Saturday, August 18, 2012

‘The Assam clashes are about land and livelihood, not religion’

 AS BERTIL LINTNER mentions in the introduction of Great Game East, the expression “Great Game” was originally used to denote the struggle between two western powers to wrest control of energy-rich Central Asia. Across the Himalayas, in the east, another great game has been on for some time now between the two Asian giants — India and China. The fight began over Tibet and now includes Northeast India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Indian Ocean. Lintner has even devoted one chapter to Indo-Bangladesh relations in his book. Here, he talks to Kunal Majumder about the ongoing violence in Assam and how the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), once a nationalist movement, ended up becoming a pawn in the great game.

Your book has an entire chapter on the relationship between Assam and Bangladesh. What is your reading of the ongoing situation in Assam?TEHELKA described it quite well. It’s not religious. It’s not Muslims versus Hindus. It’s a struggle for land. There is a lot of pressure on land both because of increase in internal population and massive migration from Bangladesh. Naturally, people from Bangladesh are Muslims and that adds that dimension to it.
But certain interests in India are calling it a grand design to Islamise Assam. Do you find any credibility in such assumptions?
It is possible. But I’m not sure if it is the main reason people are moving from Bangladesh into India. Certainly, Islamic groups will want to take advantage of the situation. Migration to India, first from East Pakistan, and then Bangladesh has always been there. One reason this happens in Assam is votebank politics. If you look back at the Assam Agitation, it was a movement against the so-called foreigners moving into Assam. Not only Bangladeshis, Nepalis too were being evicted. It is not about religion, it is about land and livelihood.
Isn’t it ironical that the ULFA based its politics on an anti-Bangladeshi immigrant stance but eventually accepted Dhaka’s help to fight India?
The ultimate irony is that the movement began as an anti-foreigner movement — less Nepal, more Bangladesh — and they have been exiled in Bangladesh. Assamese militants I met in Bangladesh were not happy to be there but they thought they had no choice. They were being used by Bangladesh intelligence services to create trouble in India. The Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), more than the Awami League, were behind this policy. Things shifted in Bangladesh depending on who was in power. If the Awami League was in power, the ULFA was sent to Thailand. When Sheikh Hasina came to power for the first time in the 1990s, the entire leadership arrived in Bangkok save Paresh Barua, who was too useful for the Bangladeshi security establishment. He was close to Pakistan’s ISI as well.
The ULFA has now split. Almost everyone in the top leadership is negotiating with the Government of India. Where does Paresh Barua’s future lie?
I first met Barua in 1985 in a Naga camp in northwestern Burma. The Burmese army attacked the camp. He was an excellent fighter, much better than any other Naga. Unlike Arabinda Rajkhowa, who was more intellectually motivated, Barua was the most militant of all ULFA leaders and more politically motivated. The second time I met Barua was in Bangkok. He had come from Singapore, where he revealed that the ISI were encouraging the ULFA to increase their activities in Assam because troops were being withdrawn from the Northeast for Kashmir. It was in Pakistan’s interest to reignite some kind of unrest in the region so that India could move its troops back from Kashmir. This was quite telling. I was quite surprised he was ready to tell me that. I met him for the third time in a safe house in Dhaka, escorted by two Bangladeshi intelligence officers, who were not particularly happy to see me around. Whether you sympathise with them or not but from being a nationalist movement, the ULFA became a pawn in the hands of the establishment of all countries.

Kunal Majumder is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka. email