SSB post just outside the Phuentsholing gate

Plan to open entry to border towns for 24 hours hits SSB roadblock

On the night of 24 February a Bhutanese citizen Maya (name changed) came back from Kalchini and found the main gate at Phuentsholing being closed after 11 pm.

She approached the RBP on duty at the gate and showed them her CID card, but they said they can only allow her if she gets permission from the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) post near the gate.

Maya was getting worried as she is not only a diabetic patient, but she had also undergone a major surgery recently and is supposed to have some medicines related to the surgery on time.

She explained her predicament and medical status to the SSB guards on duty, but she was told entry is not allowed into Phuentsholing from Jaigaon after 11 pm.

She requested them repeatedly with folded hands citing her health and even asked if at least someone could be allowed to get her medicines, but the guards said they are only following orders.

“I also asked the SSB how it is possible that they can stop a Bhutanese from entering her own country,” said Maya.

The SSB guards on duty showed her the CCTV cameras pointing to them and said it is being monitored at their local head quarters in Falakata, and if their seniors see them allowing her in than they would lose their jobs.

Recounting the incident, Maya said, “The doctor who operated on me said that I have to take the medicines strictly and cannot miss them and I am due for a review in another 3 months after the surgery.”

After some repeated pleading, including requests by a local good Samaritan, the SSB did not budge and then due to her medical condition Maya started feeling dizzy and even fainted.

Given her medical condition, Maya has to use the bathroom repeatedly, but after allowing her to use their bathroom a couple of times the SSB then stopped her. With no public bathroom nearby and feeling unsafe Maya had to do her business in a narrow alley.

The SSB guards said they would allow her through if their seniors allowed it.

The good Samaritan in Jaigaon called senior SSB officials repeatedly, but there was no response while the Commandant after a miss call even switched his phone off.

Maya was accommodated in the home of the Samaritan and could leave only around 5.30 am in the morning for Phuentsholing.

Before this incident, a group of Bhutanese Bikers from a bike club had gone to attend a prize distribution ceremony in Cooch Behar, where they had been invited in the first week of February. They were aware of the gate closure time, but on the way back one of the bikes broke down and so the group got delayed fixing the bike.

They reached just when the gate was being closed but faced the same problem and had to halt in Jaigaon in a hotel.

Indian business people from Jaigaon were also stopped by SSB to enter back into Jaigaon after a visit to Phuentsholing.

24 hours’ open plan does not get SSB cooperation

In late February 2023 the Bhutanese Home Secretary visited Phuentsholing and it was announced that Bhutan would keep the Phuentsholing gate open for 24 hours now, and that bars and others can stay open till even 3 am from the previous 11 pm timing.

A Kaja Throm has also been opened in Phuentsholing to add to its night life.

The main aim is to get tourists and even people across the border to come and spend time and money in Phuentsholing, including staying in its hotels.

This would be done with increased surveillance, plain clothes police and patrolling. In fact, the RBP has installed CCTV cameras all over Phuentsholing.

The aim is to bolster tourism and business in Phuentsholing and other border towns as these places had been suffering since the pandemic.

On the ground, the plan was to implement this in Phuentsholing and then take it to other border towns like Samtse, Gomtu, Pugli, Gelephu, Samdrupjongkhar and Jomotsangkha.

However, while the Phuentsholing gates and Pedestrian terminals were kept open by the RBP for 24 hours from 25 February 2023 onwards, the SSB still stuck by the 11 pm timing and refused to let people enter Phuentsholing or leave Phuentsholing.

The SSB guards on the ground said they had not received any new orders from their seniors.

This has meant that Bhutanese are still getting stuck across the border including those traveling from one part of Bhutan to another and even others starting late from Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Siliguri etc.

Gate timings was actually a RBP practice

The irony about the gate closing timings is that it had been introduced by the RBP in the past over security concerns.

There had never been such timings from the Indian side.

Before the pandemic the timing was 11 pm with special exceptions being made for ambulances, those with late or early flights from Bagdora, officials who informed and Drayang workers.

Pandemic changed things

Things seem to have changed during the Pandemic when the border and the gate was closed, except for essential items.

It was at this point that the SSB presence became enhanced at the gate, they set up their checkpoint and started conducting checks and controlling entry and exit to Phuentsholing.

During the pandemic when the border was closed the timing of the gate was no entry after 10 pm, but after the pandemic when the Phuentsholing RBP SP in December 2021 wrote to his counterpart in the form of the SSB Commandant to now make it 10.30 pm there was no response to the letter for months, including after a follow up.

This paper had called the SSB then to find out why there was no response to the RBP. The SSB responded to the letter and the follow up of the RBP the night before the article was published on the issue.

At their Mercy

A RBP official, on the condition of anonymity, said, “We are completely at their mercy and have to even seek permission from them (SSB) on the gate timings and they send letters saying ‘Permission Granted.’

This is an especially sensitive matter for Bhutan as the majority of Bhutan’s imports and even exports happens through Phuentsholing, including the movement of people. 

While the SSB is mandated to guard India’s borders with Bhutan and Nepal and even conduct the occasional checks, it does not have the legal mandate or authority to decide the timings to enter or leave from a foreign border.

At the moment it is not clear if the timing issue is one set by the SSB in Falakata its regional headquarters in Jalpaiguri or its head office in New Delhi.

Another interesting feature is that the SSB has been almost mirroring what the RBP does.

After the Pedestrian terminal was set up with an X-Ray machine, the SSB did the same on its side.

At one point the SSB was even stopping vehicles entering Bhutan and asking Bhutanese passengers to go through the pedestrian gate with their baggage, but this was quickly stopped with interventions made by senior Indian officials.

Talks to be held

With the SSB in Jaigaon not cooperating on the 24 hours’ gate opening timing the Director the of Bureau of Law and Order is expected to hold official talks with senior SSB officials and district administration officials in Siliguri soon.

It is hoped that once these talks happen the issue can be resolved and so entry and exit from Phuentsholing can happen for 24 hours.

Talks will also need to be held with local SSB head quarters in Guwahati and Tezpur for the Assam and other stretches not involving West Bengal. Each of these local headquarters are headed by an Inspector General, under which there is a Deputy Inspector General, Commandants, Deputy Commandants and then Inspectors.

The Commandant for the Jaigaon area sits in Falakata.

It is also hoped that talks at the regional level will solve the issue otherwise it will have to be escalated to New Delhi which has the SSB headquarters.

The SSB presence

Currently, the SSB puts up barricades to stop vehicles and people just across the Bhutan gate. While the SSB has been a presence at the gate since mid 2000 they were mainly a passive one even in civilian clothes with mainly a monitoring role and their main local base was at Manglabari.  It was during the pandemic that they came over and set up a strong presence just outside the gate and started even checking, frisking and blocking people.

The SSB are just not a presence at the Phuentsholing gate but also at the Bow Bazar gate which is called the Thuenlam gate through which a lot of import and export items go. Sometimes even when the Indian Customs allows trucks to go through the SSB stops them for checks.

The SSB is now a new reality for Bhutan not only at the Phuentsholing gate, but also at all other entry and exit points in border towns and there is an SSB outpost every 4.6 km of the Bhutan-India border.

A source said, “The SSB is like a double edged sword now. At one level it will prevent undesirable things or people getting into Bhutan, but at another level it can lead to all kinds of restrictions.”

Hearts and Minds

The SSB is a paramilitary force that reports to the Union Home Ministry and has multiple tasks of border guarding, intelligence sharing and it even does community service on its side of the border.

They have the motto of Service, Security and Brotherhood by winning hearts and minds which is why on the Indian side they construct schools, build irrigation projects and render other help to win over border residents.

However, the SSB in Phuentsholing has been a different experience for both people in Jaigaon and Phuentsholing. There is growing anxiety on both sides over its ad hoc actions which are transforming a peaceful and relatively open and organic border into a tightly regulated security zone with strict timings.

For Bhutanese exporters and business people it is a reality of life that they have to pay ‘Gunda Tax’ to a host of officials and figures across the border to do business, however, the fear is that SSB officials becomes another layer that has to be appeased.

The paper already did a story in September 2021 of allegations by business people in Jaigaon accusing a senior SSB official from Jalpaiguri of attempting to extort business people there. The official is no longer posted there and was under investigation by the SSB itself.

SSB responds

When this paper talked to senior SSB officials in Jaigaon and Siliguri, there were two different responses.

The one in Jaigaon, who did not want to be quoted, said that the 6 am to 11 pm timing had been mutually decided in October 2022 by both sides.

However, this while being partly true is not entirely true as the RBP SP has sent letters months before that requesting the time be extended to but it was only heeded after much requesting.

The Bhutanese then talked to the senior most SSB official in the region who is Inspector General Amit Kumar based in Siliguri.

IG Amit Kumar said there is no enhancement in the deployment at Phuentsholing gate and it is the same as earlier. He said that checks are done only based on the intelligence input. He said the ground realities have to be appreciated and while SSB is one of the agencies deployed there, there are also other agencies involved.

He said the SSB is the first responder at the gate and so the onus is more on them.

When asked about the checks they do he said, “There was case where a Bhutanese was carrying some explosives and he ran away into Bhutan when his vehicle was caught (by the SSB) in Jaigaon. There was hue and cry over the case.”

“We cannot decide on face value and checking is only based on certain inputs. Now if someone is delayed by five minutes due to checking then they may be unhappy that time is gone,” he added.

On the border timings he said that it had been set with agreement with authorities on both sides.

He said he is not officially aware of the gate being opened from 25 February 2023 onwards and had not received any communication on it. He said the issue looks like a communication gap.

The IG assured that it can be sorted out once all the stake holders like Bhutanese officials, local district administration and the SSB get together and talk.

The Gelatin sticks case

When asked about what happened to the gelatin sticks case a RBP source said that the person involved was a contractor who had bought some gelatin sticks from the Explosive Management Division for use in construction of a farm road in Dagala Gewog.

He had used the majority of the gelatin sticks there, but there were three or four gelatin sticks left which were in the car when the SSB detained him.

The gelatin sticks were without the charges so it did not pose any danger.

The contractor ran into Phuentsholing fearing the Indian legal charges would be stronger. The RBP immediately swung into action and arrested the contractor and has sent his case to the Office of the Attorney General (OAG).

The OAG sent the case back but the police has sent the case back insisting for prosecution as it does not want to send the wrong message to the Indian side.

The Contractor was found to have violated his undertaking to the Explosive Management Division to return any unused gelatin sticks.

A communication from SSB headquarters in Delhi said that timing at the gate was set by both sides in a meeting on 22 September 2022.

However, a source here said that the SSB official got it wrong as that meeting was to decide on what kinds of commercial trucks would enter from the Thuenlam gate at Bow Bazar and it was not for the Phuentsholing gate.

The timing set then was that third country trucks and empty boulder trucks would enter form 6.30 am to 11.30 am in the afternoon, and from 11.30 am to 7.30 pm it would be vehicles importing goods and from 7.30 pm to 11 pm it would be trucks exporting boulders from Bhutan.

At the end of the day, the headache for Bhutanese officials, traders and ordinary travelers is that they are now at the mercy of a heavier and more active deployment of SSB force and things could go wrong at several levels.

At the very local level it could be an officer wanting to throw his weight around. This can be evidenced when the local SSB Commandant did not even respond for months to a letter from his RBP counterpart to extend the gate timing.

It could be certain corrupt SSB officials trying to make money at the border where a lot of trade happens by playing spoilsport. This can be seen in the past accusations of the Jaigaon traders themselves.

Things could also go wrong due to sheer lack of communication which is what the SSB IG is saying happened this time.

The worst scenario is if deliberate orders are given to make it difficult for Bhutan as the bulk of Bhutan’s imports and exports happens from and around Phuentsholing.

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