Having successfully secured the custody of Anup Chetia, the founder and general secretary of the United Liberation Front of Asom, from Bangladesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government is now under pressure from ULFA that he should be associated with the on-going peace talks at the earliest.

Realising that the BJP is pushing for the successful conclusion of the Centre-ULFA dialogue with an eye on the next year’s assembly elections in Assam, the pro-talks faction of the banned separatist group declined to participate in the discussion on Tuesday, stating it would rather wait till Chetia joins the talks.

The Centre had hoped to make some progress at the meeting with leaders of the pro-talks ULFA leaders, especially since it had worked the diplomatic back channels with the Bangladesh government to time Chetia’s return with the on-going peace talks. As founder of the banned ULFA, Chetia is held in high esteem in his home-state and even described as Assam’s “Nelson Mandela”.

However, the dialogue made no headway as the ULFA delegation led by its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa told  Union home secretary Rajiv Mehrishi  that the Centre should make necessary arrangements to facilitate Chetia’s participation in the dialogue.

“There was no political discussion today, as we conveyed to the Centre that Chetia has to join the talks. We will hold further rounds of discussion only after he  joins the discussion,”  ULFA spokesperson Shashadhar Choudhury said after the brief meeting.  He said they had come for the talks since the date was fixed before Chetia’s return.

Chetia was taken into custody by the Central Bureau of Investigation after Bangladesh handed him over to India two weeks ago and is currently lodged in a Guwahati jail on charges of murder, extortion and abduction.

Lack of clarity

Although Rajkhowa and Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju appeared optimistic about a possible breakthrough in the on-going talks, there is no clarity over Chetia’s participation in the dialogue. In fact, when Chetia was handed over to India, it was expected that his return would give the necessary push to the peace process as the government was equally keen on his participation in the negotiations. However, Chetia’s views on the on-going dialogue are not known.

The pro-talks faction is now expected to meet him in Guwahati to discuss this issue. There are also reports that the Centre’s interlocutor PC Haldar, who has already discussed the contours of  the dialogue with the jailed ULFA leader, has not succeeded in persuading Chetia as he is learnt to be  wary about the Centre’s pre-conditions for participating in the discussion.  On the other hand, the pro-talks ULFA faction is keen that the Centre should conclude the discussions before the assembly elections.

Initiated by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2011, the peace process has made slow progress over the past four years and has invariably got stalled as the pro-talks ULFA leaders had listed Chetia’s participation in the dialogue as a key pre-condition for continuing with the discussion.

Chetia was arrested in Dhaka in 1997 for illegal possession of foreign currency and a satellite phone. However, he was not deported to India after he completed his seven year jail term on the plea that India and Bangladesh do not have an extradition treaty. The matter was further complicated after the separatist leader sought political asylum in Bangladesh.  New Delhi persisted in its efforts to secure Chetia’s custody, especially since his presence was critical for the success of its talks with ULFA.

But now that he is back, it is to be seen on what conditions Chetia will agree to join the dialogue. On the other hand, the anti-talks faction of ULFA headed by Paresh Baruah is working overtime to see that the peace process fails. Baruah’s ULFA (Independent) has been waging an armed battle for a sovereign Assam from his base in neighbouring Myanmar.