THE release of Ulfa’s founding general secretary Anup Chetia from jail after 18 years has not only brought to an end one major chapter of the rebel group’s story, but has also indicated the beginning of another. Within hours of his release on bail on Thursday evening, the rebel leader said something that hadn’t ever been uttered by any ULFA leader in its 36-year-old history. “Our struggle will continue. But it will no longer be an armed struggle. Instead, it will be a democratic one,” Chetia said.
Chetia didn’t elaborate on what kind of a “democratic struggle” he had in mind but this was a major climbdown for someone who is considered among the outfit’s big guns. But, one thing is for sure: his joining the pro-talk faction of the ULFA headed by chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa has only strengthened the peace initiative that the government of India had begun with the ULFA three years ago.
Chetia is no ordinary rebel. While the ULFA’s Paresh Barua had built the military wing of the outfit, it was the soft-spoken Chetia who set up its political wing. During the ULFA’s formative years, he drew several college teachers into its fold to provide intellectual heft to the organisation. Chetia is also said to have been instrumental in getting in touch with leaders of the People’s Liberation Army and the United National Liberation Front, two top insurgent groups of Manipur which joined hands with Barua to set up the Indo-Burmese Revolutionary Front in the early 1990s and very recently the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia.
At one point, Chetia was the man who ensured a steady flow of funds into the outfit’s coffers. In the late 1980s, he allegedly got the tea industry to pay a huge sum of money to the outfit on an annual basis. Police reports said he made sure several of his trusted men landed contracts with the state government so that the money would keep coming in.
First arrested in 1991, a few months after ULFA was banned, Chetia had also led a delegation to meet then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao at the instance of then chief minister Hiteswar Saikia. But he soon jumped bail and disappeared, only to be arrested in Dhaka in December 1997, for illegally entering Bangladesh and for illegally carrying foreign currency, a satellite phone and at least three passports.
There’s another implication of Chetia’s return to India after spending 18 long years in different jails in Bangladesh. With New Delhi moving quickly to release him on bail in order to facilitate his joining the pro-talk faction, the importance and strength of Paresh Barua, the military head of the outfit and who is opposed to the peace talks, will be seriously challenged. Chetia, though, said he hoped Barua, said to be holed up somewhere close to the China border in Myanmar, would return to India. He also expressed his willingness to try and convince Barua to do so, “provided the government gave the green signal”.
Chetia, whose official name is Golap Barua, and Barua, a former Northeast Frontier Railway football player, are cousins and grew up in adjoining houses in Jerai Chakalibhoriya, a village near Dibrugarh known for producing several national- and international-level football players. “Paresh is my cousin and I was responsible for his joining the ULFA over three decades ago. I hope he will also come (to India). I hope he considers it. I would have been happy had he also been standing beside me today,” Chetia said soon after his release.
So far, Barua hasn’t reacted to Chetia’s return. It has been more than a month since Chetia was handed over to India, but Barua has maintained a studied silence, probably watching every move of his mentor.
The fact, however, remains that Chetia’s return would cause a change in the minds of a couple of hundred ‘boys’ who continued to owe their allegiance to Paresh Barua after chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa’s return to India in December 2009 and his subsequent release in January 2011.
So what’s behind Chetia’s visible softening of stance? Considered to be the most well-read and analytical of the top three, Chetia knows which way the wind is blowing. He has already said that it was the “changing global politics” that prompted him to return to India. For several years after his seven-year jail term in Bangladesh ended, he tried to find asylum, first in a third country and then in Bangladesh itself. Though Chetia didn’t spell out the “changing global politics”, an indication can be found from what Bhimkanta Buragohain, the outfit’s ideologue who was arrested in the 2003 Bhutan operations, said about a decade ago. Buragohain had then spoken about how a section of ULFA leaders were discussing among themselves this changing situation — India-Bangladesh ties, Myanmar’s political transition and waning support from Pakistan’s ISI.
Besides these changes circumstances, Chetia, re-united with his wife and children, had probably also sensed the changing mood back in his home state: that ULFA no longer enjoys popular public support. That very few turned up to see Chetia as he drove from Guwahati to his ancestral village on Friday — in sharp contrast to the thousands who turned up to listen to Rajkhowa exactly five years ago when he too drove home after being released — is just one indicator of how things have changed for the outfit and for Chetia.