Violence in Assam’s Bodo regions affects Bhutan

Bhutan’s neighbor Assam, or at least its Bodo dominated areas consisting of four districts including adjoining areas are up in flames after 81 people got killed in violence initiated by militants of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S) of the I.K Songbijit faction on 23rd December 2014.

Of the 81 dead so far the NDFB (S) had shot and killed around 74 tribals or ‘Adivasis’ mainly in the Sonitpur and Kokrajhar Districts of Assam. Another three adivasis were killed in police firing after a restive crowd surrounded a police station in Sonitpur protesting the killings. Four Bodos were killed in retaliation by adivasis going on the rampage in Sonitpur and Chirang districts of Assam.

As a result of the deaths, a 36 hour strike was called by adivasi groups in the affected areas effectively shutting down traffic between Bhutan and India in these places.

Meanwhile in response to some unverified Indian media reports of presence of Bodo camps in Bhutan, the Foreign Minister, Lyonpo Rinzin Dorje said that there are no Bodo camps in Bhutan following the 2003 ‘Operation All Clear’ that cleared out all camps. He also made it clear that Bhutan would never allow its soil to ever be used for anti-India activities.

This was also reiterated by the Director General of the Bureau of Law and Order, Sonam Tobgay who said that with detailed border areas patrolling done by the Royal Bhutan Police, armed Forest Guards, local citizens and the Royal Bhutan Army there was no chance or evidence of any camps in Bhutan.

The violence in Assam’s Bodo areas is a concern for Bhutan as the four districts that make up the semi-autonomous Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts (BTAD) effectively border Dagana, Sarpang, Zhemgang and Samdrup Jongkhar Dzongkhags.

Kokrajhar district borders (Lhamoizingkha) Dagana and Sarpang, Chirang district borders Sarpang, Baksa district borders Zhemgang and Nanglam and Udalguri district borders Samdrup Jongkhar Dzongkhag.

However, of all the Dzongkhags, it is Sarpang Dzongkhag and Gelephu town under it that is most exposed to the restive BTAD areas with frequent strikes and violence.

Recent years have seen increasing instances of lawlessness and violence in these BTAD areas consisting mainly of NDFB (S) targeting Muslims and Adivasis.

Though there is no direct evidence yet to link all 13 kidnapping cases of Bhutanese nationals to the NDFB (S), but there has been evidence of their involvement in some cases, and moreover the kidnappings have been encouraged in this atmosphere of lawlessness across Bhutan’s border affecting mainly Sarpang Dzongkhag. The fact that the kidnappers are organized and well armed also indicates the activity of this group operating from the Bodo areas.

In past kidnapping cases of Bhutanese nationals it has also been found that the kidnapped nationals were kept in these Bodo areas.

According to a senior government official, Bhutanese kidnap victims being held in Bodo areas also go to prove Bhutan’s claims that there are no NDFB camps in Bhutan. So far all the 13 victims were held in Bodo areas.

Of the 13 kidnappings 10 has been released so far except for the case of two drivers and a recent case of a student being kidnapped.

It is feared that this spate of kidnappings, lawlessness, unrest and violence will affect the development of potential economic areas in Bhutan’s four Dzongkhags which adjoin these areas.

According to the Assam Tribune newspaper the BTAD area in 2014 witnessed 37 incidents of violence, besides 29 cases of kidnapping and 110 incidents of extortion. Meanwhile, 72 civilians were killed during the period.

Bhutan did its part in 2003 when the Operation All Clear launched by the Royal Bhutanese Army cleared out all NDFB, ULFA and KLO camps.

It is understood that the 2003 operations dealt a major blow to the NDFB forcing many to surrender while the NDFB itself opted for talks and a ceasefire with the Indian government in 2005.

However, the anti talks faction of NDFB who insists on forming a separate country of Bodoland split away from the main NDFB and formed the NDFB (S).

Given Bhutan’s zero tolerance for Indian militants, the NDFB (S) leader I.K Songbijit and other top leaders are based in camps in Myanmar.

Meanwhile DG Sonam Tobgay said that the Home Ministry was in touch with both the Assam government and the Government of India on the issue of Bhutanese citizens being kidnapped. Bhutan has in fact asked for an early Border Districts Coordination Meeting with both Assam and West Bengal. The main focus of the discussion with Assam will be on the kidnappings.

He said that with recent violence in Assam travel advisories had been issued and that even if the situation returns to normal Bhutanese vehicles would be advised to travel in groups and convoys at fixed times.

Bodos who number around 3 mn and form a distinct ethnic group account for around ten percent of Assam’s 31 million strong population.

Most Bodos are encompassed in the BTAD region but they are also present in other districts like Sonitpur and others in Assam where they necessarily don’t form the majority.

The Bodo problem essentially started in the 1960’s in Assam when the Bodos as a group felt economically and politically marginalized in the face of increasing legal and illegal migration into what they historically regarded as their areas in the Brahmaputra valley. The majority of Bodos wanted to establish a separate state under the Indian Union but a few who wanted a separate country formed the violent NDFB.

The NDFB started attacking the Adivasis who were earlier brought to Assam by the British to work in Tea plantations and also Muslims who migrated to the area. The aim is to clear the areas of these people through violent means so that the Bodo people can achieve a local majority and thus demand that such areas be incorporated under Bodoland.

Before the recent attack on Adivasis on 23rd December the NDFB(S) was accused of killing 32 Bengali speaking Muslims in May 2014. The NDFB(S) denied responsibility for the May attack but the finger of blame still lies on them.

The semi-autonomous BTAD with increased economic and political powers was given as a compromise formula to the Bodos by the Indian government. It is ruled by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) that is an elected body which officially does not subscribe to the NDFB.

The immediate reason for the recent killings seems to be recent operations launched by the Indian security forces in BTAD that killed around 40 NDFB (S) militants with another 175 of them being arrested. Besides the historical animosity the NDFB (S) accused the adivasis of cooperating with the security forces.

Meanwhile the Indian government and the Indian Army have both announced that they would be considerably stepping up pressure on NDFB(S) by intensifying its ongoing military operations.

Earlier in the Parliament, the Home Minister commenting on the measures being taken to prevent kidnapping of Bhutanese citizens said that the police has been creating random mobile check posts and picketing at vulnerable points, surveying likely kidnap targets, restricting vehicle movements between 9pm to 5 am and frisking and searching suspicious border entrants.

In addition, constant coordination and meetings with counterparts across the border is being conducted along with continuous awareness campaign. Bhutanese vehicles also travel out of Gelephu in convoys at 8 am, 11am and 2 pm.

Lyonpo said that the government has issued official Bhutanese SIMs to SSB focal officers to carry out intensive patrolling along the border.

Coming to the security Measures by the Bureau of Law and Order, Lyonpo said that BLO has been continuously applying pressure on counterparts in Delhi, Assam and West Bengal and the RGoB has called for 10th Border Districts Coordination Meetings (BDCM) with Assam from 19-21 Dec this year and with West Bengal in January, 2015.

Dzongkhag, Dungkhag and RBP have been carrying out sensitization meetings and the Nodal Officer of International Boundary, New Delhi, GOI was informed and assistance was requested through a hotline.

Further Lyonpo shared that Bhutan also carries out Border Districts Coordination Meeting with Assam and as of now nine rounds of BDCM have been held.

According to Lyonpo District Level Coordination Meetings is also being conducted on a quarterly basis at the level of the Dzongda and District Magistrate and also coordination with Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) is conducted between Dzongkhag/Dungkhag and SSB counterparts.

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