Killings on Highway 31

Even in the perspective of the Subcontinent's violent Northeast, which provides such fertile soil for militancy, there must be more than one eyebrow raised at the recent killing and injury of Bhutanese citizens by extremists on Indian soil just south of the border. On 20 and 21 December, a number of Bhutanese buses and cars were fired at indiscriminately by gunmen, leading to the death of 13 and injury of many more. The vehicles were using Highway 31, which is an important transportation artery linking the Northeast's economic hubs like Siliguri and Guwahati. For the Bhutanese, this road also provides a vital link between the country's eastern and western regions.

While it was intriguing that the incidents along Highway 31 did not attract the international media's attention, the killing and maiming of its innocents were painful for Bhutan, a country which rarely sees violence of this kind, and certainly not on this scale. And as troubling for the authorities in Thimphu were the murky reasons behind what seemed to all observers to have been a pre-meditated exercise. In that sense, Thimphu was more surprised than hurt.

For the last few years, the use of Bhutan's dense southern forest by Bodo militants fighting Assamese domination has been a major source of worry for King Jigme Singye Wangchuk and his subjects. The challenge has been to maintain the country's prized sovereignty by keeping the Indian Army away from operating within Bhutan, and yet keep New Delhi satisfied that everything is being done to flush out the militants. Meanwhile, the Bodos can hardly be wished away, for they will continue to populate and control the southern flanks of the Bhutanese state. Added to that, the highly armed and motivated militant groups have the ability to violently destabilise Bhutan, and that is what was most worrying about the December killings.

Two prominent insurgency groups from Assam are currently camped in the southern Bhutanese forests, driven there under pressure from Bangladesh when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal's chief minister Jyoti Basu came to a painfully-negotiated understanding on the sharing of water from the Farraka Barrage. The Indian Army has made it quite clear that it would like to 'flush' the militants out of Bhutan. Thimphu, by the looks of it, has not agreed. A bloody conflict between the Indian military and the militants, if it is at all possible across the 300-kilometre stretch of dense forest, does not appeal to the Druk government. The militants, meanwhile, have been made to understand that they are not welcome on Bhutanese soil. The long sessions of the Tshongdu (National Assembly) in Thimphu has repeatedly declared that they have to be evicted, by force if necessary. The Bhutanese government has also been building a military force, ostensibly for this purpose.

Allegations by Assam's Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta imply that the NDFB (National Democratic Front of Bodoland) is worried about Thimphu's pressure for a negotiated departure from the Drukyul forests. The open threats of military action emanating from the Tshongdu also certainly have them concerned. The killings may have been meant to provide a sampling of what awaits the Himalayan kingdom if Thimphu does decide to get aggressive.

If the killings were carried out by the BLT, as stated by the Bhutanese police, the situation is even more complex. It would seem that the Bhutanese authorities would have had to be rather certain before the Thimphu police was allowed to air its speculation. What adds to the intrigue is that the BLT is not in any way threatened by the Bhutanese at present, and is in fact presently aligned with the Indian government.

Thus, the tension has been building, not only along the Duars but also between New Delhi and Thimphu, quite uncharacteristic of the long-professed mutual understanding between the two capitals. There are no obvious adversaries here but there are several potential motives. So who killed the Bhutanese? And why? This is high intrigue, and the only plausible theories remain unspoken.

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