Special vigil on Bhutan border

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

A policeman, who was injured in a bomb attack by NDFB activists in Kokrajhar district near India-Bhutan border in October, in a hospital in Guwahati. - CAROLINE SINGH/AFP

A policeman, who was injured in a bomb attack by NDFB activists in Kokrajhar district near India-Bhutan border in October, in a hospital in Guwahati. - CAROLINE SINGH/AFP

India plans to step up security along the border with Bhutan in view of the latter's reluctance to join it in military operations against the insurgents who have set up camps on Bhutanese territory.

WITH the Royal Bhutan government dilly-dallying over repeated requests for joint armed operations against the insurgent groups that are running training camps well inside Bhutan, India is planning various steps, including maintaining a special vigil along the border and trying to pressure Bhutan in flushing out the extremists. According to Assam government officials, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) are operating at least 30 training camps in the jungles along the border. The Central government has decided in principle to assist the West Bengal and Assam governments in the deployment of a combined force of the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) along the Bhutan border. It has asked the two State governments to prepare an action plan to keep a strict watch on the border. This includes the strengthening of the police machinery and other administrative arrangements. There are plans to set up immigration checkposts and issue identity cards to people living in the border areas. Besides tightening up the border, the Centre plans to sign a memorandum of understanding with Bhutan regarding the regulation of free movement of tribal people.

Maintaining a constant vigil along the 699-km-long border is an arduous task. The terrain is mountainous and thickly forested. The road system is inadequate. Besides, both Indian and Bhutanese citizens are allowed to cross the border without virtually any valid documents. Jaigaon in Jalpaiguri district of north Bengal and Phuentsoling in Bhutan constitute an open entry point. The absence of checks in these parts has enabled ULFA and NDFB activists to sneak into Bhutan and set up camps and hideouts.

The terrorist menace in the border areas is a cause of grave concern for both West Bengal and Assam governments. A series of militant operations against security forces in the two States have been reported in recent months. The latest incident was on November 6, in which a rebel group attacked some Central Reserve Police Force Personnel (CRPF), injuring three jawans in the Jalpaiguri district. Militants belonging to ULFA, the NDFB and the KLO battled for six hours until reinforcements were rushed to the spot. The extremists also torched the century-old Bhutan Ghat forest bungalow, barely half a kilometre inside the border, before retreating to Bhutan.

A similar attack was mounted on May 26 when ULFA extremists blew up a vehicle carrying paramilitary forces inside the Buxa Tiger Reserve, located between West Bengal and Bhutan. It was the first time since the Gorkhaland agitation in the 1980s that the extremists used remote control devices in West Bengal.

The KLO is a fairly new militant organisation. It has been demanding a separate state for the ethnic Rajbanshi community, to be called Kamtapuri, carved out of West Bengal's Cooch-Behar, Jalpaiguri and West and East Dinajpur districts. The KLO, intelligence sources said, had developed links with ULFA and the NDFB. The sources revealed that the three organisations had formed an umbrella outfit to coordinate their activities in the region.

ALTHOUGH Bhutan has been reluctant to conduct joint counter-insurgency operations with India, of late, finding itself in a sticky situation, it has been pressuring the extremists to leave its soil. The Bhutan government recently hinted that it might allow Indian paramilitary forces to enter its territory. According to informed sources, Bhutan has also realised that it does not have sufficient armed strength to drive out the militants. The militants, quite aware of this fact, have converted the entire Indo-Bhutan border area into an arms training zone.

In fact, Bhutan had set December 31, 2001, as the deadline for the insurgents to leave. But the underground rebels showed no intention to honour the instruction. In fact ULFA and Bodo activists reportedly demolished some of their camps along the border near Assam and West Bengal but set up new ones in the interior and inaccessible Piping-Tintala areas in the Nepali-dominated region of south Bhutan, close to West Bengal on the eve of the deadline.

The Government of India has made a fresh request to Bhutan for joint operations. Fearing a worsening of bilateral relations, Bhutan now desperately wants to push the militants out. But it is still hesitant about the use of the military option. Bhutanese representatives at the recent high-level talks with India in Thimphu made this clear, while at the same time expressing grave concern over the presence of the militants inside the southern jungles. Under pressure from New Delhi, Thimphu has repeatedly issued ultimatums to the rebels to close down their camps. But the militants have refused to budge. "Although the Bhutanese authorities have expressed concern over the continued presence of the militants on their soil, they are averse to any military operations within Bhutanese territory,'' said a senior Jalpaiguri district official who participated in the talks. "The Bhutan government wants to flush out the militants in a peaceful and bloodless manner. It fears that any military operation by the Indian armed forces would result in Bhutanese civilian casualty, something it does not want to risk,'' he added. Paramilitary forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations in north Bengal and Assam are hamstrung as they cannot pursue the militants to their dens.

India too has been very cautious about the sensitivity of the Bhutanese government and people. India has always tried to make Bhutan's ruling elite feel free to look to it for support. The diplomatic relations between Bhutan and India are governed by the Indo-Bhutan Treaty of Friendship. The Treaty, signed in Darjeeling on August 8, 1949, says: "The Government of India undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part, the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.'' Bhutan was the first country to recognise Bangladesh after India in 1971. It was also the first country to support India's nuclear tests in May 1998. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk himself wrote a congratulatory letter to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on the success of the tests. Bhutan was also among the first few countries that supported India's quest for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

Bhutanese Home Minister Lyonpo Thinley Gyantsho told Frontline that after a few rounds of discussions with his government, the ULFA leadership had agreed to close down the camps. But it soon broke the pledge. Bhutan was now firm on taking on the militants, he said. It was in a position to use force since the National Assembly had endorsed the deployment of the Army, but moderate members had voiced concern arguing that such a move might provoke attacks on Bhutanese citizens, he explained. A good number of Bhutanese have been killed by ULFA in Assam in what is perceived as retaliation for the interception of consignments meant for the organisation.

That the organisation does not intend to demolish its camps and leave Bhutanese territory became evident in a recent article published in the ULFA mouthpiece, Freedom. In this article, ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa said: "The ULFA has not occupied Bhutan but has taken shelter there from Indian occupation forces. We will move out of Bhutan as soon as Swadhin (sovereign) Asom is achieved."

Meanwhile, the Centre has also decided to deploy the ITBP along the India-China border. An action plan to improve roads and communication facilities is being prepared after discussions with the Ministries concerned, the armed forces and the ITBP. The Assam Police will be deployed along the 1,643-km India-Myanmar border. The terrain, like that along the Indo-Bhutan border, is mountainous and forested.

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