FROM THE jungles of Myanmar, a life in disguise in Bangladesh to the power corridors of Delhi's North Block, it's been an arduous trek for United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) leaders.
For 12 years till his arrest in November 2009, Ulfa foreign secretary Shashadhar Choudhury lived in Bangladesh with his wife and 10-year-old daughter. "I lived in Bangladesh as Rafiqul Islam. My wife Runima, a member of Ulfa's cultural wing, assumed the name Sabina Yasmin," said Choudhury, who lived in a rented house in Dhaka's upscale locality Uttara Sector 3.
Choudhury and Runima got married in Bangladesh in 1997 and set up home there. Their daughter studied in Dhaka's International Turkish Hope School.
"I had Bangladeshi national ID card issued by their army and passports of several countries, including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Fiji and South Africa," he said. Individuals in various Bangladeshi agencies helped Ulfa with logistics and support.
Choudhury was not the only one. While Indian security agencies hunted for them, the top Ulfa leadership, including chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, found a safe haven in Bangladesh.
Ulfa leaders, their wives and children assumed Islamic names and lived a life of disguise in Bangladesh till Sheikh Hasina swept to power in 2009. Soon after, top Ulfa leaders were picked up by Bangladesh and handed over to India.
In its more than two decades of terrorist activities, Ulfa has received international help and set up bases in neighbouring countries. "Pakistan's ISI trained Ulfa. In 1991, I was part of the first batch of Ulfa members to go to Pakistan for training in small arms, including main battle rifles," said Choudhury, who joined Ulfa in 1985.
"We were guerrilla fighters and faced Operation Bajrang and Operation Rhino in 1990 and 1991," he said.
In 1992, he was chosen Ulfa foreign secretary by the outfit's general council. "Soon after joining, we had trained with the Nagas of the undivided NSCN. In 1988, we were the second batch of Ulfa who went over to Kachin in Myanmar. We fought along with Kachin Independence Army (KIA) for two years and shared their guns," he said.
Later, as Ulfa's financial resources improved, they began buying weapons. "The Chinese sold Ulfa weapons but indirectly. They are not fools to train insurgents or get directly involved," Choudhury said.
The worst ordeal, Choudhury said, was during Operation Goldenbird in 1995, a joint anti-insurgent military offensive launched by India and Myanmar. "I was the golden bird they were looking for. For nine days, I fought without food or water in the jungles of Myanmar's Chin which was an unknown terrain for us," he claimed.
But, the Indian Army managed to catch him in Mizoram. "But they did not knpw they had caught Shashadhar Choudhury. For two-and-a-half months in Army custody, they only asked me where is Shasha? But I managed to protect myself saying I was Sailen Choudhury," he said. Sailen Choudhury was an Ulfa member who had been killed in that operation.
Later, he was taken away from Army custody, produced in court and sent to jail. He struck a deal with then AGP government in Assam. He offered to build bridges between Ulfa and the government in return for his release. But, soon after he was released, he jumped bail and fled to Bhutan. "It was for survival," he said.
Ulfa received the worst blow during Royal Bhutan Army's Operation All Clear in 2003. A large number of their members were killed or went missing.
"After this, we shifted our headquarters to Bangladesh and then to Myanmar," he said. Ulfa commander-in-chief Paresh Barua, opposing peace talks, still operates from their base in Myanmar.
"Ulfa did not take up guns out of choice. State terror and India's colonial occupation gave birth to Ulfa," said Choudhury.
First published in Times of India, India, August 9, 2011