THE decision of the Awami League-Jatiya Party government to hand over the detained general secretary of the United Liberation Front of Assam, Anup Chetia, to India in response to ‘an informal request by the Indian government’ appears to be illegal, immoral and, in a broader sense, even unconstitutional. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Thursday, the home minister, Sahara Khatun, when talking to journalists after presiding over the 50th meeting of the National Committee on Prevention of Smuggling on Wednesday, said: ‘We have to hand him over but it has to be done through the correct legal procedure, which has already begun.’ The question is why the incumbents ‘have to’ do something that borders on the immoral, illegal and even unconstitutional just for the sake of keeping an ‘informal request’ of a neighbouring country.
Chetia was arrested in Dhaka on December 21, 1997 along with his two associates on the charge of illegal possession of foreign currencies and a satellite phone, convicted and imprisoned. Just over eight months later, they sought political asylum in Bangladesh on the grounds that their lives would be at stake if they were returned to India, as they had been fighting for the independence of the people of Assam. Subsequently, on August 23, 2003, the High Court issued a rule asking the government to explain in four weeks why it should not be directed to dispose of the three applications for political asylum. The court also ordered the government to keep the three in safe or protective custody till their appeals for political asylum could be disposed of. The government has neither disposed of their asylum applications nor responded to the High Court’s rule thus far. Hence, until the High Court’s rule and the asylum applications are disposed of, the government cannot simply hand them over to the Indian government; it would be illegal if the government does so against their will.
Moreover, it would be immoral to hand over Chetia and his associates to the Indian government, from which they sought refuge from in the first place. Most importantly, the government’s action may be in contradiction with the fundamental principles of state policy, as defined in the constitution of the republic. The constitution of the republic says the state shall ‘support oppressed people through the world waging a just struggle against imperialism, colonialism and racialism.’
The official position of the AL-JP government seems to be that, since the Indian government is in negotiations with ULFA, it wants to play a positive role towards peaceful resolution of the unrest in Assam. However, according to Indian media, ULFA is currently divided over negotiations with the Indian government. At this point in time, as it is not clear which side of the divide Chetia and his associates are on, sending them back to India could very well mean death sentences to them. Here it is pertinent to recall, after his arrest and subsequent handover to the Indian authorities in December 2009, ULFA chairman termed Bangladesh a ‘betrayer’. Hence, the government would be well-advised not to hand over Chetia and his associates against their will.
On balance, the incumbents have their legal, moral and constitutional obligations at one end and ‘an informal request’ from the Indian government on the other. The choice that they seem to have made would make them look like officers of the Indian police, not managers of a sovereign state. The people of Bangladesh cannot afford to accept such ignominy.