Northeast India, where seven Indian states with different ethnic groups straddle three international borders, has always been a boiling pot of emotions and grievances. The rise of China and the spread of Islamist militancy have now injected a new dynamic. China’s increasingly strident claim to India’s Arunachal Pradesh and the Pakistani intelligence agency’s effort to stir up trouble in the Northeast, using the Muslim majority Bangladesh as a conduit, have entangled local grievances with a larger global agenda, making the resolution of such grievances ever more complicated. For the time being, the emergence of a moderate government in Bangladesh has given India a window of opportunity.
After years of strained relations with Bangladesh, when India accused it of harbouring anti-India insurgents, a thaw came with the victory of Awami League in December 2008. The state visit to India by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in January this year came a month after Bangladesh had detained several leaders of the separatist United Liberation Front of Assam, ULFA, and handed them over to the Indian authorities. Among them was ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and deputy commander Raju Baruah who for years had been based in Bangladesh.
Their Islamist and Pakistani link too suffered when on January 27, Bangladesh executed five ex-army officers convicted of the 1975 murder of the country’s independence leader - and Sheikh Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Among those executed was Lt Col Syed Faruque Rahman - who, in 1988, first met ULFA’s then foreign affairs chief Munim Nobis. That marked the beginning of ULFA’s clandestine presence in Bangladesh. According to Sanjoy Hazarika the Assamese author of Strangers in the Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India’s Northeast, Nobis traveled from Dhaka to Pakistan where his Bangladeshi contacts introduced him to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.
Faruque and his accomplices fled the country after the murder of president Mujibur Rahman but returned in the 1980s from their self-imposed exile and formed the right-wing and Islamic Freedom Party, which, according to an official, 2002 compilation from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, has alleged ties with “ultra right-wing groups such as the Harkatul Jihad” which is linked to the ISI.
Though born out of a nationalist movement to expel illegal Bangladeshi migrants from Assam, ironically ULFA ended up being based in Bangladesh, and used by India’s arch enemy Pakistan to stir up trouble in India’s northeast. ISI may not have been particularly interested in the ULFA’s separatist cause, but if militancy increased in the northeast, India would be forced to withdraw troops from the battlefront in Kashmir and send them to Assam, which would suit Pakistan. At least, that was the strategy, as ULFA commander-in-chief Poresh Baruah told this correspondent in Bangkok in March 1992.
In the 1980s, ULFA also established camps in Bhutan, mainly in the Samdrup Jongkhar region in the southeast, where ULFA ran lucrative businesses in the names of local Bhutanese citizens. However, in December 2003, the Bhutanese army, assisted by India, moved against ULFA and some of its allies, driving them out.
Following that operation, ULFA lost not only its cross-border sanctuaries in Bhutan but also huge stocks of arms and ammunition, which were seized by the Bhutanese and the Indians. To make up for these losses, ULFA, reportedly with assistance from Pakistan through a Pakistani businessman in Dubai, arranged for a massive arms shipment from China. But it was seized in the Bangladeshi port of Chittagong in April 2004. Jane’s Intelligence Review reported in July 2004 that the shipment originated from Hong Kong and reached Sittwe in Burma, where the weaponry was transferred to some smaller vessels and shipped to Chittagong. According to Jane’s, the shipment was worth an estimated US$4.5 million to $7 million and included about 2,000 Chinese-made automatic and semi-automatic weapons, rocket propelled grenade launchers, and vast quantities of ammunition and hand grenades.
China’s role in shipping military equipment to ULFA remains obscure, and it is not inconceivable that the weapons were obtained on the black market. However, diplomatic sources in Bangkok point out that the Chinese black market is actually more grey than black; former officers in the Chinese army buy weapons from army units as well as directly from the North China Industries Corporation, or Norinco, and sell them on. “This cannot be done without the Chinese authorities at least turning a blind eye to the trade,” says one such diplomatic source. Given China’s increasingly sharp border dispute with India, keeping a little but deniable fire going in northeast India may be a good strategy.
In the mid 1990s, ULFA units trekked through northern Burma to the Sino-Burmese border areas and even managed to open an unofficial “office” in the Chinese frontier town of Ruili. According to a well-placed local source in Ruili, ULFA maintained a more or less permanent presence in Ruili until 2007, and managed to buy weapons from Chinese dealers as well as former rebel groups that also had made peace with the Burmese government. Among them were the local army in the Kokang area and the powerful United Wa State Army, which is made up of the bulk of the fighting force of the now defunct Communist Party of Burma. “There was a lot of trade in 2006-2007,” the source alleged.
It is unclear why ULFA had to close its Ruili office in 2007, but as the organisation’s leaders were being rounded up in Bangladesh and deported to India, commander-in-chief Baruah was indeed spotted in the border town of Yingjiang opposite Burma’s Kachin State.
Following its recent reversals, ULFA strength appears to be dwindling, and without immediate cross-border sanctuaries in countries such as Bangladesh and Bhutan - and a secure supply of weapons - its future is uncertain. A key determinant will be the durability of Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League in power. Bangladeshi politics can be turbulent, to put it mildly, and sudden changes and shifts occur frequently. Sheikh Hasina was prime minister from 1996 to 2001 as well, and that was also a period of tougher conditions for ULFA and other groups battling the Indian government. As soon as she was forced to resign after a defeat in the 2001 election, and her enemies in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party came to power, relations with Pakistan improved. And ULFA leaders returned from South-East Asia, where some of them had been in exile since 1996. Then it all changed again when the Awami League returned to power a little over a year ago.
Given the volatility of Bangladesh politics, ULFA’s future also depends on what India will do with Rajkhowa and the other leaders who were deported in December. The word here in Guwahati, the state capital of Assam, is that New Delhi may try to neutralise ULFA with money and promises of representation in local administrations - as it has done with other separatist movements in India’s volatile northeastern region. It also depends on what Baruah may be planning. It is doubtful whether he can achieve much from his hideout in a small Chinese border town. But that may also change - if China believes he can be useful for their designs for the region. With India-China relations growing tense as the rivalry between Asia’s two giants intensifies, the ULFA commander can, at least for the time being, feel pretty safe in his present sanctuary.