'Paresh Baruah told me he is interested in talks': ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia

He says the people of Assam want peace and economic development, not violence

56-Anup-Chetia Anup Chetia | Sanjay Ahlawat

Interview/ Anup Chetia, general secretary, ULFA

ON APRIL 7, 1979, six people gathered at Rang Ghar—a historical monument built by the Ahom kings in Rangpur—and decided to take up arms to fight against the “foreign” influx threatening to devour the Assamese identity. The name United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) was coined at this meeting. It motivated a young Anup Chetia to get on a motorbike and travel across Assam to persuade young people to join ULFA. It grew quickly to become the deadliest insurgent group in Assam. The cycle of violence has been broken as ULFA leaders like Chetia have decided to disband the organisation. Speaking exclusively with THE WEEK, Chetia explains how he is trying to convince Paresh Baruah of ULFA (Independent), who is hiding in China, to honour the will of the people and join the peace process. Excerpts from the interview:

Q/ It is said that you went around with Paresh Baruah in the 1980s on a motorbike spreading awareness about ULFA’s goal.

A/ Those days Baruah was in Burma and I was in Assam most of the time. I purchased a red motorbike in 1985 and travelled across Assam to tell people about ULFA and motivated them to participate. I organised most of the cadres in this manner.

Q/ What was the need for an armed movement?

A/ At that time, the Assam agitation was going on. The Indian government made blunders by not recognising that the problem of illegal migration from Bangladesh was not limited to Assam and could become a problem for the entire country. The All Assam Students’ Union and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad had begun a nonviolent struggle, but the government did not respect this democratic movement. Hence, we decided to go for an armed revolution. The people of Assam had lost faith in the government, which led them to support us.

Q/ Can you tell us about your escape to Bangladesh?

A/ In 1991, most of our leaders were in jail. After Operation Rhino (an Army operation in 1991 against ULFA), the ULFA setup was disrupted as most of our boys fled Assam. Our communication network collapsed and our vice chairman and chairman were caught. I was in custody in Kolkata. After that, our chairman decided to go for discussions with the Hiteswar Saikia government. We came out of jail in the name of negotiations. But when we reached Delhi, the Intelligence Bureau and other security personnel put pressure on us to surrender all arms. They were not interested in solving our issues. That was when we realised that they were not thinking of a solution. So we left the peace process. A general council meeting was held in Tezpur and then in Nagaon where we unanimously decided to discontinue discussions, and to strengthen our organisation. From Nagaon, most leaders, including myself, left for Bangladesh. At that time, Baruah was in Bangladesh.

Q/ How were you caught in Dhaka in 1997?

A/ Actually, I was in Europe. I went to Geneva to participate in the international human rights council meeting. At that time, the UN security personnel in Geneva wanted to arrest me. They even interrogated me and luckily at that time I was carrying a Bangladeshi passport. They asked me whether I was Anup Chetia, and I told them that I was not. I produced my Bangladeshi passport as proof and they could not arrest me. After that, I left Switzerland and lived in Europe for six months. From Paris, I returned to Dhaka in December 1997. I was caught in Dhaka as India got Interpol to issue a red corner notice against me.

Q/ You spent 18 years at the Dhaka central jail, the maximum time spent by any northeast insurgent.

A/ I was in Dhaka central jail for 17 years and 11 months and one month in Guwahati jail. In all, I spent 18 years and three days in prison. The conditions in Dhaka jail were pathetic. Its official capacity was 2,840 prisoners, but at that time there were 14,000 prisoners. There was no place for sleeping and eating, and there were not enough washrooms. The British era jail code was in force. However, I was determined to work for the people of Assam, which kept my spirits alive. My family was in Bangladesh, but I avoided meeting them during my time in jail.

Q/ What do you think of the Sheikh Hasina government and its approach towards ULFA?

A/ Bangladesh has no democracy and there is complete control by the government. Even the courts are controlled by the government. Sheikh Hasina has no sympathy or support for us. Baruah’s wife has been living in Bangladesh alone for many years now.

Q/ What kind of support did you get from Pakistan?

A/ We got logistical support and training. I travelled to Pakistan twice in the 1990s. I went to Karachi and then to Rawalpindi onward to Peshawar and to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. I have met some Afghan Mujahideen leaders, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. I met him over lunch. Later on, many ULFA leaders went to Pakistan for training. The military matters were looked after by Baruah and others.

Q/ When and why did ULFA split?

A/ In 2011, ULFA split into two. Baruah was in Burma and we (the pro-talks faction) were in India. We decided to participate in the peace talks and Baruah split with us to form ULFA (Independent).

Q/ Are you in touch with Baruah and what message is he sending to ULFA in Assam?

A/ He called me on December 17, 2023, and told me that we could go ahead with the peace agreement. Whatever we get from the Central government would be good for the people of Assam. He expressed interest in talks and said he would go next. He said whatever benefits the people of Assam could not get from the government, they would work for it whether it is their constitutional rights or protecting their identity and culture.

Q/ Why did it take so long to sign the peace agreement?

A/ It took so long because we changed our demands from sovereignty to peace talks in 2011. Once the discussions were held under the Indian Constitution, we demanded Scheduled Tribe status for six communities, but it did not succeed. Then we said there should be 88 per cent reservation for MP and MLA seats for the indigenous people which was not possible for the Government of India. The talks stopped for some time and after that we accepted the delimitation process.

Q/ Why would Paresh Baurah give up the demand for sovereignty after carrying out an armed struggle for so long?

A/ Things are different today. When the ULFA armed movement started, people were very supportive and the situation compelled them to struggle. But right now, the situation is different and people do not want violence. They want peace and economic development.