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Indo-Bhutan Joint Action against Insurgents

Balaji Chandramohan is editor of World Security Network for Asia.
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  • October 05, 2009

    After the 6th border meeting in Thimphu on September 12, India and Bhutan have agreed to scale up efforts to secure their borders. India and Bhutan share a 669-km-long border, manned by the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) from the Indian side and by the Royal Bhutanese Army on the Bhutan side. Most of the insurgent camps are located along the Bhutan-Assam border, which comprises of 267 km of the Indo-Bhutan border.

    The border meeting assumes significance against the backdrop of reports suggesting that insurgents operating in India’s North-Eastern states such as United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFA) and Kamtapur Liberation Organization (KLO) have increased co-operation with the Bhutan Tiger Force, the Bhutan Maoist Party and the Communist Party of Bhutan. At the same time, there is a fear in the Bhutanese establishment that the Communist Party of Bhutan, with active co-operation from North Eastern insurgent groups, might acquire advanced weapons and attempt to topple the newly elected democratic government headed by Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley. This was emphasized by Home Secretary Penden Wangchuck who headed the Bhutanese delegation for the border talks. Wangchuk was reported by state-run newspaper Kuensel as saying that "The insurgents are linked to Maoists and militants of eastern Nepal and they can pose a threat to security”.

    The Indian side headed by Secretary (border management) Vinay Kumar emphasized during the meeting that since the new Bangladesh government headed by Sheikh Hasina had increased the crack down on North-Eastern insurgent groups, these groups have set up bases in Bhutan. This was confirmed by the 48-page ‘restricted’ Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) report on the North-East states in September 2009. Reports note that the emergence of a “friendly” regime in Bangladesh has resulted in nervousness among the Indian insurgent groups operating from that country and “tentative” reports suggest movement of insurgent infrastructure towards Myanmar and Bhutan where the reach of the Government along the border areas is limited.

    Earlier in August 2009, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram, during a three-day visit to Bhutan, had raised concerns about the re-entrenchment of Assamese and other north-eastern rebel groups in Bhutan. After the talks, Chidambaram acknowledged that the Bhutan government will not hesitate to act on the Indian insurgent groups in its southern borders. This was confirmed by Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigme Yoser Thinley in the wake of Chidambaram’s visit.

    India and Bhutan are also concerned about Daranga Mela, a trade point on the India-Bhutan border which in recent years has become the base of ULFA’s most wanted commander Hira Sarania who heads the outfit’s 709 battalion. With the death of Paresh Baruah’s top aide in a September 5, 2009 gun-battle with security forces in Guwahati, Sarania is tipped to acquire greater importance in ULFA’s scheme of things. Indian Intelligence source indicate that Sarania is located somewhere in the foothills of Bhutan Himalayas, dodging the security forces of both India and Bhutan. Sarania was instrumental in rebuilding the ULFA’s network in Lower Assam, mainly in areas bordering Bhutan, after the group suffered serious reverses as a result of “Operation All Clear” in 2003.

    Earlier on December 15, 2003, India and Bhutan had conducted a joint operation to flush out North-Eastern insurgent groups operating inside Bhutan. “Operation All Clear” could be termed as the dawn of the new Indo-Bhutan 'strategic partnership.' The operation was centered in Southern Bhutan where the insurgent groups’ camps were concentrated. The Royal Bhutan Army conducted the operation within its territory while the Indian Army ensured that the insurgents do not cross over to the Indian side. Reports indicated that 30 camps where insurgents were concentrated were the target of the operation. Out of these, 13 were controlled by ULFA, 12 by the NDFB, and 5 by the KLO. The then Indian Chief of Army Staff, General N.C. Vij officially announced that 650 militants had been “neutralised” - either killed or captured - during the operation. The ULFA and NDFB ‘publicity secretaries’ Mithinga Diamari and B. Erakrdao, and the KLO ‘Chief’ Tom Adhikari were the prominent terrorist leaders arrested during the operation. After the operation, the Bhutan government rightly pointed out in a statement that the militants’ existence in the region not only undermines “the peace, stability and socio-economic development enjoyed by the Bhutanese people”, but also “threatens the very sovereignty of the country.”

    The present situation is similar to the one after “Operation Rhino” launched by the Indian Army on September 15, 1991, which forced the ULFA to first base its camps in Southern Bhutan. ULFA then facilitated the entry of its two allies, the NDFB and the KLO. At present, the general fear from the Indian perspective is that ULFA might have set up temporary, though not permanent, camps in Southern Bhutan. The dense forests and rough terrain pose huge hurdles for the security forces to flush out the rebels completely. Under these circumstances, India and Bhutan have to step up patrolling along their border, especially in the Assam sector where the insurgent camps are concentrated. India should also extend support and training to the Royal Bhutan Army to better handle the insurgents encamped within Bhutanese territory.