“If Bhutan tries to throw out the rebels, it gets involved in what essentially are India’s problems. If it shies away from action, it risks the wrath of Delhi.”
When Bodo militants attacked a Bhutanese police post at Nanglam in Southern Bhutan one morning in September, the totally unexpected had happened. The attack defied logic, for why should Bodo rebel groups, who have used Bhutan as their main transborder refuge, attack Bhutanese policemen and invite retribution from the kingdom´s administration? It has been more than four years since Bodo rebels from across the border in Assam have used the jungles of southern Bhutan to regroup after attacks on Indian security forces. The Bodos are not the only separatists to have found sanctuary in these jungles. Following their lead, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) too set up shop here in the mid-1990s. The kingdom´s southern border zone, much of it astride Assam, has thus changed into a guerilla refuge.
Responsibility for the attack on the Bhutanese police post has not been claimed by either of the two Bodo rebel groups – the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), fighting for an independent Bodo homeland to be carved out of India, and the Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT), which demands a Bodo homeland separate from Assam but remaining within India.
The Bhutanese are in no doubt who was behind the assault. Said Phu Dorji, a policeman at Nanglam, “The attackers were obviously Bodos, they were not ngolops.” The term means “anti-national” in Dzongkha, and is used almost exclusively nowadays, to denote Nepali-speaking dissidents, many of whom have found shelter in the refugee camps in southeast Nepal.
Meanwhile, ULFA´s chief of military wing Paresh Barua claimed that the Indian secret agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), was behind the attack. In a telephone interview from an undisclosed hideout, Barua said that RAW maintains close links with the BLT, which is being used to undercut the NDFB´s influence amongst the Bodos. According to Barua, New Delhi finds the BLT´s objectives more acceptable than the NDFB´s fullscale secessionist designs.
The RAW would have goaded the BLT to carry out the attack on Nanglam, says Barua, in order to agitate the Bhutanese and persuade them to act against the rebels along the southern border. The attack, he said, could also help India build up necessary pressure on Bhutan to allow the Indian army to launch a sustained transborder military operation. There was no response to these charges from RAW or the Indian government, even after Barua´s interview was broadcast on the BBC.
India has been trying hard to get Bhutan´s permission to launch a military offensive on the Bodo and ULFA bases within Bhutanese soil. Immediately after the United Command was set up in Assam earlier this year, the army started building pressure on the Gujral government in New Delhi to persuade Bhutan to allow the Indian troops in. While earlier, in 1992-93, the Thimphu authorities had allowed the Indian army to operate in the south, this time they have maintained a stoic silence. “We are surprised at Bhutan´s response. It is India´s closest ally in South Asia and it should help India finish off this rebel problem,” said a lieutenant-general in the Indian army´s Eastern Command, which is responsible for security in India´s northeast.
It is not as if Bhutan has been ignoring the goings-on on its southern border, however. During its monsoon session earlier this year, the Tshongdu, Bhutan´s national assembly, witnessed extended discussions on the militants´ presence, with 14 members and several ministers taking part. The speakers expressed the fear that these groups may gang up with ngolops, and there was concern that their presence in Bhutanese soil could jeopardise Thimphu´s excellent relations with New Delhi. The deputy minister for agriculture Dorji said the rebels were trying to win over locals by over-paying for purchases (upto 500 Ngultrums, or USD 12 for a chicken, he claimed). The minister for forests said Bhutanese forest guards frequently encountered the heavily armed rebels but never challenged them for fear of a violent response.
Home Minister Dago Tshering rounded off the discussion by admitting the “serious nature” of the rebel presence. But, he reminded the Tshongdu, Bhutan lacked the capability to fight the well-armed rebels from Assam. “Tshering is right. Bhutan is caught between the devil and the deep sea. If it tries to throw out the rebels, it gets involved in what essentially are India´s problems. And if it shies away from action, it risks the wrath of Delhi,” says Gautam Basu, who heads the department of International Relations in Calcutta´s Jadavpur University and has authored a well-acclaimed study on Bhutan.
The risks for Thimphu in allowing Indian military operations within its territory are obvious. “The rebels are no longer along the border, they have moved far too deep inside Bhutanese territory. If the Indian army is allowed to operate, it will call for a sustained military operation well inside the kingdom. Bhutan is India´s ally and is dependent on Indian aid, but it cannot afford to be seen as a surrogate,” says Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhuri, a Calcutta-based commentator on South Asian relations.
Things are additionally complicated for Bhutan, says Choudhuri, as at this very moment it is trying to settle a boundary issue with China. Beijing will hardly welcome the fact that Indian troops are involved in operations inside Bhutan. The Bhutanese know well that the Chinese objected to the presence of Indian troops in Bhutan (under cover of providing training to Bhutanese army) when P.V. Narasimha Rao was prime minister. China indicated its awareness that there was a much larger Indian military presence in Bhutan than required for training purposes.
According to sources in Indian intelligence, the ULFA and the NDFB have upto 20 camps in southern Bhutan, including both their headquarters. When the Indian army overran the tactical headquarters of the ULFA near the Assam-Bhutan border earlier this year, Paresh Barua threatened to blow up the oil pipelines in Assam unless the military offensive was stopped. That was followed by an attack on the Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, which he barely escaped.
Says an Intelligence Bureau official, “Barua wanted to ensure that the Indian troops did not cross the border and attack their main base. After they were thrown out of Bangladesh by the Sheikh Hasina government, Bhutan has been the ULFA´s main base area and of the Bodos as well. Barua had reasons to be desperate.”
Barua is believed to have warned the Bhutanese government of “serious consequences” if they allowed the Indian army in, and it is well known that Thimphu shudders at the prospect of Assam-style militancy being unleashed within its territory. Dealing with motivated militants of ULFA or NDFB is a far cry from what they have been used to so far, i.e. skirmishing with unarmed or poorly armed Lhotshampa dissidents (Nepali-speakers of southern Bhutan).
Some officials in Thimphu, certainly, fear a tie-up between the rebels from Assam and the Lhotshampas. “If Bhutan continues to oppose any settlement with the democratic elements in the dissident movement, it will sooner or later be taken over by the hotheads,” says military analyst Bharat Verma, publisher of the Indian Defence Review. “Since neither India nor Nepal will help them, it is but natural for the extremists among the dissidents to seek underground help.”
Adding to the complicated nature of Thimphu-New Delhi relationship at present is what Bhutan considers to be India´s refusal to extradite the Bhutanese dissident leader Rongthong Kunley Dorji, who is now in jail in India. New Delhi says he cannot be sent back to Bhutan unless the court in Delhi, where a petition was filed to stay his extradition, clears it (see Himal July/August 1997).
While the rebel presence in southern Bhutan may lead to fresh strains in Indo-Bhutan relations, people on either side of what once was South Asia´s most peaceful border live in fear. Says Phub Dorji, a Bhutanese importer in the border town of Phuntsoling, “Our communications west to east lies through Assam. If this border region becomes disturbed, we have reason to panic.” The unfortunate killing of four Bhutanese policemen may actually only be the beginning. For the arc between Phuntsoling and Samdrup Jongkhar – Bhutanese roadheads in the west and east – may well turn out to be South Asia´s newest killing field.