The view from New Delhi

Published : Jan 16, 2004 00:00 IST

The Indian Army's role in the crackdown remains unclear, but its immediate task is to consider what to do if the insurgents regroup.

in New Delhi

BHUTAN'S military action against the terror camps on its soil has been widely read as a consequence of Indian diplomatic pressure on the Dragon Kingdom to act. However, most defence and intelligence experts in New Delhi believe that it was domestic concerns that drove Bhutan to initiate its first war since the Anglo-Bhutanese war of 1865. Organisations such as the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Bhutan argues, had come to pose a very real threat to its monarchy. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, it would seem, realised that the South Asian practice of rearing predators as domestic pets is an exceptionally perilous occupation.

A fortnight after Bhutan's offensive against the KLO, ULFA and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) began, relatively little is known about just what prompted King Wangchuck's decision to go to war. India has been complaining for over a dozen years that these groups had set up base in Bhutan. Bhutan at first denied the allegations, and then from mid-1995 began to admit, sotto voce, that terrorist base camps indeed existed on its soil. By this time Bhutan itself was feeling the pain. In 1997, four Bhutan Police personnel were killed in a terrorist attack on a police station in Nganglam. Then in 1998, a senior Army officer and his convoy were ambushed in Patshala, across the border in Assam. Again, in December 2000, 15 people were killed and many more injured in a terrorist attack, and in August 2002, five Bhutanese were killed in an ambush on the highway to Assam.

Although concerned about the prospect of insurgents training their guns on Bhutan, King Wangchuck chose to stonewall Indian calls for military action against the militants. Instead four rounds of talks were held between 1998 and 2001, between the Government of Bhutan and ULFA, the KLO and the NDFB. ULFA signed an agreement committing itself to removing four of its camps in Bhutan by December 2001, and reducing the cadre strength in the five other camps, and to final evacuation negotiations after doing these. It soon became clear that ULFA had no intention of keeping its word; the NDFB and the KLO also blithely ignored Bhutan's requests to leave. The cadre strength of these organisations also continued to grow. Between February 18 and 22, 2002, ULFA cadre were reported to have entered Dagana through the jungles of Sarpang and Tsirang, while other groups were seen in Tsirang between February and April last year. KLO and NDFB terrorists were seen at Chukha Dzongkhag, posing a serious threat to Bhutan's key economic resource, its hydro-electric projects.

Between October and November 2003, Bhutan made a last-ditch effort to get the groups to keep their deal. It was a waste of time. According to a Bhutan Foreign Ministry statement published in South Asia Intelligence Review, "ULFA said that it would be suicidal for their cause of independence of Assam to leave Bhutan while the NDFB said that even if they left their present camps, they would have to come back and establish camps in other parts of Bhutan". To add insult to injury, the NDFB and ULFA sent only mid-level leaders to the last round of talks, while Bhutan was represented at the highest level. The KLO did not even bother to attend the talks. "The military crackdown was our ultimate option," Bhutan Foreign Secretary Aum Neten Zangmo told Review.

But what actually made Bhutan chose confrontation over continued conciliation? In April 2003, the ruling elite in that country was shocked by the launch of the Bhutan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist). Pamphlets circulated by the BCP both in Nepal and Bhutan proclaimed that its objective was to "smash the monarchy" and establish a "true and new democracy". Although Bhutan's monarchy has made some tentative moves towards authoring a Constitution, it had good reason to be alarmed by this agenda. The BCP, for one, had a wide pool of discontent to draw on, notably the estimated 100,000 ethnic Nepali refugees expelled from the Dragon Kingdom over a decade ago, which Bhutan claims were illegal immigrants. These groups had responded with low-grade terrorism directed at the state apparatus in southern Bhutan.

The presence of insurgents in any area leads to a level of small-arms proliferation, something the BCP was obviously poised to cash in on. More important, Indian intelligence soon found evidence of the KLO's deep links with armed Maoist groups fighting in Nepal. KLO cadre in West Bengal, it was discovered, provided shelter, medical support and some armed infrastructure to the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist), which in turn had ethnic and ideological affiliations with the BCP. It was only a matter of time before the KLO made available its infrastructure within Bhutan to the BCP, and elements within the NDFB and ULFA made available weapons on a cash-and-carry basis. Bhutan's concerns were discussed during King Wangchuck's visit to India in September 2003, and a tentative plan of military action was drawn up. "The KLO-BCP threat, more than anything else, probably tipped the scales in favour of military action in King Wangchuck's mind," says a senior Indian intelligence official.

On the morning of December 15, Bhutan began its offensive against the terror camps along its 380-kilometre border with India. According to the official account, Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) troops began shelling ULFA, NDFB and KLO camps with 81-milimetre mortar and machine guns. The fire was met with 51-milimetre mortar and rifle-fired grenades. Bhutan claimed that the ULFA headquarter complex at Phukaptong in Samdrup Jongkhar district fell the same day. By December 16, ULFA's secondary headquarters at Merengphu, the NDFB's biggest camp in Tikri, another NDFB camp in Nganglam sub-district and several KLO camps in Samtse district were overrun. By December 18, officials in Thimphu asserted that all 30 terrorist camps in the kingdom had been uprooted. Of these, a Bhutanese Foreign Ministry statement said, ULFA had 13 camps, the NDFB 12 and the KLO five.

Just what role the Indian Army and Air Force had in the fighting is unclear. Officials in New Delhi admit that India evacuated combat casualties by air, and provided unspecified logistical support. Yet, the sheer speed of the Bhutan offensive seems unsustainable for an Army of under 10,000, including non-combatants and personnel deployed on static duties such as guarding the Paro airport. A lightly armed conscript force, the RBA had just 4,850 personnel until 1978, when it opened a fresh recruitment drive. In 1990, its numbers were reported to have risen to 6,000, of which core elements, including the Royal Bodyguard, were trained at the prestigious School of Jungle Warfare at Virangte in Mizoram. Indian instructors also teach at the RBA's Wangchuck Lo Dzong Military Training School in Ha district, which, apart from conducting in-house programmes prepares candidates for officer-training courses at the Indian Military Academy.

ACUTELY conscious of Bhutan's concerns about its sovereignty, no one in New Delhi is willing to discuss the precise details of India's military involvement in the December offensive. What is clear, though, is that a Bhutan Army assault on positions which, by official accounts, were heavily defended and protected by minefields would have been considerably more expensive than it proved to be if there had been no substantial Indian military backing. According to officials, the RBA killed between 90 and 120 terrorists, sustaining just seven fatalities in return, figures which suggest a numerical and technological superiority it simply does not possess.

Nor did the operation have the advantage of secrecy. On December 13, a full 48 hours before the offensive began, Thimphu served a notice on ULFA, the NDFB and the KLO, through an article in the newspaper Kuensel, which said that it was left with no option other than to entrust the Army "with the sacred duty of removing the militants."

Whatever the truth, both countries are now hunkering for a continued military challenge. Bhutan, for one, has to prepare for possible reprisal attacks, including assaults by the BCP, and low-grade activities by remnants of the terrorist groups still hiding in its southern forests. In May, King Wangchuck presided over a meeting where a senior Bhutanese military official called on village leaders to raise conscripts for a new militia which would receive three months' military training. He also told local leaders that Bhutan was facing a "critical situation", and that the security and sovereignty of Bhutan was seriously threatened. The government, he said, was contemplating raising its contingency to meet emergency situations from ngultrum one billion to two billion (1.00 ngultrum=1.00 rupee). The RBA had, at around the same time, begun to set up 10 military camps along the border with Assam, camps which were pivotal in the ongoing offensive.

India, meanwhile, will have to consider just what to do if ULFA, the NDFB and the KLO regroup. The insurgent organisations have two broad options. The first is to head east, through Arunachal Pradesh and into Myanmar. On December 20, the Indian Army ambushed and killed three terrorists, two from ULFA and one from the relatively unknown Arunachal Dragon Force (ADF), near Namsai in Arunachal Pradesh. The chief of the ADF, Chownomee Namchumoo, was captured along with AK-47 rifles, pistols, grenades and a large amount of explosives and cash. An Army spokesman said the terrorists were on their way to a hideout in Myanmar, where, according to Khagen Sarma, Inspector-General of Police, Assam an estimated 400 ULFA cadre now hide. Myanmar, however, has been increasingly intolerant of terrorist activity on its soil. In 1995, Operation Golden Bird, a joint Myanmar-India military operation carried out along the Mizoram border, led to the elimination of dozens of terrorists.

A second option for the terrorist groups is to head for Bangladesh, where top ULFA leaders have hidden out for years with patronage from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. Indian intelligence officials say that some 20 new terror camps have come up here since the Bhutan offensive began, notably in Sylhet, Habibganj and Sherpur areas, as well as Rangamati and Bandarban. While Bangladesh Foreign Minister Morshed Khan has denied the existence of these camps, there is growing evidence, at least some corroborated by Western diplomats who have visited the country in recent months, to support the proposition. The support of Islamist elements in the Bangladesh military and intelligence services to a welter of terrorist groups that are active in India is likely to figure in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's talks with Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia at the upcoming meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Pakistan. It is unlikely, however, that Bangladesh will prove as cooperative as Bhutan - at least until the pets nurtured on its soil grow big enough to bite the hand that feeds them.

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