Bhutan's reluctance to crack down on Indian extremist groups that operate from its territory is causing grave concern.
THE extremist menace in areas close to the India-Bhutan border is becoming a matter of grave concern, with Bhutan hesitating to crackdown on the armed groups that operate from its territory.
A series of attacks on security forces in Assam and West Bengal have been reported in recent months. On May 26, terrorists blew up a vehicle carrying Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel inside the Buxa Tiger Reserve located between West Bengal and Bhutan. The attack, in which six jawans were injured, was the first in which extremists used remote-controlled devices in West Bengal since the days of the Gorkhaland agitation in the 1980s.
After the attack, the militants who belonged to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), fought for six hours with the reinforcements that were rushed to the spot. The extremists set fire to the century-old Bhutan Ghat Forest bungalow, situated half a kilometre from the border on the Indian side, before returning to their camps in Bhutan. The bungalow was being converted into a CRPF camp in the wake of heightened insurgent activities in the area.
The KLO, a new militant outfit representing the Rajbanshi, an ethnic community, demands a separate Kamtapuri State comprising the regions of Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri and West and East Dinajpur in north Bengal. The KLO, intelligence sources said, had developed links with separatist organisations in Assam such as ULFA and the NDFB. The sources revealed that these three outfits had formed an umbrella organisation to coordinate their activities in the region. Links among these groups had become evident earlier, and the May 26 offensive confirmed them.
One reason these groups have intensified their operations is the pressure on them from Bhutan to relocate. The rebels have for long had their training camps in the dense jungles of southern Bhutan, which is almost contiguous with the Buxa Forest. They have shifted some of these camps into the jungles of north Bengal following the Bhutan government's threat to throw them out.
Although the Royal Government of Bhutan is apparently reluctant to conduct a joint operation with India against the terrorists despite India's repeated requests, it has hinted that it may allow Indian paramilitary forces to enter Bhutan in pursuit of the militants. According to informed sources, Bhutan has also realised that it does not have sufficient armed strength to drive out the militants. Aware of this fact, the militants have converted the entire India-Bhutan border area into a large training camp.
In fact, Bhutan had set December 31, 2001 as the deadline for all Indian militant groups to leave Bhutan. But the rebels showed no intention to leave. Although ULFA and Bodo extremists had reportedly demolished some of their camps in that country along the border with Assam and West Bengal, they set up new camps in the more inaccessible Piping-Tintala area of the Nepalese-dominated Sangdrup-Jhonkar region of south Bhutan on the eve of the expiry of the deadline. Intelligence sources say ULFA now has 16 camps and the NDFB six in Bhutan. Of late, some underground KLO militants and Naga rebels who belong to the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) have moved to Bhutan and set up training camps. The NSCN (Khaplang) is also reported to have set up hideouts along the border.
Following the latest attack, India has made a fresh request to Bhutan for joint counter-insurgency operations. Fearing a setback in bilateral relations, Bhutan now desperately wants to flush out all militants holed up in its territory. But it is still hesitant to use its military. While making their stand clear, Bhutanese representatives at the recent high-level talks with India at Thimphu also expressed concern over the presence of ULFA, the NDFB and the KLO inside the remote jungles of Bhutan. "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 official of Jalpaiguri district, who participated in the talks. "The Bhutan government wants to flush out the militants in a bloodless manner. It fears that any military operation by the Indian armed forces will result in Bhutanese civilian casualties, something it does not want to risk," he added. The West Bengal Police and the paramilitary forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations in north Bengal are hamstrung as they cannot pursue the militants back to the hideouts.
India finds it difficult to send its security forces inside Bhutan as it has been, with rare exceptions, cautious about Bhutanese sensitivities. Diplomatic relations between the governments of Bhutan and India are governed by the Indo-Bhutan Treaty of Friendship. The Treaty was signed by the representatives of the two governments in Darjeeling on August 8, 1949. Article 2 of this Treaty 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 did so in 1971. It was also the first country to support India's nuclear test in May 1998. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk himself wrote a congratulatory letter to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on the success of the test. Bhutan was among the first few countries to wish India a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.
Bhutan Home Minister Lyonpo Thinley Gyamtsho told Frontline that in early December, after a few rounds of discussions with the Bhutan government, ULFA's leadership had agreed to close down its camps by December 31, 2001. But it has broken its pledge and Bhutan is now firm on taking on the militants. Bhutan, he said, was in a position to use force since the National Assembly had endorsed the deployment of the Army, but moderate members voiced concern, arguing that such a move might provoke attacks on Bhutanese citizens. A good number of Bhutanese citizens had been killed by ULFA since December 2000 in Assam in what is perceived as retaliation for the interception of its consignments.
That ULFA does not intend to leave Bhutanese territory is clear from its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa's article published in the latest issue of Freedom, the mouthpiece of ULFA. Rajkhowa wrote: "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.
WHEN Bhutan initiated talks with ULFA leaders to dismantle its bases, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi offered "safe passage" to ULFA militants to visit their families in the State. Gogoi insisted that it was a goodwill gesture, but the offer was made in order to prepare the ground for talks with the Centre, which a section of ULFA leadership is said to be keen on. It is expected to facilitate an encounter-free entry into Assam of ULFA and Bodo cadres.
The Bhutan government has specific information that ULFA and NDFB cadres have relocated their camps to more inaccessible and densely forested areas around Bumthang, Mongar and Lhuntsi. The militants have also moved towards the Jigme Dorji wildlife sanctuary bordering China in order to escape raids by the Royal Bhutanese Army and the special teams of the royal bodyguards.
According to the estimates of Indian Army intelligence, there are about 4,000 ULFA and about 1,000 NDFB militants and even some KLO activists holed up in Bhutan. Another 1,000-odd members of ULFA are spread over Bangladesh and Assam. Military intelligence sources say that the ULFA leadership is desperately soliciting help from the NSCN(I-M) and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), which are based in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, to secure safe havens for its cadres who are on the run following a possible joint operation against them by India and Bhutan.