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Sheikh Hasina Does Not Wish to Go the Pakistan Way
by Sanjoy Hazarika Bookmark and Share
The crackdown on the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), northeastern India's separatist militants, and its associate groups has partly grown out of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's deep concern to avoid any experience similar to the devastation that Pakistan's involvement with the Taliban and Afghanistan's civil war has wrought on that country.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, who visited India in September, has said her country had "pledged not to allow our land to be used by any terrorist".

Moni's declaration and the statements of others I have spoken to in the past days show that Dhaka has shrugged off its earlier disregard or disinterest in Indian charges of insurgent safe houses and locations on its territory and is determined to get tough.

Former diplomats from Bangladesh as well as a top Indian government official said in separate interviews that more extremists were likely to be seized and handed over to India, as in the case of Arabinda Rajkhowa and his associates. The ULFA chief's detention was preceded by similar seizures of "foreign secretary" Sasha Chowdhury and "finance secretary" Chitrabon Hazarika. This was followed by the capture of two fundamentalists allegedly involved in bomb blasts in Bangalore, again at the Meghalaya border.

A confident Awami League government with a landslide majority in parliament is now prepared to take a tough stand against the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and not to let its territory be used to wage attacks or conduct activities that hurt its larger neighbour. Sheikh Hasina has, since coming to power, taken tough measures: the head of the army as well as the powerful intelligence setup, the Directorate General of Field Intelligence, which has extensive links to ISI, have been changed.

"The Pakistan experience is looming large on her mind," said a senior Bangladeshi editor, who is well-informed and has extensive contacts in Bangladesh's governing elite. "She has always been against the involvement of ISI, but earlier she had neither the majority nor the guts to do what she needed to do in her first term (1996-2001)." He hoped that India would understand and reciprocate in her forthcoming visit.

It was important, he and others say, for India to understand that the ami
League, which won independence in 1971 for Bangladesh on the back of a brilliant
Indian military intervention and the courageous Mukti Bahini, the guerrilla arm
of the Bangladeshi liberation movement, has been in power in Bangladesh for a
bare eight years out of the 38 years of independence.

&q"In the 30 years it was not in power, India has been demonized and a whole generation of Bangladeshis have been brought up on an anti-India diet."

Earlier, a top former Bangladeshi diplomat told me his country "did not believe in a friendly terrorist...the new government does not believe in harboring terrorists and allowing them to indulge in terrorism in India" like the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), whose chairman, the reclusive and elusive Ranjan Daimary, has also allegedly been held.

Another important point to stress is that the Bangladeshi resolve to act appears to have been reinforced after it came out that the Chittagong arms haul of 2002 was for ULFA and it was seized at the port just in time, having paid for through a Pakistani bank account.

The facts of Rajkhowa's capture are shrouded in mystery and the situation remains murky, not helped by varying government statements, one that he had been arrested or another that he had surrendered and Rajkhowa's emphatic declaration that he had not given up and would not.

The ULFA chairman also made an important declaration, raising his handcuffs - a gesture that drew support for him even from his detractors: "There cannot be negotiations with handcuffs, mukti hobo lagibo (one has to be free)."

What is clear is that Rajkhowa did not come willingly; he was intercepted, probably by the Bangladeshis, near Cox's Bazar and then handed over to the Indians. During this period, his family members were also united with him, apparently, according to one top Indian government official, at his request.

It is without a doubt that the presentation of Rajkhowa in handcuffs was, to say the least, inappropriate, if not foolish. But he has long been wanted for waging war against the state, a charge that carries the maximum penalty under law. Matters have not been helped with casual remarks by the chief minister that since Rajkhowa, whose real name is Rajiv Rajkonwar, had come back after a long time, "let him have home food", a trivialisation of the stunning setback for ULFA and a tremendous opportunity for peace in the region.

The government is also apparently determined not to let him out of its sight, recalling the 1992 fiasco when he met former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and agreed to a ceasefire and to abide by the constitution. He backed down after interacting with cadres and pressure from the elusive Paresh Baruah, who remains at large in the Kachin lands near China where ULFA has had long camps and collaborations with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang) - which too has a ceasefire with the government of India, although it is not negotiating for anything unlike its more powerful rival (NSCN-IM), which has had over 50 rounds of talks which do not appear to have gone anywhere.

In the light of the background of unconditional talks with the Nagas, it is imperative that the government of India clarifies its position on the future of discussions with ULFA, which remains a banned organization. People in Assam do not want sovereignty; that is a chimera, a pipe dream; they are more interested in peace through a political dialogue that will facilitate the deliverables to basic needs and services, disrupted by years of conflict.

(Sanjoy zarika, a specialist on the northeast, is author, filmmaker and independent columnist.
He can be contacted at
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