- Over one year, top IM leaders have been arrested from along the Indo-Nepal border
- This is also one of the routes through which Pakistan’s ISI is believed to push
in fake Indian currency
- Lack of manpower does not allow thorough checks at these border posts
- Smuggling is rampant; there’s the risk of weapons, explosives being brought in
- Free movement is meant only for Indians and Nepalese, but other nationals also use the route to cross over
- The Sashastra Seema Bal finds its arms tied: can’t arrest terror suspects
The Big Catch
In less than a year, some of India’s most wanted terrorists—the superannuated Lashkarite Abdul Karim Tunda, the key man of Indian Mujahideen (IM), Yasin Bhatkal, and most recently, his operations chief Tehsin Akhtar—have been arrested from the India-Nepal border. It’s also a well-known route through which Pakistan’s ISI and smugglers push counterfeit currency and illegal weapons into India. Senior cops and defence experts acknowledge the threat posed by such porosity. And yet, the only security the government relies on in these virtually unguarded areas is intelligence inputs. Intelligence officers admit this is not enough.
India focuses most of its military attention on its borders with Pakistan and China. Meanwhile, the borders with Bhutan and Nepal (and to a certain extent Bangladesh, despite the presence of the BSF) have become a gateway for crime and terror. “The truth is we’re sitting on a time-bomb,” says a top officer of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), a paramilitary charged with policing the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Bhutan borders but having restricted powers.
During a visit by Outlook to the Indo-Nepal border in Kakkarvitti, one of the busiest border towns, and Pashupati (both in Darjeeling district of Bengal), we see mass movements of people into India. It would have been difficult to monitor even if stringent checks were in place. An Indo-Nepal treaty of 1950 allows free movement of citizens of both countries, but in the absence of vigil there’s no way of keeping note of illegal entries or of checking wanted people from fleeing. “It’s through these neglected backdoors that terrorists slip in and out of India,” says an intelligence officer posted at Kakkarvitti. It was from near this post, 45 km from Siliguri, that Tehsin was arrested.
The trouble is that neither the local police nor the SSB can make arrests on mere suspicion. It’s only after sufficient incriminating evidence was gathered that Bhatkal, Tunda and Akhtar were grabbed. (Of course, while Indian authorities say Bhatkal and Tunda were caught in Motihari in Bihar and Banbasa in Uttarakhand respectively, there were later reports that they’d been caught by Nepalese authorities and handed over to India.) Akhtar was nabbed in Naxalbari (Bengal). After the Mumbai and Patna attacks, suspect SIM cards have been traced to border towns in the east. It’s a trail that’s been showing up with some frequency of late.
The borders with Bhutan and Nepal aren’t guarded by the army or the BSF. “Well, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh are friendly neighbours and vast areas of our borders with these countries remain unguarded,” says B.D. Sharma, additional director general of BSF’s eastern command. “But we cannot assume that it’s only the citizens of these countries who are accessing these porous borders we share with these countries.” The treaty with Nepal allows citizens of both countries passage without passport or visa. It also allows sharing of military and other intelligence, besides free trade in a large number of goods. The Gorkha regiment of the Indian army is almost entirely made up of recruits from across the border.
The SSB has a curious role. It was created in 1963, the year after the Sino-Indian conflict, to monitor (but not control) the borders with Bhutan and Nepal. But over the years, the role has changed. At inception, its primary responsibility was social service among residents of the border areas; to promote development, provide support and instil in locals the will to resist enemy attempts to occupy these areas. Besides, it was to create a local intelligence network and provide arms training. But since 2001, it was stripped of these ancillary—though important—functions. SSB officials say that between 1963 and 2001, the borders were quiescent; but since then, activities inimical to India’s interests have been on the rise.
There is no end to examples of the ease with which smuggling is carried out. When Sumi Rai, a 30-year-old from Naxalbari, crossed the bridge across the languid Mechi Nadi, from Panitanki, on the Indian side, to Nepal she weighed about 48 kg. By afternoon, when it was time for her to walk back, she’d ‘gained’ 10-15 kilos. “I’m a small-time smuggler,” she says, and explains how she buys betelnut at half of what it costs in India, puts them in long narrow bags, no wider than strips, and ties them across her waist beneath her sari. Then she walks back to a profitable deal in India. “It’s no big deal in these parts. Everyone does it,” she says. Sitting around on the banks of the river, there are scores waiting for an opportune moment to pass through.
The SSB is authorised to intercept and seize contraband—items not listed on the treaty, besides obvious stuff like guns, drugs or fake currency. “Even for goods allowed to pass, there’s a protocol,” says M.R. Sakunia, a customs officer posted in Panitanki. “But this is an extremely busy border, and it cannot ever be said with 100 per cent guarantee that every vehicle carrying goods and merchandise is checked. It’s just not possible.”
Similarly, it’s difficult to keep a complete check on the passage of people. “The provisions of the Indo-Nepal treaty, especially those that are concerned with the unrestricted movement, are limited only to Indians and Nepalis. It does not extend to other nationals,” says Kuldip Singh, chief of SSB’s eastern frontier. “However, each day, hundreds of people move through borders and it is a fact that it is not possible to check the identities of each and every person to establish whether they are entitled to pass through these borders.” This, according to intelligence officers and security officials, makes the situation much more potentially dangerous that we would like to believe.
An agitated SSB official says, “India has to live up to its image of a friendly and democratic country which is that it is not a regional bully, but almost a benevolent country. Our tolerance levels are unmatched.” Listing a number of occasions that show up India as a “softie”, he says, “Which other country in the world will virtually turn the other cheek when its Parliament gets attacked? And which other country with a powerful air force, army and navy has failed to even notice while heavily armed terrorists practically breezed in through its open gates and took one of its most powerful port cities hostage, as happened during the audacious terrorist attack on Mumbai?”
Another officer at the border post says, “But our attitude continues to be lackadaisical and we react in knee-jerk fashion. We will continue to dismiss threats to our security as paranoia unless and until something terrible happens, like the Mumbai attacks or the numerous blasts that are rocking our country and killing hundreds and thousands of people. Can we really afford to be this laidback?” The laments and criticism about the lack of seriousness at these porous borders and the threat they pose are perhaps not new. But now, with the string of arrests of IM members in the area, it may be about time that bosses in Delhi take these threats a little more seriously then what they have done in the past. At least, that will be the hope of those who guard these borders as well as those who choose to visit and see the situation for themselves.
By Dola Mitra in Kakkarvitti