You are here

Border Management and India's North East

  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • July 18, 2006

    The management of India's international border along its North Eastern States has remained a crucial and complex issue. In an age of increasing interdependence, threats from unconventional sources pose a greater challenge to the country's security. An unmanaged border accentuates such threats by providing easy points of ingress and egress. Travel along India's borders with Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan highlights the porous nature of these borders, which pass through difficult terrain of forest, rivers and mountains and make the task of guarding all the more challenging. The need for guarding these boundaries, especially the 4,096 kilometre long Indo-Bangladesh border, was felt in the mid 1980s. Fencing of the Bangladesh border was then commissioned as a potential mechanism of defending the peace and tranquillity of the North Eastern states.

    The presence of militant outfits in most of the North Eastern States and their ability to indulge in hit and run operations across borders has only added to the complexities, both in inter-state and intra-state relations. Most states in the North East have witnessed growing incidence of substance abuse. Drugs, with their origin in Southeast Asian countries, invariably find their way into the region from Myanmar, through states like Mizoram and Manipur. Apart from the unhindered migration severely impacting the demography of the North East, militant outfits operating in the region have been the prime beneficiaries of the porous and unguarded borders.

    Beginning with the Naga National Council (NNC) and the Mizo National Front (MNF) whose cadres travelled to neighbouring Myanmar and China for arms as well as to find refuge from Indian military operations, most of these outfits have used the porosity of the borders to move in men and weapons stealthily. The successor to the NNC, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), which subsequently split into two factions led by Isak-Muiva and Khaplang, has had a number of camps in the Sagaing division of Myanmar since the mid-1980s. Similarly, more than 10 outfits operating in states such as Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Meghalaya have set up camps in Bhutan and Bangladesh.

    The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which operates in Assam, enjoyed facilities in Bhutan till "Operation All Clear" by the Royal Bhutanese Army in December 2003 flushed its cadres out. During its sojourn in Bhutan, ULFA, along with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), carried out hit and run attacks in various districts of Assam. Though there have been recent reports of the ULFA trying to re-establish its camps in Bhutan, India's borders with that country, spanning over 699 kilometres, are more or less secure today.

    Growing cooperation with Myanmar has led to the periodic launching of military operations by the Myanmarese army against Indian rebels. In fact, narratives on the region such as Bertil Lintner's 'Land of Jade' provide details of the army operations targeting the NSCN in the 1980s, which temporarily dislocated the militants from that region. Such operations have continued till recent times. However, due to the non-permanent presence of the Myanmarese army in that region, the reason primarily being the hostile terrain, ousting the Indian militants remains a challenge. Similarly, ethnic rebels from Myanmar have found bases within states like Mizoram. Thus, the 1,643 kilometre long Indo-Myanmar border remains a challenge.

    Bangladesh too remains an unresolved conundrum. Despite official denial, that country is known to be sympathetic to Indian militants. According to the list provided by the Border Security Force (BSF) in February 2006 to the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) authorities, 172 camps of North Eastern militant outfits are located in Bangladesh. This provides the militant outfits with an opportunity not only to mingle with the agents of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), but also hobnob with Islamist outfits in that country. Such nexus has extended itself to smuggling, trade in small arms and other nefarious cross border activities.

    The Indian Government has a Department of Border Management in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to pay focused attention to issues relating to border management. For the department, in addition to the 3,323 kilometre-long Indo-Pakistan border, fencing of the Indo-Bangladesh border has been accorded top priority in view of infiltration, smuggling and other anti-India activities from across the border. In 1999, in the aftermath of the Kargil Conflict, a comprehensive report on border management was prepared by the Government of India, which stressed on the need for development and growth of forces guarding the border. The need to involve local governments in the overall effort was also suggested by the report.

    Fencing the border with Bangladesh has progressed at a slow pace. Under Phase-I, which commenced in 1986, 854 kilometres of fencing was erected. As on March 31, 2006, another 1,448 kilometres has been completed under Phase-II. According to the MHA, the 854 kilometre fence built in Phase-I has, however, already been damaged along most of the stretches and has consequently ceased to be effective in controlling illegal cross border activities. The Ministry plans to start replacing the damaged fencing during 2006-07.

    Fencing along India's western borders has been relatively effective, curbing the movement of militants and activities of smugglers and subversives. Even in the North East, fencing, wherever it exists, has been able to contain the movement of militants and contraband. Smuggling in Tripura has been contained to a large extent as a result of the continuing fencing process. The state, which not very long ago was the theatre of an extremely violent militancy, recorded only 28 civilian and 11 security force deaths in 115 militancy related incidents in 2005.

    However, the quality of fencing in the North East has remained a problem. Discussions with surrendered militants in these states have revealed that breaching the fencing or simply crossing over it is a relatively simple affair. The fact that there has been no proposal to introduce flood light system like along the Western borders makes the militants' task even less cumbersome. Neither has there been any proposal to settle friendly population along the fencing as a second line of defence.

    Friendly relations with neighbouring countries, as far as sound border management is concerned, remain vital. Clearly, the nation needs to be more vigilant and put in a lot more resources, when such a scenario does not exist. Since India's international borders in the North East present an interesting mix of both friendly and unfriendly neighbours, a far greater effort needs to be put into the entire strategy of border management. While India's North East stands to gain from a cooperative framework in the region, important issues of security and development can only be addressed through effective border management.