Indian ultras and the Nepali issue--Bhutan’s Catch 22 crisis

Boxed in by an increasingly anxious Indian government that is keen to see an end to foreign support to north-eastern militant movements on the one hand, and the militants who are lodged in the jungles of the Himalayan kingdom on the other, the Bhutanese government has been at pains lately to explain the toll that a possible attack on the militants could take on its own population, especially in a situation where there are growing fears within the kingdom of the Bhutanese being gradually outnumbered by the immigrant Nepali, or Lhotshampas ("southern Bhutanese"), from Nepal, Darjeeling and Sikkim living in the six southern hill districts of the country. “More than 66,000 Bhutanese people will be directly affected in 304 villages in 10 dzongkhags (districts), should the government launch military operations against the North-east rebels such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), National Democratic front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), now in the jungles of Bhutan,” said Bhutan Finance Minister Wangdi Norbu in an exclusive interview at Taschho Dzong in Thimphu.
The disadvantages of a frontal attack against the militants seem heavily tilted against the Himalayan kingdom, with 50 per cent of its population living in the border areas of its eastern and south-eastern regions--areas that a possible operation would cover—which receive their supplies through Assam. “The sufferings would be unimaginable,” Norbu said. Not to mention possible retaliatory strikes by the rebels against Bhutanese citizens in Assam. More than 13 Bhutanese citizens were killed and 19 others injured by Bodo militants in the past three years, says Norbu. ”We have already cut down on vehicular traffic through Assam and all traffic are now being re-routed though the Phuentsholing-Thimphu highway via West Bengal.”
The average Bhutanese is already beginning to the feel the effect of the government’s steps towards containing the activities of the north-eastern militants in the kingdom, says Norbu. ”Transporting essential goods from Phuentsholing to the border districts has already increased the costs manifold.” At stake: food stock worth Rs 6 crore imported from Assam every year, and the Rs 4 crore worth of agricultural produce exported to India through Assam. For now, the Bhutanese government has set up warehouses in Samdrup Jongkhar and Mongar to provide food and essential supplies to people of the border area in case of a conflict. At this juncture, while the Bhutanese government says a war against the militant camps should be a short one, it is also prepared for a long drawn out assault, says Norbu.
Quite expectedly, the Bhutanese government feigns ignorance when it comes to the issue of how north-eastern militants entered the country. If one were to go by the mercenary theory and the often made presumption that north-eastern militants were offered facilities in exchange for support to neutralise Nepali dissidence and perhaps push them out, Bhutan's getting in the ULFA, or for that matter the NDFB or the KLO into their country does not seem to have helped. Once there, the militants simply dug in, not just going back on a possible deal of helping Thimphu deal with the Nepali problem, but, according to reports, tying up with the Nepalis instead. That the ultras have an equation with the Nepalis, at least the Maoists ultra among them, is perhaps substantiated by the fact that the ULFA has now been offered space in the Maoist-controlled areas of Nepal in the event of a Bhutanese assault.
“There are over 55,000 non-Bhutanese workers in the kingdom, some of whom have lived and worked in Bhutan for many years. All of them would, at some point, claim Bhutanese citizenship,” said Bhutanese Foreign Minister Khandu Wangchuk. This scare would be on the lines of Sikkim where historically the Buddhist Lepchas and Bhutias, the original inhabitants of the state, have been completely outnumbered by Nepalis from Nepal. “The main agenda of the Nepali in Bhutan is to bring into the kingdom a large number of non-Bhutanese people of Nepali origin, take over the country’s political power and government machinery, and provide themselves and other people of Nepali origin with land and Bhutanese citizenship,” says Wangchuk. According to reports, while Nepalis comprise 30.82 per cent of Bhutan’s total population of 7 lakh, another 16 per cent are in the "refugee camps” in Nepal and India. Bhutan’s crisis under the circumstances would be obvious: a return of refugees from Nepal and India would mean the Nepali population in Bhutan increasing to 46.82 per cent. “It is imperative that any return of people from Nepal or elsewhere is dealt with strictly according to the law of the land,” said Wangchuk. “We urge India to assist us in identifying the Nepalis to be taken back from the refugee camps of Nepal.” In Bhutan’s scheme of things, that probably would have a bearing on its response towards Indian ultras in the kingdom like no other

By Bijoy Shankar Handique (newsfiledelhi@rediffmail.com)