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Flushing out ULFA

December 18, 2003

THE MILITARY ACTION by Bhutan against insurgents of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and other Northeastern militant groups camping in its southern jungles will go a long way in addressing India's security concerns in the region. The operation, which came after the Bhutan Government tried and failed in its efforts to talk the militants into leaving, is a definite setback for ULFA. The group, banned by India, might have become politically marginal but, as its recent acts in Assam showed, its ability to spread terror has remained undiminished. Since the early 1990s, much of ULFA terrorism has originated from the group's hideouts in southern Bhutan. Though India has constantly pressured the Himalayan kingdom to take decisive action against the insurgent outfits operating from its soil, for several reasons including fears that such action might trigger off terrorism against his own people, the King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, had held back from complying with India's wishes. He had preferred to persuade the militants to leave rather than set his troops on them. New Delhi, which is assisting the current military operation by ringing its side of the border, must now ensure that Bhutan does not suffer any ill consequences for finally deciding to eject the insurgents forcibly.

That a tiny country, surrounded by India on three sides, managed to hold off pressure from its most important neighbour for so long is remarkable in itself. Bhutan is dependent on India for nearly everything, from its security to development aid. The Royal Bhutanese Army, which is carrying out the present operations, is trained by the Indian Army. India is Bhutan's biggest trading partner and the major provider of its development aid. It speaks of the excellent rapport between King Jigme and New Delhi that despite such an unequal relationship, the Indian Government held itself from bigfooting Bhutan on the issue of the insurgents, engaging it instead in quiet diplomacy. India's deference to the King's concerns on questions of his sovereignty in not pushing the idea of an operation by the Indian Army to flush out the militants from Bhutanese territory must rank as one of India's more exemplary foreign relations exercises. One result of India's restraint is that with time, Bhutan has realised for itself the implications of playing host to dangerous guests. Over the years, Bhutan has found the presence of the Northeast insurgents on its 265-km border with Assam a growing hindrance to its governance of the region and to the rigid control that the country's absolute monarchy exercises over its people. Evidently, the Bhutan Government thought it wiser to act before the situation worsened. After all, the Indian subcontinent is rife with morality tales of governments nursing insurgent groups with terrorist agendas falling victim to those agendas themselves.

In the context of ULFA, Bhutan's military moves against the group have only served to highlight Bangladesh's inaction. Despite Dhaka's denials, evidence has built up that the top leadership of ULFA uses Bangladesh as its main base. The arrest in October of the ULFA cultural secretary, Pranati Deka, while she was reportedly on her way to Bangladesh has added to the evidence. After the setback suffered by ULFA in Bhutan, it is likely that the group will fall back on Bangladesh, where, according to the Indian Government, it established bases as early as 1989. India has provided Bangladesh with details of camps set up by ULFA and other Northeast insurgents but has yet to see Dhaka acting on it. New Delhi does not have the same diplomatic leverage on Bangladesh that it has on Bhutan. But that is all the more reason for India to actively engage the Government of Khaleda Zia on this issue, and through constructive diplomacy persuade Dhaka that it is in the joint interests of both countries not to give any space for terrorism to flourish.

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