The Assam Chronicle

News and Views from Northeast India

The gate marking the border, view from Phuntsholing, Bhutan

Indo-Bhutan Borders: Militant Activities

The foreign policy pundits have seen Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent Bhutan visit as timely as useful given India’s strategic and security interests in the neighbouring country and the broader Himalayan region. Modi’s first maiden foreign trip assumes significance against the backdrop of continued cross-border militant activities in the restive North East and China’s growing interest in the tiny Himalayan nation. India, which shares more than 600 km borders with Bhutan, is concerned over cross-border militancy along the Indo-Bhutan borders, particularly in the North Eastern region. Some lower Assam districts bordering Bhutan are fast emerging as hotbed of terrorism and organised crimes. Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) personnel are deployed along the 605 km long the Indo-Bhutan border to check cross-border movement of militants.

Reports suggest that the Sangbojit faction of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) have a strong bastion along the border with Bhutan in Kokrajhar, Udalguri and Baksa districts of Assam while the Koch-Rajbongshi militants belonging to Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) are active in the North Bengal side. In an incident on August 8, suspected North Eastern militants abducted four Bhutanese nationals from their territory. The incident occurred at Pathabari village near Sarpang town in Bhutan which is only 3 km away from the international border. The nearest SSB Narayani outpost is situated on the Indian side. This is not an isolated act of militancy. The Bodo insurgent outfit NSDFB(S) indulges in extortion bids with disturbing regularity.

During the Indian prime minister’s bilateral visit to Thimphu, both the governments reiterated not to allow their territories to be used for interests inimical to each other. The inclusion of National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval in the Indian delegation led by the prime minister implied that were serious security issues to be addressed by the two nations. Reports say that New Delhi sought Bhutan’s support in internal security matters.

Earlier, the Bhutanese leaders positively responded to India’s security concerns and dismantled several camps established by the North Eastern insurgent groups including United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), NDFB and KLO in their territory. According to a number of reports, an estimated 3000 armed cadres belonging to different militant outfits had been flushed out in a military operation led by the then king of Bhutan Jigme Singmey Wangchuk himself in 2003. In the crackdown against anti-Indian elements, nearly 30 camps and 35 other observation posts were completely destroyed. Besides, scores of armed cadres and their commanders were reported to have killed in the operations supported by Indian Army. It is believed that ULFA had suffered most in terms of casualties and logistics.

The military operation launched by the Royal Bhutanese Army codenamed “Operation All Clear” was indeed a successful one. So far, Bhutan is the only South Asian country that has initiated such a special military operation directed against anti-Indian insurgent groups in its own territory. New Delhi has acknowledged Bhutan’s crucial support in addressing its security concerns.

However, latest intelligence reports indicate that some militant outfits have been “regrouping and using Bhutanese territory” once again. The outfits like NDFB(S) and KLO are using Bhutanese soil taking advantage of the inhospitable terrain of the border region and “maintaining camps in some remote areas” of the neighbouring country. The number and size of these camps may be smaller than the previous ones, but these militant groups have already established sanctuaries in Bhutan’s Sarpang district that shares border with Kokrajhar district of Assam. The militant outfits often kidnap tea garden executives and businessmen from Assam and use their camps inside Bhutanese territory for lodging them. In 2013, the senior officials of the Ministry of Home Affairs raised this issue with Bhutan government officials during bilateral talks.

A few observers maintain that a specific statement was not issued though NSA did discuss the issue of cross-border terrorism with high ranking Bhutanese security and intelligence officials. There is also no confirmed report if India pressed the neighbouring country to initiate another military operation to flush out the anti-Indian elements. The Tshering Tobgay government reaffirmed the pledge of not allowing its territory to be used against India. Bhutanese leaders reassurance has welcomed by India’s security establishment.