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Portrait of anonymity

Journalist Rajib Bhattacharya. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Journalist Rajib Bhattacharya. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar;Ritu Raj Konwar

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Rajeev Bhattacharjee’s “Rendezvous With Rebels” is a gripping tale of his nearly 800 km secret trek to the North East rebel camps in Myanmar to meet some of India’s most wanted men.

Compared to Kashmir and its insurgency, the North East and its rebel movements are certainly low on the priority list of the Central Government. But, with about 30 armed rebel groups operating in a strategic region lined with international borders, the area can be termed one of South Asia’s hottest trouble spots.



For the national media too, the region is not as ‘hot’ as that of Kashmir. In fact, it is difficult to find a New Delhi reporter chasing the region regularly — particularly its rebel groups, while the coops of ‘Kashmir and Maoist experts’ in the news organisations are ever expanding!



Therefore, “Rendezvous With Rebels”, Guwahati-based journalist Rajeev Bhattacharjee’s first person account of a nearly four-month long secret trek to some of the banned NE rebel camps in Myanmar’s eastern Nagaland is as much a compelling read of a travel memoir of a remote land as it is laying hands on a mine of information in short supply in Indian journalism.



Rajeev, who walked on nearly 800 kms on a treacherous path, stayed in the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-Khaplang) camps and interviewed two of India’s most wanted men — Paresh Baruah and S.S. Khaplang. He also met I.K. Songbijit, president of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, at his camp. Rajeev, associated with the now-defunct English daily Seven Sisters then, was accompanied by Guwahati-based scribe Pradip Gogoi. He says though he had interacted — like some other journalists — with Baruah on the phone on some occasions to gather news on ULFA, the trip became possible after years of putting a request to him to meet face to face. “Before me, Baruah met only Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner for an interview,” points out Rajeev.



Now, with ULFA splitting into two after its chairman Arabindo Rajkhowa came overground to talk peace with the Centre, and Baruah opposed to it, Rajeev’s interview with the chief sheds light on many things including Baruah’s dogged personality. “It is because of my principles that I have been able to stick to the organisation for 32 long years,” he told Rajeev.



The interview in the book (Harper Collins) also highlights crucial information like, Baruah refusing any truck with Pakistan’s ISI because of its “unreasonable demands”; that till the time of the interview ULFA had no strategic understanding with the Maoists as often alleged; that before flushing them out of Bhutan on India’s behest, the King, “at a meeting with ULFA representatives in Thimpu in 2001, offered to give Rs. 200 crore to the outfit and assistance in transferring all the cadres to Myanmar” as he “felt that security of the southern districts bordering Assam would be jeopardised if these rebels were evicted by force.”



With an India-friendly government in place in Bangladesh now, eastern Nagaland in Myanmar seems the main base of these ‘liberation’ groups, many parts of which are administered by NSCN (Khaplang) with virtually no presence of the Myanmar Government there. Seeing India getting friendly with Myanmar’s Junta, NSCN (K) entered into a formal ceasefire agreement with the Myanmarese army two months after Rajeev’s return.



The book, through a wide canvas, helps the reader get a firm grasp on NE insurgency and its history, particularly of ULFA and NSCN. In an email interview, Rajeev quotes ULFA’s acting chairman Avijit Barman admitting “that it would not be possible for the outfit to militarily defeat the Indian armed forces.” He though adds, “Barman said that India would be preparing for a ‘limited war’ with China and, whenever that breaks out, it would be a ‘golden chance to kick India out of Assam’.”

Excerpts:



Why do you thinkg Paresh Baruah agreed to meet you? You mention that arrival of arms and ammunition were timed with your visit.



Baruah wanted to convey that he was still strong and had the capability to rejuvenate ULFA and take on the Indian State with renewed vigour. I feel the weapons consignment was timed with our presence so that photographs could be taken and splashed in the media. This is important for survival, recruitment of cadres and gathering funds at a time when the chips are low for the outfit.



You also mention him to be somewhat removed from reality. Do you think while the ground situation in Assam had changed over the years, the rebels have remained caught in a time warp?



ULFA has faltered in strategy and this is apparent at every step of its history. No insurgent group can hope to survive for long without support and ULFA wasn’t too bothered about this. Baruah’s answers to my queries seem to suggest that he is not realistic. There is a dearth of dedicated cadres in ULFA unlike the Manipuri groups. It’s doubtful how many would actually be willing to carry on the campaign in the jungles. All indigenous communities in Assam are now more concerned about protecting their identities rather than fighting for independence from India.

He talked about Sanjoy Ghose’s murder affecting ULFA’s international reputation.

Baruah told me there was no instruction to kill Sanjoy Ghosh. He was picked up on suspicion of being close to the Indian intelligence. He said the ULFA leaders were at Geneva when the controversy erupted in 1997. Their plan was to drum up international support through meetings with diplomats from 10 countries. But Arundhati Ghosh, Sanjoy’s aunt and a Foreign Service official, campaigned against the ULFA. She was successful and all ULFA top functionaries had to duck for cover and leave Europe.

How do you see the situation now with one faction opting for peace talks with the Centre under Arabinda Rajkhowa and Baruah still in the wild?

Baruah is unlikely to come for talks unless the Government agrees to discuss Assam’s ‘sovereignty’ which is unlikely. I see the possibility of an accord between the pro-talks faction and the Centre which might seek to plug the loopholes in the Assam Accord of 1985.

How do you look back at your trip, something not quite common in Indian journalism?

It was once-in-a-lifetime experience — exclusive and exciting. I had two things in mind then. First, to further my research on an aspect of insurgency in India’s North East. Second, to churn out exclusive news stories for my newspaper of which I was the founding executive editor. After I returned, I realised that I had enough information to pen a travelogue which I did.

How was your visit looked at by the security forces?

I was never questioned by any Government agency. Frankly speaking, if I were an intelligence official, I would befriend anybody who has stayed so long at a rebel base of separatist outfits from the North East. Phone tapping may not be enough all the time.

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Printable version | Nov 20, 2018 5:44:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/portrait-of-anonymity/article7105031.ece

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