T h e

K a s h m i r

T  e  l  e  g  r  a  p  h

Fourth Edition

A Kashmir Bachao Andolan Publication

August 2002

I N S I D E


Spotlight               S H Zaidi

Top of Page        KPS Gill

Special Report     S Roughneen

Fundamentals     Praveen Swami

Periscope            B Raman

InsideTrack          H Bashani

Himalayan Blunder                 W Hussain

In Black & White G Peiris

Statecraft             B Raman

Bottomline           N Kaushik

 

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 THE HIMALAYAN BLUNDER

 

Terror Havens in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Wasbir Hussain


Separatist insurgencies in India’s Northeast have long had an external dimension. In 1956, Angami Zapu Phizo, who started the first tribal insurgency in the country, went into exile in Britain, via then East Pakistan, from where he led the Naga bush-war against New Delhi until his death in April 1990. Phizo’s successors in the Naga movement, as also a multiplicity of other separatist militancy’s, have also long operated out of bases outside India. 

This has been a problem that has strained India’s ties with Bhutan since a band of heavily armed militants belonging to the United Liberation Front of Asom moved into the adjoining Himalayan kingdom in the early nineties, and established well-entrenched bases there, some what souring an otherwise agreeable bilateral relationship between New Delhi and Thimpu. ULFA’s surviving capacity to carry out violent operations in the north eastern Indian State of Assam — where the group seeks to establish a ‘sovereign homeland’ — is essentially based on their ability to cross over into safe havens in the jungles of Southern Bhutan. 

Indian intelligence agencies put the number of ULFA camps inside Bhutan at 36 until recently, including its ‘General Headquarters’, ‘Council Headquarters’ and a number of training establishments. An estimated 2,000 cadres, both men and women, live in these camps, mostly located in the Southern Bhutan district of Samdrup Jhongkar, that has a contiguous border with Assam’s western district of Nalbari some 100 KM west of the State capital, Guwahati. It is to these bases that the ULFA hit squads mostly return after attacks in Indian Territory, traversing the densely wooded and porous international border. The situation is complicated further by the presence in Bhutan of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and Kamatapur Liberation Organization (KLO), two other terrorist groups active in Assam. Supported by the ULFA, these groups have established many camps on Bhutanese soil; with an estimated 21 such camps run by the NDFB alone, though many of these are common to the ULFA. 

The presence of the Indian separatists now tops Bhutan’s national agenda, with the royal government describing it as a great threat to ‘national security and sovereignty.’ Counter-insurgency officials and policy makers in India, including Assam’s Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, are of the view that unless the rebels are denied sanctuary in the kingdom, militancy in Assam will remain impossible to contain. In a conversation with the author, Chief Minister Gogoi stated that he had already urged the Deputy Prime Minister and Federal Home Minister, L.K.Advani, to take up the issue of the rebels’ presence in Bhutan with the Royal Government. 

In accordance with an existing agreement, Indian paramilitary and police personnel, though not the Army, can enter Bhutanese territory in an extraordinary hot pursuit situation. In reality, considering the terrain, the rebels can only be taken on in a pincer attack backed by Bhutanese soldiers. New Delhi consequently had some reasons for satisfaction when Bhutan’s National Assembly once again deliberated on the presence of the Indian militants in the kingdom during its session earlier this month and reiterated its call to the rebels to pull out from the kingdom in a peaceful manner or face physical eviction through military force. 

Such pullout calls to the rebels have been given by Bhutan several times in the past. In June 2001, the ULFA and the Bhutanese Government arrived at an agreement, which required the militants to reduce the number of their camps and the strength of their cadres in the kingdom, as a prelude to final withdrawal from the country. In December 2001,Bhutanese authorities claimed that the ULFA had ‘closed down four of nine camps’ in the country. That position has now changed, with King Jigme Singhye Wangchuk informing the National Assembly that it was of‘no use’ if the ULFA agreed to move two or three camps, because it would not be possible for the authorities to determine whether remaining camps had simply been merged or relocated elsewhere within Bhutan. The country’s Home Minister, Thinley Gyamtsho, has stated that the ULFA hadopened a new camp on a mountain ridge above the Samdrup Jongkhar-Tashigang Highway, a fact corroborated by Indian intelligence officials. 

As a result, this time round, Bhutan’s National Assembly has decided to ask the ULFA to shut down its Headquarters and presence on Bhutanese soil, not just a few specific camps. The National Assembly thus concluded: "If the leaders of the ULFA refuse to relocate their headquarters, then it will be clear to the Government and people of Bhutan that the outfit has no intention of leaving Bhutanese territory and there would be no other option but to evict them physically." This is a tough stance for Thimphu to maintain, and for the ULFA, it is a difficult demand to comply with. 

Evicting the heavily armed ULFA cadres from Bhutan is easier said than done, and here lies Assam’s problem. It is not clear whether the Royal Bhutan Police and the Royal Bhutan Army, despite the presence of some commando units trained by the Indian security establishment, can take on the trained ULFA rebels. Will Bhutan finally agree to let the Indian Army into the kingdom for a joint offensive? How does one flush out the rebels if Indian forces are to keep waiting on the borders to trap the fleeing militants? The greatest fear is that of possible retaliation by the ULFA on innocent Bhutanese citizens in case of firm action by the Royal Government. 

There are other problem areas. New Delhi will certainly be concerned over suggestions by a few Bhutanese National Assembly members that Thimphu should look towards China for help in tackling the insurgents, rather than rely totally on India. These members suggested that India might be keeping its forces on the border with Bhutan in order to deliberately confine the rebels within the kingdom, though Bhutanese Home Minister Gyamtsho discounted this perspective. 

Bhutanese authorities now say they will have one last sitting with the ULFA leadership in a bid to persuade them to leave the kingdom, lock, stock and barrel. Clearly, the Royal Government is still keen to resolve the matter without having to shed blood. 

But, where will the ULFA shift its men and materials if it were to honor king Wangchuk’s wishes? Indications suggest exploratory moves towards the Indo-Myanmar border in the north eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, to link up with the group’s ally, the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-N), who have bases in the area. Bangladesh is another option, with much of the organization’s senior leadership already based there. 

In a telephonic interview with the author, Bhutan’s Foreign Secretary Ugyen Tshering stated that the ULFA leadership had told the Bhutanese authorities that they could not fulfill their commitment to withdraw from the kingdom because of the increased presence of Indian troops on the Indo-Bhutan border in the Assam sector. Thimphu has since taken up this issue with New Delhi, Tshering said.

 

At one stage, key officials of the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had mentioned the possibility of granting the rebels safe passage to move through Assam, if the ULFA wanted to move from Bhutan into another country. That, again, is a decision that will have to be taken at the highest level, and is unlikely in the present situation. Gyamtsho suggested that New Delhi might grant the rebels ‘amnesty’ if they were to withdraw from the kingdom and return to India. As things stand now, however, the stage has not reached for the ULFA to take up an amnesty offer even if New Delhi were to make one. Under the circumstances, both India and Bhutan will continue to be haunted by the presence of the Assamese separatists in the Land of the Thunder Dragon. 

The author is the Consulting Editor, The Sentinel, Guwahati; Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management 

By special arrangement with Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. (South Asia Intelligence Review)

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