The death penalty handed to ULFA leader Paresh Barua in absentia last week in the 2004 Chittagong arms case offers cold comfort to India. Safely ensconced in China or Myanmar, Barua is beyond the reach of Bangladeshi law. Indian officials admitted that the death sentence will not make the task of bringing the absconding ULFA boss to justice any less daunting.
Paresh Barua was so angry at the arms seizure that he smashed a glass dining table in his Dhaka apartment and refused to eat a morsel of food for two days. The explosion of anger 10 years ago is recorded in intelligence files based on the testimony of a RAW mole.
As the weapons – nearly 5000 automatic rifles, 300 rockets, 2,000 grenade-launching tubes, 6,392 magazines of ammunition and 1.14 million bullets – were destined for India, New Delhi applied tremendous pressure on Dhaka to crack the case. India piled pressure first on Khaleda Zia’s BNP government, then the military-backed interim administration and finally Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government which came to power in December 2008.
“It became a prestige issue for us. While BNP never tried to hide its anti-India bias, we were shocked by the connivance of Bangladesh’s premier intelligence agencies – Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and National Security Intelligence (NSI) in the arms smuggling racket. They were the facilitators; they aided and abetted not only ULFA but Pakistan’s ISI which was mentoring ULFA to dismember India,” a security official said.
“We provided a lot of evidence to the Sheikh Hasina government which helped Bangladeshi investigators and culminated in a chargesheet and a landmark verdict on Thursday sentencing not only Barua but Bangladeshi intelligence officials and former ministers belonging to the Jamat-e-Islami and BNP.”
Although New Delhi refuses to admit it, apparently India was behind the tip-off – a telephone call on April 1 2004 night to a Chittagong thana that fishing trawlers had offloaded ten truckloads of arms – which alerted the local police. Because of the date, it was first dismissed as a joke. But the officer-in-charge had second thoughts and sent a constable to check out. Once the news of the seizure was splashed by the media, it became impossible to totally suppress it.
Elated as they are by the Thursday verdict, Indian officials are nonetheless foxed by the death sentence handed out to the 14 guilty men. They said that in the event of an appeal, the High Court will most probably uphold their guilt but not the death sentences.
Barua, of course, remains as elusive as ever. He slipped out of Bangladesh in 2006. Three years ago, when his son was kidnapped in Dhaka, he promptly blamed India. Within a few days, Barua’s son was released as mysteriously as he was abducted. Since then Barua has been ‘sighted’ twice. There is video footage of Barua dancing in his Myanmar hideout on the occasion of Bihu festival. And a journalist insists that he saw the shadowy figure standing between the goalposts in a friendly football match between ULFA and PLA in Nagaland in 2012.
The Chittagong verdict is proof of Bangladeshi loyalty. But with a goalie like Barua, can India really ever score?