by Sanjay Barbora, Assam
On December 15, 2003 the Indian media began to speak of reports of a tactical strike against armed resistance groups of the Seven Sisters´ region, by the Royal Bhutan Army. Very soon, it was apparent that these were not just "tactical strikes", but a full scale war operation jointly mounted by the Indian Army and the Royal Bhutan Army, against rebels from Northeastern India. The Royal Bhutan´s actions came at a time when its government and senior officials, including the King, had been carrying on negotiations with the leaders of rebel groups who had taken shelter in the country. The armed onslaught claimed many lives and it is still unclear as to whether many more have died. In short, it was a supremely effective exercise in "covering up" something as grave and serious as a war.
Background to the Conflict and Armed Resistance Movements in Northeast India
Northeast India, also called the Seven Sisters´ Region, shares a regional boundary with four nation-states, viz. Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. The region shares a mere 22 kilometre "border" with the Indian mainland, leaving a lasting geo-political imprint on the lives of people in the region. Since the transfer of power in 1947, the region that was hastily cobbled together from the inadequately administered British colony came to be known for unsurpassed military repression unleashed upon the various indigenous communities who lives there. The various indigenous nationalities of the region have continued to raise the banner of the right to self-determination of their nationalities. In response, the Indian state has created conditions where unprecedented militarizations of civil and political spaces have rendered it impossible to have any political dialogue on the right to self-determination. Armed with draconian, security laws that offer impunity to the Indian army foot soldiers and officers, countless innocent lives have been lost, generations of youth have known on the terror of State, womenfolk have been raped and molested and the list of litanies would go on. It is against this backdrop of diminishing political space for debate and militarization of civil society, that many activists have had to "go underground". In the past seven years, the state of Assam itself has seen many activists; their family and those perceived to be sympathetic to dissenting, alternative voices have summarily been executed or have disappeared.
Bhutan therefore became a logical area for people who were hounded out from their homes for being political. The country shares a natural line of foothills and rivers with parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Activists belonging to groups like the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB); United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) had set up camps in parts of southern Bhutan. They had even set up schools for the children, medical camps and so on. Many of those living in the camps were non-combatants and when the eventual attacks by the Royal Bhutan Army took place, the people who were most affected were the women, old persons and children.
For weeks since the starting of the armed operation, the media and humanitarian agencies were kept out of Bhutan. The trickle of fortunate persons who managed to escape from Bhutan were arrested by the Assam police. Those who were caught by the RBA or the Indian Army were less fortunate. There is no account of the numbers of causality on either side. The democratic and human rights groups in the region were appalled by the total disregard for rule of armed conflict. It was as if Bhutan was intent to carry out a weekend "dirty war" as their partners, the Indian army, had been wont to do in Assam. However, the significant difference in this case was the presence of large numbers of women and children in the camps. The governments of two sovereign nations- Bhutan and India- rather than allow transparency on the conflict, instead colluded with their armed forces in covering up and putting a lid on the issue.
Protests and Demonstrations
As mentioned earlier, civil society response in the Northeast was one of outrage and disbelief. It was as if both India and Bhutan were willing to suspend the rule of law in order to achieve some unrealistic short-term goals. Civil society actors appealed to the government of Bhutan for restraining its armed forces. Organisations from the Northeast appealed to the government of Bhutan for compassion and understanding at various public meetings, and political platforms. However, the mayhem continued.
One of the tragic outcomes of this war was the standardisation of official unaccountability. This was most evident in the cases of enforced disappearances of key ULFA, NDFB and KLO functionaries. Eyewitness accounts of survivors, now lodged in jails in Assam, say that many of these functionaries were captured alive and handed over to the Indian army. The Indian army, in its usual smug manner, denied that any such arrested persons "were handed" over. The Bhutanese officials say that they have handing in the arrested persons. In this process, the real story of the whereabouts of the activists is still not known. In order to highlight the plight of the families and friends of the disappeared activists, North East Coordination Committee on Human Rights (NECOHR)- an umbrella organisation of different human rights groups in the region- took the family members of those activists who have disappeared, to New Delhi to submit a memorandum to the King of Bhutan at the Royal Bhutan Embassy.
Despite several attempts by Indian authorities and the Delhi police, the parents of the disappeared managed to send in the memorandum addressed to the King on March 31, 2004. Until the filing of this report, there has been scarcely any response from the Royal Bhutan government. In the meantime, Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti (MASS) has filed habeas corpus on behalf of the family members of the missing activists. Despite the Gauhati High court ruling to the Indian army to produce the bodies (or persons), the army continues to defy the courts, insisting that it has "no idea".
Bhutan´s "little war", aided and abetted by the Indian army, will only encourage the deterioration of democratic rule of law in the frontier areas of South Asia and Southeast Asia. Already, Bhutan has managed to disenfranchise thousands of its own Nepali-speaking citizens and the extension of its fascistic policies towards minorities will prove to be the proverbial "keg of gun powder". Added to this, the government of India´s truculent and inhuman policy of counter-insurgency in the Northeast make for an unsavoury future for citizens of the region. The need of the hour therefore, is for democratic and progressive forces to engage with the said governments and struggle for a more secure future for the peoples of the Seven Sisters´ Region.
Sanjay Barbora, member, Publicity Cell Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti (MASS), Assam