The reported arrest of RK Meghen (alias Sanayaima), the Chairman of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), from Dhaka on September 29 this year, marks a significant landmark in the history of liberation movement in Manipur. It is a landmark event in the sense that Delhi has not accorded due respect to a leader of the oldest armed opposition group in the Northeast, thereby sending a message to the international community that there is no liberation movement in Manipur or a political conflict but a matter of law and order problem. The stoic silence is a form of political violence which not only takes away the claims to human rights but also covers up the reality of the political conflict. If one has been an astute observer of the political machinations of India, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is an example. On one hand, India denies the existence of a political conflict or a war-like situation in Manipur, but on the other hand an emergency constitutional act (AFSPA) arising out of a war like situation has been imposed over Manipur. The whereabouts of the rebel chief has remained unknown with both Dhaka and Delhi not yet coming out with an official report on his status. Even after various organisations, cutting across the international boundaries had appealed on his behalf, there has been no impact on either Delhi or Dhaka.
In this week’s edition, Yenning avoids delving into the possible outcomes on account of the arrest of the UNLF Chairman or its effect on the future course of liberation and revolutionary movement in Manipur. That would be grand speculation. Instead, a broad development in the Indo-Bangladesh relationship is sketched to provide the context of the arrest. The Bangladesh factor poses a serious threat to the operation of armed opposition groups belonging to the Northeast.
Change in leadership guards (political) in Bangladesh affects the country’s relationship with India. The political relationship between India and Bangladesh has passed through cycles of hiccups. The relationship typically becomes favourable for Bangladesh during periods of Awami League government. Awami League, aided by India, was the main separatist party, headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which spearheaded a Liberation War against Pakistan. India under Indira Gandhi fully supported the cause of the Bangladeshis and its troops and equipment were used to fight the Pakistani forces. The Indian Army also gave full support to the main Bangladeshi guerrilla force, the Mukti Bahini. Finally, on 26 March 1971, Bangladesh emerged as an independent state. Awami League came back to power in 2008 after the end of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (commonly referred to as the BNP)’s tenure (2001 to 2006). A military-backed interim administration looked after Bangladesh during the 2006–2008 Bangladeshi political crisis.
India has had sour relationships with Bangladesh during the rule by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (commonly referred to as the BNP), especially under the leadership of Begum Khaleda Zia. BNP is the mainstream center-right political party in Bangladesh. Founded in 1978 by General Ziaur Rahman, the Seventh President of Bangladesh, the party has evolved into one of the most powerful political entities in South Asia. The BNP was established by President Ziaur Rahman to provide a political platform for him after his assumption of power during Bangladesh’s volatile period of martial law from 1975 till 1979. The BNP also accommodated not just his supporters, but also those traditionally opposed to its principal rival, the Awami League. Ideologically, the party has professed Bangladeshi nationalism, described as the Islamic consciousness of the people of Muslim majority Bangladesh, in order to counter the secular Awami League. It is also seen to distrust Bangladesh’s large neighbour India and often opposes cooperation with the neighbouring country in combating terrorism and establishing regional connectivity. The party has also been accused of turning a blind eye to the growth of militant Islamic extremism in the country and for allying itself with Islamic fundamentalist parties, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, which had also opposed the independence of Bangladesh. For a long time BNP has been suspected by India for harbouring India origin separatist and liberation movement leaders on her soil.
During his short stint as the Prime Minister of India (for over 11 months, including 3 months as caretaker Prime Minister), I.K. Gujral laid down a set of five principles to guide the conduct of foreign relations with India’s immediate neighbours. The five principles are popularly known as the Gujral Doctrine. Among other factors, these five principles arise from the belief that India’s stature and strength cannot be divorced from the quality of its relations with its neighbours. The declaration also occurred at a time when the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Elam was at its peak in Sri Lanka and the BNP was in power in Bangladesh. One of the most strategic points, which form the basis of India’s present effort to fight “terrorism” along with Bangladesh, is, “No South Asian country should allow its territory to be used against the interest of another country of the region”.
Relations have improved significantly between India and Bangladesh after Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina (eldest of five children of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) returned to power in 2008. One of the first steps undertaken by Sheikh Hasina was to crackdown on anti-Indian militant groups on its soil, such as the United Liberation Front of Assam. Sheikh Hasina’s state visit to India in January 2010 has been termed by India as a landmark visit. Apart from dialogue over the controversial Farakka Barrage, three pacts were signed to combat terrorism and organised crime. The pacts signed included Agreement on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, Agreement on Transfer of Sentenced Persons and Agreement on Combating International Terrorism, Organised Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking.
Alongside, India and Bangladesh are working on an Extradition Treaty. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asserted during the visit that her government would go to “any extent” in cooperating against the menace of terrorism. The Times of India quoted her: “To end terrorism, we want to cooperate. We can go to any extent to cooperate”. She also reiterated that Bangladesh will not allow its soil to be used for any terrorist activity directed at India.
While pro-Awami Leaguers are jubilant about the understanding between the two Prime Ministers, anti-Awami Leaguers, mainly BNP-Jamaat supporters, simply consider the deal a “total sell-off to India”. The popular understanding is that Awami League is called “pro-Indian” and BNP “pro-Pakistani”. Few accusations labelled against the Awami Leaguers over the MOU is that Hasina should have given a second thought about the dire consequences of unilaterally giving so many concessions to India.
Sheikh Hasina should have understood the implications of not addressing some pressing bilateral issues, such as the problematic Farakka Barrage, the proposed Tipaimukh Dam in Manipur, the disputed Talpatti Island and corridor for Bangladeshi enclaves in India. The MOU should have also resolved once for all the so-called “push-back” of “illegals” into Bangladesh from India and the presence of anti-Bangladesh militants in India who demand the Swadhin Banga Bhumi to carve out a Bangladeshi territory for Hindu refugees/immigrants from East Pakistan, presently living in India and so on. Keeping in view its long-term security interests, Bangladesh should not throw itself into the Indian orbit. Whatever one has managed to grasp from the MOU, it seems Bangladesh has unilaterally granted India access to its ports and an unimpeded transit to Indian goods and possibly soldiers to contain its rebellious North-East. It is not clear from the MOU if India is willing to give Nepal and Bhutan transit facilities to Chittagong and Mongla ports.
Politics of Silence
The arrest of the UNLF Chief should be seen in the light of the above development. And the question of whether RK Sanayaima has been handed over to India remains a secret, which only the Indian Government can declare. Moreover, whether he would be handed over to India or not still remains anybody’s guess given that even after Bangladesh has clamped down on ULFA, the party’s leader Anup Chetia is still in the Bangladesh custody.
During her visit to India, to a specific question on whether Bangladesh would hand over ULFA leader Anup Chetia who is wanted in India, Hasina evaded a direct reply, saying she was not here to “discuss one name” but broader issues. Extradition or hand over of RK Sanayaima is a secondary thing. What is of foremost concern to the people of Manipur and for that matter, the Government of Manipur at the moment is the location of the rebel chief. When the Government of Bangladesh is yet to acknowledge the reported arrest of Sanayaima, New Delhi cannot ask for his extradition or hand over. Just as much as Dhaka’s silence is deafening, New Delhi’s ambiguity on the issue is outrageous. Or are New Delhi and Dhaka up to some secret plans under a mutual understanding ? But the general understanding of the hoi polloi is, Dhaka and New Delhi cannot be above international norms and principles applicable in such matters like arrest of a rebel chief.
This article was posted on The Sangai Express on Sunday, October 31, 2010