Arrest of Arabinda Rajkhowa may tilt India's Assam rebels toward peace

With the arrest last week of India's Assam rebels chief Arabinda Rajkhowa, only one senior member now remains at large, raising the prospects for peace talks in India's restive northeastern state.

Anupam Nath/AP
United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, wearing glasses, arrives at a court in Gauhati, India on Saturday.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

The arrest of the leader of a violent secessionist group in Assam has raised hopes of talks – and eventual peace – for the restive northeastern state.

Arabinda Rajkhowa, chief of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which is fighting for independence for Assam, one of India's seven northeastern states, was arrested Friday, after reportedly being handed over by authorities in Bangladesh, where he has been living.

Coming as it does after a string of arrests of senior ULFA commanders, the capture of Mr. Rajkhowa – who was arrested with several ULFA cadres – signals a further weakening of the organization, which the government hopes may lead it to agree to peace talks. After Friday's arrests, ULFA's only top leader still at large is military commander Paresh Baruah.

Rebels losing haven in Bangladesh

But it is Bangladesh's probable role in last week's arrests that has given the greatest reasons for hope that ULFA may soon be a spent force, say analysts.

Bangladesh, which may be anxious to avoid legal complications, has denied it arrested Rajkhowa, though widespread media reports say that it did. For decades, ULFA's top leadership is believed to have used the country as a base.

Two days after her party's landslide victory in general elections in December last year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised that "no one will be allowed to use this land to carry out terrorism in India."

Bangladesh's role is extremely significant," says Ajai Sahni, head of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management. "With the loss of Bangladesh as a safe haven, ULFA will now have to rely on Chinese support, and China will not allow the open setting up of camps … This will present ULFA with great logistical and operational difficulties.

Assam is one of India's seven northeastern states linked to the rest of the country by a narrow "chicken's neck" that skirts Bangladesh. Cut off from the rest of India geographically and – many northeasterners would argue – largely neglected by central government, the region is home to a mix of tribal and secessionist militias.

Assam, a state of rolling hills and lush, dense forests, is rich in oil and tea. But its 30-year-insurgency has killed up to 30,000 people and deterred tourists and investors.

Hard-line commander still at large

Analysts point out that Baruah's freedom remains a major obstacle to the government's anti-ULFA campaign.

Whereas Rajkhowa had made a number of overtures to the government in recent weeks, the more aggressive and hard-line Baruah is unlikely to ever agree to negotiations that do not include mention of Assam's sovereignty.

Mention of peace talks could even prompt him to signal his disinterest in such a step with increased violence, they warn.

"India's intelligence services believe Mr. Baruah, who is claimed to be hiding out along Myanmar's border with China, has been making efforts to reorganise and re-equip his cadre," said newspaper, The Hindu, in an editorial following Rajhowa's arrest. "If talks do begin, they could precipitate a determined terror offensive by these forces."

Despite ULFA's weakening, it remains capable of acts of deadly violence. In November, at least six people were killed and 40 wounded in bomb blasts in the state.

But analysts like Mr. Sahni say few Assamese are drawn to ULFA these days.

"Everybody wants to live in peace," he says. "There's an enormous sense of exhaustion. The only way ULFA will continue is if it gets the kind of artificial respiration it got from Bangladesh, from China."

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