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Anup Chetia changes track. Can he make a difference?

Rajeev Bhattacharyya | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 1:30 IST

Change of tune

  • Ulfa General Secretary Anup Chetia sought forgiveness for past mistakes
  • He said he wont run away like he did in the past

More in the story

  • What has dogged Ulfa over the years
  • Can Anup Chetia make a difference

United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) General Secretary Anup Chetia has asked for "forgiveness" from the people of Assam for "past mistakes" committed by the outfit.

Chetia, aka Golap Baruah, also confirmed his participation in the ongoing peace talks between the Ulfa faction headed by chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and the Centre, which started in 2011. Chetia was speaking to reporters outside the designated Tada court in Guwahati on Tuesday.

Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, or Tada, was an anti-terror law in force between 1985 and 1995.

Read: Anup Chetia is out of jail. What does that mean for India?

Chetia said he will not be "running away" as he did in 1992 when he was allowed by the government to explore the possibility of beginning talks after being apprehended in Kolkata. He had attended some meetings near Nagaon but soon crossed the border to Bangladesh to join hardliners like Ulfa Chief of Staff Paresh Baruah.

Tuesday's apology is similar to the gesture by Rajkhowa after he was released from jail some years ago for peace talks. But Chetia's statement has greater implication as it comes at a time when speculation is rife about an agreement with the Centre.

His bail plea will likely not be opposed by the government. The police have nine cases registered against Chetia, while the Central Bureau of Investigation has one.

The road ahead

It seems Chetia is now preparing for the crucial role of a peacemaker. For this, the first precondition would be his acceptability among the people at a time when support for Ulfa is already on the wane, except in a few districts such as Dibrugarh and Tinsukia.

Incidents like the 2005 Dhemaji blast which killed 10 school students, the disappearance of noted social activist Sanjoy Ghosh from Majuli after being abducted and the outfit's reversal of policies on Bangladeshi immigrants have contributed immensely towards eroding its social base.

Sources close to Chetia said he would like to ensure that the forthcoming agreement with the Centre would not be a repetition of the 1985 accord, which had failed to provide safeguards to indigenous communities of Assam and check infiltration from Bangladesh.

They also think Chetia may float a new regional party. Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which started in 1985, is struggling for survival and its political space has been encroached upon by Bharatiya Janata Party.

"He is upbeat and seems to be trying to gauge the situation in the correct perspective," said an Ulfa functionary who is not underground. "Probably he will meet the cadre lodged in the different designated camps immediately after his release."

Ulfa's vertical split into those for and against talks is well known. What has remained concealed is the gap that has emerged between the top, middle and lower rung functionaries who are not underground. A common complaint against the leadership is that its focus has shifted away from peace talks.

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There were hopes that an accord would be clinched soon after talks started. But talks have dragged on like the peaces processes with other militant organisations in the North East. The last round of negotiations in New Delhi after a gap of almost a year. The delay fuelled speculation that the government was no longer interested.

A low monthly stipend of Rs 3,000 has also annoyed the rank and file of Ulfa. Most low-rung functionaries take it as a joke. On several occasions, there have been delays in releasing the amount, which has been interpreted as "intentional and a game plan of the government".

Chetia's pluses

Unlike any other leader, the general secretary is accepted by all sections of Ulfa. He was among those who laid the outfit's foundation and was also one of the first to be arrested (Guwahati, 1987) along with Jiten Gogoi.

Since he had been in jail since 1997, Chetia has remained shielded from many controversies that damaged the reputation of top leaders. Joining hands with Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence, arms deals and failure to anticipate Operation All Clear in Bhutan in late 2003, which destroyed all rebel camps have cropped up in public debates in Assam at regular intervals.

Chetia's challenge would also be to bridge differences among the cadre and present a unified front. An accord that would be different from the earlier one and implemented within a specific time-frame would justify the outfit's softening up on sovereignty.

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First published: 16 December 2015, 4:41 IST
Rajeev Bhattacharyya

Rajeev is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of 'Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India's Most Wanted Men'.