifles had been recovered from Bakakura Gucchagram from Sherpur’s Jhenaigati Upazila. At least 50,000 bullets, rockets, landmines and different varieties of weapons were found at Jhenaigati between 2007 and 2011. More bullets and AK-47 rifles were recovered from a village at Nalitabarhi in 2012.  The ULFA;s commander at Sherpur was Ranjan Chowdhury who had assumed a Muslim name , Masud Chowdhury. He was arrested as he left the Rumpa Clinic after treatement in 2010 and his wife Sabitri Sangma immediately told media about the arrest, fearing the RAB would bump off her husband.  

There can be no doubt that the ULFA was using Sherpur not only to house its fighters outside the range of Indian security forces and get them to cross over and attack Indian targets frequently, but also to stock up huge quantity of military hardware that could be carried into Northeast for use and sale to other groups. The ULFA was clearly making huge money from gun running -- its customers ranged from Indian and Nepali Maoists toi Northeastern rebel groups and Bangladeshi Islamist radicals.

The amount of weapons recovered from the ULFA's bases are now clearly far in excess to the group's roll strength -- the ULFA even at its peak in the late 1980s did not have more than 2000 regular fighters, regardless of the huge numbers turning up for surrenders. In the Northeast, when rebel groups suirrender, they tend to bring around their collaborators and close supporters , projecting them as regular militants so that they are not left out of the rehabilitation pie. That is how they manage to appease these support providers . Hence the huge numbers at surrender ceremonies across Northeast rarely reflects the core fighting strength of the rebel outfit, specially the ULFA which always suffered an adverse teeth to tail ration, meaning there were more support providers than fighters.

Much of the stock at Sherpur was possibly meant for the various customers of ULFA -- Indian and Nepali Maoists and other Northeastern rebel groups, possibly some Bangladeshi Islamists who did not have direct contact with the Chinese principals like Norinco and south-east Asian gunrunners like Thailand's Wily now stading trial with NSCN's Anthony Shimray.

Like in Sherpur, Bangladesh's RAB has seized consignments of weapons at Satcherri, which used to be headquarters of the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF). The ATTF was very close to ULFA and it is not unlikely that the ULFA was also stocking up weapons and ammunition at its base.Surrendered ATTF leaders have told this writer that the ULFA would give a few weapons to ATTF as 'gifts' in exchange of allowing the ULFA to use its cache at Satcherri, At Satcherri, the RAB has found anti-tank weapons besides the usual stock of thousands of rifles, LMGs , grenades and rocket launchers.Now at Sherpur, 2000 anti-aircraft missiles have been found. 

This indicates that the ULFA was not only a regular and reliable source of foreign , mostly China made, weapons for a wide range of South Asian militant groups -- but it also shows that they were clearly importing weapons never previously used in the East and Northeast by either the Maoists or the northeastern rebel groups.

That would mean these groups were preparing to not only intensifying their armed campaigns against India , with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons , but also preparing for an eventuality that such intensified campaign would force India bring out its armoured and combat helicopters and aircrafts.

Such a deadly scenario no longer holds true , what with both the Maoists and the Northeastern rebels in a quandry. But that was not the case before Dec 2008.

Tripura's Left government might have long before ( sirely by 2005) neutralised the tribal insurgencies in the state by unleashing a powerful covert offensive against ATTF and NLFT rebel; bases in Bangladesh using surrendered militants and Bangladeshi mercenaries.. I have detailed that covert campaign, the only sustained one run by an Indian state ever against bases in a foreign country , in my recent book " Agartala Doctrine : Proactive Northeast in Indian foreign Policy (OUP) 

 But in other northeastern states, the rebels were up and about , looking to intensify their campaigns -- with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. If these weapons went to the Maoists as well , India would have to be reckoning with unmanageable  'priarie fires' from Chattisgarh to Changlang.  

Those deadly possibilities were scotched with the Dec 2008 elections in Bangladesh , that brought Sheikh Hasina to power, Her government  unleashed a fierce crackdown against all the Northeastern rebels and Islamist radicals , handed over scores of their leaders and activists to India , mostly on the quiet and send the rather efficient RAB to demolish the rebel infrastructure on Bangladesh's territory. Some like ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa arrived in Indian custody with the promise of continuing the rebellion, shotuing during his first apopearence in court ' Moi surrender kora nai". But he and his comrades changed course within a week to start talks with Delhi.

Others like UNLF's Meghen did not budge and have been consigned to Indian prisons.  Only Paresh Barua managed to evade the net but a Chittagong court awarding him death sentence over the ten-truck weapons haul in 2004 has ensured the rebel chief cannot come anywhere near Bangladesh. Bangladesh intelligence says Barua maintains contact with his 'friends' in Bangladesh through two Bangladeshis , who live with him in Tenchong (Sino-Burmese border) .

These two Bangladeshis  are Alamgir Hossain, son of Hassam Ahmed , village Karatkhil, Union Sahapur , thana - Chatkhil Noahkhali -- Bangladesh  passport no AA 8392264  (dateof birth -- 2-1-1986  and   Mohammed Golam Nabi , village  Karatkhil, Union Sahapur , thana - Chatkhil Noahkhali  ,  Bangladesh passport no AA1463448 ( date of birth 15-2-1986).  Police barely missed them during the last visit to Bangladesh in November last year. But persuaded by Hasina relentlessly, Bangladesh agencies are hot on the ULFA's leader's trail.

Would it be too much of an exaggeration to say that Hasina did for India in one bold stroke what our generals and police officials have failed to achieve for four decades in the Northeast -- a complete decimation of the seperatist infrastructure !

Perhaps not. 

Bhutan delivered in 2003 with 'Operation All Clear' but they took out the middle level of ULFA and NDFB, not other and molre dangerous groups like those operating in Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura. 

The RAB's  Sherpur operations indicates Bangladesh is not sitting on what it achieved in 2010-- its commitment to destroying the infrastructure of armed rebellion in Northeast India is a serious commitment and an ongoing one. And so it is incumbent we return the favour to Hasina with favourable deals on river waters, trade balance and industrial investments . That lies at the heart of my 'Agartala doctrine of appropriate response'.  Indira Gandhi was persuaded by Tripura's first chief minister Sachindralal Singha to back the Bengali rebellion to 'drive Pakistan out of the East'.  That,the visionaryTripura leader argued, was the only way to breakl up the Sino-Pakistani nexux backing a wide range of northeastern rebels in the late sixties . Nearly 50 years later, that equation has not changed. India needs a friendly regime like Hasina in Dhaka to protect its critical secureity interersts. But to ensure that she retains credibility with her people, it is incumbent India delivers on promises . This is what Tripura Chief MInister Manik Sarkar never forgets to tell Indian Prime Ministers, Manmohan or Modi.

SUBIR BHAUMIK

( SUBIR BHAUMIK is a veteran BBC journalist and author of three well acclaimed books on India's Northeast including the "Agartala Doctrine" that has just been published)

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