THE United States Ambassador to India David C. Mulford's letter to the Chief Ministers of Assam and Nagaland, offering the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) assistance to investigate the serial blasts in the two northeastern States, has snowballed into a controversy with allegations that it is "an interference in India's internal affairs by the United States".
In his letter dated October 4, faxed by the U.S. Embassy to the Assam Chief Minister on October 5, Mulford wrote: "In this context, the United States has considerable expertise in investigative techniques including, for example, such areas as forensic analysis of explosive residues. Should you find it helpful, the FBI would be pleased to provide technical support for your investigation. I have also made this offer to Home Minister Shivraj Patil. I hope you will feel free to contact me if there is any other way that we can be helpful." A copy of the letter was made available to mediapersons during a press conference addressed by Gogoi the same morning.
Gogoi initially maintained that the State government was for taking the FBI's help, provided the decision was endorsed by the Centre, but not at the cost of national security. However, sharp reaction across the country against the U.S. Ambassador's offer prompted Gogoi to refrain from even taking up the matter with the Centre or replying to the letter.
Hemen Das, secretary of the Assam State committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: "Mulford's direct offer to Assam Chief Minister was not only an interference by the United States in the internal affairs of India, it also exposed the double standards of the United States vis-a-vis the northeastern region. In 1978 the CIA had drawn up the infamous `Project Brahmaputra' as part of the U.S. design to sever the northeastern region from India. From 1979 onwards Assam witnessed the birth of secessionist and separatist groups. Fissiparous tendencies grew in the entire region. Now the same United States has offered to help in investigation of blasts triggered by insurgents. This has exposed the double standards of the United States."
The State unit of the Communist of Party of India (CPI) demanded "diplomatic action against Mulford". Promode Gogoi, senior CPI leader and a member of the party's national executive council, cautioned the government against "growing U.S. interest" in the region. He said: "The CIA and Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) always work in close cooperation." He added: "The U.S. Ambassador has no right to write to the Chief Ministers offering FBI's assistance. It is tantamount to direct interference by the U.S. administration in the internal affairs of these two States."
The main Opposition party in the State, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), opposed Mulford's offer and demanded a high-level probe against Gogoi for his interest in taking the FBI's help. "The Chief Minister has shown keen interest in taking the FBI's help which would pose serious threat to the country's security," alleged senior AGP leader Zoiinath Sharma in a statement issued on October 6.
Sharp criticism of Mulford's move has to been seen in the context of the U.S. interest in the northeastern region. In early 1978, a secret circular titled "Project Brahmaputra" and marked for "Limited Official Use" was sent by the United States Information Service (USIS) - which was reorganised as the United States International Communication Agency (USICA) - in New Delhi to its counterpart in Calcutta (now Kolkata). The document said:
"With the agreement of the State Department, the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) of the George Washington University has asked the U.S. outfits in India for help in conducting sociological research in the eastern [S]tates of India, including Sikkim as well as Bhutan. The aim of this research is to throw light on public opinion in these regions to establish in what measure the present status of these [S]tates remains acceptable or whether there are indications that the formation of a new [S]tate is a current problem.
"For the conduct of this work, it is necessary to mobilise the entire personnel working in the [S]tates of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. You may also make use of local agencies, the staff of which have opportunities of travelling in these regions. You are authorised to sign appropriate contracts with these agencies indemnifying them for the expanses of such travel. We would have no objection to such agencies making use of educationists or even students to further our objectives."
When it became public, the circular created a furore in the country, with allegations that under the cover of research the U.S. aimed to sever the strategic geo-political region from the rest of India.
In the recent past the northeastern region has witnessed frequent visits by U.S. diplomats and officials and joint military exercise by the U.S. and Indian Armies. A 10-day exercise code-named Yudh Abhyas (War Exercises), involving a platoon of the Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army and Indian Army, was held at Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS) at Vairangte in Mizoram in March-April. Later, exercises in unconventional operations and mock intelligence, counter-intelligence and psychological warfare in a simulated insurgency and terrorist environment was also taken up. India and the U.S. had their first joint military exercises at CIJWS in May 2002.
In fact, Mulford is not the first U.S. Ambassador to have shown keen interest in the northeastern States. His predecessor Robert Blackwill was the first foreign dignitary to have visited the strategic Nathu La in Sikkim along the India-China border on February 1, 2002. Blackwill also visited key military locations in the region, including the Headquarters of the 4 Corps of the Indian Army at Tezpur in Assam and 3 Corps at Dimapur in Nagaland responsible for guarding the border with China and Myanmar.