Democracy has its downside. That's what monarchial Bhutan is finding out along the porous 605 km border it shares with India. So are the Indian states bordering the Himalayan country, specially militancy-scarred Assam.
Between the snow-carpeted stretches adjoining Arunachal Pradesh to the east and Sikkim to the west, Bhutan’s southern border runs some 400 km along Assam and West Bengal through dense, sub-Himalayan forests and seemingly inaccessible hillocks. No wonder, Northeastern militant outfits such as ULFA, NDFB and KLO operated over 30 camps deep inside the jungles of southern Bhutan until they were ejected in December 2003.
Four years and the deployment of 14 Sashastra Seema Bal battalions later, militants have reportedly clawed their way back into southern Bhutan. Thimphu, moving from monarchy to democracy, denies this but admits Nepal-based Maoists could be filling up the void left behind by Northeast ultras. The arrest of eight Maoists from two clandestine camps in southern Bhutan bordering Baksa and Udalguri districts of Assam earlier this month, made this apparent.
Thimphu’s crackdown on “illegal settlers” saw some 1.10 lakh Nepalese people flee to northern West Bengal and Nepal in the 1990s. Some of the “refugees” formed the Communist Party of Bhutan (Marxist-Leninist) while the advent of democracy encouraged others to form the Bhutan Maoist Party.
Bhutan officials here — the strategic headquarters of Samdrup Jongkhar district right on the border kissing Darranga Mela town in Assam — expressed concern over the “red corridor” from Nepal to Bhutan through Assam, possibly aided by increasing Maoist influence among Adivasis living with other tribes and suspected Bangladeshis on a 10-km-wide forested strip on this side of the border.
“We suffer more from timber smugglers who sneak into our country from India frequently,” Phub Tshering, the dzongda (deputy commissioner) of Samdrup Jongkhar told Hindustan Times. Likewise, Indian officials are troubled by those who smuggle petrol and kerosene that cost Rs 8 to 15 less in Bhutan; and cannabis cultivated in southeastern Bhutan.
But the unregulated flow of labourers-many of suspected nationality-into Bhutan is something that worries Indian officials the most. "The Bhutanese need to travel through Assam to move from one part of their country to another. Since the 2003 anti-ULFA operation, security concerns have made it mandatory for Bhutanese nationals to move in convoys of 80 to 150 vehicles. We are not supposed to check these vehicles, some of which ferry Bangladeshi labourers to Bhutan,” said a police officer in an outpost near the Indo-Bhutan border.
“We had, in fact, suggested fencing the Indo-Bhutan border for better vigil and checking of movement of militants and criminals. The proposal was struck down in view of the special relationship between New Delhi and Thimphu,” said a senior SSB officer. The terrain, he added, made it hard to prevent “leakages”.
The SSB battalions are also hamstrung by infrastructure problems, with land for permanent bases and border outposts hard to come by. Besides, most of them have no officers at the helm. But that, is a different story.