Guwahati: In another blow to the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), 19 top separatist commanders based in Bangladesh have given up arms and opted for peace with Indian authorities - a clear indication that the ULFA is split.
The rebel commanders, led by Anu Buragohain, Bhaiti Baruah, Biju Deka, and Pradyut Buragohain, apparently gave themselves up before Bangladeshi authorities Wednesday. They were arrested on technical grounds and then handed over to the Border Security Force somewhere along the border with Meghalaya Saturday.
The Assam government is maintaining a stoic silence on the development - examining legal provisions so that there are no technical problems in showing them as surrendered to avoid court proceedings.
"We have heard about the development, but we don`t have any details about the whereabouts of the 19 ULFA militants and their family members," Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said.
"But nonetheless it is a good thing that ULFA leaders are coming out to join the peace process," the chief minister said, literally admitting the reports without going into details.
According to Indian intelligence sources, the 19 ULFA leaders and nine of their family members were in touch with Indian authorities since the past fortnight and expressed their desire to surrender and join the peace process.
The matter was taken up with the Bangladesh government and arrangements were made to shift them to Assam. They were shown arrested in Bangladesh and later on handed over to India.
"There is no question of arrests as they came on their own and are ready to join the peace process," a senior Assam police official said requesting not to be named.
"There is no question of the ULFA members being produced before the court as technically they were not arrested as they came on their own," the police official said.
The rebels are now in Assam police custody in Guwahati, although for technical reasons the government is not making it formal and hence is in some sort of a denial mode.
Self-styled ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah corroborated the development and said the rebels fled the camp and were presently taking shelter in `enemy camp` (Assam police custody).
"Some of our cadres with their family members fled the camp with the help of Indian intelligence agencies and also with the active support of two of our senior jailed leaders and are now taking shelter in the enemy camp," the ULFA commander-in-chief said in an e-mailed statement.
"We are not at all demoralized by their action."
Dhaka last year launched a massive crackdown against the ULFA and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and got several of their top leaders arrested and later handed them over to India.
Among those arrested in last year`s crackdown include ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah, foreign secretary Sasha Choudhury, and finance secretary Chitraban Hazarika.
NDFB chairman Ranjan Daimary was also arrested in May and later handed over to India.
Even during the previous arrests in Bangladesh, the Assam government gave contradictory statements feigning ignorance about the capture of the rebel leaders.
"In the earlier cases, the ULFA and the NDFB leaders did not give up on their own and hence were arrested and are now in prison. But in the case of the 19 ULFA leaders, they had surrendered and so the question of arresting them does not arise," the official said.
But whatever may be the technical aspects, the fact of the matter remains that the development has marginalized the elusive Paresh Baruah - he is losing more and more of his trusted lieutenants - most of them either arrested or surrendered.
In June 2008, the Alpha and Charlie companies of the ULFA`s 28th battalion, the two most potent striking units, declared a unilateral ceasefire and came over ground.
And with the latest development, almost the entire top brass of the ULFA is either in jail or over ground - the jailed leaders include chairman Rajkhowa, deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah, foreign secretary Sasha Choudhury, finance secretary Chitraban Hazarika, cultural secretary Pranati Saikia, and political ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain.
Two other leaders - vice chairman Pradip Gogoi and publicity chief Mithinga Daimary - are out on bail and both of them are drumming up public opinion for peace talks.
"It is true the ULFA is now a divided lot and Paresh Baruah is losing support from within," the chief minister said.