In the mid-70s, as a student of upper Assam’s Tinsukia College, Golap Barua was more interested in sport than in studies. While in high school, he had set up the Jai Hind Club in his village Jerai Chakali-bhoriya in Dibrugarh district, and had already contributed towards making the village a nursery of football, where almost every family has a boy who has played for Assam.
But in early 1978, while he was in Manipur as an official of a rural sports team, Golap Barua saw something more attractive — cadres of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and United National Liberation Front (UNLF). He thought of floating an armed rebel group to demand a sovereign state and, a few months later, he, along with his childhood friend Paresh Barua and a few others, had formed the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa).
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Over the next 4-5 years, many frustrated young men joined Ulfa, whose armed wing was led by Paresh Barua, and the political wing by Golap Barua, who had by then assumed the name Anup Chetia. Chetia, who also used the alias Sunil Barua, and was close to Ulfa ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain alias Mama (who died in December 2011), was instrumental in getting the tea industry to make a large annual payment to the outfit. According to the police, he also succeeded in getting several trusted aides contracts with the state government, ensuring a regular flow of funds.
Chetia was first arrested during Operation Bajrang, the Army offensive following Ulfa’s proscription in November 1990. In March 1992, he was part of a delegation that went to meet Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao in Delhi. He attended, also in 1992, a human rights conference in Geneva along with Paresh Barua and, probably, Mukul Hazarika, a UK-based Assamese doctor who has recently emerged as chairman of Barua’s anti-talk Ulfa faction under the name Abhijit Asom.
Soon afterward, Chetia disappeared — and was not seen until he was arrested in 1997 in Mohammadpur in Dhaka for illegally entering Bangladesh, and for illegally carrying foreign currency and a satellite phone. He then had at least three passports.
From around 1993, while being based in Bangladesh, Chetia and Paresh Barua set up several income-generating ventures, including poultry, media consultancy, soft drinks and transport. He also visited some other countries, apparently with ISI help. Meanwhile, Interpol issued a red corner notice in his name, which described him as a soft-spoken person who was known by at least two more names, Bhaijan and Ahmed.
After spending 16 years in jail in Bangladesh, and having seen the Ulfa split and Paresh Barua left with only a handful of armed wing boys, Chetia decided to return home. In a petition to the Bangladesh
authorities last year, he wrote, “I have changed my mind and I have decided to live the rest of my life with my children in my country (India).”
Boost to talks
Chetia’s reported willingness to be part of the peace process between Delhi and Ulfa’s pro-talks faction may be considered a major blow to the anti-talks faction headed by Paresh Barua. “The peace process will receive a much-needed boost with Chetia’s arrival,” Ulfa vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi, who is also part of the process, said.
The pro-talks faction headed by Ulfa chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa already has most senior leaders who have come overground in the last 7-8 years — the list includes Sasha Choudhury, Mrinal Hazarika, Chitrabon Hazarika, Raju Barua and Pranati Deka.
“Chetia’s return will definitely have a huge negative impact on Paresh Barua’s faction which has refused to be part of the peace process. Although Chetia was in prison for nearly 16 years, it had a positive psychological impact on rebels seeking shelter in Bangladesh. This is now over,” Assam DGP Khagen Sarma said.
But Paresh Barua will continue to remain a headache for the government. “Paresh Barua is more important now,” Sarma said. Getting back Paresh Barua, who is holed up in Myanmar, will be more difficult, because he has never shown any inclination to enter the peace process.
Paresh Barua had always wanted Chetia on his side. Upon completion of his seven-year prison term in 2005, Chetia sought political asylum in Bangladesh. In 2008, he wrote to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees seeking refugee status and asylum in any other country. In 2011, he again asked Dhaka for asylum, but his plea was turned down.
“Paresh Barua had always to tried to get Anup Chetia out from prison and get asylum in Bangladesh. All the petitions that Chetia made for asylum were done at the behest of Barua. It was only after all options were exhausted that Chetia began talking of returning to India,” former Assam DGP G M Srivastava said.
“Paresh Barua is now under total control of the Chinese agencies who will not let him come back to India so easily,” Srivastava said. “Moreover, he has become an international criminal, wanted more by Bangladesh than by India. And he can still create problems by using the handful of boys in his grip.”
Chetia’s return is likely to benefit the BJP ahead of Assembly elections next year. At least one Assamese-language newspaper headlined its report on Thursday as: “Modi government brings back Anup Chetia.”