Bhutan bound trucks held up by SSB and Customs

Pressure mounts on the Bhutan border with Jaigaon as enquiries start

Following reports by The Bhutanese on an extortion network in Jaigaon comprising of five local journalists, some SSB, some customs and others that preyed on Bhutanese exports and even imports, it has been learnt that senior officials in New Delhi are instituting their own enquiries.

As a result, the enquiry that was going on against SSB Deputy Commandant Rajneesh Moral for links with tobacco smugglers in Jaigaon by his own seniors in the Siliguri Frontier, has now been transferred to a separate Guwahati Frontier SSB and that too to the Vigilance Section.

A reliable source said that this has happened because the issue has even reached the SSB headquarters in Delhi and there is another larger enquiry on the matter also happening.

 This is significant as sources in Jaigaon had earlier said that the earlier enquiry by Siliguri Frontier is an eyewash, but now with a different frontier taking over the case any old links will not help. Sources in Jaigaon say Moral is close to the five reporters against whom an extortion case had been filed.

Again, after reports in The Bhutanese of extortion by customs officials, it has been learnt that Jaigaon Customs is undergoing an internal enquiry on the issue. As a part of this enquiry, Jaigaon Customs had a meeting with all the garage owners in Jaigaon a few days ago.

Stricter checks by SSB and Customs

However, with so much heat coming in the last few days, there has been some blowback at the ground level by some unhappy SSB and Customs officials in Jaigaon.

In the last few days Jaigaon is witness to a long line of trucks waiting to enter Bhutan causing traffic jams in Jaigaon.

This is because the SSB and the Customs are carrying out much stricter checks on all trucks entering and leaving Bhutan which was never done before.

A government official based in Phuentsholing who did not want to be identified said that the SSB in Jaigaon (which comes under Siliguri Frontier) is not happy as there is a lot of enquiry and surveillance in Jaigaon.

He said, “They are not even allowing us to bring medicines and some urgent construction materials to construct the quarantine facilities which was earlier allowed on an understanding basis, but now all of these are being routed through customs.”

The official said he told the SSB that they should not react to the media in Bhutan as far stronger things are written and sent via video against Bhutan on a daily basis by journalists in Jaigaon.

The official said that ever since the border was closed in March last year there has been more checking and things have become more formalized to the point that vegetable exports became a problem last year, and off late around a month ago the import of agricultural urea or fertilizer into Bhutan has been banned by Indian customs since it comes on their restricted list.

The Official said that the SSB also told him that one major concern for them is the local media in Jaigaon who stand with their camera phones near the gate constantly or even ask others to take their place and publish all kinds of news, including wrong ones, which makes life miserable for the SSB.

The official said that earlier the SSB would allow some emergency purchase of a few boleros, but now everything has to be routed via customs.

He said earlier the SSB would check only some vehicles and that too based on specific and prior information, but now everything is being checked.

The official said, “It no longer feels like the Indo-Bhutan friendship border but it has now become like the India-Bangladesh or even the India-Pakistan border.”

The Bhutanese talked to local people on the Jaigaon side and they too confirmed the enhanced checking.

A Jaigaon local who also did not want to be identified said that normally if 100 trucks are entering Bhutan the SSB may just check around 20 or 25 but now all 100 are being checked.

He said the detailed checking has led to traffic jams in Jaigaon.

He said that earlier given that Bhutan was a friendly country the checking was not as strict, but now the SSB and Customs are applying every rule in the book.

This would be fine if there was enough manpower and a more systemic approach, but given the limited manpower and facility there it is leading to long lines and indirect harassment.

It also raises questions on if the SSB is a force to guard the border or become a second line of customs.

The person said that the customs have also started taking a lot of time and is cross checking every item on the list.

An official in Phuentsholing said the customs in Jaigaon is no longer allowing the imports of Baba chewing tobacco into Bhutan saying it should come wrapped in a paper box like cigarettes and not in plastic packaging which is how it comes from the factory.

Meanwhile, DIG Parikshita Behera of the Siliguri Frontier denied the SSB was doing any additional checking.

He said, “They are doing their duty and are not strictly checking all vehicles and they only check vehicles randomly on which there are intelligence inputs.”

He said the mandate of the SSB is to stop cross-border smuggling.

Jaigaon media increases the heat

Some Jaigaon local media who operate on facebook and most of whom have an FIR case of extortion on them, including audio and video evidence to extort Bhutan and traders in Jaigaon, are in full flow these days carrying out news trying to incite Jaigaon residents against Bhutan and ordinary Bhutanese.

An out of context video taken last year by some of these journalists on a Bhutanese official delivering some alcohol as official gifts to local officials approved by officials on either side was portrayed as that of smuggling and uploaded on facebook.

Bhutanese and Indian officials have a tradition of exchanging gifts along the border on various occasions. In fact, one such instance of exchange of gifts was even reported and covered in the Bhutanese media.

Jaigaon Mirror ran a video on its facebook page showing a Bhutanese truck damaging an electric pole in Jaigaon which was an accident. It asked the question what would the Bhutanese government do if an Indian truck damaged Bhutanese property and asked for locals to comment.

Before that could cool down then Jaygaon Times, another facebook page based news outlet in Jaigaon with links to the five journalists, launched a video showing a Bhutanese citizen entering Jaigaon from the main gate clearly following all protocols and reporting to the SSB with his luggage to enter a waiting taxi.

The video asked why a Bhutanese citizen is being allowed to enter India from Bhutan without any hesitation and are free to roam every corner of India.

It requested officials to check their luggage thoroughly so that there is no smuggling.

The video also questioned why may Bhutanese are still found in Jaigaon in Rai Gaon Manglabarrey and from when they have been staying there. It alleged that Bhutanese illegally own land and buildings in Jaigaon and that they should be seized.

The admin of Jaygaon Times is Sandeep Agarwal against whom Ajay Verma of Connecting Nations had launched a complaint to the Jaigaon police for carrying fake news on the case involving the alleged extortion attempt by the five journalists.

Sandeep Agarwal of Jaygaon Times had said a tobacco consignment is illegal and carried pictures taken by the five reporters when it was not illegal.  He was discovered to be the admin and forced to issue a public apology after the cyber crime wing of the Jaigaon police tracked him down using his IP address.

Enter a local MP

As part of the media campaign the Jaigaon Mirrors facebook page admin Bijay Kumar Gupta even interviewed the Member of Parliament from Alipurduar, John Barla who was appointed as a Minister of State or Deputy Minister of Minority Affairs in July 2021.

The minister of state who was clearly not aware that the journalist briefing and interviewing him is charged with extortion went on to talk about the recent issues.

Bijay Kumar Gupta asked him about his view on recent news reports (in The Bhutanese) that talked of a syndicate of SSB, Customs, traders and local journalists being involved in extortion of imports and exports from Bhutan.

The minister said that India and Bhutan have a good friendship and he heard about what came out in the Bhutanese media and he said, “Writing like that in the media is not correct. We have a good relationship and it should not happen again.”

The minister then pivoted to blame COVID-19 for the state of affairs and said that both sides are suffering and said the above issues would not have arisen without COVID-19.

 He said that he talked to the Bhutanese Embassy and he said he was told that Bhutan and India share a good relationship and that Bhutan too is suffering crores in losses per day due to a closed border.

He said that once both sides achieve 100 percent vaccination then they can carry on like before.

“And regarding the article you told me about in the paper (The Bhutanese) I will talk to the Bhutan government and also the Ambassador that such things should be controlled and there should not be any controversy and the friendly relations between the two countries should not be harmed,” said the minister.

He called on the Jaigaon people to be patient over the closed border.

Bijay Kumar Gupta then chimed in to add that for around a year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic the Indian government gave full cooperation for all import and export from Bhutan and since Bhutan is a land-locked country, India has always taken care, but he said it is disappointing that ‘constitutionally neutral figures’ like the SSB and Journalists are having allegations thrown against them.

Apart from failing to tell the minister about him being charged for extortion in the recent FIR, Bijay Kumar Gupta also did not mention that he had been convicted in a case of tampering government documents and criminal intimidation in 2017 for which he was imprisoned for more than two months in Jaigaon and was terminated from his government job in Jaigaon Gram Panchayat II.

The complainant in the case was the former Pradhan or head of the Jaigaon Gram Panchayat II Passang Deki Sherpa who also confirmed the case with The Bhutanese when the paper asked her about it.

An online FIR copy is also available.

In the meantime, as people in Jaigaon clamor for the gate to be opened Bhutanese officials are making long term preparations for it by starting construction on bigger and better entry and exit facilities along the Jaigaon border along with proper structures and walls.

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