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June date for Ulfa dialogue

- New Delhi worried over Paresh, Bangla polls

New Delhi, May 30: Unease is palpable in the government over the continued reluctance of Ulfa leader Paresh Barua to engage in talks with New Delhi, especially when India wants to push negotiations with the outfit towards a logical end before Bangladesh elections next year.

The Arabinda Rajkhowa-led pro-talks faction of Ulfa will meet Union home secretary R.K. Singh in June for the next round of dialogue. But a section in the establishment feels that the talks could be relatively toothless without Barua and his mentor Anup Chetia, sources said.

The Ulfa chairman and his associates have held three formal meetings since their exit from Bangladesh and engagement with the government. They have submitted a charter of demands some of which are already being worked upon by the Assam government. But the feeling remains that Barua may play spoilsport, the sources said.

“We are eager to reach a solution butů,” a senior government official said.

Barua had fled to Myanmar following the victory of Awami League and Sheikh Hasina’s pathbreaking move to build relations with India. It was in these good times that India wanted to seal a deal with the Assam outfit.

The worry is that another round of polls will be held in Bangladesh next year. While India is sure to bet on Hasina, the power of Begum Khaleda Zia and the Bangladesh National Party’s cannot be ruled out. And the BNP’s traditionally good relations with Pakistan are a matter of anxiety in North Block. With a time window of just over a year-and-a-half before Bangladesh elections and the uncertainty it carries for India, New Delhi will try to find ways to push negotiations with Ulfa towards a logical end.

Of course, the government is playing it down with the argument that there is a warrant of arrest against Barua in the Chittagong arms case so he cannot be in Dhaka. But no one denies that with a change in government, Barua may be encouraged to return to what he considers his second home.

Khaleda Zia coming to power may also recreate a fertile ground for Indian militant outfits in Bangladesh.

Barua, who is in hiding in Myanmar, continues to carry out and encourage insurgency in Assam while emerging as a major arms dealer in Southeast Asia. Myanmar has asked Indian insurgent outfits on its soil to leave but that may not be enough in the largely uncontrolled areas in northern Myanmar, where Barua has a hold.

Getting back Barua may prove tough, concede officials. “The key is China, as Barua is understood to have the support of Wa rebels,” a source said. The Wa rebels are closer to China. So getting Barua out of Myanmar would be difficult.

The United Wa State Army (UWSA) was formed in the wake of Myanmar junta’s prodding in 1989 for ending the Communist Party of Burma which was seen by many to be controlled by the Chinese. The UWSA also conducts business in Mandarin and controls pathways between Myanmar and China. Wa rebels are reportedly the most resourceful in arms deals and Barua is said to be a key man.

Indian security agencies also do not rule out Beijing allowing intelligence agencies in Islamabad to continue to be friends with Barua. At the peak of militancy, the Ulfa commander-in-chief was a pointsman for the outfit to deal with Pakistan’s ISI while being based in Dhaka.

Some experts feel that the present approach to talks may be flawed, as the government does not have a “roadmap”. They indicated that the government should try to resolve issues once and for all instead of just trying to bring down the level of violence by engaging militants in talks.

The government, however, has its political goals, too, as it tries to get many outfits to the negotiating table and enjoy “peace processes”, however tenuous.

Chetia, Barua’s brother and mentor, also seems unwilling to withdraw a petition in a Bangladesh court, seeking asylum in that country, and to return to India.

Both are key leaders of Ulfa from upper Assam and although the government refuses to admit, it feels that the talks cannot be concluded without Barua’s arrest, elimination or cooperation.