By Ratnadip Choudhury
IN 1891, Manipur’s young prince, Bir Tikendrajit, led the state against a fearsome British Army. He was hanged to death by the British and his martyrdom made him immortal. After Independence, another blue-blooded member went underground to fight for Manipur’s sovereignty. Tikendrajit’s greatgrandson, Rajkumar Meghen, has been the most wanted rebel for more than three decades. He was a thorn in the Indian flesh until recently when he was ‘arrested’ in Bangladesh. While New Delhi denies his arrest, his whereabouts are unknown.
It has been nearly 35 years since Meghen left his royal residence in Imphal to lead the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), one of the most dreaded Meitei insurgent outfits. For years, ‘Sanayaima’, as he is popularly known among his cadres, outsmarted the Indian Army. With polls in Myanmar and change of guard in Bangladesh, the UNLF was lying low for a while.
In October, the BBC reported that Meghen was arrested in Bangladesh on 29 September and subsequently handed over to India. The report quoted officials as saying that Meghen had moved to Dhaka from his hideout in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division to sign an arms deal. Till date, neither New Delhi nor Dhaka has admitted his arrest.
After returning to power in January 2009, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised to act against insurgent outfits that use her country as a sanctuary against India. A series of crackdowns followed; many leaders were arrested and handed over to India, including ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa.
Meghen’s army of 5,000 fighters had been active on the Indo-Myanmar border. They not only excel in guerrilla warfare but are highly disciplined. Meghen had been shuttling between Bangladesh and Myanmar to stay elusive. Since 2003, the UNLF has been growing from strength to strength. It has been able to do what even the Naga insurgents could not during their peak — hold on to its ‘liberated zones’ in Sajit Tampak in Chandel district, against an army offensive. This made Meghen stand apart from the rest of the rebel leaders.
The situation took a different turn when his outfit confirmed the arrest in a press release. The statement issued by UNLF vice-chairman Kh Pambei explained that Meghen was travelling in his vehicle (Dhaka Metro G-17-0716) in Lalmatia area of Dhaka at around 12.30 pm on 29 September when he was detained by a team of Indian and Bangladeshi sleuths. Meghen managed to inform his comrades about the situation over telephone. After that day, he has not communicated with them.
“We had confirmation from highly placed sources both in Dhaka and New Delhi that Meghen was picked up and handed over to an Indian intelligence unit. The fact that the home ministry has not come out with a denial itself corroborates the fact,” says BBC correspondent Subir Bhaumik, who broke the story.
The UNLF claims Meghen is in the custody of Indian intelligence and being interrogated in a detention centre. “We have information that he was flown out of Bangladesh in an Indian Army aircraft. He was taken to Delhi and kept in the custody of RAW,” says a central committee member.
An intelligence source has confirmed that Meghen is being kept in a ‘safe house’ near Mehrauli in New Delhi
By the looks of it, New Delhi wants to keep Meghen’s arrest secret for a while. Officially, Bangladesh is also in complete denial. “We did catch Meghen. It was a joint operation by intelligence agencies of both countries. He is with an Indian intelligence unit,” said a senior Bangladesh intelligence officer on condition of anonymity. While talking to TEHELKA over phone from Dhaka, he added, “There are technical issues with all these arrests. Until the extradition treaty comes up, this kind of cover-up will continue. This is part of a strategy. It is not our problem; India does not want complications back home.”
It seems the strategy is to get insurgent groups operating in the Northeast to the negotiating table. As India and Bangladesh don’t have an extradition treaty, handing over insurgent leaders has been a messy affair. Union Home Secretary GK Pillai is said to be the master craftsman of this strategy. “Meghen is with one of the intelligence agencies and being interrogated as well as persuaded to agree for talks,” says a source in the home ministry.
The home ministry’s ploy is to get Meghen to admit that he has ‘surrendered’ and that he wants to start a peace process. If this ploy succeeds, it will be a shot in the arm for Home Minister P Chidambaram, who is trying to push for peace talks. If Meghen agrees to talk, it could lead to confusion among the UNLF’s rank and file.
Meghen has always maintained that India must hold a plebiscite in Manipur under the aegis of the United Nations. The rebel leader has been against talks with India. For that matter, no Meitei outfit from Manipur has ever agreed to talks. “Till now, he has refused to talk with India. If he doesn’t budge, then there is an alternative plan,” says a military intelligence (MI) source, who confirmed to TEHELKA that Meghen is being kept in a National Investigative Agency (NIA) ‘safe house’ near Mehrauli in the national capital. Perhaps NIA is only assisting RAW with logistics and not involved in ‘psychological overtures’.
DELHI HAS an understanding with Dhaka that if Indian diplomatic pressure fails, Meghen might be sent back to Dhaka, where Bangladesh police would show him ‘arrested’ in their records. Severe charges will be brought against him and he will be tried as per Bangladesh law. The idea is to keep him away from civil society.
In Manipur, Meghen’s arrest has agitated the people. His anxious family has filed a habeas corpus petition in the Imphal Bench of the Gauhati High Court, to produce “the potential arrestee Rajkumar Meghen alias Sanayaima” at the earliest.
The High Court has issued directives to the Centre and the state government to explain Meghen’s current status. The court has asked them to reply by 6 December.
“I am distressed by the arbitrary manner in which he (Meghen) has been detained, if at all that is the case,” says wife Rajkumari Ibenungshi. “He should be handed over to the nearest police station in his hometown. Since there is no news about him from the government, we are forced to seek the law’s help. We have the right to know where he is.” She has also petitioned the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for help.
The Gauhati HC has issued directives to the state and Centre to explain the current status of Meghen
The civil society in Imphal is up in arms against the ‘abduction’. “It is a gross violation of fundamental rights. His family has the right to know where he is and even the government is not refuting the BBC story,” says Kh Mani, a human rights activist.
The Okram Ibobi Singh government in Manipur is also facing the heat as many political parties have asked the Centre to come clean on Meghen’s whereabouts.
The state unit of the CPI, which is a Congress ally in Manipur, has claimed that Bangladesh Communist Party chairman Mansur Hassan Khan has confirmed Meghen has been handed over. CPI General Secretary AB Bardhan has written to the prime minister asking him to intervene. The CPI has decided to raise this issue in Parliament during the winter session.
The Northeast has long been witness to the culture of ‘enforced disappearance’ practised so often by the security forces. In 2003, when Operation All Clear was launched against the rebels hiding in Bhutan, there were reports of human rights violations. Later, former army chief Gen NC Vij admitted that at least 650 rebels were either killed or captured but there are many whose whereabouts are unknown.
With pressure mounting on the Centre to reveal Meghen’s whereabouts, there are reports that he might be ‘pushed’ back into Bangladesh. So whether Delhi’s ploy of forcing him to the negotiating table will prove fruitful is anybody’s guess.