Monday, Sep 26, 2022

All Not Quiet On The Eastern Front

New Delhi will have to shed its reluctance in displeasing its apparently 'friendly' eastern neighbours and talk tough with them, if it wants to prevent another Kashmir-like situation in India's east and the northeast.

Cross-border terrorism has been one of the key stumbling blocks in the normalization of relationship between India and Pakistan over the past 15 years. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has, in fact, stressed the end to "cross-border," terrorism from Pakistan for any concrete dialogue to take place. New Delhi has, however, not shown the same concern in respect of a similar development on its eastern frontier. This is what the new Union Minister of State for Home Swami Chinmayananda was told in no uncertain terms by the Tripura government during his three day visit to this north eastern state earlier this week.

When Swami Chinmayananda returns to Delhi he will have enough food for thought on this count. He should for instance, know by now that at least half-a-dozen militant groups are using their hideouts in countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar to carry out subversive activities and killings in India's northeastern states and north Bengal, at times with the active encouragement of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). And yet, he would discover, if he probes deep enough, that the Union government has not treated the problem as seriously as it does the incursions from Pakistan.

Swami Chinmayanada should consider these facts if he serious about tackling the situation in the northeast.:

  • A banned outfit called the All Tripura Tigers Force (ATTF), in three different incidents, in Tripura, in June, massacred at least 35 people, all innocent civilians. Tripura has 856 km of open border with Bangladesh. The Tripura government has told the Centre that the ATTF has at least 16 camps/hideouts/safe houses inside Bangladesh. Another banned group, the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), according to the Tripura government has 30 such facilities inside Bangladesh.

  • Militants of the two other groups United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), who have pockets of influence in Assam, the region's largest state, have at least 30 camps each in the jungles of southern Bhutan bordering the state. Often these militants cross the border, hit their targets and retreat into their hideouts.

  • Kathmandu, Nepal's capital is used as a meeting point between the ISI and the militant leaders. Also, Siliguri, a busy town in north Bengal that serves as a commercial hub for both Bhutan and Nepal, besides being close to the Bangladesh border, is registering increasing presence of ISI activists.

  • Insurgent groups in Nagaland and Manipur have been routinely taking shelter in Myanmar for years.

Despite such alarming developments, New Delhi has been guilty of treating the problem in the east rather casually. Says Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar: "We have been repeatedly asking the Centre to take up the matter of closing down the militant camps in Bangladesh with Dhaka, but except for routine protests, nothing concrete seems to have come about in this regard." 

Adds his Assam counterpart Tarun Gogoi: "Unless the Govt. of India can pressurize Bhutan to evict militants of ULFA and NDFB from its soil, insurgency in Assam cannot be controlled."

Both Bhutan and Bangladesh have of course been telling New Delhi that it will not allow anti-India acts from their soil. Bhutan had in fact set a deadline for the ULFA and NDFB militants to leave its territory by end-June, but Dhaka keeps deying any existence of camps for Indian militants.

Goaded into action by repeated protests from northeastern states, New Delhi, on May 11, handed Bangladesh a list of 155 terrorist training camps operating there, many with the help of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and al Qaida, and asked it to shut them down. India also sought deportation of 85 insurgents.

"We have information that ISI activities directed against India are on the rise in Bangladesh. ISI men, along with al Qaida operatives, are imparting training at several of the camps," intelligence sources in the northeast say. The camps are located in Chittagong, Rangamati, Cox's Bazxar, Habiganj, Khracherri and Comilla districts of Bangladesh besides safe houses in Dhaka.

Security sources say NLFT, ATTF, ULFA and NDFB leaders operate bank accounts, own vehicles like trucks and buses in Bangladesh. "Elements within Bangladesh Army and fundamentalist jehadi groups directed by ISI operatives help train these militants. Several new recruits have been taken to Karachi for training in use of arms and explosives," these sources claim.

Sophisticated weapons are also being smuggled into India from various places in Bangladesh, including Cox's Bazaar, Sylhet and Chittagong, and ISI operatives are playing a key role in this, they add.  Tripura, the worst affected state because of cross-border terrorism, has witnessed 116 civilian killings between January 1 and May 15 this year as compared to just 65 in the corresponding period last year. 

Even abductions have gone up substantially. In the same period last year for instance, there were 56 kidnappings. This year, the figure for abductions upto May 15 is already a whopping 90 persons.

It is therefore no surprise that besides putting pressure on Dhaka to close down these camps, Tripura chief minister Sarkar wants the Centre to double the number of Border Security Force (BSF) battalions deployed along the Tripura-Bangladesh border, expedite the fencing along the entire 856 km stretch and redeploy army for counter-insurgency operations in the state. Assam's Gogoi wants New Delhi to lean harder on both Bangladesh and Bhutan if it is serious about solving the insurgency problem in the region.

Given such a backdrop, New Delhi will have to shed its reluctance in displeasing its apparently "friendly" eastern neighbours and talk tough with them, if it wants to prevent another Kashmir-like situation in India's east and the northeast.