Bhutan Crackdown: a few points

(a) The capture of the publicity secretary of an outfit, in this case, Mithinga Daimary, obviously cannot be seen as any kind of military success. Daimary obviously would no hold a military brief and his removal could not be expected to create a flutter in the rank and file of the outfit, unlike say in the case of the deputy commander in chief Hirokjyoti Mahanta in the early \\'90s. Daimary, unlike Swadhinata Phukan, the previous publicity secretary killed a few years ago, is not an ideologue. Apart from this they have reported the arrest of a 70 year old adviser, in itself a joke.

(b) Even if one were to believe the claims of the Bhutanese side that at least 100 militants have been killed, it is nothing compared to what Bhutan was supposed to have on its soil: some 4,000 militants from the North-east and North Bengal. At best, this can be viewed as an instance of Paresh Baruah and other leaders becoming complacent in terms of an attack by the Bhutanese. One must remember that the Bhutanese government has given the ULFA and the other outfits to leave: the situation now can be amply compared to that of the launch of Operation Bajrang in 1989-90, which, apart from creating media hype achieved nothing.

(c) All media reports are now coming from either Fort William the headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army or from Samdrup Jhonkar, while no television crew has been allowed to enter the main war zone. Where are the bodies? Why are the only surrenders happening within Assam? Where are the remaining 5500 ultras in Bhutan?

(d) Is it not surprising that Tarun Gogoi, the man who was the most vocal in getting the camps in Bhutan has said just about nothing now? Probably because he knows that the present operation can yield nothing.

If one were to consider the gains, it is the ULFA and Paresh Baruah who have gained:

(a) The outfit for the first time gets international attention as a militant group. Paresh Barua is on television, and has reached out to the International Red Cross. For the first time, the ULFA has been recognised to be an army that has engaged another army, albeit the Royal Bhutan Army, in a conflict, where the Indian Army has provided logistical support only to produce nothing by way of results. The ULFA had escaped Operation Bajrang quite similarly.

(b) The operations cannot be expected to affect the ULFA because they have already set up new camps in Nepal, at the behest of the Maoists there. We are the only ones to have reported that for The Pioneer, just in the way that this paper was the only one to talk about the impending armed strike against the ULFA etc. Please check the reports that we have filed. The world now speaks of the ULFA as an army that operates out of the North-east, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Nepal will soon have to be included. In terms of publicity if anyone has gained anything in all this it is the ULFA, while the Bhutan government has used the so called operation as a face saving measure. (c) Very simply, where are the bodies? Why does the Bhutanese side claiming that all the camps have been destroyed and all militants dislodged? If as the Indian side says, the borders have been sealed, where are the militants? How can 4,000 men have vanished? The truth is they have left much earlier.

How does the media coverage compare to what was done in the past?

(a) As usual, the media, hosted by the army whenever it comes calling, is going ballistic. In the past it had reported, during Bajrang, that the ULFA was crushed, only to see it come back stronger.

(b) Operation Rhino, one that wiped out the hierarchy of the ULFA at least in Upper assam, despite its successes was not reported because it comprised search and destroy operations, something that hardly makes for good copy, given the lack of grandeur.

(c) Here are instances of what the media, especially the national newspapers, has done: carted to places where surrender ceremonies by the army, it for example widely reported the first major surrender at Lakhimpur in Upper Assam, that of what the army claimed were 500 \\"hardcore militants\\". The Sentinel was the only paper to challenge it: the army had even displayed a flag it claimed to have got from the ULFA: only the sing on it had been painted wrong. All the boys were later let off since they were students from a nearby college, the surrender had been stage managed to justify elections. If you recall the picture of the helicopter that most paper printed saying it was a part of Operation Bajrang, was in reality carrying food for the media: this was at the Lakhipathar camp in Upper Assam, which had been \\"overrun\\" after most of its cadres had left days, of not weeks, earlier.

(d) Also please let us remember that the ULFA is a grassroots guerrilla outfit. Which is why the Assam police has in the past succeeded in arresting and eliminating more ULFA cadre than the army, despite the show. A frontal attack again the ULFA tactically means nothing because they do not fight such wars. They seek and kill which is what they have always done, like any other insurgent group in the hills. The Indian army\\'s latest decision to enter Bhutan is probably because the present operation has resulted in nothing and they know it

Here is an example of what the government is capable of doing:

(a) In Hiteswar Saikia\\'s time, for example, he would routinely clam successes through various surrender ceremonies till one member pointed out that the number of boys who had surrendered exceeded the number of members that he had claimed the ULFA had in the first place. The present operation has to be viewed from that point of view. These are short term measures.

Does the editorial stand taken by newspapers, that the operation will bring stability to the South-east Asian region valid?
In so far as clearing the ULFA from Bhutan is concerned this probably does help. But let us not forget that they were allowed into the country based on the commitment that they will help the government of Bhutan expel the Nepali refugees who threaten to outnumber indigenous Bhutanese, as the case happened in Sikkim. The ULFA had reneged on its original commitment, so it would have been a matter of time before they would have had to leave. With the influx problem in Bhutan, that country will continue to have the unrest of the past. Any move to remove the Nepalis from their country would mean their coming into India as has been the case with Sikkim and Assam, exactly the way it has happened with the Chakmas and the Reangs. This has not been discussed, with the media glossing over the problem completely. The Pioneer again was the only paper to talk about this.

Finally, where is this all leading?

Just about nowhere beyond the editorial rooms of the national press. The problem remains because of the simple reason that the root cause, that of illegal migrants in Assam continues. Going ballistic against the ULFA does not help for the simple reason that all these countries have their poverty and serious internal; problems which groups such as the ULFA will exploit as they have done in Bangladesh (their population and non-existent economy and animosity towards India), Bhutan and are now beginning to do in Nepal. The only way out would be to convince the people of the North-east that the centre is willing to act on their behalf, by throwing out the Bangladeshis and migrants such as the Nepalis, both of which groups have now made their presence felt in places such as Delhi. Unlike the hills, land is not protected by law in Assam, where the Bangladeshi and Nepali occupies it at will. Like the Mizos, the problem has to be fixed with the Assamese on the side of the government. Or we will continue to see these vague operations in Assam and elsewhere leading to nothing.

Let us not overlook the fact that the ULFA has survived two army operations and is nearly 25 years old, and has during that time only grown. Only the media doesn’t seem to have learnt that. Not to mention that the government continues with ad hoc measures. As far as solving the problems of Assam are concerned, the Congress simply does not have the character, while the BJP does not have the numbers when it comes to say removing the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act. Anything else will not have long-term results.

By Pranab Bora (