The Military Offensive Against United Liberation Front of Assam

Anand Swaroop Verma

‘Operation All Clear’ launched by Royal Bhutan Army against the Ulfa and Bodo militants has resulted in the large scale killing and arrest of the rebel guerrillas and their leaders. The success of the ‘operation’ surprised none, what surprised many was its delay. It is beyond comprehension why the military action against the militants was delayed so much when it was quite evident that the militants had made Bhutan the centre of their activities for more than a decade. The officials in Bhutan also admit that these militants had started making Bhutan their abode since 1990. During the last ten years high-level meetings between the officials of Bhutan and India took place almost every two years to discuss the military issue. The plans to dismantle the militants’ camps also used to be made in these meetings. In the past Bhutan had taken the stand that militarily it is not strong enough to counter Ulfa militancy and hence it needs the Indian support. This would often lead to further discussions on the possibility of joint military operations, resulting in further loss of time.

It is pertinent to ask here whether it was true that Bhutanese army was really incapable of facing the Ulfa and Bodo onslaught? If it was so is then the entire operation being conducted by the Royal Bhutan Army alone or is the Indian army also involved? If it is not so then should we infer that Bhutan has been looking for excuses in the past on the question of dismantling the camps run by the militants? These are some of the questions which come to the fore during the current offensive against the militants.

Going back to history, we find that inspired by the people’s movement in Nepal, the masses in Bhutan also launched a movement in 1990 for the abolition of the institution of the monarchy and the establishment of democracy. There is a total ban on political parties and political activities in Bhutan. The ancient feudal system in Bhutan hardly gives any scope for the abolition of the centuries old institution of monarchy. The 1990 movement was started in southern Bhutan which is very close to West Bengal and the majority of its population are Nepali-speaking Bhutanese citizens. They are called ‘Lhotsampa’. The government of Bhutan unleashed a reign of terror against the movement and those suspected of supporting the movement were deprived of their citizenship and thrown out of the country. The movement was led by the secretly formed Bhutan Peoples Party. The state repression resulted in thousands of Bhutanese people not only losing their citizenship, their homes, lands and properties but also seeking asylum in India and Nepal, thus becoming refugees in these countries. In the Jhapa district of Nepal, around one lakh Bhutanese refugees are still living in seven camps being run by UNHCR, an international organisation concerned with the refugees. The rest of the thirty thousand refugees have been forced to lead a stateless life in the Indian areas bordering Bhutan.

The Bhutanese king took the help of the Ulfa and Bodo militants to crush its citizens who were demanding the instituting of democracy. The militants were told to flush out the ‘unwanted elements’ and grab their land and houses. These militants made their inroads in the Bhutanese area of Sondrup Jonkhar neighbouring Assam rather than in southern Bhutan. The Bhutanese government used these militants to serve its political ends. That is why whenever the Bhutan political scenario got surcharged the Bhutanese government took recourse to raising the issue of militants from Assam before the Indian government. In fact the issue was stretched to the extent of blackmailing the Indian government.

This explains the amount of debate generated on the issue of militancy during 1996-97. It is to be noted that when the Bhutanese king Jigme Singye Wangchuk was on a three-day visit to India in 1996 he had raised this issue. This was a time when India needed Bhutan’s vote to get a place in UN Security Council. It is to be noted that no neighbouring country ever supported India on any issue at international fora. The then foreign minister of India Inder Kumar Gujral visited Bhutan on 10th August 1996. This was the first visit to Bhutan in 14 years undertaken by any Indian foreign minister. It was during Gujral’s visit that Bhutan declared its support to India on CTBT. Gujral was also told by the Bhutanese King that Bhutan is militarily incapable of dealing with the North-East militants. Meanwhile the movement for democracy emanating from southern Bhutan spread its tentacles to eastern Bhutan as well. Earlier only the Lhotsampas were involved in the movement but now the ‘Sarchops’ of eastern Bhutan also joined them. Till now only a handful of Ulfa camps were opened in Bhutan and the entire operations used to be conducted from the camps existing in Bangladesh. In October 1996, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government came to power in Bangladesh and took tough measures against Ulfa. The Bhutanese government felt that the time was right to take the support of the Ulfa militants to counter the moves of Sarchop rebels. Hence there was a sudden spurt in the establishment of Ulfa camps in Bhutan. The Indian intelligence authorities were aware of this development and even Assam’s then Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mohanta kept on sending state reports on the issue but it was so sensitive an issue that the Indian government remained in a fix. The English daily ‘The Telegraph’ wrote on 17th January 1997 that militant camps are deep inside Bhutan while the Indian forces could enter the jungles only in ‘hot pursuit’ of insurgents. They are not allowed to carry out longdrawn operations against the rebels. Bhutan took the stand that if its army took any action which might have resulted in the casualty of a single militant then they would have been blamed for killing an Indian citizen and as a reaction our people living in Assam would have been targeted. In June 1997, the then defence minister Mulayam Singh Yadav visited the Indo-Bhutan border and spoke about starting soon a joint military operation.

By then Bhutan had started showing interest in the joint military operation because after the arrest of a prominent Bhutanese rebel Sarchop leader Rong Thong Kinley Dorji in New Delhi on 18th April 1997, the issue of democracy in Bhutan was widely taken up in the Indian media. While the Bhutanese government was demanding extradition of Dorji for Bhutan, the human rights organisations in India had engaged themselves in legal battle to get Dorji free from the clutches of Indian government. In such a milieu the Bhutanese government, by raising the issue of Assam militants, succeeded in getting the support of the Indian government.

During the last seven years, a dozen reports have come out, through the home ministry and other agencies, which revealed the number of Ulfa units in Bhutan, about the place and time of their meetings in which Ulfa’s president Arvind Rajkhowa and commander-in-chief Paresh Barua took part, about how many times Ulfa leaders paid unrestricted visits to Calcutta and Dhaka on Bhutan government’s Druk airline, aircraft etc.

According to a report published in ‘The Telegraph’ (10 October 1997), Ulfa leaders were engaged in business in collaboration with local Bhutanese nationals and their investment were in the name of some Bhutanese. The report said that relatives of Bhutanese government officials were ‘more often than not ‘benamdars’ in these business transactions.’ It was also an open secret that a two-storeyed house at Sandrup Jonkhar belonging to a retired Bhutanese officer was being used as resting camp for Ulfa cadres. In November 1997, ‘The Sentinel’ published a report quoting intelligence sources in which it was said that the Royal Bhutan Army had withdrawn troops of the Border Royal Task Force (BRTF) from western Deothang of eastern Bhutan, which is known as a stronghold of Ulfa militants. They had set up their ‘central training centre’ in Deothang. It was followed by a secret meeting of the Bhutan king Jigme Singye Wangchuk with the Ulfa leader Paresh Barua.

It is ironical that whenever terrorism has been used as a political weapon it grows out of the reach of the user. Right from Bhindrawalan to Osama bin Laden, it has been proved so. By 1998, the Bhutan king realised that Ulfa and Bodo militants were now too strong to deal with. The official newspaper of Bhutan ‘Kuensel’, on June 5, 1998 quoted the king as having said that the problem posed by these militants was more serious than the ngolop (Nepali speaking rebels) problem of southern Bhutan. Not only this, the chief of the Royal Bhutan Army Goongloen Gongma Lam Dorji expressed concern for the personal security of the king. He said that security of the king had been strengthened to the maximum in view of a potential threat to his life. The king himself said in the Bhutanese assembly that ‘Bhutan had never faced a more serious threat to its security in the past 100 years of its history.’ The Bhutan king expressed his fear once again during his New Delhi visit on 6 October 1998.

Last year on August 4, when the Indian external affairs minister Yashwant Singh was in Thimphu the issue of north-east terrorism was discussed. The unscheduled visit to Bhutan of National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra in the first week of April this year raised some hope of carrying out joint military offensive against militants. This was reinforced by the Bhutan visit of chief of the army staff General N. C. Vij on May 8. It was reported in the press that during king Jigme’s Delhi visit in September this year a plan was finalised to flush out militants hiding in Bhutan’s jungles.

But the billion-dollar question is how the government of Bhutan finally agreed to a joint military operation with India. The main reason seems to be the churning generated during last few months over the question of Bhutanese refugees for it is a fact that the countries providing economic assistance are gradually pressurising the Bhutan government to take back the refugees and resolve the entire problem at the earliest. Already the spadework has been done in this regard by the Joint Verification Team (JVT) of Bhutan and Nepal and had submitted its report on one of the seven camps. Although the refugees have objected to the report but the King is not ready even to accept that. How much Bhutan is insensitive to the refugee issue is evident by its arrogant reaction to the recent incident in Khudanabari refugee camp. Bhutan is quite confident that, as remarked by a Bhutanese intellectual Rakesh Chhetri, ‘the Indian government will certainly reward Bhutan and this reward is turning blind eye to the refugees’ hope of returning to their homeland’. Besides, there is a report by Chitra Tewari carried by the ‘Washington Times’ in its 24 May issue. The report says that leaflets regarding intensifying the struggle for the establishment of democratic system in Bhutan were recently distributed by Bhutanese Maoists. In such a situation Bhutan needs India more than ever. Moreover Bhutan also wants to convey that ‘in its war against terrorism’ it solidly stands behind India.

Nevertheless, we must give full marks to Bhutanese diplomacy which first helped the Bhutan government to make use of Ulfa militants to force its political opponents to leave the country and now it is again raising the Ulfa issue to prevent their coming back in Bhutan.

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