India wants to get ULFA leader Paresh Barua to the table to expedite the Assam peace process after having brought in most of the rebel top guns, including Anup Chetia.
Sri Sri Ravishankar was recently involved in an effort to bring Barua to the table and there was optimism among many in Delhi who believe the Art of Living guru can wield his magic on the elusive rebel chief . Having known Barua for more than three decades , I knew that would not happen. As expected, Barua soon went back to his old music that anyone who has covered Assam seriously is familiar with – ” I will talk with India only if Delhi agrees to discuss Assam’s sovereignty”. But this unsuccessful mediation effort, duly played by the media, sends confusing signals to Bangladesh.
It is unclear why the Modi administration fails to keep such efforts a secret. Vaidik goes to Pakistan and meets Hafiz Saeed and it is all over Pakistani and Indian papers the next day. Ravishanker opens parleys with Paresh Barua and it is in the media within a day or two. One wonders whether some of these are intended leaks to boost personal images but secret operations deliver only when kept a secret, as Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar never misses a chance to stress.
Barua is too close to Pakistani intelligence to consider a meaningful dialogue with India. Look at ULFA statements supporting Pakistani intrusions in Kargil and now opposing ‘Indian interference’ in Tibet, and one would know the point I am trying to make. Other rebel leaders in Northeast have attacked India for a host of reasons, some time with some justification, but none have as shamelessly supported Pakistan and China as Barua. Left with just a few hundred supporters, Barua is trying to kowtow to China and Pakistan who have got him to form the four-group UNLFSWEA rebel coalition . With an ailing Khaplang uncertain of day-to-day control over his outfit, this is a smart move by Barua to take control of Naga, Manipuri and Bodo fighters through standard Maoist-style coalition politics – and this is exactly what his Chinese minders want.
There are some in the higher echelons of Indian security architechure, like NSA Ajit Doval, who are convinced about Barua not talking to India – and precisely for the reasons discussed. But the BJP’s politcal managers in Assam had wished to cosy up to Barua before the polls to secure some electoral advantage – which may explain Ravishankar’s efforts. Some similar backroom efforts have also been reportedly initiated by a Congress-turned-BJP leader with help from some in his family who know Barua well. A reporter from the Assam TV channel owned by his wife was granted an exclusive interview by Barua in Myanmar’s Hkamti township in a hotel. The last time he granted an interview to a journalist in person was to the reporter of a now-defunct paper who happened to be a cousin of the Congress-turned BJP leader.
But the Ravishanker mediation effort left Bangladesh totally confused. During the recent launch of my book ‘Agartala Doctrine’ in Dhaka, at least two senior Bangladesh intelligence officials expressed their angst and said the signals on Barua from India were confusing them. They revealed that Bangladesh was keen to ‘take out’ Barua because he was, they said, planning to strike at Bibiyana gasfields in Sylhet and other targets after the Rapid Action Battalion busted a huge cache of weapons at the former ULFA base in Sherpur on the Meghalaya-Bangladesh border last month. Even anti-aircraft missiles were recovered during these raids. It is now clear Barua had cached these weapons mostly for sale to other groups like Indian Maoists and Bangladeshi Islamists, because ULFA does not need such a huge stockpile, with only a few hundred fighters left. Barua may have successfully organised some smart image building exercise by taking journalists to his bases and getting them to write eulogies but the reality is he is less of a separatist revolutionary and more of a gun-running warlord.
After he was sentenced to death by a Chittagong court for his role in the 2004 arms smuggling case, Barua has stayed away from Bangladesh and not appealed against the verdict, which means if he is caught there, he will be hanged immediately. He maintains close links with the BNP-Jamaat combine and both his bodyguard-cooks are Bangladeshis – Golam Nabi and Alamgir Hossain of Noahkhali. As former Assam police chiefs GM Srivastava and Khagten Sarma said during my Guwahati book launch, Barua does not trust even his close Assamese comrades anymore because they are fatigued and keen to return to normal life. Bangladesh intelligence agencies are also aware of his involvement in the Aug 21 2004 grenade attack on an Awami League rally that killed dozens and left Sheikh Hasina with impaired hearing.
It has been reliably learnt that the Bangladesh agencies were planning to strike at Barua in Tenchong by using one of his two bodyguards, but even as the ‘operation’ was mounted, the Ravishanker mediation story surfaced in Indian media. On receipt of political directives, the Bangladesh agencies backed off from the operation to strike at Barua, lest it upset India. It may be difficult to do that again because assets may be nervous about flip-flops by handlers.
The late B.B Nandi of RAW had once told me that his superiors had scrapped a plan to hit Barua in Thailand, by using some Thai police assets he had created while operating out of the Indian embassy under consular cover. Nandi, one of the legendary RAW operatives who had also worked in Bangladesh, insisted his Thai police assets were willing to kill Barua for a price – the whole operation, he said, would have costed Indian taxpayers less than 10,000 US dollars. Strangely, he did not get the go-ahead from his headquarters.
But this whole episode about Bangladesh planning a hit on Barua, some in India wanting something like that to happen while others making last ditch efforts to bring the warlord to the table is a classic case of how India confuses even friendly neighbours about its motives and priorities. It is possible to give scores of such instances , involving Nepal , Sri Lanka, Myanmar and surely Bangladesh – not to talk of Pakistan. The worst sufferers of such policy confusion are India’s assets in the neighborhood – and in the end, Indian interests themselves.
The National Unity Party of Arakans, used by Indian intelligence for two decades, were decimated by an Indian military operation, their entire top leadership killed by Indian soldiers in Landfall islands in Andamans in Feb 1998. It took some of us including Nandita Haksar to get the 37 Arakan fighters, interned after they had been asked to come to receive Indian help and then betrayed, out of jail after several years of legal battle. After this, no ethnic rebel group, not even the Kachins who once had close relations with RAW in the days of B B Nandi, is prepared to deal with India. Just look at how badly Nepali Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai has been let down . He resigned from his party in protest against the ‘anti-minority clauses’ of Nepal constitution, apparently on Indian encouragement, only to be let down because India lost the script on Nepal by playing too much of the Madhesi card, specially ahead of the Bihar elections.