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ULFA-I: India’s old challenge in new face raises the strategic importance of Bangladesh

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Maruf Hussain with Kaniz Nusaiba, The TBH Desk

The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), a separatist organization in the North East region of India, was a major headache for the country even a decade and a half ago.

This organization, which claimed itself to be freedom fighters, posed a major threat not only to India but also to the stability of the Bay of Bengal region. For a long time, the organization’s leaders had been hiding in Bangladesh, also using it as a route for arms smuggling.

The situation changed with the end of power of the BNP-Jamaat coalition government in Dhaka. However, after a decade and a half, ULFA (I) led by Paresh Barua has become a new threat. India considers the recent blasts, threats to senior police officials as part of the group’s future aggressive plans.

Some security analysts of India feel the need to keep a watchful eye on the latest US action against Hasina’s government in the name of ‘democracy promotion’ in Dhaka, along with the resurgence of old threats.

Arindam Mukherjee, a geopolitical analyst suggests, “the present leader of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina faces a revivalist, pro-Pakistan, radical Islamist sentiment which has kept her government from functioning optimally. This is bound to be music to the US government’s ears. The best arrangement now would be (for the US) a pro-Islamist, pro-Pakistani government in Bangladesh. Among others, this would always translate into an opportunity to convert West Bengal/Assam into a kind of ‘Kashmir of the East’ for the next few decades.”

Baruah, the mastermind

Journalist Rajeev Bhattacharyya, who recently published his book, ULFA: the Mirage of Dawn, said the outfit has nearly 300 cadres at present but they are capable of carrying out attacks, which could be easier for them in eastern Assam than in the western part.

“The intelligence gathering mechanism of the security forces has vastly improved compared to the situation two decades ago which makes the task of the outfit difficult. Still, there are gaps for the rebels to sneak in and execute operations,” he told.

Bhattacharyya had visited the camps of ULFA-I and NSCN-K and interviewed several leaders including Baruah, too. Baruah is believed to be taking shelter somewhere along the Myanmar-China border, which is closer to eastern Assam districts like Sivasagar, Charaideo, Tinsukia and Jorhat. The government extended the AFSPA in the four districts as those are still considered to be ULFA-I’s strongholds.

Former director general of Assam police, Mukesh Sahay told on Monday that although ULFA-I has weakened considerably over the years, Paresh Baruah is constantly trying to keep it active probably with the help of agencies “inimical to India.” Constant action by the security forces and development initiatives taken by the government marginalised the outfit and led to decrease in public support.

ULFA-I: the headache

More than 8,000 cadres of major insurgent groups, barring ULFA, in Assam have joined the “mainstream” by signing agreements with the government in the past two-and-half years.

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, too, has been withdrawn from the state, barring in four districts, owing to the lowest number of insurgency-related incidents since insurgency began in Assam with the the birth of United Liberation Front of Assam in 1979.

Three bomb blasts carried out by ULFA-Independent (I), the faction led by fugitive Paresh Baruah, however, have put the spotlight on the outfit, which has remained the only major hurdle in Assam’s over four decades-long quest to establish “complete peace”.

After a lull, ULFA-I struck again on November 22 by triggering a blast near an arm installation in eastern Assam’s Tinsukia district, where the AFSPA is still in force.

Two similar blasts took place in neighbouring Sibsagar and Tinsukia district this month. While claiming responsibility for the explosions, the ULFA-I said that the same was done in response to Assam director general of police, GP Singh’s attempts to call the long ULFA conflict only a law and order issue.

“The conflict is political and it can only be addressed politically,” the ULFA-I said on December 15, hours after it triggered a blast in front of the gate of an army camp in Jorhat district, also in eastern Assam. No one was injured in the blast.

The blasts followed a war of words between Singh and the outfit while the BJP-led government in the state decided to hand over the cases to the NIA. In fact, the ULFA-Independent has still remained the only major hurdle before Assam’s over four-decades-old quest for establishing “complete peace”, according to the Deccan Herald.

Peace talks

Although ULFA-I called the long conflict a political one, the outfit has rejected the government’s calls for talks without discussion on its core demand for “sovereign Assam.”

The government rejected the outfit’s condition. Himanta Biswa Sarma, who appealed to the outfit to join peace talks several times since he became the CM in May 2021, also admitted that ULFA-I is the only hurdle in the government’s efforts to end decades-old insurgency problem in Assam.

“Tribal insurgency has ended after the Bodoland, Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao-based outfits joined the mainstream by signing accords in the past two-years. We are hopeful about signing an agreement with the pro-talks faction of ULFA also soon. But ULFA-I has remained the only hurdle in our path to complete peace,” Sarma said, recently.

As the efforts to convince ULFA-I to join talks yielded no result, Sarma on Sunday said there is a need to sit with “all stakeholders” to find ways on how to move forward for talks with ULFA-I. The Rajkhowa-led faction joined the peace talks in 2011 after the top leaders includes Anup Chetia, were “pushed back” from Bangladesh and were subsequently arrested.

The strategic importance of Bangladesh

Nearly twenty years ago, the 10 truck arms hauling from Chattogram, Bangladesh proved the connections between the ULFA and BNP-Jamaat led government. After over coming a lot of hurdles, the investigation also shows that the nexus was formed between the regional terrorists with the support of Tarique Rahman, the Acting Chair of BNP, who is also the son of former prime minister Khaleda Zia. Now he is in London and from where he has been operating his party in Bangladesh.

“Now, the question is, whether Tarique gave up his old friends. We think, he hasn’t. In Bangladesh, all the fundamental wings are still now with his party, who had a strong link with ULFA as well,” says an Indian diplomat. He suggests, “The situation of the region of South Asia is very complex now. At this stage, Tarique will be the most notorious part of the game of fundamentalists, if he gets a single chance.”

Arindam Mukherjee, a geopolitical analyst says, “just the right amount of destabilisation around crucial geographies of the globe (especially among its so-called allies) is the idea for the USA deep state to maintain its global hegemony. The only two territories where their global engine has faltered a bit are Russia and China (incidentally, these are hostile entities), and then too, trying to foment border troubles with Russia along east Europe or the Caucasus, or sabotaging China’s global ambitions seems to be proceeding almost as planned.”

According to the expert, this is where Bangladesh becomes important. He further says, “Propping Pakistan to keep India looking over its shoulders notwithstanding, the gradual transformation of the Bangladeshi society at large – from being anti-Pakistan back in the 70s to being pro-Pakistan today – is something that the US government would not fail to exploit. Wherever there is an affinity for Pakistan, there is bound to be an affinity towards different forms of Islamist radicalism – from intolerance towards other faith-religion-culture, to illegal emigration or the exporting of terrorism – and Bangladesh has witnessed a rise in all the three during the past decades.”

The author of Journey Dog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed, writes an article on the issue. He writes, “the paid media has got to work already. The increase in negative analyses about Bangladesh and Sheikh Hasina government is noticeable. The USA considers the present government oppressive towards their opposition; Washington has twice left Bangladesh out of the Summit for Democracy while it has invited Pakistan(!) to the same conference; it has imposed visa restrictions on different Bangladeshi officials – as 7th January election approaches, the list of US expressions gets more and more impressive.”

According to Mr. Mukhgerjee, it is a predictable behavioural pattern, as he further says, “Washington doesn’t have a problem with the Pakistani military so it orchestrates to throw democratically elected Imran Khan out. It doesn’t have a problem with the Myanmar military-led government as long as they are willing to sit across the table to allow the US/Five Eyes to have an internal stake in their country. However, they have a problem with democratic Bangladesh because they suspect that Hasina is not democratic enough and that elections must always be ‘free and fair’.”

“Does New Delhi have the kind of acumen needed to deal with it? After all, Assam opens up to the Indian north-east (something that remains restive even 75 years after independence), while Bengal provides a corridor to the Maoist tribal belt – geographically, these regions would have much bigger consequences than Kashmir,” Arindam Mukherjee added.

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