Rebati Phukan – what happened to him?
There is still no trace of peace negotiator Rebati Phukan two weeks after he disappeared from his residence at Ambika Nagar in Guwahati. The police swung into action after chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal voiced his concern over the incident. Days later, even drains were searched and all districts alerted in the state for the missing person who is in his mid-sixties. Several theories have surfaced about his whereabouts, with senior functionaries of both the pro and anti-talks factions of ULFA articulating their opinions in a recent talk show. So what could have happened to him?
Theory 1: Abduction by ULFA Pro-Talks Group
The anti-talks faction of ULFA seems to point fingers at some members of the other group for their role in the disappearance of Phukan. But there is hardly any rationale in this argument since there is nothing to be gained from abducting Phukan. The peace talks, incidentally, have reached the final stage after many rounds of negotiations over the past seven years. The Centre is awaiting the verdict of the Supreme Court on some crucial issues regarding citizenship in Assam and especially the cut-off date and the update of the crucial National Register of Citizens (NRC) for fine-tuning the agreement. It is assumed that this accord will also incorporate vital safeguards for all indigenous communities in the state which were earlier envisaged in the Assam Accord but could never be implemented. Nor did Phukan have any enmity with any of the pro-talks leaders.
According to some reports, Phukan had been putting in efforts to rope in chief of staff Baruah in the peace process. It is assumed that Baruah’s presence might drag the peace talks and also take the focus away from the current leaders who are now calling the shots. Therefore, all this could explain why the pro-talks faction would like to scuttle Phukan’s efforts to include Baruah in the peace parleys. Baruah may state his intention of participating in the dialogue to delay the agreement but he will never be present on the table for two reasons. First, he has been awarded capital punishment in Bangladesh for his involvement in the infamous Chittagong Arms Haul on 2nd April 2004. Already, several high profile politicians have been hanged in this case. So if Baruah was to make himself available in Assam or any part of India, it is but natural that Dhaka would demand his extradition. When Bangladesh has cracked the whip on northeast rebels staying in the country, can New Delhi turn down this request? So in all likelihood, the Centre would not prefer to include Baruah in the talks.
Secondly, Paresh Baruah is deeply entangled with the security agencies of China and Pakistan. His long association with the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan and the Second Department (a military intelligence wing of China) has undoubtedly enabled him to have a peek into many secrets and policies of these neighbouring countries. China has even allowed him to stay in a remote corner of Yunnan bordering Myanmar. It could be difficult for Baruah to extricate himself from this network and land in India for talks. Also, the Manipuri separatist outfits like the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would also be opposed to Baruah smoking the peace pipe in the near future.
Theory 2: Government hand behind the disappearance
The second theory is that the government had a role in the disappearance of Phukan. Chief of staff Baruah was vocal in blaming the government in a recent discussion on Pratidin Times hosted by Mrinal Talukdar. Again, this theory too sounds far-fetched because the government would not stand to gain anything by abducting him. None of the three intelligence agencies – Special Branch of Assam Police, Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Military Intelligence (MI) – is likely to have picked him up since they are also aware about the unfeasibility of making Baruah sign the forthcoming agreement. Barring the MI, the other two agencies are informed about the latest developments in the peace talks which will reach a logical conclusion with or without Baruah’s signature in the agreement. The gang of secret killers in Assam that was active around two decades ago has all but withdrawn for a variety of reasons. While the architects have retired, the lower-level police personnel would not indulge in such acts since there is none to protect them now. Of course, there is still one senior IPS officer in Assam who would not have any qualms about carrying out such acts but he has already been sidelined and rendered ineffective.
Theory 3: Has Phukan gone to meet Baruah?
There are also rumours among some sections that Phukan might have been sent by the government to meet Baruah. But why when the government knows that his involvement in the talks would be next to impossible? So this theory also doesn’t stand to reason. And yet there are some who are of the opinion that Phukan might have crossed the border on his own volition to the headquarters at Hukwang Valley in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division. He has recently undergone bypass surgery and it wouldn’t at all be easy for him to climb and cross the high mountains in the Naga inhabited areas ahead of the valley. But there are at least two shorter routes to reach Taga (where the camps are located nowadays) which mostly entail travel by boat on the Chindwin River. But Baruah has vehemently denied such a possibility.
Therefore, all the possibilities on Phukan’s disappearance lead to a dead end. While his family members and friends are hoping for his safe return, the police are searching for more clues to crack the case.