Trans-border terror in South Asia received a severe setback on November 4, 2009, when two top leaders of the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) fell into the hands of Indian security forces. The official version of the story is that ULFA’s self-styled ‘foreign secretary’ Sashadhar Choudhury and ‘finance secretary’ Chitraban Hazarika were trying to sneak back into India from Bangladesh, when they were captured by Border Security Force (BSF) troopers near Gokulnagar in Tripura. The duo was then handed over to a visiting Assam Police team on November 6, who brought them over to Guwahati and produced before a magistrate. The next day, the magistrate sent them on a 10-day Police remand. Though there is reason to believe that the duo were actually picked up by Bangladesh authorities and informally handed over to the Indian side, there are complex reasons why both New Delhi and Dhaka prefer that people believe the official version. In any event, the fact remains that the pair has been captured and is now in Indian custody, after years on the run.
India and Bangladesh do not have an extradition treaty yet, and have consequently shied away from giving details of how a dozen armed security men in civvies captured the ULFA duo from a house in Dhaka’s up-market Uttara locality on November 1, 2009, before they landed up in the hands of Indian authorities. Nevertheless, a confirmation that the rebel leaders were picked up by Bangladeshi security officials came from none other than the exiled ULFA ‘chairman’ Arabinda Rajkhowa, who issued a press statement on November 7 saying ‘unidentified armed men from Bangladesh’ had abducted the duo around midnight, November 1. The ULFA ‘chairman’ and remaining leaders may actually have panicked and issued the statement disclosing the capture to prevent the possible ‘disappearance’ of the two men, Choudhury and Hazarika. The rebel group has not forgotten how some of its important leaders went missing after the Bhutanese military assault against the ULFA in 2003.
ULFA’s elusive ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah was no longer in Bangladesh. Indian intelligence officials say Paresh Baruah, along with some 50 of his trusted fighters, is currently in China’s Yunnan province, close to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) headquarters in northern Myanmar. The ULFA has managed to open shop in Yunnan province because elements in China had been supplying arms to rebels in Northeast India.
Former Assam Police chief and now a security advisor to the State Government, observes, “Sashadhar Choudhury as the ULFA’s so-called foreign secretary was responsible for maintaining the group’s links with foreign sympathizers like the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence. Chitraban Hazarika was responsible for the group’s money bags. The ULFA cannot replace this loss easily.” The group’s chain of command has been totally disrupted. While its ‘c-in-c’ Paresh Baruah is on the run, ‘chairman’ Rajkhowa is said to be lying low in Bangladesh. ULFA ‘general secretary’ Anup Chetia is under detention in Bangladesh since 1997. Publicity and cultural ‘secretaries’, Mithinga Daimary and Pranati Deka, respectively, have long been in custody in Assam, along with ‘vice-chairman’ Pradip Gogoi. With ‘foreign secretary’ Choudhury and ‘finance secretary’ Hazarika trapped in the security net, that leaves the group with Paresh Baruah’s close aide and ‘deputy c-in-c’ Raju Baruah and a few other middle-level leaders.
But what explains Dhaka’s sudden change of heart? It is true there has been a change of guard in Bangladesh, with the return of the supposedly pro-India Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina in December 2008, but the mood among the Bangladeshis had remained anti-India during Hasina’s earlier tenures. Begum Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had, in fact, told this writer in an interview a couple of years ago that her party regarded the ULFA as ‘freedom fighters’, much as the Mukti Bahini of Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rehman were freedom fighters. It has, in large measure, been pressures of the ‘global war on terror’ and the general worry among affluent Bangladeshis that the country was being hijacked by fundamentalists and foreign terrorist elements operating from its soil, which led the Awami League regime to crack down on terror. (via Down But Not Out As Yet | Wasbir Hussain).