Late autumn in Guwahati is not very exciting. It's misty and dusty. And the blur with winter happens without notice. On an average, half the people you know are complaining of some kind of viral infection. And oh yes, it gets dark too early which can be rather depressing.
Though it has nothing to do with the weather, I decided at the beginning of this week to get into office as early as I could to manage my life better.
The day began with the news of an explosion of a tankwagon in which twelve coaches of a oil tankwagon went up in flames. The remoteness of the location sidetracked the news but for thousands of passengers, it was a nightmare reaching their destination. Security agencies hinted at sabotage but there's still no definitive cause to the explosion.
A little later news came in of the release of an abducted engineer of a road construction company. Mr P Krishna Rao taken hostage exactly a month ago in Lower Assam's Kokrajhar district found his way back probably after a negotiated payment made to a militant outfit which was engaged in talks with the government till last year. Abduction is so routine in these parts that the news received only a mere mention.
Later in the day two militant leaders were produced at the court for another term in custody. This court scene too is rather routine for anyone to take notice. But this is what interested me most.
It was one of the most high profile arrests in years. ULFA's foreign and finance secys on their way to the court. But where did they emerge from? They were in neighbouring Bangladesh for years.. so what made the Bangladesh govt suddenly wake up and round them up? Further the same govt which has been avoiding giving up another ULFA frontline leader Anup Chetia actually hands over these two leaders without any fuss. How and why did this happen?
Going by recent developments and ULFA's past record ,this arrest and handover doesnt seem like just another arrest.
Sasha Choudhury the arrested selfstyled foreign secy is the only ULFA member trained in diplomacy and someone who has intervened at the UN. His
colleague Chitraban Hazarika also under arrest is a Central Committee member and equipped to participate in talks. That is if talks happen.Direct talks with govt would mean the top man Paresh Baruah coming overground but thats unlikely anytime soon. So the parleys can begin with these two along with other leaders already in jail.
But why would the two top men, Paresh Baruah and Arabinda Rajkhowa remain elusive? If there's a division in leadership regarding talks, then it's advantage government of India.
But going by its past records ULFA would possibly use talks as a firewall to move out of Bangladesh and seek new haven in China and re establish old bases in Myanmar. Its old Bhutan ally NDFB is active once again and seeking Arunachal route to Myanmar.That strengthens the case.
So if ULFA has sent these two men to begin some kind of talks while seeking out fresh bases and old collaborators the signs are ominous.
Just how important are the arrests to ULFA's foreign and finance secretaries? To the larger journalistic community it may not have any relevance because Sasha Choudhury and Chitraban Hazarika are names that donot ring a bell. But the impact of these arrests may be bigger than many of those that make to our headlines.
A diploma in civil engineering Sasha Choudhury, educated himself in diplomacy in Philippines and represented ULFA at international foras including the UN. He is probably the only English speaking ULFA leader. Infact he even interrupts his interrogators to correct their language. His collegue Chitraban Hazarika the finance secretary is a commerce graduate. ULFA otherwise has very few educated cadres and leaders and thats why its important to mention this detail.The arrival of these two leaders may just be a part of the ULFA design.
Choudhury and Hazarika were arrested at the beginning of this month but the news was remained unconfirmed. By some chance accident I knew when they were picked up. But I could not substantiate it. My source was simple. After the news arrived I randomly crosschecked with police stations regarding police cases about these two persons and I knew that someone or some agency was collating data on them.Obviously something was going on.
On 6th November the same sceptical media went to town with this arrest but the interest did not sustain. That's again because most of the people who study conflict or report on conflict or analyse the same wasn't very sure of how important these two persons are in the 'larger picture'. Infact ULFA doesnt even appear in the larger picture anylonger.
ULFA is probably looking at two things. First they would like to cash on public pressure for talks and make the government talk even without Paresh Baruah and Arobindo Rajkhowa. Secondly they want the image of ULFA to be refreshed in the mind of Assam as the return of the prodigal son. There could not be a more convenient time for a virtual safe passage. Its 109 Battalion has nothing more than forty cadres controlling the Assam -Meghalaya-Bangladesh corridor. Its strongest force 709 Battalion in Lower Assam has about a hundred cadres. Majority of them are mercenaries. Its strike force the 28th battalion came overground last year. And a majority of its leaders are ageing and are in jail.
Will the government take the bait and encourage talks? ULFA is one outfit in the North East which has never effected a split. Paresh Baruah has ensured that the chain of command doesn't break. He has not indicated his mood for dialogue and the government of India's brand of dialogues are anything but effective.
Before each election, the government has record of slowing down its operations against the outfit in some sort of a symbiotic exchange. The outfit each time makes sure they regroup to strike back.
The ULFA needs a breather again and if reports of its Chinese liason is even remotely true then Assam should brace itself for another round of protracted conflict.
Kishalay Bhattacharjee is a broadcast journalist obsessed with the audio visual medium. Very opinionated that journalism is far removed from activism and he hates long bios. An Edward Murrow Fellow, Kishalay received the Ramnath Goenka Award for Journalism 2006-2007.
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