OPINION

Towards peace in the Northeast

Bangladesh’s decision to hand over ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) general secretary Anup Chetia to India is an important step towards peace in the region. Together with the imminent extradition of Thai arms dealer Wuthikorn Naruenartwanich, alias Willy Naru, it demonstrates the potential of nation-states cooperating to fight non-state actors. Naru, a Thai citizen who had for years been the crucial link between northeastern groups and Chinese arms suppliers, was arrested in August 2013 on India’s request. An appeals court in Thailand ordered his extradition earlier this month. During the 18 years that Chetia languished in a Bangladeshi prison, convicted for possession of forged passports, illegal arms and unauthorised foreign currency, ULFA split into two. One faction, led by Arabinda Rajkhowa, has entered into talks with New Delhi for a negotiated settlement. Chetia, who repeatedly sought political asylum in Bangladesh, has since declared his support for the peace talks too. So the return to India of one of the founders of ULFA adds symbolic strength to the pro-talks faction. New Delhi needs to step up the pace of the talks, and show a visible difference on the ground to prove that it is serious about such negotiated settlements. However, negotiations must not mean that Chetia be treated with kid-gloves. All fugitives, be it Chetia or Chhota Rajan, should be considered equal before law — otherwise India would be sending the wrong signal to those who take up arms, for whatever reason.

Chetia’s return is also a reminder that the most active ULFA militant, Paresh Barua, continues to be a fugitive, freely moving across the Myanmar-China border, and possibly enjoying some amount of support from official agencies on both sides. ULFA-Independent, led by Barua, remains a lethal insurgent group, with camps in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, as well as in Myanmar, and with over 200 armed cadres. Therefore, a three-pronged, cohesive strategy is urgently required to take the peace process forward. One, there needs to be a robust security grid, including a well-trained and well-armed State police force, to respond to insurgent groups and secure innocent lives. Two, India must reach out to neighbouring countries, including China, to ensure that militant groups do not exploit porous borders and find safe havens, only to launch repeated attacks on Indian soil. Robust partnerships with countries such as China and Myanmar are crucial if India is to defeat the many insurgencies in the Northeast. Three, New Delhi must bind its security responses with a democratic outreach. The insurgencies of the Northeast are deeply rooted in the region’s history, its many tribal identities, people’s grievances, both perceived and real, and the incomplete task of nation-building. New Delhi should deal with the Northeast with a warm heart and fairness, with political accommodation and an eye on the strategic location.